Letter From Ellen Sharp: Ebbs and Flows

Reporting from: Macheros, Ejido El Capulin, State of Mexico


Published: 12/09/2020 

Dear Butterfly People,

We are now 48 days into the butterfly season, and it’s time for a new map of Cerro Pelon’s monarch butterfly colonies. Butterflies are no longer roosting where they first alighted in Carditos. The guardians hypothesize that it’s been too windy for them there this season. And I keep waiting to report the date that the mercurial La Lagunita agglomeration is no more. Meanwhile, the larger El Llano colony has stabilized at about 25 trees. Strangely, while La Lagunita keeps shrinking, the size of El Llano stays the same. Where are the butterflies going?

The rangers and the guardians set out to investigate. At the beginning of most butterfly seasons, the CEPANAF rangers have traveled across the mountain to check in on another one of Cerro Pelon’s butterfly haunts. They call this site El Asoleadero, or the sundeck, because of its location atop a ridgeline. Official counts call it San Pablo Malacatepec, named for the ejido whose boundary this part of the forest falls within, and this entry appears in some annual censuses but not others. Perhaps because of this inconsistency, San Pablo does not have a permit for butterfly tourism. 

This year, three CEPANAF rangers along with three of the Butterflies & Their People forest guardians made the all-day trek to El Asoleadero together. Pato Moreno, who is both a forest ranger and the coordinator of Butterflies & Their People, filmed their journey. All returned wowed by the experience. 

I just watched the footage, and I can see why they were impressed. The video clips begin with these macho men setting out from El Llano, confidently maneuvering their horses, good-naturedly sassing each other, before dismounting to hack through underbrush with the machetes they always seem to have on hand. When they encounter the colony, they start whispering, wide-eyed, “There it is!” Dark dangling clusters hang from tall thin firs for as far as the eye can see. “At least half a hectare,” Pato swears. 

The moment I love the most shows the men paused on a ridgeline with a spectacular view, watching the monarchs arriving in wave after wave. The men are momentarily silenced except for the occasional murmur of “siguen llegando.” They’re still coming. The feeling of awe is palpable.

Meanwhile, the guardians who stayed behind to keep an eye on La Lagunita were saying the same thing as they watched the one remaining tree with butterfly clusters swell to four and then five trees. Siguen llegando.

During this season that the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary is closed to visitors, we are documenting these ebbs and flows in our Adopt a Colony series, a bimonthly newsletter that features virtual butterfly tours as well as more detailed citizen science news, including more tag recoveries, interviews with a range of butterfly experts, and features about local culture. I’m enjoying working closely with Ranger Pato and butterfly guide Ana Moreno to produce these videos and articles, but we would love to share our efforts with more people. You can sample one of our virtual tours here.

Saludos desde Macheros,