Austin Butterfly Forum to Feature Historic Gathering Of Monarch Butterfly Flutterati

Butterfly aficionados in Texas are in for a treat March 24 in Austin:  the Austin Butterfly Forum will host a quartet of players responsible for discovering and sharing the location in Mexico of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites back in 1976.   For butterfly buffs, it will be an historic night, as Dr. Lincoln Brower, Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian gather to share stories billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia.”

I can’t wait.

The event takes place at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739  7PM Monday, March 24. Tickets are $10 per person.   For more information, see the Austin Butterfly Forum website.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country and a tireless advocate for the migrating creatures, will fly in from Sweet Briar, Virginia, to join the discussion and lead two field trips–one on Saturday and one on Monday.  Unfortunately, both of those are full.

Catalina Trail, the only living founder of the roosting sites, lives in Austin.  Her story and historic contribution to the discovery of the Monarch wintering grounds were first profiled on this website in July of 2012. 

Back in the 70s, Trail and her then husband, North American Ken Brugger, answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora seeking “research assistants” to help piece together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration, a puzzle they had been working on for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the Sierra Madre for years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.                      Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart refused to disclose the site to the scientific community and the world.  In the story he wrote for National Geographic that broke the news in August of 1976, coy language described a vague destination in the Sierra Madre at an elevation of 10,000 feet.  Many entomologists and citizen scientists who had contributed for years to unraveling the Monarch mystery wondered exactly where the millions of Monarch butterflies documented in the magazine’s pages were roosting.

Enter Dr. Bill Calvert, labeled a “cowboy entomologist” in the book Four Wings and A Prayer, which chronicles the events.

University of Texas entomologist Calvert teamed up with Brower on a quest to track down the mysterious location and make the whereabouts of the butterflies public.  He enlisted in this adventure an intrepid, Spanish-speaking researcher, writer and photographer named John Christian, also of Austin, whose Mexican upbringing and natural curiosity made him the perfect traveling companion and guide.

Catalina and Bill

Catalina Trail and William “Bill” Calvert at an Austin coffee shop in June of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All four of these characters will stand before us on March 24 to share their tales of adventure and discovery of one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth.   That scientists are predicting the possible extinction in the near future of the Monarch migration makes this gathering even more poignant.

For those who can’t sate their butterfly curiosity with just one event, Dr. Brower will offer an extra lecture on Tuesday, The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly Research.

Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln Brower                                                 Photo courtesy Austin Butterfly Forum

Mike Quinn and his colleagues at the Austin Butterfly Forum deserve a lot of credit for assembling this historic entourage of Monarch butterfly celebrities.

Quinn said the idea for the gathering was sparked by the chronicling of Catalina’s story here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  Trail had received little attention or recognition of her role in the saga until recently.  ”That story got me thinking…” he said.  ”Catalina, Bill Calvert, even Ken Brugger lived in Austin.  And now John Christian.  Austin is an epicenter of butterfly discoveries.”

As the founder of Texas Monarch Watch, the highly educational Texasento.net insect site and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum,  Quinn fits right in with this crowd.

The event will be crowded, so show up early.   Folks are flying in from Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and making the trip from Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.  A crew of four documentary filmmakers contracted by public television of Mexico will also be on hand from Mexico City.

See you there.

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NAFTA Presidents, Monsanto Say They Want to Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the three leaders of North America I won a $5 bet with my son Alex Rivard last week.

Alex didn’t think the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, nor Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, would discuss the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, last Wednesday, only 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.

President BArack Obama

Thanks, Obama! Our President met with the leaders of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. They committed to trying to save the Monarch butterfly migration. Courtesy photo

“It’s not a big deal to them,” he argued two days before the meeting.

Wanna bet?   I asked.  He did and I won.

And so did the Monarch butterfly migration and those of us who agitate on its behalf.

At the end of a long day of weighty negotiations that touched on immigration, border security, job creation and energy issues, “los tres amigos” determined that the miraculous migration of the iconic insect that knits our countries together is something worth salvaging.

“We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch butterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries,”  President Enrique Peńa Nieto said at the end of the summit.   The leaders agreed to form a task force to study the situation and “ensure the conservation of the Monarch butterfly.”

Now that the Monarch butterfly migration registers on the radar of all three leaders of North America, the creature’s Pan-American journey creates an unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness and captivate attention for pollinator decline.  This focus has galvanized folks across North America.

Monarch butterfly at the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

Monarch numbers plunged to historic lows this year, prompting predictions that its magnificent migration may soon become extinct.  Monarch butterfly on milkweed, its host plant. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On February 24, the National Resources Defense Council submitted a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency to review the use of glyphosates, the widely used broad spectrum herbicide often sold by Monsanto (see below) as  Round-Up.

“As monarch butterflies plummet, it’s time to rethink the widespread use of our nation’s top weedkiller,” read the headline on the NRDC’s Switchboard blog, trumpeting a post that detailed how glyphosate use has  ”skyrocketed tenfold to 182 million pounds annually.  As a result, milkweed–which is the sole food source for monarch butterfly larvae–has all but been eliminated from farm fields across the Midwest.” According to the article, glyphosates were approved in 1993 before the advent of genetically modified crops that are tolerant of its use.  You can read the petition here.

Common milkweed

Will the Whitehouse add some common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to the Whitehouse Garden? Photo via wikipedia

As noted here last week, ever since the news broke last month that 2013 numbers for the migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historic lows and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.   Planting more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use are all good prescriptions, but the political approach exemplified by the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance, an ad hoc group formed by Mexico-based  Grupo de los Cien Internacional  and Make Way for Monarchs contributed to the positive outcome of our leadership embracing the notion that the migration is worth saving.   Others seem to be following suit.

Over on Facebook, almost 600 people have “liked” a page created on February 21st called Mr. President – Save the Monarch – Please plant milkweed at the Whitehouse.”  I encourage you to do the same.   Can’t wait for Michelle, Malia and Sasha to add some Asclepias syriaca–common milkweed, the Monarch butterfly host plant–to the Whitehouse vegetable garden.

Whitehouse vegetable garden

All that’s missing? Plant some milkweed and we’re good to go. Photo via sheknowshouseandgarden.com

Even the folks at Monsanto Corporation, the NYSE-listed multinational chemical and biotech powerhouse often vilified as an evil empire, addressed the decline of the Monarch butterfly migration and pledged to look into it.

A February 24 post on the Monsanto “Beyond the Rows” blog generically labeled “The Monarch Butterfly” states:

“As research continues, the pressing question for all of us is: what can we do to help? We’re talking with scientists about what might be done to help the monarchs  rebound.  And we’re eager to join efforts to help rebuild monarch habitat along the migration path by joining with conservationists, agronomists, weed scientists, crop associations and farmers to look at ways to increase milkweed populations on the agricultural landscape.”

Interestingly, of the 696 posts published on the Monsanto blog since 2008, this is the first time the issue of the Monarch butterfly migration has been addressed.

This is progress, people. Monsanto, we look forward to good deeds following your words.  Los tres amigos, gracias for the exposure and galvanizing the continent on behalf of pollinators.  Alex, time to pay up that $5 bet.  Let’s keep it going.

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Will Obama talk Monarch Butterflies with Presidents of Canada and Mexico this week?

President Barack Obama, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada will gather Wednesday in the Mexican city of Toluca, only 75 miles from the ancestral roosting sites of Monarch butterflies in the mountains of Mexico.

Monarch on the Llano River

The fate of the Monarch migration is in our hands. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

According th the White House, the three leaders will discuss a range of issues important to the people of North America.

OK, but will they discuss what can be done to ensure the future of the epic Monarch butterfly migration, a unique natural phenomenon that binds our three countries geographically, spiritually and scientifically?

President BArack Obama

President Barack Obama will meet with the presidents of Canada and Mexico just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites. Will they talk Monarch butterflies?

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline. Most suggestions have take the form of encouraging the planting of more milkweed and resisting genetically modified crops and pesticide use. But two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., have banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance to take a political approach.

Led by Mexican poet, environmentalist and human rights activist Homero Aridjis, Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower and Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, the group of artists, intellectuals and scientists, wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter, which encouraged planting milkweed on roadsides and between fields, and suggested subsidies for farmers to set aside land that is free of herbicides.

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalis Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America.  Courtesy photo

Mexican poet/activist/enviornmentalist Homero Aridjis helped craft a letter to the three presidents of North America. Courtesy photo

The group cites the recent dramatic declines documented at the overwintering roosts in Michoacán–from a 20-year average of about 16.5 acres to this year’s record low of 1.65 acres. That’s a 90% decrease.

The letter correctly assigns blame to illegal logging and habitat destruction at the roosting sights in Mexico, but also points the finger at atrocious agricultural policies in the United States. Among those pollinator-unfriendly policies: the approval of pesticides that are known to poison pollinators and the practice of wholesale spraying of herbicides on genetically modified corn and soybean crops immune to their toxins. Where fertile wildflowers, including the Monarch host plant milkweed, once flourished between the rows and on the fringes of farmland, now sterile space exists. Who knows what else is being eliminated.

In addition, the 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard mandated that a rising percentage of domestic gasoline be made from biofuels such as corn-based ethanol. The economic incentives for planting corn to produce ethanol have caused farmers to expand the ubiquitous starch to cover 97 million acres of farmland in 2013, up from 78 million acres in 2006. “Fallow fields, row crops and roadsides that used to support the growth of milkweed and substantial acreage of land previously set aside in the U.S. Conservation Reserve Program have been converted to monoculture crops,” the letter notes.

Antelope Horns Milkweed

It’s all about the milkweed–and a lack thereof. Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns Milkweed on Texas Hill Country roadside in April 2011. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The alliance suggests the very reasonable notion of managing roadsides for native plants, including milkweeds and more extensive buffers of native plant communities at field margins. “A milkweed corridor stretching along the entire migratory route of the Monarch butterfly through our three countries must be established,” the letter states.

“This is a viable proposal. It is not impossible,” Aridjis told the the New York Times. “Otherwise, we face an ecological genocide, because if we take away the monarchs’ plants, we kill the monarchs.”

What an outrageous shame that would be. Thiseloquent essay written by Carter Roberts and Omar Vidal on the CNN website calls on the spirit of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the countries of our hemisphere working together for our greater good to literally spare common ground that might save the Monarch migration.

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Yo soy Mariposista! Butterfly Advocates Unite as Lepsters, MOTH-ers and Butterflyers

On a recent trip to Huatulco, Mexico, I was invited by the local guiding association to talk about the hobby of “butterflying.”  My Spanish is pretty decent since my husband and I lived in Costa Rica and El Salvador for years and now reside in San Antonio, a city closely tied to Mexico and populated largely by those who speak Spanish.  We embrace the language and enjoy speaking it.

Costa Rican butterflies

Too bad I wasn’t a mariposista when I lived in Costa Rica in the 80s. Could have seen all these beauties. Photo via nature.berkeley.edu

But I was stumped when attempting to come up with a word in Spanish that describes butterfly watcher.  ”What is the word for birder?” I asked our guide Cornelio Ramos Gabriel.

Pajarero,” he said, suggesting the literal translation of “one who birds.”  When I consulted my iTranslate phone app, it cited “observadores de aves,” that is, observer of birds.

When I asked Cornelio the Spanish word for one who butterflies, he paused.

Mariposero?”  he asked, since mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly.

We agreed that we could use the word “mariposero” for one who “butterflies”–but somehow it didn’t seem to catch what I meant.

As mentioned above, my husband and I lived in Central America during the Sandinista revolution and the Contra war–he, covering the wars of the region for Newsweek magazine and me as a magazine and newspaper freelancer.  I came to know the Spanish suffix “ista” as an add-on to any word that meant one who advocates for a certain belief.

Sandinistas, inspired by the failed revolution of Augusto César Sandino in the 1920s, overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979.  Panistas, on the other hand, pushed for the conservative, pro-business agenda of the National Action Party of Mexico while their counterparts, PRIistas, held power for nearly a century as Mexico’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party.  In Argentina, Peronistas keep alive the progressive socialism of former president Juan Peron.  An anarquista, or anarchist, of course, would oppose all government.  And don’t forget, I was a periodista, or one who writes for a newspaper.

Given my fascination with languages and penchant for advocating for butterflies, it came to me:   Yo soy mariposista.

That word suggests a certain activist bent–just like Sandinista, Peronista, PANista, PRIista, all of which are political terms that connote a movement or advocacy of a point of view.

By such a definition, I am, indeed, a mariposista.    Yo soy mariposista, one who advocates for butterflies.

Por qué las Mariposas?

Por qué las Mariposas? Por qué no?                                                         –Photo by Monika Maeckle

Back here in the U.S.,  ”butterflying,” that is, the act or hobby of watching butterflies for fun, is in its infancy.  Many argue that butterflying is where birding was in the 60s.  More on that in a future post.

Just a little bit of research suggests that in English “butterflying” as a verb was likely first used in 1776.  According to our friend Nigel Venters in Cordoba province of Argentina, “the earliest reference is a short statement by Moses Harris, in the world’s first ever, well illustrated, and detailed book on butterflies in the late 18th century called “The Aurelian, or Natural History of English Insects; Namely Moths and Butterflies, Together with the Plants on Which They Feed.”   Yeah, really.  That’s the title of the book!

More recently, Robert Michael Pyle used the term “butterflying” frequently in his 1987 book “Handbook for Butterfly Watching.”

Apparently regional variations exist in the words used to describe those who watch butterflies, according to Monica Miller of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.  Monica responded to my query posted on the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv of hundreds of mariposistas, butterflyers and others.

“…I can confuse matters with the terminology we use up here in Pennsylvania,”  Monica  wrote via email.  ”Since we include moths in our adventures, we refer to the collective targets as ‘leps’ and when we ‘lepsters’ go out looking we go ‘lepping’ as in  ’Do you want to go lepping on Saturday?’ It’s more descriptive of what many of us do since a lot of us both butterfly and moth (both nouns and verbs there…)”

And speaking of moths, those who favor night flying lepidoptera point out that “MOTH-ers” are folks who prefer the observation of moths while “lepsters” go both ways, enjoying both the colorful beauties that grace our gardens during the day and the more mysterious creatures that pollinate plants at night.

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Massive Mariposario Yeé Lo Beé Aims to Put Huatulco on the Map as A Butterfly Destination

I’m no life lister–not for birds, nor for butterflies.  Checking species off a list doesn’t do it for me.

My interest lies in tromping through nature, observing, enjoying–and occasionally touching and photographing–the life cycle.  The closer-up and more tactile the experience, the better.  That’s just one reason I enjoy raising butterflies at home.   You can witness the whole process, up close and in person.

Dainty Sulphur egg

Dainty Sulphur egg spotted along a beach trail in Huatulco, Oaxaca Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That said, it’s always special to see new creatures in all their iterations–a new stage of caterpillar whose butterfly form you’ve experienced in the garden or eggs discovered on the underside of a host plant. You have to look to find them.  Once you do, there’s no turning back.

One-spotted prepona

You have to look to find them: caterpillar stage of the One-spotted prepona spotted in the archaelogic park in Huatulco, Mexico.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of the best ways to do that is to travel to new places and venture into the wilds. Another is to visit a flyhouse, or butterfly exhibit, at a natural history museum, zoo, nature park or freestanding.   I had the opportunity to partake in both types of butterflying recently on a trip to Huatulco, Mexico, which seems to be angling to position itself as a butterflying and birding destination.

Yeé Lo Beé

Yeé Lo Beé, under construction in La Jabalina just minutes from ecotourism resort in Huatulco, Mexico, aims to be the largest mariposario or butterfly house in Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Huatulco is a great place for butterflies.  Oaxaca probably has the highest number of butterfly species in Mexico, according to butterfly expert and guide book author Kim Garwood, who has written two volumes on Central American and Mexican butterflies.  With beach, jungle, lowland selva and mountains, every kind of habitat is available, said Kim.  ”When you have lots of different habitats and microhabitats, you have lots of plant diversity, which means lots of different butterfly species as well.”

Apart from the low jungle and high mountains of the Sierra Madre, Huatulco will soon offer one of the largest mariposarios, or butterfly houses, in Mexico.  Yeé Lo Beé, which translates to “flower of heaven” in the Zapotec language of the native people of La Jabalina where the massive flyhouse is under construction, has been in development for two years and is scheduled to open in October.

Yeé Lo Beé biologist Ivonne Flores recently gave me, Kim Garwood and our Huatulco nature guide Cornelio Ramos Gabariel a tour of the the 75-acre site, almost a third of which will be devoted to a flyhouse, supporting plant nurseries, an “iguanario” or iguana exhibit, and other features.   The ecopark will also feature a “butterfly liberation” area where visitors can release butterflies raised on the premises.   Cost will likely run about $25 and the park will be geared to tourists and cruise ships who visit Huatulco for day trips.

Flores showed us the laboratory where the Yeé Lo Beé staff will produce all of the 1,000 butterflies that will occupy the 3000-square foot flyhouse each day with some 25 species of butterflies native to the Huatulco area.  Flores oversees the lab as well as the three greenhouses where hundreds of host plants are tended by local people.

 Yvonne FLores

Yvonne Flores, staff biologist at Yeé Lo Beé in the lab with her favorite butterfly, the Kite-Swallowtail. Flores has been training locals to identify and help cultivate butterfly livestock for the mariposario. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Park developers have not enlisted outside expertise in planning or execution of the mariposario nor for securing its livestock, said Flores, choosing instead to grow their own.    It’s relatively uncommon and extremely ambitious for such a large-scale project to produce its own livestock, especially with such a wide variety of species.

What a beauty in Huatulco, Mexico

What a beauty! Flores shows off her favorite butterfly at Yeé lo Bée in Huatulco, Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It’s not common,” said Nigel Venters, a longtime butterfly breeder and consultant to the butterfly breeding business based in Argentina.    Venters has worked with flyhouses all over the world–from Saudi Arabia and England to Costa Rica and New York.   “There are very few flyhouses that raise a big percentage of what they display.  This is not easy and takes many years of experience.”

We applaud the effort and look forward to visiting again once it’s open.

According to the institutional video, Yeé Lo Beé is founded “by a group of people passionate about the responsible use of nature.”   Founder and Mexican impresario Genaro Gomez categorized the massive project as “Not a personal project.  It’s a project of Huatulqueños, and all the people that work in Huatulco.”

Llano Grande Mariposario

A Julia butterfly at Llano Grande Mariposario or “Butterfly Camp” near Huatulco, Mexico. Photo by Susan Ford-Hoffert

Another mariposario, less ambitious and further from the main tourist center, lies about an hour away.  Llano Grande, a project of the Zapotec community, offers a modest butterfly house with a handful of species in their various stages.  School groups, locals and adventurous tourists mingle along the circular path inside, as a local cook whips up fajitas and elotes (grilled corn) in a large palapa.

The destination sits on the banks of the LLano Grande river (no relation to our own Llano River in the Texas Hill Country) and offers a lovely waterfall for bathing as well as an enormous food palapa and event area.   A souvenir stand and swimming area beckon and a plant nursery operates seasonally, offering plants used in traditional medicine.  Llano Grande offers a different, more local experience than you’ll expect at the grand Yeé lo Beé. Cost to enter is about $3.

Each of these adventures presents different charms.  Add a butterflying trip to the jungle and mountains and your Mexican butterfly adventure will be complete.

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Blue Morphos and a Butterfly Bonanza in Huatulco, Mexico

I made myself a rule several years ago to stop running blindly after butterflies with my net.   Too often I had done so, often in the Llano River, chasing Monarchs in the fall when they return to Mexico.   Sometimes I would trip on a rock, slip on wet limestone and narrowly avert catastrophe in the middle of nowhere with the closest hospital hours away.

Blue Morpho

Blue Morpho netted on the trail near Huatulco in Oaxaca, Mexico.     Photo by Monika Maeckle

But the sight of a Blue Morpho, one of the most beautiful butterflies on the planet, languidly tracing a dirt road from the tropical canopy of the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico last week caused me to break my own rule.  Running full speed while looking up, I chased the butterfly for about 500 feet before tripping on a fallen branch.  Luckily I caught myself.  We were many miles from medical assistance.

I gave my net to Cornelio Ramos Gabriel, our able nature guide.   Within a half hour, Cornelio had nabbed a Morpho peleides, whose wingspan can reach eight inches and whose blue wing flashes have made the species a target of collectors in addition to its natural predators. We photographed the beauty and released her.  Cornelio told me that the dreamy flyer is relatively common in these parts, along with its dramatic sister, the White Morpho.  We saw several examples of both on our day trip to Finca Monte Carlo, a lovely coffee plantation in the Sierra Madre.

Welcome to Casa Tulco!  Not a bad place to compare trail notes after butterflying in Huatulco.  Photo by Veronica Prida

Welcome to CasaTulco! Not a bad place to compare trail notes after a day of butterflying in Huatulco. Photo by Veronica Prida

My five-day butterfly trip was the scheme of dear friend Veronica Prida, who with her husband Omar Rodriguez are the hosts of CasaTulco, a fabulous nature retreat set in the ecofriendly tourist destination of Huatulco, Mexico.  The resort lies in Oaxaca, about 300 miles south of Acapulco on the Pacific coast.

Veronica and I have been butterfly buddies for years and she was kind enough to assemble a butterfly trip that included me, butterfly guide book author Kim Garwood, and birder/photographer Susan Hoffert.  Cornelio and Mateo Merlin Sanchez worked hard as our guides, catering to our every whim as we made CasaTulco our base.  In the evenings, we lolled by the pool, recounted our adventures, and researched unknown finds as the entire CasaTulco staff attended our need for margaritas, chilaquiles and wi-fi.  It was a magnificent trip.

Superb Cycadian chrysalises

Superb Cycadian chrysalises nestled on the leaf of a cycad palm at Finca Monte Carlo near Huatulco. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Blue Morpho outing took us on a two-hour spine-jangling, four-wheel drive jaunt up a dirt road that wound through tropical mountain forests and tracked a vibrant stream.   We saw 117 species of butterflies in just 48 hours.  Kim seemed nonplussed each time Susan or I pointed out a new find, patiently identifying its common and Latin names, her capacity for recall a stunning reminder of my own frequent forgetfulness.

“That’s a Fine Line Hairstreak,” said Kim upon one of my inquiries. “He likes roadside edges.”  Is that unusual?   ”No.”

After a fruitful stop at a small cascada, or waterfall, where various Swallowtails and Sulphurs puddled and danced above the rushing water and an Owl butterfly hid in the thick underbrush, we arrived at Finca Monte Carlo.  Our gracious host, Efren Ricardez Scherenberg, escorted us directly to a mature cycad palm where a cluster of Superb Cycadian butterflies had just pupated.  The brown and black chrysalises, called capullos in Spanish, looked like designer chocolates from a high-end confectionary.
Superb Cycadian butterflies at Finca Monte Carlo, Oaxaca, Mexico

Superb Cycadian butterflies hatched from their distinctive chrysalises at Finca Monte Carlo in Oaxaca, Mexico just days after our departure.  Photo by Efrem Ricardez Scherenberg

Efren explained that every year about this time the caterpillars and later chrysalises appeared, just for a short while.  He believed they would hatch the following morning, but  they did not.  He graciously shared the photo above just two days after our departure.
Porch of Finca Monte Carlo

Balcony porch of Finca Monte Carlo–perfect for bird and butterfly watching. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our sojourn into the surrounding tropical forest lead us down a lovely mountain trail where a roaring spring-fed creek spilled over rocks under a thick canopy.   Birds were ubiquitous and insects in every stage of development invited photos and inspection.  That evening, a storm sparked a power outage and the full moon provided our light as a freshly hatched Black Witch Moth settled into the kitchen allowing for close inspection with a flashlight.
Black WItch Moth Huatulco

Black Witch Moth settles into the kitchen at Finca Monte Carlo.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The surrounding grounds, lush with tropical vegetation and shade grown coffee, offered its own extravaganza of bird and insect life.   Mateo carried a spotting scope for close-ups, as Ulises, the sweet, very spoiled and friendly house cat, accompanied us on meanders through nearby Anthurium beds where dozens of enormous and varied bumblebees harvested pollen from the showy flowers’ spikes.

Mateo and Ulises

Mateo and Ulises come up the rear in our tropical hike of the coffee finca’s lush grounds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anthurium and bumblebees

A variety of bumblebees feast on the Anthurium’s pollen spike. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, we also found some Tropical milkweed growing along the driveway’s edge.  On it, several eggs–either Monarchs or Queens.  Efren will let us know.

Tropical Milkweed in Oaxaca, Mexico

Tropical milkweed grows wild along the road in Oaxaca during the rainy season. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The next morning, we packed to head back to CasaTulco.

NEXT:  Mariposarios (butterfly houses) of Huatulco, from Llano Grande to Yeélo beé Parque y Mariposario.

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Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist: TEDx San Antonio Talk on Monarch Butterfly Migration Finally Published

The “Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist” presentation I did last fall for TEDx San Antonio, the local version of the lauded TED Talks, has finally been published.  Take a look, below.

The event took place October, 13, 2012, at the Arthur and Jane Stieren Auditorium of Trinity University.  More than  400 people spent that Saturday (my birthday!) watching presentations made by me and 22 other presenters.  We shared stories and slideshows of inspiration, passion and creativity on topics ranging from the power of silence and the community of drumming to worm composting and the need to build San Antonio’s broadband network. What an amazing experience.

The process began in May when, after being invited to apply, we sent in applications describing our potential talk.  After being selected, we worked for weeks with our assigned TEDx coaches and mentors, crafting our final shows to fit the constructs of our given timeframes.  My coach was the always reassuring Ana Grace, who offered warm support and useful guidance in addition to frequent hugs and pats on the back.  Thank you, Ana!

The day of event, of course I was nervous–and slightly hepped up on decongestants, which help explain my cracking voice.    Allergies arrive every October right alongside migrating Monarch butterflies.

Monarch tagging demo at Trinity

Happy birthday to me! Monarch butterfly tagging demo followed the TEDx San Antonio event at Trinity University on Oct. 13, 2012. –photo by Nicolas Rivard

Technical difficulties plagued the day at Trinity University and caused special stress for those of us shy of microphones and video cameras.  My fellow presenters and I wrung our hands in angst as some took the stage to face the unpleasant surprise that a power outage and incongruent technologies prevented our slideshows from loading.

Dr. Karl Klose, a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas and director of the South Texas Center for Emerging and Infectious diseases,  deserves a medal for heroically winging his presentation on antibiotic resistant bacteria with absolutely no slides at all.  He was so compelling and didn’t even flinch.  Well done, Dr. Klose.

After the fits and starts, postponements and power glitches, my presentation ran relatively smoothly.  Despite many obstacles, the show went on and will hopefully inspire others.  Just like the Monarch butterfly migration.

To see the full roster of TEDx San Antonio talks and learn more, check out the TEDx San Antonio website.

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Founder of the Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites in Mexico Lives a Quiet Life in Austin, Texas

I am the only living member of the team who discovered the Monarch Butterfly overwintering sanctuaries in Mexico in 1975.  The discovery was published by National Geographic Magazine in August, 1976.  My picture is on the cover.  I was referred to as Cathy back then…I have been here in Austin living a quiet life and I am interested in participating in your Austin Butterfly Forum.

 –Best regards, Catalina

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites Photo copyright Catalina Trail

The best and brightest Monarch butterfly entomologists and citizen scientists gathered in Minneapolis in late June for the annual Monarch Butterfly Conservation Meeting hosted by the University of Minnesota. More than 100 Monarch aficionados, conservationists and citizen scientists joined academic heavyweights like Chip Taylor, Lincoln Brower, and Karen Oberhauser at the three-day “Monarch Geek Festival.” Participants enjoyed sessions on  topics ranging from rearing Monarchs to conservation habitat management.

Yet one key player in contemporary Monarch history, a soft-spoken woman whose pivotal role helped unravel the mystery of the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites, was not in attendance:  Catalina Trail of Austin, Texas.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

“Cathy Aguado,” as she was known in 1975 when she and her partner Ken Brugger worked as “research associates” for Dr. Fred Urquhart, remained at her South Austin home.  Trail now performs social work as a case manager for an Austin nonprofit organization, helping people face some of life’s toughest challenges.  In her limited spare time, she tends her vegetable garden.

“I live a quiet life,” she said during a recent interview at a South Austin restaurant.

When Trail left a comment on the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog on May 24, I gasped audibly.  Really?  The woman busting through the magical wall of Monarch butterflies on the cover of the August 1976 National Geographic Magazine lives and works in Austin?  Why have we never heard from her?  And how many times had I looked at that photo and wondered:  Who is she?  What was she thinking? How did it happen?  She’s so lucky.

Born on a ranch in the mountains at El Salto, in the Mexican state of Michoacan in 1949, Trail grew up outside Morelia, the state capitol.  She and her partner Ken Brugger would be the first Westerners to walk among and make sense of the millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in the Oyamel trees of the Michoacan forest in Cerro Pelón, about 120 miles east of her birthplace.

Their “discovery”–and I use the quotation marks deliberately, since native people knew of the overwintering sites for centuries before Westerners pieced the migration puzzle together–occurred on January 2, 1975.  Trail was 25 years old.

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s. Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Trail had always displayed a sense of curiosity and adventure.  As a child, she would sneak off to the library at the Universidad de San Nicólas de Hidalgo to peruse books on science.   “I was the girl that played with insects,” she said, adding that after mountain rains, she would observe Mexican blues, Gulf Fritillaries and miscellaneous Swallowtails puddling in a seasonal stream near her house.  ”I’m not a scientist.  I’m a gardener that likes insects.”

El Salto to Cerro Pelon

A = Birthplace of Catalina Trail; B = Discovering of Monarch roosting spots. Map by Google

When she was almost 12 years old, Trail moved with one of her five sisters from the ranch to Morelia.  By age 17, she was living in Mexico City, working at a pharmacy and later in sales for Philips Comercial.

During the 70s, she roamed the hemisphere, a fearless,  free-spirited young woman who explored Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and many points south.  She traversed the United States and Canada–alone and with friends.  They rode buses and slept in cheap hotels, sometimes camping along the way, satisfying their wanderlust and search for adventure.

Trail was only 21 when she met Brugger, a smart, charming norteamericano, who worked as a self-taught engineer at textile giant Rinbros in Mexico City.   Brugger loved trading the brutal winters of Wisconsin  for the warmth of Mexico.  He took every opportunity to explore the country from his Winnebago.  A Canadian friend introduced the two in Acapulco when Catalina was taking a break from her Mexico City job and was visiting the Pacific Coast resort to attend immersion English classes.

Naturally, the 53-year-old Brugger found Trail captivating.  ”He followed me around,” said Trail. When she departed for a trip to El Salvador, “he wrote me letters on the back of a tortilla.”

Catalina Trail in her South Austin vegetable garden

Catalina Trail in her South Austin vegetable garden.

Trail said she and Brugger first started looking for Monarch butterflies in 1973, a year before their marriage in Austin. Ken had seen an ad placed by Dr. Fred Urquhart in the Mexico City News, an English language newspaper, seeking “research associates” to help track Monarch butterflies.  The job was voluntary at first, and Brugger thought it would be fun. ”C’mon, want to do it?” he asked her.  At first she hesitated.  ”Good luck with the campesinos and the Mexican government,” she said.

Ultimately, Brugger convinced “Cathy” as he called her, a name she never liked, to join the Monarch quest.  Luckily she did, and surely her native smarts and Spanish fluency, plus her familiarity with the people and the countryside, proved key to locating the overwintering sites.   Anyone who’s traveled in rural Mexico can attest to the suspicion native residents have toward outsiders.   One could argue that were it not for Trail, the Monarch butterfly roosting sites would not have been revealed to the world in 1976.  It would have happened, but later.

Monarch butterflies in Cerro Pelon, Michoacan, Mexico

Cerro Pelón in 2011. This was the first roosting spot found by Trail and Brugger in 1975.

Brugger and Trail took weekend trips to Morelia throughout 1973 to look for Monarch butterflies. It wasn’t until 1974, as they came closer to finding the roosting spots and after reporting regularly to Urquhart of their progress, that the couple received compensation for their time — room, board, expenses, and car rental.

“That’s when we started taking it more seriously,” said Trail.

In October 1974,  Brugger and Trail saw pulses of Monarchs moving west from Mexico City.  Urquhart had also received reports around that time that at least some of his experimental Monarch butterfly tags had been recovered northwest of the capitol.  Evidence mounted that Monarchs were heading to Michoacán.

“We decided to go get supplies and topo maps,” said Trail.  Because of work obligations, they had to squeeze their research into weekends and days off.  ”We knew where we had to look.”

Trail described several wild adventures, including Winnebago breakdowns and arduous climbs up difficult mountain trails.  On their research excursions, she always carried photos of  Monarch butterflies in their various stages, asking every campesino and viejo:  have you seen these?

“Fred gave us some pictures from his collection, a mounted butterfly, and photos of butterfly, chrysalis and caterpillar,” said Trail.  ”I always told them:  we’re doing it for science.”

Nobody they asked ever admitted to seeing the butterflies, she said.  And this is where her story departs from accepted Monarch history.  In the book Four Wings and a Prayer, author Sue Halpern relates a conversation with Brugger in which he describes dangerous encounters.

Catalina Trail, A Founder of Monarch Butterfly Overwintering Sites, 1975

Catalina Trail in Cerro Pelón, 1975, the first site “discovered” by she and Ken Brugger.  Photo copyright Catalina Trail

“‘We went through a lot of dangerous territory.  People threatened to shoot us.  They told us that Zapata had hidden some gold up there and they thought we were looking for that,’” Ken Brugger told Halpern in the book.   In the National Geographic story, Urquhart describes a scene in which “Mexican woodcutters, prodding laden donkeys, had seen swarming butterflies and had helped point the way” to the roosting site.

Trail tells a different story.  ”We went all along Route 15, Macho de Agua, El Capulín, Popocatepetl, and Nevado de Toluca areas, asking everyone. Nobody admitted to seeing butterflies like that–they didn’t know what we were talking about.” Trail said her former husband was not well in his old age.  By the time Halpern interviewed him, sometime before the book’s publication in 2001, Brugger often spoke nonsensically.  ”That’s not the way it happened, and Ken never corrected that.  I told him it was wrong and he said it didn’t matter.”

Trail said she and Brugger had hired a local “so we wouldn’t be alone” and routinely hiked 18 kilometers a day over the skirt of the mountain and back to their camper or inn at day’s end.

Finally, on January 2, 1975, the couple came upon Cerro Pelón, a dramatic high elevation summit that spills into an arroyo, or dry streambed.  ”That’s when we saw them,” recalled Trail.

The location hosted what seemed to be a Monarch butterfly superhighway and fir trees laden with millions of the roosting creatures.   Occasional dead butterflies littered the forest floor.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, in Cerro Pelon on January 2, 1975

Trail was first to the site at Cerro Pelón on January 2, 1975. Photo copyright Catalina Trail.

Trail was first to the site.   Brugger and their helper (you can see him behind Trail in the photo above) brought up the rear with food, water, and gear, including a camera that snapped the photographs reprinted in this story.

“I see them! I see them!” she yelled.

Two days later, they came upon Chincua and El Rosario.

“That second day, it snowed,” Trail remembered.  Brugger and Trail found five colonies on that trip and raced to Tuxpan to relay the news to Urquhart by phone.  Urquhart recalled the phone call in the story he wrote for National Geographic.  ”On the evening of January 9, 1975, Ken telephoned us from Mexico. ‘We have located the colony!’ he said, unable to control the excitement in his voice. ‘We have found them–millions of Monarchs–in evergreens beside a mountain clearing.’ ”

An entire year later, Fred and Nora Urquhart, and photographer Bianca Lavies joined Trail and Brugger in Mexico to visit the roosting sites. The fantastic photo of Trail graced the front of the magazine, her historic role in the discovery reduced to cover girl and a vague reference by Urquhart to a “bright and delightful Mexican, ‘Cathy.’”  The explosive story and dramatic photos inside rocked the world of lepidoptery.

Trail and Brugger returned to Michoacan in 1978 together for the last time.  ”I was almost sad that we had found them because everything was in such disarray in the first few years,” said Trail recently.  ”And there was a lot of controversy,” she said, referring to myriad disagreements about scientific credit-taking that followed.  The drama and disagreement explains why Trail dropped out of the Monarch story for decades. Halpern’s book, Four Wings and a Prayer, chronicles the saga.

Trail and Brugger, married for 18 years, separated in 1991.  Her desire to earn a formal education at Austin Community College seemed to unnerve her older husband and caused problems.   They eventually divorced, and in 1995 Trail married a fellow social worker, George Trail.  In 1996 Trail graduated with a degree in social work from the University of Texas at Austin.  Brugger died at age 80 and his grown son by Trail, whose privacy she chooses to protect, also lives in Austin.

Trail returned to the roosting sanctuaries in February for the first time in 34 years.  Canadian filmmakers invited her as their guest in the course of filming the documentary, Flight of the Butterflies.    ”During the trip from Mexico City Airport to El Rosario, federal and state police patrolled the roads and the sanctuary,”  she said, describing “mixed feelings of safety and dread, which surprised me as a native Mexican in Michoacan.”  Trail missed an opportunity to meet President Felipe Calderon who took part in the IMAX film, since her return to Austin was scheduled prior to his arrival at the Monarch sanctuaries.

For Trail, as for many of us, a fascination with Monarch butterflies is almost impossible to shake. She’d like to get involved in Monarch conservation again and plans to attend future meetings of the Austin Butterfly Forum.  Since she doesn’t spend much time on the computer, she doesn’t participate in the hyperactive online Monarch butterfly information exchange.  ”I’d rather look at the tassels of my corn and hope the pollen will fall down and pollinate,” she said.

Her journey to find the Mexican mountain home for Monarch butterflies, and her place in Monarch history, remain.   A few years ago, about 100 Monarchs roosted in her garden one fall evening.   It was a reunion of sorts.

“I had my own little colony, and I stayed up all night.”

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Number of Monarch Butterflies Down as They Leave Michoacan and Head through Texas

The Monarch butterfly population status report was made public this week. Given last year’s perfect storm of bad conditions–late freeze, historic drought, raging wildfires–butterfly followers were expecting bad news.  It was.  Overall Monarch butterfly numbers were down 28%.

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to....Texas!

Monarch butterflies are leaving Michoacan and heading to Texas.

The much anticipated document issued each spring by the World Wildlife Fund assesses the overall health of the migrating population by calculating the physical space they occupy in the Oyamel fir forests of Michoacan, Mexico.  This year, the millions of butterflies occupied a little more than seven acres.   The average is almost 18 acres.

Monarch Watch, a Monarch butterfly monitoring program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, put a positive spin on the findings, tagging the report “relatively good news,”  given dismal expectations.  ”Nevertheless, this represents another low population – one well below the long term average near seven hectares,” the citizen scientist and academic collaborative reported.

The report was issued especially late this year, on March 15, an act that aggravated scientists and left others wondering why it took so long.  ”The international scientific community is baffled why it  took so long for WWF and others to release the colony data for the current overwintering season,” wrote renown Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower in an email to the DPLEX list, a butterfly listserv followed avidly by

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.  ”The long delay actually hampered research planning for important molecular studies by the scientific community.”   Brower challenged WWF officials on the reasons for the decline, suggesting that while crazy weather and habitat loss tied to herbicide tolerant crops are factors, illegal logging and “severe degradation of the Oyamel forest ecosystem has been and still is occurring.”

Interestingly, a spokesperson for PROFEPA, the equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency in Mexico, said earlier this year that illegal logging at the roosting grounds had been contained to 3.7 acres.

The good news is that the butterflies have left their Mexican roosts and are coming our way. Reports from Twitter, Facebook and butterfly listservs detail FOS (first of season) sightings of the migrating butterflies flitting through Texas, laying eggs on native and tropical milkweed plants, delighting gardeners and butterfly fans.

Kip Kiphart, a volunteer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne reported via email that he found 27 eggs on his native milkweed plants in Bergheim, Texas this week.  Others chimed in:   “Saw two in my  yard in southwest Austin,” said Helen Boudny Fremin. “We’ve had a couple in Marathon this past week,” reported Mathew York.  ”Pretty sure I saw a Monarch butterfly yesterday,” tweeted Mike Leggett, an outdoor writer in Austin. Those migrating Monarchs presumably will visit San Antonio’s local colony over at the Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for some mixed company nectar sipping.

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Monarch butterflies have left Michoacan and been spotted all over Texas

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration because of its strategic location between the roosting grounds and the milkweed beds and nectar prairies that serve as hosts and food sources for the famous insects.   Millions of Monarchs pass through Texas each spring and fall as they make their multi-generation migratory flight from the Mexico to Canada and back.  Spring in Texas is a critical time for the Monarchs, as they seek out milkweed plants–their host, and the only plant on which they will lay eggs–to continue their multi generation migration north.

With our exceptional and well-timed South Texas rains this winter, the Monarchs will have plenty of wildflowers for nectar and milkweed  for reproducing. Time to plant more milkweed in our gardens to get the migration off to a good start.

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Mexican President Felipe Calderon Visits Monarch Butterfly Preserves in Michoacan

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico visited the Monarch butterfly preserves in Michoacan last week to film an IMAX film and call attention to the importance of the butterflies’ unique ancestral roosting spots to the sustainable economic development of the impoverished communities surrounding them.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan--photo by La Voz

Late February and early March are ideal for visiting the sanctuaries since rising temperatures warm up the butterflies and make them more active.

Unfortunately, tourism at the roosting areas, including visits from scientists who make such pilgrimages the basis for their life’s work, has fallen dramatically in recent years because of narco violence and instability in the region.   U.S.-based tour operators have pretty much ceased offering Monarch butterfly sanctuary tours because of potential liabilities.  (An exception:  Bill Toone’s EcoLife Foundation.)

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

The U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid “non-essential travel” to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states in an amped-up  travel warning on February 8.   The warning came on the heels of a 15-ton meth seizure outside Guadalajara and expanded on previous advisories that has Mexican tourism authorities annoyed.

While informal reports of this years’ visitor count to El Rosario Sanctuary list slight increases ecotourism (up to 100,000 from 80,000 last year), the butterfly preserves need all the help they can get.  Fewer visitors means locals will have to seek other ways of earning a living, including illegal logging.  My husband and I braved Mexico last year to visit the sanctuaries and it was a memorable, monumental trip;  however, not sure I would do it again until the situation changes there.

It’s unfortunate, but travel in Mexico right now is just too potentially dangerous.  Driving through the Mexican provinces, once a common adventure for many Texans, now is fraught with risk, sometimes death.  Says the advisory:   “TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them. You should cooperate at all checkpoints.”   Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.

The good news is that migrating Monarch butterflies are already on their way to Texas.   The active DPLEX list, a Monarch butterfly list-serv that charts the creatures’  every move, has reports of first-of-season sightings and egg-laying on South Texas milkweeds, which are emerging early this year because of our warm winter.

As the Spring Equinox approaches and the migrating insects leave Mexico, they’ll nectar up for their journey north,  head our way, and grace us with their joyous presence.    On March 15, the state-of-the-union report of the Monarch butterfly population for 2011-2012 will be released by Mexican authorities.   We’ll keep you posted.

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