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Worldly Biological Phenomenon…Monarchs

Female Monarch on Elisabeth Paine’s Chrysanthemum, October 2020 – Phippsburg, ME

By Nancy Dorrans – Originally published in The West End News, April 2020

I learned so much recently, listening to Court Whelan, Ph.D., Natural Habitat’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel. Dr. Whelan reported on “the most miraculous and mysterious phenomena in nature.”

By Court Whelan, Ph.D.

Dr. Whelan began by saying that every answer draws at least two more questions… How do they find their way, four generations apart, migrating three thousand miles one way? Why do they go where they go? What is it about that area of the world that draws them from the many corners of the United States and Canada? And, how do they arrive no worse for wear?


These small orange and black migrants have fascinated humans for thousands of years and Dr. Whelan has dedicated his career to studying them. I was entranced during his online presentation offered through Natural Habitat Adventures:  “Understanding the Amazing Monarch Butterfly Migration.” I didn’t know there was so much to it and continued to dig. I have since fluttered down an internet rabbit hole. Here’s a report on what I’ve learned so far…

The monarch butterfly navigation skills are impressive. They have several ways to find their way. First is a time compensated sun compass in which they use their eyes and antennae to navigate based on their relative position to the sun.

But what happens when it is cloudy?

They also have a magnetic sense, a compass in their wings. Where does this magnetic sense come from? They ingest a metal from their superfood milkweed that helps build the magnet.

They also rely on chemical cues; each wing has thousands of small scales that pick up these cues. “Monarch Butterflies cue on ultraviolet rays that are invisible to humans.

These rays cut through even heavy clouds,” according to the NPR story, “Study Sheds Light on Butterfly Migration.”

Do all monarchs migrate?

No. From spring to late summer, monarchs go through a number of generations. The first several generations’ lifespans are only a few weeks long. The migrating generation lives four times as long as the prior generations.

How does the migratory generation live four times longer?

Dr. Court explained that the migrating generation has an internal switch. They turn off their reproduction energy and redirect this energy to repair and regenerate cells. It is like a butterfly fountain of youth!

WHAT? Can we do that? Like he said, every answer begs two more questions.

How long does their migration take?

Depending on where they are leaving from, the butterflies begin their journey to Mexico in late August or September and then arrive together around the end of October. “The Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) also occurs when the monarchs appear. According to traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to Earth for their annual visit.” (

Why Mexico and what do they do there?

The monarchs congregate and hibernate in the Michoacán Mountains in central Mexico where the climate is perfect for them and the forest canopy protects them. They are on a butterfly vacation of sorts, escaping the cold winters like many other animals and tourists do.

What about recent reports of dwindling numbers?

There are some threats such as illegal logging, pesticides, and GMOs, but there is reason for optimism. Their numbers are on the rise. Eco-tourism in the Michoacán Mountains provides jobs and locals now see the financial incentive. They are planting trees to replace holes in the canopy. There is a worldwide rise in understanding the added value in protecting the monarchs.

During the question and answer period, a 6th grader asked, “Do monarchs migrate at night?” 

The most poetic answer to his question was written in 1911 by Jennie Brooks. She stayed up all night watching clusters of monarchs during their fall migration through Lawrence, Kansas:

“The night was cloudless and absolutely without wind … the butterflies slept on, and on, and on, with wings tightly folded together” until the rays of the sun fell upon them the following morning, and then … “as if touched with a magic wand, the mighty colony … wafted into the air.” (JOURNAL OF THE LEPIDOPTERISTS’ SOCIETY)

For more footage, watch this NATURE on PBS video – In the mountains of Mexico, a spy hummingbird drone ventures into the heart of a breathtaking monarch butterfly swarm.

What can you do to help the monarchs?

Share what you learn. Plant local milkweed! Minimize insecticides.

Did you know you can tag and track monarchs?

Peer down a rabbit hole to learn more. These organizations: Monarch Watch, the Southwest Monarch Study, and Monarch Alert all have monarch tagging programs and are always looking for more citizen scientists. Find the program that’s best for you and get involved!

Follow the migration at

Nancy Dorrans is the founder of  Adventure Marketplace. An independent travel advisor based in the West End, she spent the spring of 2020 hibernating in East Tennessee with her father, sister, and family, their beehives, two dogs, and twenty-three chickens.

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Out of Our Comfort Zone

Out of Our Comfort Zone…

Originally published in The West End News – February, 2021

Adventure Marketplace small group in 2016 above Victoria Falls at Dusk;
Kathleen, Paula, Elaine, Bernie, Anne, Bruce and Nancy.

As a travel counselor, I strive to navigate my clients on authentic experiences, safely out of their comfort zone and into an appreciation of other cultures, landscapes, traditions, food, music and people.

In the spring of 2016, I organized and traveled to Southern Africa with a small group of adventurous friends. We journeyed from Capetown to the game parks of Kruger and Karongwe.

We flew to Zimbabwe and walked along the side of Victoria Falls where the mist made its own rainbow. We cruised above “The Falls” at sunset with cocktails and crocodiles. We hurried across the bridge over “The Falls” (border of Zambia/Zimbabwe) before dark because the elephants sometimes use the same path at dusk. My friend Bruce and I ventured down the steep valley to the banks of the Mighty Zambezi River for an exhilarating rafting adventure.  A few others took helicopter tours. We had experienced “The Falls” from all sides…

While experiencing “The Falls” and also tracking, photographing and being near the wild animals in the game preserves was breathtaking, it was the people we met, the schools we visited, the history, the personal stories we listened to, and friendships we made that made this trip one of my favorite all time adventures.

With my travel business on hold due to the pandemic, I have stepped safely out of my own comfort zone and found myself back in school four days a week as a “dedicated substitute” teacher at Deering High School in Portland.

PORTLAND, Maine — April 3, 2018 —
Deering High School in Portland, Maine. (Seth Koenig | BDN)

Since early October, I’ve developed a keen appreciation of education, diversity, cultural, linguistic and academic differences.  Deering students “speak over fifty home languages and come from more than thirty countries on five different continents.  It is the only high school in the state of Maine to offer Mandarin, Arabic, French, and Spanish classes.”  

While I’ve covered for the Earth Science, Art, Gym, Algebra, English, Special Education classes and the librarian, most days I am immersed as a one-on-one assistant in the English Language Learners classroom.  My mornings are full of the voices, questions, languages and smiles behind the masks of teenagers from around the world.  They represent Angola, Guatemala, Republic of Congo, Kenya, Honduras, Egypt, Afghanistan and The Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).  

Banner hanging in the Deering High School Cafeteria

Where does our comfort zone come from and how and why/how does it change?   Are we born with a narrow or broad comfort zone?  Does it develop over time with experience? I say the latter. Travel takes you away from your home and outside your “comfort zone”. quoted from Nancy’s Pecha Kucha presentation – July, 2016

I have traveled far & away from my home and out of my comfort zone many times…and always by choice.  

These students I’m getting to know have traveled out of their comfort zone too, but not necessarily by choice.  They have a lot to learn and share.  Many of these students speak three or more languages. They have been on the move, have missed years of school and/or have started school in one country in one language and then moved along to a different country or countries, schools and languages. I am humbled. I regret I never did learn another language. I wish I could speak and understand Portuguese, Spanish or French. These kids are quick and resilient and patient with me.  Google translate is our friend!

New friend in Southern Africa

I have said this before. I have a strong sense of adventure that is accompanied by fearlessness.  Not much scares me, especially strangers.  My lack of fear scared my mother and it often scares my friends and family. For me though, intrigue trumps fear. I am driven to meet and immerse myself in different cultures over and over again. 

The more unique and authentic the interactions, the more comfortable and engaged and at home I become.  It is this intrigue that compels me and my work as a travel counselor.  And now it is this same intrigue that serves me well as a dedicated substitute teacher.

I feel quite blessed to have landed in such an amazingly welcoming and diverse world of Deering High School right here in Portland, Maine.

I didn’t even need to pack a bag, get on a plane or, use my passport! 

Compass Image