I’m back from my little jaunt down Mexico way. After a month with Jane traveling through various western National Parks (Rocky Mountain, Bryce, Zion, Capital Reef, Grand Canyon), Jane flew home from Albuquerque, and I continued south into Mexico. I spent almost a week in the Copper Canyon area and would highly recommend renting a car and visiting the five different canyons and small towns (Urique and Batopilas) that are a found deep down in, what seems like, the ends of the world. If you have an interest in exploring this area, or learning a bit from my experiences of driving throughout all of Mexico for six weeks, you’re welcome to contact me. I’ll be glad to share my experiences with you.
Every season has its special attributes and our winters enable us to explore the woods unfettered by the green curtains of vegetation. In the SNP especially, this means searching the woods for old roads, home sites, and other signs of the mountain residents who lived here a hundred years ago.
One of the highlights of my Mexican journey was exploring the jungle, or ‘la selva’. Unlike our forests, you don’t bushwhack; just too much vegetation. Near the Guatemalan border, near Tikal, are the Mayan ruins of Calakmul, now considered one of the largest cities in the Mayan empire, and fierce rival to Tikal. I spent four days walking four trails (senderas), which totaled about six miles in all. One trail was situated in the vast former farmlands that surrounded the twenty-five square mile city that once housed as many as fifty thousand people. Along this trail I found two small square stone foundations, each approximately 15’ x 15’. Just beyond these structures was a large pile of stones, about 30’ long, 15’ wide and 12’ high. It looked like so many stone piles seen in our wooded forests, if not for its size. What was so exciting to me was that, unlike our stone piles created by the annual clearing of croplands of one to two hundred years ago, I was standing on a rock pile created by Mayans clearing their corn fields some thirteen hundred years ago (Calakmul flourished between 200 AD and 900 AD)!
It was also neat to see and hear our migratory passerine birds in their winter habitat. By far, the most common was the call of the great-crested flycatcher. Along with this ubiquitous call were a number of black and white warblers, wood thrush, a few hooded warblers and lots of turkey. But the local avian life was the highlight, of course. I suggest you google the black-throated magpie jay of the Copper Canyon region. Add to that the crested caracara, great curassow, two species of toucans and the Caribbean subspecies of the famous ivory-billed woodpecker, and you can understand why I got spoiled by big birds.
Although finding our local migrant birds was special, none were as special as finding the wintering monarch butterflies. Located on a few hillsides an hour and a half west of Mexico City, I visited the El Rosario Sanctuary on November 15. While I was told the butterflies were still a bit dispersed throughout the region and would not all congregate for another week or two, what I saw was quite impressive. Literally, thousands were hanging onto branches of the Oyamel fir trees. This certainly is one of nature’s premier events. How do the butterflies, removed by four or five generations from the last ancestors who over wintered here, return to the same site, often the same tree? And, more importantly, why here? (Yes, some over winter in southern California and Florida and other places, but nothing in comparison to the populations of this small 60 square mile area near Morelia in the State of Michoacan.)
Lincoln Brower, professor at Sweetbriar College in Lynchburg, VA, has spent a lifetime researching this species. While much is still unknown, recent research reveals that an internal (circadian) clock enables them to use the sun’s location to keep them on the correct migratory track. This is apparently augmented by the ability to use the earth’s magnetism to keep them on track. An excellent online article by Lincoln Brower about their winter habitats may be found at: http://www.biology.sbc.edu/research/Mex_NSF/SlaybackAmerEnt07.pdf
Of course, what impresses me is that the last generation of monarch butterflies produced in the fall to migrate as much as 2,000 miles is produced with more robust, stronger wings for flying. The additional growth of these parts is enabled at the cost of the reproductive parts, which at this time are quite reduced and non-functional. Only next spring, as they begin their journey northward and they access a new food supply do their reproductive parts grow and mature.
It was quite an experience driving through Mexico. The ruins of former civilizations, the beautiful Spanish towns, and the always-changing topography and vegetation, made it a rewarding and educational trip.