Fall is prime season for football, pumpkins and one thing that doesn't immediately leap to most people's minds: Monarch butterflies.
"We are in their peak migration period - until about Oct. 11," says Gail Morris, an expert butterfly watcher with Southwest Monarch Study, a group collecting data on Monarchs spotted in Arizona. "The midpoint is Oct. 7, but it's like a marathon: A few pull ahead to be the front-runners, then the main pack pushes through, and then there are the stragglers."
Thankfully, butterfly enthusiasts don't have to camp out like roadside waterboys to spot the orange and black insects bespotted with white polka-dots. You can see them, by the hundreds, inside a screened pavilion at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.
At the exhibit, called Mariposa Monarcha, adult butterflies measuring about 3 inches from wingtip to wingtip flutter in the air, draw nectar from bright flowers and hang en masse from a canopy of mesquite leaves.
"They're a really unique butterfly. They migrate, and a lot of other butterflies don't. They make a monumental trip, some of them going from the Northeast to central Mexico. That's 2,000 to 3,000 miles," says Cristin Kracht, manager of the exhibit. "Plus, they're large. People don't expect them to be as big as they are."
Some of the butterflies will live out their days in the exhibit, giving people a chance to view them up close, take photographs and learn about their habits. Others, which arrive once a week in chilled boxes from a California butterfly farm, are tagged and released by visitors with the help of Morris' group.
"Their tags have a spot of pink nail polish on them to indicate they were tagged here," says Morris, who was inside the exhibit on Thursday morning, helping visitors interpret butterfly behavior like flashing wings and shivering. "A couple of years ago, butterflies tagged here were sighted in central Mexico."
Sightings are important, says Kracht, because not a lot is known about the migration of Monarchs in the Southwest.
"The big question is why they're here and where they're going," she says.
Sighting data could help conservationists better protect butterfly habitats crucial to the insects' survival. The Southwest Monarch Study shows visitors how to tag and release Monarchs each Thursday afternoon. Tagging sessions require a reservation; make it by calling (480) 481-8128 or e-mailing email@example.com, and give your name, phone number, tagging date and the number of people in your party.
The butterfly pavilion is open until Nov. 15, after which the remaining Monarchs will live out the rest of their natural lives undisturbed inside the structure. In the spring, the pavilion will reopen with a "Butterflies of North America" exhibit. It will showcase about 15 different species of live butterflies.