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From time to time the monarch migration and associated conservation issues are covered in the national media, via articles in newspapers, magazines, and short clips on TV news programs. Overall, the coverage of the monarch story has been spotty bits and pieces, and Americans have not been exposed to an in-depth treatment of the amazing monarch migration, nor the people and cultures that encounter monarchs on their yearly north and south passage across the continent. This is about to change. NOVA’s “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies“ will be aired on PBS at 8PM (check local listings) Tuesday, 27 January 2009.
This program is an edited version of “Four Wings and a Prayer” – a Canadian/French film production based loosely on the fine book of the same name by Sue Halpern (get your copy of Four Wings and a Prayer at the Monarch Watch Shop). In the book, published in 2001, Sue Halpern recounts following the fall monarch migration to Mexico. As part of the story she spoke with scientists, butterfly specialists, and others who have a passionate attachment to monarch butterflies. The wonders and mysteries of the monarch migration are told in Sue’s words and in the words of those she interviewed. It is a fascinating first person account – a combination of natural history, travel, and human interest. The movie version of Four Wings lacks the first person perspective and concentrates on telling the story of the migration. Scientists and others are interviewed along the way but the movie format doesn’t allow for an in-depth study of how people interact with monarchs. And, it shouldn’t. There is a migration story to be told, and it is told well in this production. The original Four Wings (80 mins) was edited to create a production that would fit within the NOVA format. It will be interesting to see what has been retained in the NOVA version and what was removed. There were many striking images and sequences in the original production and the shots taken of the overwintering clusters are the best I’ve seen. Several sequences, which I’m sure will be retained in the NOVA production, are vertical tracking shots that pan from the bottom to the top of trees covered with monarchs. If you ever doubted that there are as many as 25 million butterflies per acre at the overwintering sites, you won’t after you see these images. The original production was narrated by Kristin Scott-Thomas (The English Patient), however the voice in the new version is that of Stockard Channing (The West Wing). The original narration contained a few errors; the new narration was fact checked extensively and should be more accurate.
In one way or another I’ve been involved with most of the monarch video productions made over the last 14 years, but I have a personal connection to this film like no other. The Four Wings producer, Nick de Pencier, and the film crew timed their visit to Lawrence to coincide with the public tagging scheduled at the Baker-Haskell Wetlands on Saturday, 11 September 2004. The film crew arrived on Thursday afternoon and, after chatting for an hour or more in the lab, we filmed a few shots in our garden and then headed for the wetlands. The objective was to show the crew sites where monarchs often form clusters at the end of the day. Monarchs were few and there were no clusters but nice round sticks, unnoticed by me, were scattered on the ground and I slipped on one and broke my ankle. Just like that! It was off to the emergency room where I acquired a temporary cast. An operation was obviously required but couldn’t be scheduled until Monday. This situation immediately raised many questions about whether we would be able to continue the filming, especially shooting the interview. There was some pain, so drugs were required and it wasn’t clear whether I would be lucid. Nevertheless, in the spirit of “the show must go on” – and another show business adage “break a leg” which I had managed to do quite literally – the film crew took me back to the location of the accident, propped me up in a chair, and filmed the interview. I was talkative but I have no idea whether I made any sense or said too much or too little. Anyway, if any of this interview was retained in Incredible Journey, please keep in mind that I wasn’t in my right mind at the time. I think of Four Wings often – every time the weather changes, and often when descending stairs, my right ankle reminds me of that production.
There is one more note. Most of the footage for this production was obtained in the fall of 2004 and the winter of 2004-2005. As you may recall, the fall migration was the smallest we’ve recorded at Monarch Watch. The overwintering population measured by the authorities in Mexico was the lowest (2.19 hectares) since official measurement began in 1992 and lower than any of the unofficial measurements made by Lincoln Brower and his teams going back into the late 70s. In spite of the relative dearth of monarchs, the film crews were able to obtain some spectacular footage.
Though monarchs have bounced back a bit from the low in 2004, the numbers of monarchs in this decade at the overwintering sites are averaging about 60% of the numbers recorded in the 1990s. We are concerned about these lower numbers and loss of habitat certainly could be a factor. Each year in the United States we lose 2.2 million acres of habitat for wildlife to development or 8.8 million acres since the filming of Four Wings. In 2006 we initiated the Monarch Waystation Program with the objective of creating monarch habitat by planting milkweeds and nectar sources, garden-by-garden, plot-by-plot, in an attempt to offset some of this habitat loss. Our view is that we need a better effort in the United States to protect monarchs, pollinators, and all other wildlife on all private and public lands. It’s not difficult or costly to protect the wildlife we all enjoy or upon which we depend, as is the case with pollinators. If you are not familiar with the Monarch Waystation Program or the need to protect monarch habitats and how to do it, please visit – www.MonarchWatch.org/waystations/.
For more information on “The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies” please visit the program’s page on NOVA’s website, where you can view a preview and read more about the production. Again, the time of the program is 8PM (check local listings) on Tuesday, 27 January 2009. If you are a fan of American Idol or other shows in this time slot, be sure to set your VCR or DVR to record this program.
Don’t worry if you miss it on TV – we will be offering the “Incredible Journey of the Butterflies” DVD via the Monarch Watch Shop, where each purchase helps support our program. The DVD is due to be released in April.