They started fluttering from the trees toward the ground like leaves.
Then Betsy Yankowiak realized what she was seeing — hundreds of monarch butterflies drifting down and over the heads of the field trip group she was leading as the insects winged their way to the Eagle Marsh prairie in search of breakfast.
That was fall 2010. Now North America's monarch butterfly population faces an uncertain future. You can help their fight for survival by planting native vegetation during the Earth Day Fort Wayne event Sunday at Eagle Marsh on Engle Road.
Monarch butterflies are amazing creatures, said Yankowiak, director of preserves and programs for the Little River Wetlands Project, which manages Eagle Marsh.
Each fall, they fly from as far north as Canada to 13 wintering sites in Mexico, she said. Amazingly, none of the monarchs has ever made the trip before because all have been born during the spring and summer.
Those coming from farther north often stop to rest and feed on the nectar of wildflowers at Eagle Marsh, the 716-acre wetland and wooded preserve on the southwest side of Fort Wayne, Yankowiak said.
The butterflies that make it to Mexico roost only in oyamel trees at the wintering sites, she said. Logging at some of those sites has drastically reduced the habitat the butterflies need to winter there.
Monarchs also are struggling to recover from the severe drought in 2011 in Texas, she said.
Their caterpillars eat only the leaves of milkweed plants, Yankowiak said. Normally, adult monarchs mate and the female flies as far as 200 miles north to lay her eggs on milkweed plants. The insects grow from newly laid eggs to adults within about a month.
As each new generation reaches adulthood and mates, the females push farther north, following the new growth of milkweed plants into Canada, Yankowiak said. The lack of milkweed plants in Texas during the 2011 drought stifled the monarch population as it tried to move north.
Little River Wetlands Project has tried to help monarchs by planting common milkweed, swamp milkweed and butterfly bush to complement the whorled milkweed already growing naturally throughout Eagle Marsh, she said.
On Sunday, visitors to the Earth Day event can help install 800 native plants — in 14 species, including common milkweed — to provide more habitat for monarchs, their caterpillars and other wildlife.
And when you get ready to work on your landscaping this spring, think of using native plants there, too, Yankowiak suggested. Most blend right into an existing landscape, and they offer the most nutritious food to insects, birds and other creatures native to this area.