Monarch Watch Blog

On TV: The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

Thursday, January 15th, 2009 at 1:07 pm by Chip Taylor
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NOVA's The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies

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 –

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.

  1. 12 Responses to “On TV: The Incredible Journey of the Butterflies”

  2. By Tom Yearsley on Jan 19, 2009

    It will be interesting to see how the edits came out, I was there that day after the rains, with my 2 children (then 9 and 6 years old)….the crew filmed them extensively as we tried fruitlessly to find monarchs in the wetlands. It was a tough day of hunting.

  3. By Yvonne Coil on Jan 20, 2009

    I raise Monarch’s in my flower garden.I have 5 butterfly bushesBut I have a lot of milkweed also.I’m interested in different kinds of milkweed.
    I raise Monarchs & tag them every year.I never hear from you if they make it to Mexico,and are found or not.Butterflies are so wonderful.
    I have a Monarch Way Station Watch Sign in my yard.Yvonne

  4. By Brooke on Jan 24, 2009

    Thank you so much for alerting us to this program. As the retired director of The Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, I have tried to connect the survival of Monarchs to the native milkweeds – it’s one of the best ways to get people to see the importance of preserving native plants. And, on my own, inspired by a local woman who raises and releases Monarchs, I find and raise my own and release into the wild each year. I don’t tag, due to the difficulty affixing the tags (I’m such a wimp) but may get the courage to do so this year.

  5. By Juanita B. Estrada on Jan 26, 2009

    I’ve studied Monarchs for 12 years already. I’ve followed their migration with my students every year through an academic exchange program with Mexican schools called “Vida en Movimiento” (Life in movement). I’ve been in the sanctuaries, “El Rosario” and “Sierra Chincua”, and no matter how many times I witness this spectacle, it is always like the first time. It is an incredible phenomenon!!!

  6. By Sharon McCullough on Jan 26, 2009

    I am currrently reading 4 Wings and a Prayer. I am looking forward to viewing this program. I will be going to Michoacan next month for a 2nd time to visit 3 Monarch overwintering preserves. While I am in Mexico my 7th grade students will be able to view this video. We have been participating in tagging and OE parasite sampling for UGA. My students also participate in the Journey North symbolic migration. Monarchs and other butterflies are an important part of our life science classes.

  7. By SALLY w. wILLET on Jan 27, 2009


  8. By Dottie Carter on Jan 28, 2009

    Sally – according to the opening credits, Stockard Channing was the narrator…………The program was amazing!

  9. By Dick Heil on Jan 28, 2009

    This was a beautiful program. The loss of habitat in Mexico was documented but not the loss of habitat in the United States and Canada. The importance of milkweed was never mentioned. P. S. Dr. Taylor, you did a fine job with no evidence of painkillers hindering your performance.

  10. By Jim Hawley on Jan 29, 2009

    Watched the program on Nova. Was curious about an apparent contradiction in the description of the generational migration cycle. It is stated that it is a four generation cycle, but then the program describes a cycle that only includes three generations
    1. ( Canada-Mexico-Texas)
    2. ( Texas – upper midwest )
    3. ( upprt midwest – Canada )
    Then the cycle repeats.
    Whether it is three or four generations to the cycle, it is still an amazing story. I’m just curious as to which is the correct number of generations. The program referred several times to the “special fourth generation” when it seems that the long-lived long-migration group occurs every third generation.

  11. By Julia Burgen on Jan 30, 2009

    The Nova program was beautiful. I am so grateful that it ran and I emailed over 100 people to tell them about the show. I just hope there is a sequel as the importance of plant/habitat preservation in the U.S. is critical. Weeds have a bad name, hence milkweed doesn’t sound like something the neatniks will ever think of planting much less preserving. I wished for more info on what individuals and family units can do. I would love to have seen some of the mass resting places that I have read about on the Journey North logs, as in Oklahoma, near West Texas; and then emphasis on the Monarch Watch website and activities and the Journey North project. I find the Journey North tracking system to be fascinating and a wonderful educational tool. I would love to have seen pictures of students in schools in the U.S. that are involved in this as a means to inspire some more schools and teachers. The tremendous opportunity for cross-cultural activities with both languages is ripe for establishment in school systems. I am sure that it is happening in smaller schools, private schools and any innovative, creative public schools. But I fear the inertia in most public schools is almost insurmountable.

    The precarious plight of this magnificent species needs the active effort of thousands of people.

  12. By Shirley Weismann on Jan 31, 2009

    I raise and release Monarchs and am registered as a Monarch Waystation. I saw the Incredible Journey of the Buttterflies and I have a question.
    Do the Monarchs that hatch in Sept. here in Illinois join the migration to Mexico? I saw them gathering and take off but I couldn’t tell which way they went.

  13. By Sharon McCullough on Mar 8, 2009

    I did not go back an listen to the video again, but I think the 4 part cycle was referring to the complete metamorphic life cycle of egg, larva, pupa, adult that the butterfly goes through. And then the fact that it is the 3rd or 4th generation that returns to Mexico in November and not the adult that left the previous March.

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