MONARCHS IN WINTER

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

As a fifth grade student back in Michigan, now many decades ago, my teacher, Mrs. Triff, took us on a field trip to see migrating Monarchs at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, which sticks down into Lake Erie like an arrowhead. There the migrating Monarchs are stopped in their flight path by the barrier of Lake Erie and concentrate there until the winds are favorable to continue the journey to Mexico’s mountains. The extraordinary experience of seeing so many beautiful creatures in one place never left me, so I jumped on the chance to see them again.

In January of 2020 we traveled to Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach to see the winter gathering of Monarchs. We had read about it for years, but there is nothing like seeing a magnificent gathering in person. These pictures are from the two balmy days we spent along the California Coast.

In Santa Cruz, we got directions to where the Monarchs were gathered, which happened to be next to a large surfing competition for young people (what could be more Californian than a sunny day filled with surfers catching the waves rolling in?). Meanwhile, the 2,500 or so Monarchs were tightly clustered on two individual trees: a Monterey Cypress and a Blue Gum Eucalyptus. In the clusters the Monarchs hung upside down, their wings tightly overlapped and the exposed wings were the undersides, so there were patterns but with the subdued colors more suitable for camouflage. When a Monarch flew into the roosting group, several butterflies had to resettle themselves to accommodate the newcomer, briefly flashing the vivid orange-and-black patterns on the tops of their wings. We found the experience extraordinary, but local old-timers (our age!) who walked or cycled by said that this was NOTHING compared to the butterfly gatherings of their youth, when apparently the California coast was a Woodstock for butterflies. But then Jimi Hendrix died and the world went to hell and all we have left is fond memories of our youth. But I digress …

The butterflies apparently come to the same trees each year, which is extraordinary, since NONE of the butterflies here this year were here last year. When they start their migration, the generation of butterflies heading south and west from all over the western states and western Canada are bigger, stronger, and brighter than the Monarchs of summer gardens. These SuperMonarchs are able to fly up to thousands of miles to those few trees guided by what: Genetic memory maps? Scents left on trees? Scientists don’t agree on the mechanism, although day length and perhaps the drive for food as the north gets colder in the fall are the triggers for starting the migration. For a fascinating discussion of the theories, go to Monarch Butterfly Migration.

After leaving lovely Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, we drove south to another winter Monarch gathering of about the same size in Pismo Beach. Here the Monarchs were gathered on a few eucalyptus branches, with an endless stream of people migrating toward them on the path below, and pausing in a cluster to look up in wonder. Some of the Monarchs were getting in the mood for mating. An aggressive male would force a receptive female to the ground and laboriously try to pick her up. When he did, he would take her on a maiden flight into the treetops where, as the volunteer tour guide explained to the children, “they went for their honeymoon.” Extraordinary!

When spring approaches, the Monarchs begin their northward journey. The fact is, unless their summering grounds are near their wintering grounds, NONE of these individuals will make it. They procreate along the way, leaving eggs to hatch on milkweed plants. Then the hatched caterpillars voraciously feast on the milkweed, gaining nourishment and toxins (to repel predators), followed by the miracle of entering a chrysalis with golden stitches and eventually emerging as butterflies. Then the new butterflies head north, and repeat the whole process several hundred miles on, and so on for three or four summer generations. Then, come fall, the whole cycle repeats as a new SuperMonarch begins the migration south. And my sense of wonder is refreshed.

All photographs in this blog are available for licensing for use in publications or for personal use, and are also available as limited edition prints on fine art papers or metal. Contact lee@leerentz.com for a quotation.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach
People viewing Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA [No model releases; available for editorial licensing only]
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus, sipping nectar from Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, flower at its winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Courtship at Pismo Beach
Pair of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, engaging in courtship at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, later, the male picked up and flew away with the female, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Sign Explaining Monarch Butterfly Migration along California Coa
Interpretive sign explaining the migration of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

 

 

ON THE WING: Rediscovering the Magic of Flight

Rediscovering the magic of flight by looking out the window of a long flight from Detroit to Seattle, despite the trials and tribulations of modern aviation.

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Yes, it was cramped. The five hour after Christmas flight from Detroit to Seattle was packed full, with not a seat to spare. There was a baby crying whenever we changed altitude, the audio wasn’t working on the plane’s channels, and the coffee maker was out of commission. At least I got two, count them, two little packets of pretzels!

The young woman next to me slept through four hours of the flight, but woke up brushing her leg when something wet and cold spilled on her (yes, I apologized for knocking over my water when I was trying to shift my cramped legs!). All in all, this was a typical flight these days, though we all have such low expectations that it really wasn’t that bad.

Wing of a Boeing 757 High Above Thick Clouds over the Great Plai

On the other hand, on this trip I selected a window seat so that I could look out at the passing landscape; and my wife took the window seat right in front of me, so that she could look out and also avoid having me spill a drink on her. I promised I wouldn’t kick her seat if she promised not to recline. So, we had a truce.

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

Snowy Pattern on the Great Plains Viewed from Above

Edge of a Cloud Bank Over a Snowy Farm Landscape

Cloudscape Viewed from Above During Flight over Great Plains

I slept through the takeoff, as I always do. My mother used to say that it wasn’t sleep at all–that I passed out because of a terror of flight, but I don’t think that is the case. There is something about the gentle vibration and noise of the jet engines that somehow reminds me of a lullaby, and I drift gently into the netherworld of dreams, awakening again only when I reach 36,000 feet, or my wife pokes me to say that the free pretzels have arrived. Or sometimes I awaken with an embarrassing loud snort that probably sends my seatmates into mental giggles, though they carefully avert their eyes.

On this flight we left the winter landscape of Michigan behind, and I woke up over Wisconsin or Minnesota, based upon the prairie landscape below. We were high above the clouds, which formed an intermittent flat layer far below, so it was only a thin layer of atmosphere between us and deep space, and only a thin layer of aluminum between our purported discomfort and the -60°F and 570 mph winds inches away.

Wint of Boeing 757 over a Thick Blanket of Clouds

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

It was an afternoon flight, and crystal clear. Sometimes there were gaps in the clouds and I could see the pattern of snow on hills and the straight scars of roads and the lake that was shaped like a snowman. Mostly it was just clouds, billowy and feathering far below. As we zoomed west, I started using my camera’s zoom to take pictures of the clouds and the Boeing 757’s wing. I like having the wing in my pictures, because it adds a graphic element that has scale and interest. Also, if it ever catches fire, I should be able to get a great photo of it!

Farther west, high above the northern plains and Rocky Mountains and sagebrush steppe, we sailed on. Clouds covered it all, but the clouds were putting on a great show as we chased the sunset. It started with a hint of gold in the clouds; then vivid orange as the sun sank below the horizon. Finally, at deep dusk the sky was the soothing blue of twilight, with purple clouds lighting up below, as if we were in a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. It was spectacular.

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Great Plains

Cloudscape after Sunset During Boeing 757 Flight over Great Plai

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 and Sunset Clouds over the Rocky Mountains

Wing of a Boeing 757 Descending into Twilight during Approach to

Sailing over the Cascade Crest, I spotted two familiar landmarks: the cone of Mt. Adams, where we had hiked last Labor Day weekend, and Mt. Rainier, covered with a close-fitting garment of clouds. As we closed in on Seattle, we saw the lights of hundreds of cars crossing the floating bridges over Lake Washington and recognized roads and parks we had explored.

Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier with Boeing 757 on Approach to SeattleMt. Adams and Mt. Rainier on the horizon

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Coming in over Lake Washington on Final Approach to Seattle

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

Final Approach to Sea-Tac Airport at Night

When we landed, I realized that I had taken well north of 100 photographs on this trip, and had spent most of the trip gazing out at the passing landscape. It reawakened my love of seeing the landscape from above, which is an astounding thing for a creature of Earth to see. This is as close as I will ever get to space travel, and it was wonderful.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website or go to my Flickr Photostream.

DETROIT METRO: Motor City Magic

Detroit has had a hard road for decades. In this post I tell a bit about Detroit’s history, while highlighting the wonderful experience of the Light Tunnel and other features of Detroit Metro Airport.

Walking through the Light Tunnel at Detroit Metro Airport

Detroit was my hometown. Don’t laugh: it was a great place to live in the ’50s and ’60s. I grew up listening to Motown on the radio and saw Bob Seger live at the local teen center years before his mid-1970s success. We had the Cranbrook Institute of Science for cultural visits, and one of the best metropolitan park systems in the world. My suburban school gave me a wonderful college prep education. The Great Lakes provided summer fun, and “up north” beckoned with wonderful adventures. Many families owned cottages on lakes and rivers in this land of lakes. My Dad was an engineer at GM, and many of the neighborhood men in our leafy suburb also worked for the Big 3. It was a lively place to grow up, with the kinetic energy of the postwar boom driving an economy that had its pedal to the floor.

I remember my Dad coming home one evening, eagerly sketching out the tail fins he had just seen the designers produce for the brand new 1959 Chevy Impala. We had a new Chevy or Pontiac in the driveway every year, and the auto industry seemed like the pulsing heartbeat of America. The Corvette, Ford Mustang, Plymouth Barracuda, and Chevy Camero were the muscle cars that all the young guys lusted after. Cruising Woodward Avenue was the thing to do on warm weekend nights.

Alas, whoever was driving Detroit’s economy applied the brakes. Hard. Early signs of trouble came with the racial tensions between blacks and whites during a decade of discontent, culminating in a major riot (which some might justifiably call an uprising) during the long, hot summer of 1967. Fires and fights raged all over the city, with the National Guard and 82nd Airborne called in to restore order. The racial divide has continued, with 8 Mile Road dividing mostly black Detroit from the mostly white northern suburbs. Hip hop artist Eminem famously referenced this road and divide in his music.

Next came the ’70s, with oil shocks and the early popularity of imports giving Detroit a two-punch warning of the beating to come. As oil uncertainties continued, the baby boomers decided that cars from America’s prior enemies were cooler to drive than Detroit muscle, which had, in any event, been tamed by new mileage standards. Jobs were starting to evaporate with cost-cutting, oursourcing, and sharing the sales with the Japanese; guys with high school educations had trouble getting good union assembly line jobs like their dads had held before them.

Whites had been abandoning the city for decades by now, and the Motor City began depopulating as opportunities dried up and the twin thugs of crime and misery held the city hostage. The road down was long and potholed, and today much of Detroit is barren of houses and business, and there is talk of farming what used to be residential neighborhoods. The story of Detroit is like a story of Armageddon, with a once-rich civilization fallen into ruins. It makes me think of Cormac McCarthy’s terrifying book, The Road.

There is no point in trying to blame anyone or any single event for the devastation of Detroit; it is what it is. All we can do is look to the future.

Which is what I did on this brief trip to the McNamara Terminal of Detroit Metro Airport. This terminal is my favorite of any airport I’ve ever been to, with a great fountain, an overhead tram, and some nostalgic shops and restaurants that celebrate the Motor City. Another point in this terminal’s favor is that my brother helped build it, including installing moving sidewalks.

The best part of a visit to McNamara Terminal is walking through the Light Tunnel, an underground walkway connecting Concourse A with Concourses B & C. The Light Tunnel, designed by Mills James Productions and featuring glass art by Foxfire Glass Works and a musical composition by Victor Alexeeff, is an experience to reawaken your sense of wonder for flying, with ever-changing LED lights behind long cast glass panels. Rather than describe it, I’ll let the pictures paint a visual impression of walking through the airport. There are moving sidewalks on each side of the tunnel, with a wide promenade for walking between the concourses. I took most of the pictures from the moving sidewalks, which kept me occupied for at least half-an-hour while waiting for my plane. Great fun!

A montage of images of the ever-changing light show

Mother and child and Boeing 747, through the lively fountain

The beautiful fountain, created by WET Design, uses laminar flow of water in ever-changing patterns; it took inspiration from the flight maps that show the curving routes of airplanes as they travel from city to city around the curve of the earth

A view showing the long Light Tunnel

Detail of lovely cast glass backlit by LED lights in the Light Tunnel

A camera’s proof that aliens live among us

If your travels take you to or through Detroit on Delta, don’t miss the Light Tunnel!

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

THE BLACK ANGELS: Ravens Practicing Aerial Maneuvers

Perfect synchronization of Common Ravens in flight

Six of them blazed by, wingtip to wingtip, making constant loud noise as they practiced intricate aerial acrobatics. Climbing rapidly, then hurtling into steep dives, coming within feet of the ground, only to pull up into the heavens again. This air show went on for about five minutes, at which point the fliers were running low on fuel and sped off to replenish themselves.

We were hiking on Whiskey Dick Mountain in central Washington State, when we came upon this spectacle. Given the time of year (mid-May), it seemed too late for Common Raven pair bonding and too early for this year’s young with their parents. So the reason for the spectacular flight will remain a mystery, unless a knowledgeable reader can help.

Flying wingtip to wingtip in an aerial ballet

We have seen Common Ravens in the mountains and the deserts over much of North America, and it is always amazing to see them–even when they are scavenging in a national park parking lot. But this is the first time I have been so thrilled to observe these incredible birds in flight. I saw a stick being dropped by one of the birds, but it happened so fast and so close to the ground that I can’t provide an accurate description. Other naturalists have observed these incredible flights, and one person described a raven flying upside-down for half a mile! These bulky black birds are truly masters of flight.

Unexpectedly graceful in flight together

Masters of precision flight

For more information about Common Ravens, go to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology’s excellent website: All About Birds.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com.

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.