My husband and I just returned from the “Top of the Mitten,” an area that covers the northern most reaches of our favorite mitten-shaped state. We took a circuitous, 1400-mile drive around Lake Michigan that included stops at his boyhood stomping grounds in Petoskey and Kalamazoo.
A Monarch prepares to take flight across Lake Michigan from Peninsula Point. Photo by Dale Nemeth
For decades Bob has waxed nostalgic about growing up in northern Michigan. Becoming acquainted with his boyhood home and escaping the South Texas’ summer heat were reasons enough to make the trip. But seeing this amazing part of the world and its unique geology and ecosystems turned the adventure into an awakening. What a beautiful place. Our visit also coincided with the beginning of the Monarch butterfly migration in that part of the world. Monarchs are just starting to take flight from southern Canada, thus we encountered some of our Danaus plexippus friends along the way.
My my Michigan milkweed, what big seedpods you have! Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park –Photo by Monika Maeckle
At Mackinac Island’s Mission Point Resort, Blackeyed Susans fill a beachfront prairie. Photo by Monika Maeckle
Most surprising: milkweed appears to be growing EVERYWHERE along the roadside in Michigan. True, we hugged the Great Lakes on our driving tour, but it seems that everywhere we turned–on highways, sunny clearances in forests, even at historic Mackinac Island Fort, milkweed flourished. Whether this was intentional or accidental, it doesn’t matter. Plenty of host plant exists for super generation Monarchs passing through the Wolverine State and bode well for a healthy southbound population. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, predicted in a recent blog post that Monarchs will experience a healthy rebound this year. Prospects call for “an increase from the 2.91 hectares of last year to 4 hectares or better this coming winter or better” in the amount of space the Monarchs occupy in their winter roosting sites. Scientists calculate the Monarch population by counting the number of hectares they occupy in their roosting sites each winter in Michoacán, Mexico. The imperfect formula is currently 50 million butterflies per hectare.
Nectar plants were also abundant. Black-eyed Susan, (Rudbeckia hirta,) Smooth Aster (Aster laevis), Boneset or Thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and other flowers filled the roadsides and pocket prairies. Houghton’s Goldenrod (Solidago Houghtonii), a different species from the Solidago altissima that grows in Texas in late summer, can only be found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or “U.P.,” as Michiganders call it. The dramatic plant, which sometimes includes strange galls that host a local moth, occupies the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, its stout yellow blooms braving the constant wind.
Houghton’s Goldenrod, a specialty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, grows prolifically along the windy shores of Lake Michigan. Photo by Monika Maeckle
A highlight of the trip was Peninsula Point, a famous Monarch butterfly staging area. The migrating insects gather on the milkweed-studded shore of this skinny stretch of sand, which juts out into Lake Michigan. A historic lighthouse marks the Point, and just as ships sailing the lake use it for orientation, Monarch butterflies utilize the strategic location to navigate their migration.