The Monarch Monitoring Project is a long-term study on monarch migration through Cape May, NJ. It is a part of the New Jersey Audubon Research Department, and closely affiliated with the Cape May Bird Observatory.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ten more Cape May monarchs recovered in Mexico

Exciting news arrived this week, as the folks from Monarch Watch (you can see their website here) published details about the monarch tags recovered in Mexico this year.  Ten that were tagged in Cape May County by staff and volunteers of the Monarch Monitoring Project were among the hundreds of tags recovered.  The earliest was tagged on Sept. 8, the latest on Oct. 19, and six of the ten were tagged during the last 10 days of September.  Here are the specific data:

XGT 908, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/8/17
XGS 152, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/11/17
XGT 063, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/21/17
XGY 204, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/22/17
XGY 220, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/23/17
XGS 313, tagged in Cape May Point on 9/23/17
XGR 770, tagged in Stone Harbor on 9/28/17
XGU 904, tagged in Cape May City on 9/30/17
XGU 134, tagged in Cape May Point on 10/10/2017
XGS 711, tagged in Cape May Point on 10/19/17

Like most monarch researchers east of the Rocky Mountains, we use tags issued by the Monarch Watch program, which operates out of the University of Kansas.  Many readers of this blog are familiar with the tagging and have seen our tagging demonstrations in Cape May Point each autumn, but we'll supply a bit of information for those who might not know.  The tags (shown above) are small, adhesive disks that we apply to the central area of the underside of a monarch hindwing.  The process is quick, painless, and doesn't change the flight of the butterfly.  The last line on the tag is a unique code that is never repeated -- in recent years the codes consist of three letters followed by three numbers, XGU 774 in the example above.  The other lines list an e-mail address (TAG@KU.EDU), the project name "Monarch Watch" in red, and a toll-free phone number (1-888-TAGGING).  If you ever see a monarch bearing a tag, try to read the code on that last line (enlarged digital photos can often reveal the tag code) and report the tag number, location, date and time to Monarch Watch either with a phone call or an e-mail message.

More than 5,000 monarchs were tagged in Cape May County by the Monarch Monitoring Project team last fall, so 10 of these butterflies found in Mexico might not seem like very many.  But take a look at the photo at left, from late February at the Cerro Pelón Monarch Sanctuary in Mexico.  It's impossible to pick out a tagged monarch from these massive aggregations.  Most of the tag recoveries from Mexico are from monarchs that perish during the winter months.  Even in good years it's estimated that perhaps as many as 10% of the monarchs don't make it through the prolonged period of winter dormancy.  The guides who lead tourists at the Mexican Sanctuaries search for monarch wings bearing tags on the forest floor, and are given a small monetary reward for each tag that they find.  We believe that the vast majority of tagged monarchs that winter in Mexico are never noticed, and that each recovered tag represents many more that made the trek.

Our 2018 field season will begin during the last week of August, when we will be training our interns.  Censuses and tagging begin on September 1, and continue through at least October 31.  We are accepting applications for our two intern positions, send an e-mail message to for the job description and application procedures.

2017 Interns Rebecca Zerlin and Stephanie Augustine
educate members of the public at a tagging demonstration.

We are in the midst of our annual fundraising effort, hoping to achieve our goals so that we can purchase tags, print brochures, and cover the salaries and expenses of our two interns.  The "CMBO Monarchists" team competing in the World Series of Birding hopes to raise the $12,000 needed for our project budget.  We're a little more than halfway to our goal.  If you'd like to support our work, please see the details here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Help Monarchs in Cape May and in Mexico

Today we are asking you to consider two fundraising efforts for projects that help monarch butterflies.  Here in Cape May, NJ, a team called the "CMBO Monarchists" is preparing to compete in the World Series of Birding.  Every team in this friendly bird-finding competition raises funds for a conservation cause, and the CMBO Monarchists raise money for the Monarch Monitoring Project.  This event has become the project's major source of funds, accounting for more than half of the MMP's modest annual budget.  You can make contributions online here:

The CMBO Monarchists travel only by foot and bicycle during
the World Series of Birding.  Here the team listens for migrating
birds during the pre-dawn hours.

Down in Mexico, a group is raising money to hire an arborist to help protect the forest at Cerro Pelón, one of the few places in the mountains of Mexico where our monarch butterflies spend the winter.  Here's where you can make a contribution to this important project:

Monarch butterflies in the forest at Cerro Pelón, Mexico

Friday, March 23, 2018

Visiting the Mexican Monarch Sanctuaries

Whenever we talk about monarch butterfly conservation, we suggest that folks visit Mexico to see the areas where monarchs gather in huge numbers to wait out the northern winter.  This year, in cooperation with our parent organization, New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory, we led a small group tour to Mexico, visiting three of the sanctuaries where monarchs are found from late October through mid-March.

Monarchs at the El Rosario Monarch Sanctuary

We enjoyed excellent weather and were completely overwhelmed by the spectacles, millions of monarchs draping the trees and shrubs, drinking from puddles and from wet grass, and at time filling the sky with a blizzard of orange and black.  You can read a full report from the trip on the NJ Audubon Eco-Travel web page here:, or see a more extensive photo gallery here:

Cerro Pelón Monarch Sanctuary
I think everyone was thrilled with the experience.  How did our visit support conservation?  It's the basic premise of ecotourism.  When communities surrounding the monarch sanctuaries gain economic benefit from the spending of tourists coming to see the monarchs, they're likely to work for the preservation of the forest habitat that the monarchs require.  We spent money at hotels, restaurants, gift shops, and with local guides at each of the sanctuaries, plus the people who tend the horses that many of us rode to reach the high mountain areas where the monarchs occur.

It's a win-win.  We are amazed to see millions of monarchs in such a small area, knowing that every one started its life in the US and Canada and made an epic migratory journey.  The local people are equally delighted, and their lives are enriched by both the presence of the butterflies and the money spent by visiting ecotourists.  We hope to offer more visits to the Mexican monarch sanctuaries in the coming years.

Many businesses sport monarch decorations

Images of monarchs are seen everywhere in this region

Butterfly decorations in the sidewalk in the town of Angangueo

The monarch sanctuaries bring many economic benefits to the region
Young Mexicans delight in the butterflies, just as visitors do.

Monarchs clustered at Cerro Pelón

Friday, November 10, 2017

End of season

It's about 11 pm on the evening of Nov. 10, and our prolonged monarch migration season is certainly ending tonight, as the temperature in Cape May has reached 29 and the predicted low is 25.  We'll hope that many of the monarchs that were still lingering at the Point yesterday will have moved on, heading south to Mexico.

It had been a good monarch migration season through late October, when the migration generally finishes up.  Much to our surprise, many monarchs arrived in Cape May during the last few days of October, with the roost shown above, along the St. Peter's dune crossover, numbering over a thousand monarchs on the night of October 31.

Many monarchs crossed Delaware Bay on Nov. 1, but we continued to see a few monarchs around Cape May Point right up to the 9th, when we managed to tag over 40.  Will monarchs lingering this late make it to Mexico?  We really don't know, so that's why we continue to tag.  If one of these late monarchs makes it to Mexico and the tag is found, we will then be able to answer that question.

Our team is assembling the season's census and tagging data, and in a few weeks we will offer a retrospective on the season.  But before that, we want to say thanks to all of our volunteers, thanks to our seasonal naturalists Stephanie Augustine and Rebecca Zerlin, thanks to the 2000+ visitors who attended our programs this fall (and the countless others we met with informally), thanks to all who have made contributions to support our work, and thanks to all who have made some effort to support and protect monarchs and their habitat, and to those who have educated others about the biology of these remarkable little insects.

One of the last monarchs tagged at Cape May Point in 2017.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lots of monarchs

A very big movement of monarchs is being reported from Cape May Point this afternoon, more details after further investigation.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Monarchs in the rain

Monarchs were again seen in good numbers around Cape May Point on Saturday, roosting again at the same areas where they were seen on Friday night.  Rain arrived on Sunday morning before the monarchs had left the roost, and we had a lot of rain all day long, so the monarchs never left the roosts.  Every once in a while we saw one or two flying around, as if to test the air, only to settle back in.

We took these photos in the late afternoon.  Water was dripping off some of the monarchs, and most were completely motionless.  It's amazing that these butterflies are well adapted to withstand a rainy day, with raindrops beading up at the tip of the wing before dropping off.

Monday's forecast calls for rain ending around sunrise, followed by strong west winds at 20 to 25 mph, with high temperature in the mid-50s.  We doubt that the monarchs will head out across Delaware Bay in those winds, so we expect them to leave the roost once they begin to dry out and then search for nectar.

If you're coming to Cape May in search of monarchs on Monday, we suggest visiting areas where some flowers are still in bloom, especially areas that are out of the strongest winds.  There may be monarchs in sheltered pockets of seaside goldenrod near the beach, but we're guessing the more monarchs will be in the flower gardens scattered around Cape May Point.

Tuesday's forecast calls for northwest winds at 10 to 15 miles an hour, and if that forecast holds, we could watch our monarchs departing for Delaware.

We don't know if more monarchs are on their way to Cape May; we have seen recent reports of monarchs to our north, so there may still be some to arrive.  Last year we had a good numbers passing through on November 4, and perhaps that will be repeated this year.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Saturday looks promising

Good numbers of monarchs were seen around Cape May Point today, with a roost of about 400 gathering near the intersection of Harvard and Lehigh Avenues and smaller roosts nearby (and perhaps larger roosts elsewhere that we didn't find).  Saturday's weather forecasts suggests that many of these monarchs may stay at the Point and others may continue to arrive from the north.  Storms are due to arrive on Sunday however, which makes this look like a poor day for monarch viewing.  We really can't guess whether the days following the storms will bring more monarchs or not; the migration season will surely be ending soon.

Monarch joining the roost at Harvard & Lehigh
Seaside goldenrod has been the preferred nectar source for monarchs at Cape May Point for most of of October, but many of the goldenrods are past bloom now.  Monarchs are visiting the ones that remain in bloom, but many are returning to private gardens, where annual flowers are now providing much of the nectar needed by the butterflies.

Monarch at one of the few seaside goldenrods that are still in bloom.
Monarch nectarine on marigold
Most of the monarch action remains in the areas of Cape May Point closest to the beach and the dunes, though observers did note many monarchs moving south along the Delaware Bay shore.  Many monarchs started to gather in roosts quite early in the day, more than four hours before sunset, even though the day was rather warm.  Perhaps as we get later into the year the urge to gather into communal roosts is growing stronger.

Monarchs gathering atop an eastern red cedar at mid-afternoon.
Since monarchs are still around, our field naturalists are offering bonus tagging demos this weekend.  Join Rebecca and Stephanie at 12 noon on Saturday or Sunday at the East Shelter in Cape May Point State Park for a short talk on monarch biology and conservation, followed by a demonstration of the tagging that's a big part of our project.  We hope to see many of you at one of this weekend's programs.

Monarch resting on poison ivy leaf.