From The New Yorker:
There’s no place like an island, and a barrier island especially, for seasonal migrants. That’s certainly true of Fire Island. The thirty-two-mile-long sandbar off Long Island may be best known for little red wagons, houses on stilts, and gay beach parties, but it is also beloved by lepidopterists. Every September and October, the island’s dunes become a way station for tens of thousands of monarch butterflies, who stop there on their three-thousand-mile journey from Canada to a mountaintop in Michoacán, near Mexico City, where they go to reproduce and die.
Ellen Federico, who is known to locals as “the butterfly lady,” grew up across the water, in West Islip. She works as an event planner in Manhattan, but she spends her free time in a clapboard cottage that her father floated over to Fire Island on a barge in the seventies. The house, where she vacationed as a girl with her parents and her seven siblings, is one of the oldest in the beach community of Lonelyville. Federico, who is fifty-nine, is the island’s most authoritative witness to the gradual decline in the butterflies’ numbers.
“When I was small, the monarchs would swarm down the beach,” she said, one recent afternoon. She sat on her deck, surrounded by pots of milkweed, which the monarchs love. “You could run beneath them with a net and pull in a dozen. Not anymore.” Across America, falling monarch populations are usually blamed on climate change and on the use of herbicides that have eliminated the weeds they feed on. Federico likes to give milkweed seeds to her neighbors.
She inherited her love for monarchs from her father, who was known as Captain Bob. “He made his living from the sea—not just fishing but working charters, chumming for bait,” she said. “You know in ‘Funny Girl,’ when Barbra Streisand sings ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ on that tugboat? My dad was piloting one of the camera boats.” Captain Bob was fascinated by navigation. “He used to sit here when the monarchs flew over and say, ‘Look at that. Aeronautical perfection.’ ”
Federico has befriended monarch experts around the world, and she likes to explain how the monarchs fly by gliding on warm air (“as far as a hundred miles a day!”) and navigate by the angle of the sun. She gently pulled a big monarch from a mesh cage with her hands. “These ones, the royal monarchs, we also call ‘4Gs.’ They’re the fourth generation—the three generations before this, they live just four to six weeks, like most butterflies. But these 4Gs live up to nine months—long enough to fly to Mexico to mate before sending their babies back north.”
Seven years ago, Federico launched an effort to tag and count the butterflies on Fire Island. Each fall, her squad of child volunteers stalks the island and affixes weightless stickers to monarchs’ wings. The stickers allow her to track the butterflies all the way to Michoacán.
“This one’s a boy,” a ten-year-old named Cora Reynolds explained, as she held out a monarch she’d netted on a buddleia bush. “You have to be careful, when you put the sticker on his wing, not to cover the pheromone spots.” She pointed to two black dots. “Or else he won’t get a girlfriend.” Reynolds applied the sticker and wrote down its number on a clipboard.
Federico treasures a 2016 photograph of Barack Obama signing an agreement with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to protect the monarchs’ migration. In February, she travelled to Michoacán, to see where her butterflies end up. She rode a mule up into the El Rosario biosphere reserve, with a guide and a bodyguard armed against drug cartels. “It was the most magical day of my life,” she said, holding up a photograph and pointing to clouds of orange ringing high fir trees and to a sign, in the foreground, instructing visitors to maintain silence and to remain for a maximum of fifteen minutes. “I stayed for three hours,” she said. She was distressed to learn about a surge in illegal logging there. “Do you know why they’re cutting down the Oyamel firs my monarchs love?” she asked. “To plant more avocados for us fat-ass Americans to buy at Whole Foods.”
As Federico talked, several monarchs flitted about her garden. “This year’s been interesting, with these hurricanes in the Atlantic,” she said. “It’s been such a warm fall—they’re definitely heading south late. But the monarchs are flying. They know you can’t wall the wind.” ♦
This article appears in other versions of the October 9, 2017, issue, with the headline “Monarchs.”
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is the author of “Island People: The Caribbean and the World,” and the co-editor of “Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.”