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Researchers are still investigating what directional aids monarchs use to find their overwintering location. It appears to be a combination of directional aids such as the magnetic pull of the earth and the position of the sun among others, not one in particular.

Monarchs cluster together to stay warm. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster on a single tree. Although monarchs alone weigh less than a gram, tens of thousands of them weigh a lot. Oyamel trees are generally able to support the clustering butterflies, but sometimes branches break.

Conservation of overwintering habitat is very important to the survival of monarchs. The Mexican Government recognized the importance of oyamel forests to monarch butterflies and created the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in 1986.

Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve

Monarchs living west of the Rocky Mountain range in North America overwinter in California along the Pacific coast near Santa Cruz and San Diego. Here microclimatic conditions are very similar to that in central Mexico. Monarchs roost in eucalyptus, Monterey pines, and Monterey cypresses in California.

Eastern North American monarchs fly south using several flyways then merge into a single flyway in Central Texas. It is truly amazing that these monarchs know the way to the overwintering sites even though this migrating generation has never before been to Mexico!

Monarch Butterfly Fall Migration Patterns. Base map source: USGS National Atlas.

Monarchs only travel during the day and need to find a roost at night. Monarchs gather close together during the cool autumn evenings. Roost sites are important to the monarch migration. Many of these locations are used year after year. Often pine, fir and cedar trees are chosen for roosting. These trees have thick canopies that moderate the temperature and humidity at the roost site. In the mornings, monarchs bask in the sunlight to warm themselves.

Monarchs at sunrise on wild black cherry () tree roost. Photo by Denise Gibbs.

Monarchs basking at sunrise before taking flight from a bayberry () thicket roost site. Photo by Denise Gibbs.

Monarchs traveling south congregate on peninsulas. The shape of the peninsula funnels the migrating butterflies. At its tip, the monarchs find the shortest distance across open water. They congregate along the shore to wait for a gentle breeze to help them across.

Monarchs bask just after sunrise on a groundsel-tree () where they roosted for the night, at the edge of Oyster Bay. Photo by Denise Gibbs.

Photo by Dick Walton, Earth Ennis Earthies sK0khvRyo
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As warm temperatures and lengthening days arrive, the migratory generation of monarchs finishes the development they halted prior to their migration. They become reproductive, breed and lay the eggs of the new generation. This starts the northern journey back to North America. Unlike the generation before them, who made a one-generation journey south, successive generations make the journey north.

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