Sunday, October 10, 2010

Migration in the Americas: the ties that bind

A few years ago I made my first October “pilgrimage” to Veracruz. No hawkwatcher needs an explanation of what that means. Although my goal was to experience the Rio de Rapaces, I knew that raptors weren’t the only migrants sweeping through that sky funnel in eastern Mexico. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to see masses of Anhingas and Wood Storks, squadrons of White Pelicans. Nor was I surprised to see scrims of dragonflies and the pink semaphores of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers’ axillars as dozens and dozens of those beauties passed the rooftop watch in Cardel. Enchanted, yes. Exhilarated, definitely! But not surprised.

What did surprise me, however, were the butterflies. No, not monarchs. We all know that monarch butterflies winter in Mexico, but their route takes them west of the coastal region toward the mountain forests of Michoacán. No, the butterflies that so amazed me were yellow. They were sulphurs of several species, large and small, and they were migrating! The air was filled with them, hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of southbound fragile beings stirring the air as their forebears have been doing for millennia. From just above the ground to at least 10 meters up, and nearly wingtip to wingtip as far as the eye could see in every direction, they went. Such a density is, of course, vulnerable to incursion, and so it was on the highways as the intrepid voyagers fell victim to trucks and buses and cars. Resembling flower petals liberally strewn on the highway, drifts of body-less wings swirled in yellow clouds among the passing vehicles.

Later, standing on the remains of a pyramid in the Toltec ruins of Cempoala, I pondered those streams of birds overhead. Stretching from horizon to horizon hawks and vultures, pelicans and storks became threads tying together the continents north and south. And in a nearly tactile way so did the gentle yellow ephemera filling the surroundings with soft flutterings. A visible physical connection, yes, and how very evident it was. But there was a temporal component as well, for as I stood there on those ancient stones I experienced a powerful connection to those people who had built this temple. I realized that these very same astonishing sights had moved them, too.

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