In the sculpture gardens behind the Aigantighe Art Gallery in Timaru, about a half-kilometre inland from Caroline Bay, there’s what’s becoming an annual autumn treat: a mass gathering of monarch butterflies.
For the last five years, as the weather cools, they have come flocking from all around and congregate on the needles of a couple of cedar trees in the gardens.
They make a splendid sight as they flutter through the air in large numbers, or rest on the trees like belated and animated Christmas decorations, slowly flapping their striking orange and black wings.
They overwinter here, dormant through the cold months, until the weather warms up enough for them to mate and go searching for swan plants to lay their eggs on. The butterflies got off to a slow start this past summer, but appear to have made up for it and from January onwards have been seen in good numbers in gardens all around the country.
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Because it saves having to travel all the way to Mexico. There, the butterflies have gathered for many years in their millions, migrating all the way from Canada and the US to spend the northern winter in a six-hectare World Heritage Biosphere Reserve up in the mountains. The gathering in Timaru is very much smaller, but infinitely more convenient – plus, when even one monarch butterfly gliding through your garden will draw your attention and give your heart a lift, how much more joy is there in seeing hundreds all at once?
If you’re panicking a bit about asking directions to the Aigantighe, it’s pronounced “egg and tie”. It’s Scottish Gaelic and means “at home”.
ON THE WAY/NEARBY
If you can drag your eyes away from the butterflies in their favourite cedar trees, you’ll see that you are surrounded by sculptures: 25 of them scattered around a hectare of manicured gardens, many of them carved from fine white stone. And then there is the art gallery itself, with constantly changing exhibitions in the modern-wing, supplementing its collection of works by artists, including Frances Hodgson and Colin McCahon. They also have Horace Moore-Jones’s famous Simpson and his Donkey from Gallipoli. Unfortunately, the Historic House Gallery is currently closed for earthquake-resilience testing, but it’s still worth admiring this fine, heritage 1908 Edwardian building from the outside. For more natural beauty, go and enjoy Caroline Bay – and watch out for little blue penguins while you’re there.
The sculpture gardens and the art gallery are both free to enter. The gallery is closed on Mondays and public holidays.
BEST TIME TO GO
The butterflies begin to roost as the weather cools and can usually be seen gathering to roost in the cedar trees from April onwards, so they’re there now. On sunny days, they are active and you’ll see the bright orange of their wings as they float around in search of a snack but, if it’s dull and grey, they save energy and sit still with their wings shut.