After I stood by the lighthouse at Point Reyes, Calif., last month, watching the awesome and beautiful sight of grey whales passing by very close to shore on their journey north, I was inspired to wonder about the migratory habits of these and other creatures. Here’s what I discovered!
1. Grey Whales
The California grey whale (seen above) engages in the longest migration of any mammal, swimming 10,000 miles each year, spending about one third of its life migrating from the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Alaska, to the warm, shallow lagoons of Baja California, and back again.
In the early winter, the whales move south to breed in the warm, shallow lagoons along the Mexican coast. The most popular breeding lagoons are San Ignacio lagoon, Scammon’s lagoon, and Magdalena Bay, on the Pacific coast of Baja California, Mexico. Around February, the whales migrate north to feed in Arctic waters (western Beaufort Sea and Bering Sea), northwest of Alaska. Incredible!
Shorebirds make some of the farthest migratory trips. The delicate sanderling, a midsize sandpiper, circumnavigates the entire American continent. Starting in California, each year the bird flies east across the top of North America and down the Atlantic Coast in the fall to wintering grounds in Chile and Peru, then back north in the spring through the western United States to its arctic breeding grounds. Somehow, they find their way to and from their breeding grounds — the same trip every year. Wow!
3. Monarch Butterflies
The annual monarch butterfly migration might just be the most colorful migration in the natural world. The monarch migration spans about 4,349 miles and occasionally crosses the Atlantic Ocean. It is a spectacular thing to witness.
I was privileged to experience this migration a few years ago when my son and I drove from Los Angeles to Pismo Beach, Calif., where each year thousands of vibrant orange and black Monarch Butterflies flock, seeking shelter from the freezing northern winters. From late October to February, the butterflies cluster in the limbs of a grove of eucalyptus trees at Pismo State Beach.
As we rounded a corner on Highway 1, just south of Pismo Beach, we could see the amazing spectacle of thousands of butterflies festooned all over the eucalyptus trees. It was breathtaking. We learned that there were around 25,000 butterflies gathered in the grove of trees. The Monarchs that visit Pismo Beach are a special variety. They have a life span of six months as opposed to that of common Monarchs who live only six weeks. However, even with an extended life span, those butterflies that leave in March will never return.
The life span of the salmon is indeed a wonder.
Salmon spend their early life in rivers, and then swim out to sea where they live their adult lives and gain most of their body mass. When they have matured, they return to the rivers to spawn. Usually they return with uncanny precision to the natal river where they were born, and even to the very spawning ground of their birth. It is thought that, once close to the river, that they use their sense of smell to home in on the river entrance and even their natal spawning ground. Incredible!
Perhaps the most spectacular animal migration is the journey of Africa’s wildebeest herds, which travel annually by the millions in search of greener pastures. Nowhere in the world is there a movement of animals as immense as the wildebeest migration, since over two million animals migrate from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya from July through October.
The wildebeest do not travel alone. As many as 200,000 zebra and 500,000 gazelles also make the journey, followed by some of the savanna’s top predators. The migration is one of nature’s grandest spectacles, as the herds cross crocodile-infested rivers while lions prowl in the tall grass nearby.
Africa’s vast savanna could not exist without the migration, and maintaining these habitat corridors is essential to the survival of this area and its creatures.
More proof of just how awesome nature is!
Photo Credit (all images): Thinkstock