Ahhh. Can't you just feel the cool autumn breezes blowing in? No? Too soon? Well, close your eyes and use your imagination. Some creatures have already begun their annual trek to their wintering grounds for milder weather, fine shelter and ample food. One such migrant should actually be passing through our area any time. In fact, a few scouts may have already made an appearance in your garden. The monarchs are on their way. Peak spotting time should be between Sept. 19 and Oct. 1.

These hearty travelers have been known to fly more than 200 miles in one day on their way to Mexico. They have spent their summer where the flowers and milkweed are abundant the adults foraging on nectar and their larvae on the toxic milkweed. The latter affords them a wonderful defense mechanism against many predators, as they store that toxin in their cuticle or skin causing many would-be consumers to become ill.

A combination of change in day length, temperature and possibly the maturity of the plants the butterflies are eating signals that it is time to migrate. They will use the position of the sun to keep them heading south, but beyond that, we simply do not know how they know where to go. They do not learn their routes, especially since many of them hatched during the summer and have never made the trip before.

During their travels, monarchs will stop to rest in trees near reliable food sources. They will often hang from branches in large groups for protection from extreme temperatures, predators and precipitation. The entire trip will take approximately two months. They are able to accomplish this by being extremely efficient fliers. Like many birds, they will take advantage of air currents and soar as much as possible. This takes less energy, since they do not have to flap their wings as much. They also will avoid flying into the wind and select altitudes where the wind is in a favorable direction. Lastly, they store up a lot of energy from the food they eat to carry them through these long trips.

These amazing little creatures are a delight each year, but like so many others of their kind, they, too, are encountering troubled times. Last winter, monarchs covered only about a quarter of their typical wintering grounds in Mexico. This population decrease was exacerbated further by catastrophic landslides and flooding in the region. It is estimated that only half of the normal population survived to make the journey north for the summer. In addition, the species has seen a dramatic drop in females who now only make up about 43 percent of the population. This can have long-term negative impacts on the species' future. Fortunately, the summer in North America was fairly kind to these little soldiers, resulting in a population increase of almost 15 percent.

Unforeseen population fluctuations may be beyond our control, but there is much we can do to preserve the monarch's migration route and final destination, so that they may more easily survive unexpected natural disasters like those in Mexico last year. Making sure their summer and winter forest and mountain habitats remain free of pesticides and human encroachment is a great start. Providing them a safe place to stop along the way is something simple we can do in our own backyards. Flowers for nectar, trees and shrubs for hiding, and a reliable water source are easy things we can provide. Then just sit back and enjoy their beauty as they flutter through the garden.

There's still much to be learned and appreciated about monarchs and their ecology, and you can play a critical role in uncovering some of their secrets. Monarch Watch is a national organization right here in Kansas that studies butterflies by sending tagging kits to anyone interested in helping the cause. The process is fairly simple and involves placing a small tag on monarchs, so that scientists along their migration route can track their progress. If you'd like to learn more about becoming involved, check out their website at http://monarchwatch.org/tagging. They are also hosting a number of monarch-watching open houses around the state. You can get dates and locations from their website as well.

Keep an eye out for these little beauties in your backyard, or better yet, stop by the zoo. You might find a couple of travelers among our lovely plants and flowers. Are you feeling cooler now?