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.

Cultural Immersion and Hospitality

My love of the African people, cultures and continent began in 1994. At that time, I was a senior at Suffolk University in Boston studying to become a certified social studies teacher.

I applied and had been accepted into a study abroad program called “Inter-Future” (Intercultural Studies for the Future) to conduct an independent research project on a topic of my interest and coursework. I traveled for two semesters that year; first to the Netherlands and then to Zimbabwe.

I had always wanted to go to Africa and was thrilled by the opportunity to go to Zimbabwe and to meet with educators, teachers and students and experience true cultural immersion. Upon arrival, I applied and was accepted into the University of Zimbabwe so that I could accompany the education professor on his rounds to visit his student teachers in the rural areas.

In Harare, I arranged an interview with Mr. Steven Chifunyise, the Deputy Secretary of Education and Culture, the equivalent to our United States Secretary of Education. Mr. Chifunyise was a proud and joyful man and so eager to engage and answer my questions. While he lived in Harare, Mr. Chifunyise was from Bulawayo and part of the Ndebele tribe. He told me I couldn’t leave Zimbabwe without having experienced the hospitality from his side of the country. He called a teacher friend of his and arranged for me to visit her. I took the bus across the country and arrived in Bulawayo, called my host, but there was no one home. 

Daniel, Mavis Mboto and Ollie – Bulawayo, Zimbabwe 1994

I had lunch, walked around town and tried her again but still no answer. I needed to find a place to stay and noticed in my Zimbabwe travel guidebook there was a National Park nearby and found a public bus heading out that way that afternoon. I assumed there would be a hotel or lodge in the park. I bought a ticket and boarded the bus along with many families heading back to the rural areas after doing their weekend shopping.

The driver dropped me where I pointed to on the map and pulled away. The sun had set and the sky was turning a huge beautiful African twilight blue. I saw a shooting star that lit up the entire sky. I looked around for a lodge or hotel and there was none. I was on “National land” but it wasn’t the park I had imagined. I heard two dogs barking and noticed they were running towards me. They were friendly but I was now alone in the dark with two stray dogs. I wasn’t afraid, just wondered how long it might take for the bus to come back. 

It was then I noticed a light flickering on the other side of the road. I walked across the road and heard voices on the other side of a fence. Several men were sitting around a small fire. I said hello and met Sam, a nice man who was quite surprised to see me. I told him my story. He said the bus was probably not returning that night but workers would be coming back from the rural areas to town and I could catch a ride back that way. Turns out, the park was a national wildlife preserve and Sam and his friends were poacher patrolmen, protecting the Rhinoceros.

As I stood waiting by the road with the dogs by my side, Sam called out to me again. “Nancy, are those your dogs?” As it turned out, Sam the poacher patrolman was afraid of dogs… Anyway, as the story goes he came out to the road and waited with me and the dogs until I caught a ride in a white pick-up truck full of workers heading back to town. I sat in front between the driver and his sidekick. They dropped me in town and I called my host again. This time she answered. “Oh, I’m sorry I wasn’t home when you arrived…where have you been?” All I could say was “I took the wrong bus”

Photographer: ©Paul Brehem

The story of my bus ride out of Bulawayo may sound familiar and it remains one of my favorite traveling adventure stories to date. It is a true story of cultural immersion and hospitality!  Africa keeps calling me and I have plans to return again in 2019 – If you’ve always dreamed of Africa, Don’t Delay, NOW is someday! 


Tulip Mania

A flower journey though Amsterdam … and beyond.

In 1994 as a non-traditional college undergrad, I spent three months in the Netherlands as an InterFuture scholar, conducting cross-cultural research. As academic as this may sound, it morphed into a color infused floral extravaganza, and one that opened my senses to the wonders of the Netherlands.

I arrived in Amsterdam in late January, and while the Dutch do not have as dramatic snowfalls and drastic dips in temperature that we experience here in Northern New England, it was still quite cold and gray. Towards the middle of March though, the sun began to rise a bit higher and the flower markets had more colors and varieties to choose from, especially tulips – buckets and buckets of tulips, in yellow, violet, orange, purple, red… a full kaleidoscope.

Oh, I just love tulips and the Dutch do tulips right!

One spring Saturday afternoon as I was walking across Amsterdam to my Oosterpark apartment, I wandered through the local flower market, one of many sprinkled throughout the neighborhoods of the city. It was closing time and they wouldn’t be opening again until Monday morning. As I cut through the back of the market I noticed a man loading bundles of tulips into a garbage truck. He wasn’t just tossing them in either, but was carefully arranging them as a florist would do.

I remember, they were all the same color, bright red with yellow tips, and neatly bundled in packs of twelve, each pack containing one dozen tulips.

I stopped to ask him what he was doing. He told me that these flowers were already too far along to be sold on Monday. I then asked him if I could have some. He smiled and handed me as many as I could carry, four or five bundles with each bundle containing a dozen dozen blooms, that’s hundreds and hundreds of tulips!

I scurried home, giving tulips away to strangers, a local pub and restaurant, my neighbors, and still was able to fill my apartment with the rest . Remembering the gift of these discarded tulips brings a smile to my face. It remains one of the most spontaneous and joyous days of my life.

If you love flowers and you’ve never been, spring is when you need to visit the Netherlands. While traveling on the train to conduct my research, I sped past a blur of color, fields and fields of flowering tulips.

One morning I took a tour of the Aalsmeer Flower Auction. It is like the New York Stock Exchange, but instead of stocks and bonds, buyers from around Europe attend and trade around 20 million flowers and decorative plants daily. As a visitor to the Aalsmeer flower auction, I was able to witness the flurry of activity from an elevated walkway above the busy warehouse. Once sold, wagons and containers are sorted and sent to the shops, further distribution centers, or for export. Aalsmeer is said to have run short on supply of flowers after the death of Princess Diana, as up to 60 million flowers were scattered throughout London to honor her.

As I was in Holland through the end of April and my birthday is the 26th, I decided to celebrate and wander through the famous Keukenhof Gardens, an international and independent showcase. As I recall it was one of my most fragrant and colorful birthdays to date.

My travels have taken me to many other world-renowned gardens, including Kew Gardens in London, the Summer Palace Gardens in Beijing, and the Kirstenbosch Gardens near Cape Town, South Africa. And then there are my favorites closer to home, including our own Coastal Maine Botanical Garden in Booth Bay, the Montreal Botanical Garden in Quebec, Asticou and Thuyla gardens on Mount Desert Island, and the Crescent Street Garden in Portland.

Should be obvious by now that gardens and flowers bring me joy… I hope this is true for you too. Cheers to you, your garden, and your appreciation of gardens here, there, and everywhere.

Nancy Dorrans is a West End resident and independent travel agent at Adventure Marketplace.

When One Door Closes, Fly To Australia

In 2014, after my traditional travel agent position I had held for twelve years ended, I took a brave step and ventured out as an independent travel counselor, launching Adventure Marketplace.  

I was encouraged by a few colleagues and travel professionals to stay in the travel business and go out on my own.  They said “You have to stay in the travel business, it is in your blood” and “We need you” and “YOU can do it!”   Four years later…I’ve learned a lot and I’m still doing it.

Early that spring, a window opened and I was invited by the rep of one of my preferred tour operators (GAdventures), to join in on their educational journey to the outback of Australia. On the morning of April 24th, I flew from Boston via Toronto, Vancouver and Sydney (a 15+ hour flight) onto Adelaide.

Including all layovers, the journey lasted approximately 35 hours. April 25th disappeared while crossing the time zones and I landed in Adelaide on my birthday, April 26th, making this the longest birthday of my life…close to 36 hours.

Our Awesomestralia experience began in Adelaide, a town originally built as a defense presence; it is now known as the city of churches, a produce mecca and one of the top wine regions in the world!  We enjoyed an amazing welcome dinner and I had a most delicious birthday Paella! 

We headed north the next morning into the “Red Center” of the continent or OUTBACK, traveling through the Clare Valley Wine region enjoying a wine tasting and tour at Seven Hill Winery built by Jesuit priests which is where I spotted my first kangaroo hopping amongst their grape vines. 

Our gallant guide Damian prepared a phenomenal lunch at a public Barbie where he grilled giant prawns, salt/pepper calamari and steamed barramundi which was served along with fresh local fruits and salads.

That evening we arrived at Beltana Ranch; a sheep and cattle ranch run by Laura and Graham!  Travelers are welcome to come and stay for a night or longer and might be put to work if they are willing. We were treated to a feast of roasted lamb, kangaroo, beef, potatoes, veggies, a yummy native peach/coconut dessert and a ranch style bonfire!

As the starting point for expeditions to Western Australia, some of the first camels were imported to S. Australia at Beltana Station which in 1870’s became the largest depot for camels!  Who knew?

Jetlag had me wide awake before dawn and so I took a walk-about the ranch and watched the sunrise. As I breathed in the view of the vast horizon and pastel sky I was surprised by a loud TWANG, then a thump, thump, thump. Again, Twang…thump, thump, thump . I wasn’t afraid, just curious and then it became clear…a kangaroo had jumped over the barbed wire fencing and hit his hind legs on the top wire, creating a sound like that of a base guitar.  He looked at me and then continued along his way, having treated me to this early morning song of the wild Outback. 

From Beltana to Flinders Ranges towards Williams Creek, we worked our way north, stopping for a tromp at Great Salt Lake Eyre and the Bubbler thermal springs. On to Coober Pedy with its underground town, cave hotel and opal mines, a visit to a kangaroo orphanage and rescue/rehab center and then to Uluru or Ayers Rock which is sacred to the Aboriginal Ananu people, is a World Heritage site and home to over 130 bird species and reptiles.  

Leaving the outback, we flew from Uluru to Cairns, the kick off point for adventure tours to the Great Barrier Reef, rainforests and indigenous inland people!

Perhaps I’ll share more details of the rest of my journey from Cairns to Cape Tribulation in another article…for now I’m savoring the memories of this adventure and the song of an Australian Outback kangaroo at dawn that only came my way after one door closed. 

Treasuring Every Moment of 2017

So long 2017. You’ve introduced me some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and taken me to new places only dreamed of. To kick it off, we marched in DC and have since “Marched Forth” for justice and action, locally and beyond. From the winter wonderland of Quebec City’s Carnival to winter fun in Maine and the White Mountains of New Hampshire at Loon Mountain as a volunteer coach for New England Disabled Sports, the crisp winter air and mountains embraced me and my friendships and community grew. In the middle of the long Northern New England winter, Bermuda invited me to experience their colorful, delightful, active tasty island “Beyond the Beach” Back from Bermuda a late season snow storm blanketed Maine as it welcomed and stranded my friend Bill Johnson just back from Cambodia, “a bit too soon” he said after I shoveled him out of his front door in South Portland order to open the front door.

Springtime came early as I headed south for an Easter visit with family and friends at Natural Bridge State Park in Kentucky. A vast variety of wildflowers were in bloom; Trillium (white and red), Dwarf Iris, Blue Phlox, Pennywort, Showy Orchids, Wild Geraniums, and many others. A late April spring Adventure Marketplace weekend tour to New York City, gave a small group from Southern Maine Health Care the opportunity to kick up their heels for Kinky Boots on Broadway.

If April brings wildflowers and Kinky Boots, May brought birthdays, house music concerts and another small Adventure Marketplace group to Africa to experience the wonder and contrast of Namibia and Botswana. Our journey began in Namibia with stunning desert landscapes, and the towering sand dunes at Sossusvlei. From there heading westward through canyon passes we spent two days along the Namibian Coast. As the road stretched far into the horizon, we drove across the vast lands to Etosha National park and encountered many species of wild animals roaming freely. Entering Botswana offered us the opportunity to interact with the Koi San Bush people and spend two nights camping in the Kalahari bush. More game drives, an Okavango Delta scenic flight, a sunset cruise on the magnificent Chobe River left us longing for more. The journey gave me and my six travel companions an unforgettable experience… from the herds of elephants to the beautiful people, the African country of Botswana offered so much wonder as it celebrated 50 years of proud independence.

I’m sure we all understand the beauty of Maine in June, July and August and much of my summer was spent enjoying the local natural su

rroundings, tending to my community garden on Crescent Street and enjoying the colorful and delicious bounty of our efforts. Mix in some quality outdoor adventure time at friends’ camps, the Tall Ships in Casco Bay, camping at Thomas Point Beach, the new rooftop at Bayside Bowl, The North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, hosting Warmshower biking guests and hearing tales of their rides across continents and a week on Star Island off the coast of Portsmouth all left me feeling blessed.

Autumn began with an Adventure Marketplace small group tour (off the beaten path) Icelandic journey in early September in search of Iceland’s “hidden people”. A seemingly endless vastness of glaciers, mountains, whales and hot springs, the Icelandic land is rich in history, outlaws, mystery, sheep, horses, beauty and intrigue.

Back to New England, I embraced the colors, foliage and flavors of New England with hikes in the Whites, a weekend retreat at Baxter State Park and into Grand Falls hut with a hearty group of MOACers (Maine Outdoor Adventure Club). Guests from away, an invitation to Colombia (see last month’s story for more on the emerging South American country), another jaunt to NYC during the Hap-happiest time of the year to see the high kicking Rockettes, an early Christmas in Ohio and Michigan with my family and extensive family extensions and again I’m blessed.

Now as I reflect, 2017 has been quite a year and did I say I am grateful, and blessed. The year has been full of adventure and also full of emotions… I have cried for those I know and love that are sick and recently departed. I’m praying for peace, strength and like Carole King I’m going to do my best to “wake up every morning, put a smile on my face and show the world…all the love in my heart”

Happy New Year – Take good care of yourselves and Treasure every moment.

Back to Biking Basics

Nancy Dorrans

There’s a sense of freedom and control that wraps around me as I pump up my tires, don my helmet and head out and off the Portland peninsula on my bicycle. I don’t ride to race. I don’t ride in a pack. Sometimes, I ride with friends, but often it is just me and my bike.

My “go-to” ride is from my West End condo on High Street, over the bridge to South Portland, down and off the Eastern Trail through Wainwright Fields to Highland Avenue. Then left on Pleasant Hill Road, and right on Route 77 to Higgins Beach. The total trek is about eighteen miles round trip, or twenty miles if I return via Crescent Beach State Park. This ride never gets old or redundant. As I visit the ocean, I take a deep breath and feel grateful to live here with this ride at my back door! Continue reading…

Nancy did a fantastic job with all the arrangements for our chorus trip to NYC, from lodging to transportation to arranging our tours.Thanks for helping make our trip to sing at Carnegie Hall an even more memorable experience!

- Cathy Conroy

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