Many may say that Butterflies have no business on a bird blog, but these butterflies behave like birds; they migrate, they winter in a temperate climate, and now they have their very own entourage complete with Ultralight. (see also Whooping Cranes)
Every autumn, an estimated 300 million monarch butterflies head south from Canada and the northern United States to winter in California and Mexico. The journey of up to 3,000 miles can last three months. One of the major routes takes them over the Washington area.
This year, for the first time, the monarch's transcontinental migration is being tracked and filmed by a crew, using an ultralight plane to make a one-hour documentary about the butterflies, their migration and the challenges they face.
The plane, named Papalotzin, which means "little butterfly" in an Aztec language, is painted to look like a monarch butterfly. It weighs about 397 pounds, has a wingspan of about 33 feet and carries a crew of two -- one to fly and one to film.
Peak migration for the monarch occurs in late September and early October and follows a route over Maryland and the District. Monarchs usually have a life span of four to five weeks, but those that migrate live seven to eight months.
Monarchs are the only butterflies in the world that make such an arduous annual migration, a journey that the World Conservation Union has declared "an endangered migratory phenomenon," according to the World Wildlife Fund.
In winter, they live in colonies that cluster on fir trees in the pine and oyamel forests of central Mexico. But that habitat is being threatened by illegal logging and other human activities that are thinning the forests, despite the creation in 2000 of the 130,000-acre Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.
Photo: Cathy Plume of the World Wildlife Fund and pilot Francisco "Vico" Gutierrez talk about the monarch-colored ultralight, the Papalotzin, being used to film the butterfly migration.