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.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Season's end

Our studies were interrupted by Hurricane Sandy and related evacuation orders and bans on travel.  Fortunately Cape May saw minimal damage from the storm.  Censuses resumed yesterday, the official last day of the monarch season, and a total of 2 monarchs were counted.

Thanks to all of the volunteers who helped with our project and to the hundreds of visitors who came to our tagging demos and met informally with our team as we worked in Cape May Point.  Monarchs are already arriving into the mountains of Mexico.  We wish them well through their winter of dormancy and to next summer's generations in temperate North America.  We'll be counting and tagging again next autumn.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Don't come to Cape May

The gardens around Cape May Point still have lots of monarchs, but with the entire mid-Atlantic region under threat from "Super-storm Sandy" and evacuations taking place, it's simply not the time to come see monarch migrations.  We have tagged quite a few over the last few days, it will be interesting to see if any of these tagged monarchs are found after the storm.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Monarchs are here

Yesterday's noticeable influx of monarchs has given us a nice monarch day today.  Census totals for the day are 151.5 monarchs per hour, and we've been tagging dozens of monarchs in the local gardens.  Whenever we're out there tagging, passersby seem to notice and ask questions.  We're always happy to share information and show others how we conduct our research.  Our season ends next Wednesday, but if you see one of us out there with a butterfly net, don't hesitate to stop, observe our work, and learn about the wonders of monarch migration.

Julia Druce tags a monarch at the Triangle Park, located at the
junction of Lighthouse and Coral in Cape May Point.
Julia records data from a newly tagged monarch following the
procedure described in her Oct. 24 blog post.
One of many impromptu educational sessions conducted around
Cape May Point this autumn.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More monarchs at the Point today

There was a noticeable increase in monarchs at Cape May Point today.  Multiple observers noted a steady movement of monarchs down the dunes towards Cape May Point.  Just after noon I counted 36 monarchs passing over the dune in just 3 minutes, and our afternoon census today tallied 62 monarchs.  We don't know if this was the peak or if there might be even more monarchs moving into the Point tomorrow, but we'll be out there watching and counting.

Picture Tutorial of Tagging

Hello! As the number of Monarchs around continues to diminish, there is much more time in between tagging each butterfly. Here are some pictures of the tagging process that demonstrate what we've been up to during the season; over 3,000 Monarchs have been tagged by us this year!

1. Catch a Monarch in a butterfly net. It's easiest to target the stationary, nectaring ones. Record which type of plant the Monarch was caught on.

2. Determine the gender of the Monarch. The abdomen of the male terminates in a pair of claspers (cerci) that the female lacks. The hind wings of the male also contain two raises spots called the androconial patches that store and release hormones. In additional, the veins in the hind wings of the male are thinner and less pronounced than in the female's hind wings.

Female on left; Male on right
3. Assess fatness of the butterfly by observing the size and consistency of the abdomen. Also assess the wing wear (brightness and intactness of scales and any structural damage to wings, such as bird bites).

4. Measure the length of the fore wing and length of section of the hind wing.

5. Prepare the hind wing and apply the tag (a plastic sticker) to the center of the hind wing (in the discal cell). Record the unique three letter, three number code. Release the Monarch! Adios.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Steady as she goes

The pattern continues: no big movements of monarchs, but steady numbers around Cape May Point.  If you're in town, you'll see monarchs in the gardens or along the dunes in the seaside goldenrod.  Try Triangle Park at the junction of Coral and Lighthouse, where long-tailed skippers are still conspicuous, too.  The rest of the week is predicted to be fairly warm for the season, so we expect the numbers of monarchs to remain fairly steady.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The season isn't over yet

Monarchs continue to migrate through southern New Jersey and into Cape May Point, with a slight uptick in numbers Wednesday afternoon, enough for Cape May Hawk Counter Tom Reed to send me a text message: "Little influx of monarchs."  Tom's job is to scan the skies above Cape May Point all day to count migrating birds of prey.  He sees migrating monarchs at the same time, so he's often the first to notice an arrival event.

Prompted by Tom's message, I visited several spots last evening where we have seen monarch concentrations this year.  The best spot was along the dunes at Whilldin Ave., where some were actively feeding on the seaside goldenrod flowers while about 75 clustered high in a pine tree.  Not thousands like we saw a few weeks ago, but still an impressive and inspiring sight.  We don't expect to see another huge influx of monarchs this year, but these little insects surprise us sometimes.  We'll keep watching and counting, and we encourage you to keep watching this blog and to come visit Cape May Point to see monarchs right up to early November.

Don't forget that you can see our census numbers on the data page of our website:

Biologist Julia Druce at the Whilldin Ave. dune crossover.
Monarch taking nectar from seaside goldenrod.

Monarchs clustering in pine tree just before sunset on Oct. 17.

Sunset over Cape May Point.

What Happens When Migrating Monarchs Hit Freezing Temperatures?

If you've been following the weather around the state, you've seen that northern New Jersey started experiencing some frosts at the end of next week, and it's only getting colder going further north. Yet we are still getting influxes of Monarchs to Cape May Point and they may have had to pass through cold weather to get here. Monarchs, as well as many other insects, are aided by an adaptation called the cold-hardening response. This allows the butterflies to survive for a period of time at sub freezing temperature if them have been pre-exposed to cold temperatures. If a Monarch is slowly exposed to increasingly cold temperatures, it has a greater chance of surviving in freezing temperatures (even at 25 degrees F!) then a Monarch more rapidly exposed to freezing temperatures, although even rapid cold exposure does increase cold hardiness.

A Monarch typically freezes at -8 C/18 F. Fatal, non-freezing injury can occur above this temperature. However, a damp Monarch, such as one that has been exposed to rain or dew, will freeze at a higher temperature. This is why it is so vital for the entire forest at the overwintering grounds in Mexico to remain intact, in order to prevent excess moisture from reaching the roosting Monarchs and causing premature death.

Source: Cold Tolerance Including Rapid Cold-hardening and Inoculative Freezing of Fall Migrant Monarch Butterflies in Ohio. Authors: Larsen & Lee 1994.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

We're on TV!

If you missed the broadcast of NJ Today on the NJTV public television network this evening, you can watch it here:

Mid-October update

Monarchs are still easy to find in the gardens of Cape May Point.
Monarch numbers continue to be modest in Cape May, and with each passing day it seems more and more likely that the last big surge of migrating monarchs has already passed through the Point.  But historically we have seen big migrations in mid-October, and a cold front has just passed through the Cape, bringing northwest winds that fuel most of our big migrations.  So if the season has one more surge of monarchs to bring us, we're likely to see them this afternoon.  We'll update when we have a clear sense of what's happening.  One thing for sure, Cape May is not without monarchs, they are still easy to find around the gardens and dunes of Cape May Point.

Last Sunday was our last tagging demo for the season.  Thanks to all who came to participate this year -- we love a chance to share the monarch story!  Three photos below are from Sunday's demo.

Dick Walton begins the demo with a hearty welcome
and a description of our project.
Julia Druce describing monarch biology
while Patsy Eickelberg watches.

Louise Zemaitis tags a monarch while a studious young biologist watches.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Last Demo and State of the Terrarium

Monarch that should emerge within 24 hours
Hello, just wanted to remind you that today (Sunday the 14th) is the last Monarch tagging demo of the year. As usual, it will be held at 2 pm at Cape May Point State Park, at the East Shelter next to the Hawk Watch platform. Today is going to be much warmer than the past couple of days (high of 71 degrees F), so even though there might not be too many Monarchs around, at least today they should be flying around more and need less basking on vegetation in order to stay warm. At the Cape May Bird Observatory (Northwood Center), our terranium display is also beginning to wind down. At this moment, there are two 5th instar caterpillars (the last stage before pupation) and 6 chrysalis on display. The butterflies tend to emerge from the chrysalis in the morning so if you want to watch a Monarch eclose (biology term for an insect emerging from an egg or pupal case), find a chrysalis where the wing pigmentation is visibile through the skin of the chrysalis, which usually happens within 24 hours of emergence. Come back and watch this chrysalis the morning after you first observe the wing pigmentation. Eclosure happens quickly so don't take your eyes off the chrysalis for too long!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A few more monarchs arrive

Friday was another beautiful day in Cape May, with great migratory conditions keeping the birders happy.  We saw a small increase in monarchs around Cape May Point, but not a major migratory event.  Nonetheless, should you be in Cape May this weekend it won't be hard to find monarchs, and we'll have some to tag at our last two tagging demos of the season, which will be at 2 pm on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 13 and 14, at the East Picnic Shelter in Cape May Point State Park.  Please come join us!

Dick Walton, Director and Founder of the Cape May Monarch Monitoring
Project, with a group of about 100 at Wednesday's tagging demo.

We enjoyed a long visit on Friday from Lauren Wanko, Correspondent for the NJ Today television program aired weeknights at 6 on NJTV, New Jersey's public television network.  Lauren spent nearly 5 hours in Cape May Point with our team and we can't wait to see her feature on our project.  It is tentatively set to air Monday evening, Oct. 15.  We'll update you with more information when the broadcast time is confirmed.

Julia Druce tags a monarch for the camera.  Correspondent Lauren Wanko
was one of the best prepared media visitors we have ever hosted, arriving
with a great understanding of our project and asking us thoughtful questions.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

They didn't come

We thought there might be a significant influx of monarchs into southern New Jersey today, given northerly winds that triggered an enormous hawk migration and plentiful sunshine.  It didn't happen.  I checked Stone Harbor Point this afternoon, the natural area along a barrier island less than 10 miles north of Cape May where we have seen big monarch concentrations in the past.  Conditions were perfect for monarchs, with acres of seaside goldenrod at peak bloom, but only a few monarchs were here.  I think I saw more red admirals and mourning cloaks than monarchs.

The dune at Stone Harbor Point is literally covered with seaside goldenrod.

Despite perfect conditions, only a few monarchs were here this afternoon.

This evening I checked Cape May Point for roosting monarchs, but I only found a few small clusters, all near the Whilldin Ave. dune crossover.  Two are shown below.  As scientists we are supposed to be objective and just record the data, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that, in season, I always hope for another great monarch spectacle.

We usually see one or two big concentrations of monarchs in Cape May during the middle part of October, but we're wondering now if most of the monarchs have already come through.  Julia's post about the major arrival of monarchs into Mexico this week fuels that thought.  And it's probably best for the monarchs to have a successful early migration, since the colder, windier weather that often characterizes late October probably presents greater challenges to monarch migration than does the warmer weather of early fall.

Monarchs clustered on pine trees and Virginia creeper vines Thursday afternoon.

Of course we don't know yet if another migratory surge will pass through Cape May this fall, so workers with the Monarch Monitoring Project will be in the field every day until the end of October, performing our daily censuses, searching for roosts and other monarch concentration points, tagging monarchs, and spreading the word about these impressive migratory insects.  Come see us at Cape May Point.

Thursday morning update

Monarchs seem to be accumulating along the dunes of Cape May Point on this sunny, chilly, and breezy morning.  Check the more sheltered dune crossovers on the eastern side of Cape May Point -- the ends of Lehigh, Whilldin, Coral, or South Lake.  You should find some in small clusters in the pine and juniper trees while others are feeding on seaside goldenrod, as illustrated below.

We plan to check Stone Harbor Point and Cape May Point this afternoon to see if these northwest winds deliver another big batch of monarchs to us.  Count on us to report back at day's end.


Monarchs Crossing the Border

On Tuesday, Monarch enthusiastic Don Davis sent this message around the Monarch listserve:
Rocio Trevino of Royal Mail sent this message to me late last night. Translated from Spanish: BUTTERFLIES ENTERED TODAY TO MEXICO. COUNTED IN CIUDAD ACUNA 30/minute NOON TODAY.
Ciudad Acuña is located along the Rio Grande, very close to the Mexico-United States border. I find the large numbers of Monarch coming through this location very interesting because the overwintering sites in the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Pine-Oak Forests (slightly west of Mexico City) are just about directly south of Ciudad Acuña! If the Monarchs can take a mostly straight path between these two areas, it seems it would be an easier navigation job ("go directly south!") than it would be in other potential flyways. Also, I'm glad to get confirmation that the Monarchs are getting closer to their winter homes. The first Monarchs should reach the overwintering sites in November, coinciding with local Mexican celebrations of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Another cold front

Monarch numbers have been fairly steady in recent days, with no spectacular flights or concentrations, but with a fair number of monarchs still hanging around the gardens and dunes of Cape May Point.  Another cold front is passing through Cape May Wednesday evening, however, with northwest winds forecast to blow all night and up to the early Thursday afternoon, when they are forecast to turn west.  These are good conditions for monarch migration, so if there's still a good number of monarchs to our north, we can expect them to move into Cape May tomorrow.  One thing for sure: our team will be out there working, and we'll let you know what we find.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Summer is gone

A big cold front passed through Cape May over the weekend, and this morning's temperature was in the mid-40s.  Often a powerful front in early October brings big numbers of monarchs into Cape May Point, but this weather system came with clouds and rain, so the monarchs didn't fly.  Monday morning saw a bit of sun and a small movement of monarchs along the dune, but our overall numbers are still low.  More rain is expected this afternoon and tonight, but Tuesday's forecast calls for clearing skies and north winds.  By tomorrow afternoon we should know if another major movement of monarchs has begun.

You can still see monarchs easily around Cape May Point, though not by the thousands or even hundreds right now.  Plenty for our tagging demos, however, as shown in the photos below.  We have just one more week of scheduled demos -- this Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, please join our team at 2 pm in Cape May Point State Park.  We meet at the East Picnic Shelter, which is adjacent to the Hawk Watch Platform.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Tall Tales about Scales

Monarch showing some natural scale loss (notice the pale colors and
scratches) as well as a missing patch on the hind wing that has
been removed in preparation for tagging the Monarch
One of the most common questions we get at the tagging demos is, "I was told that if I touched a butterfly's wings, it would die. Aren't you damaging the Monarch by touching its wings?" Quite confidently, we respond, "No! Butterflies do need to be handled gently but they aren't hurt by being held or by the tagging process."

Close up of the abdomen showing "fuzzy" scales
Butterflies, moths, and skipper are all grouped together into the order Lepidoptera, from the Latin for "scaly wing," due to the shared presence of scales on their wings. Scales are also present on the head, thorax, and abdomen of these insects, as well as on their antennae and legs. Monarchs are quite resilient butterflies and it will take some scratching to remove scales from the wing. However, some butterflies do shed scales more readily than Monarchs do. Butterfly scales are actually designed to slide off the wing membrane quite easily, making the butterfly slippery and reducing its chances of being pinched in a bird's beak or stuck in a sticky spider web. The butterfly can shed some scales and escape without damaging the more important wing membrane underneath. Scales also provide Monarchs with their vivid colors, help them glide more efficiently, and keep them warm. The dark "fur" you can see on the upper side of the Monarch's abdomen is actually long, filamentous scales that help keep the butterfly warm by radiating heat close to the body! Some butterflies, including the Monarch, possess specialized scales that release hormones. You can find some of these scales on the hind wings of male Monarchs: they look like raised, oblong dots and are called the androconial patches.

Monarchs in the News

The monarch migration through Cape May is featured on a front-page article of the Press of Atlantic City today, including multiple quotes from our Field Coordinator Louise Zemaitis.  If you don't see the Press, you can view the article here: Monarch Article.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Friday update

It's been an unusual day, weather-wise, in Cape May.  Indeed a small cold front pushed through last night, yet while most cold fronts bring cooler temperatures, today was sunny and warm.  There was an obvious movement of monarchs into Cape May Point this morning, which slowed to a trickle later in the day.  It seems we have more monarchs in Cape May now than we have had for the last few days, but this hasn't qualified as a major influx.  A warm evening is predicted, so there's no way to guess if there will be any roosting or not.  We can report back that many monarchs were back into the ivy patches on Stites Avenue this morning, where many were roosting two weeks ago, so if you're at the Point this evening or early tomorrow morning, that's a place to check.

Monarch nectaring on English ivy.

Cloudless sulphurs, visitors from the south, have
been abundant around Cape May Pt. all fall.

We've seen huge numbers of Buckeyes this week.

Even the most ardent butterfly enthusiasts found their eyes drawn
skyward today with the year's biggest Peregrine Falcon migration.

Cold fronts, large and small

It was muggy and foggy at Cape May Point yesterday, with gentle south winds, a day when little movement of monarchs would be expected.  Surprisingly Tom Reed, this year's hawk counter, noted a minor movement of monarchs into Cape May Point during the afternoon hours.  Monarchs were found feeding in gardens and on the seaside goldenrods near the beach all day long.

A small cold front passed through Cape May in the evening, bringing gentle northwest winds overnight that are forecast to continue all morning.  This is likely to put monarchs into motion again, with those that have been hanging around heading off to Delaware and others arriving.  It's too soon to tell if this will be a major or minor arrival event, but we will report back later today.

A very big cold front is expected to arrive this weekend, bringing strong northwest winds, but a lot of rain is predicted to accompany the front.  Northwest winds put monarchs into motion, but rain brings the migration to a halt, so it's really hard to predict what the monarchs will be doing.  We can say that if you come to Cape May on Sunday or early next week, bring a jacket!

The short video clip below show a monarch busily gathering nectar from seaside goldenrod.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What Can Eat a Monarch?

Although Monarchs are largely protected by their orange and black cloak (see Monarchs and Mimicry blog post), on an everyday basis members of the MMP do see Monarchs that unfortunately aren't going to make it to Mexico. Some have lost large portions of wings from snagging themselves on plants. Others have perished in the hands of predators. In Cape May, the most abundant predator of the Monarch appears to be the Chinese Mantis. This Praying Mantis lies in wait in the plants where Monarchs nectar, such as the Joe Pye Weed or Butterfly Bush, or even waits in the trees and ivy where the roosts are formed. Then they pounce quickly and snatch up an inactive, unaware Monarch. Mantises do camouflage well, so your best bet to find one is to look for Monarch wings on the ground (they only eat the thorax and abdomen) and then search higher up on the bush to find the culprit.

However, many other creatures, including some vertebrates, will eat Monarchs given the chance. These vertebrate predators live at the overwintering sites in Mexico and have adopted different strategies to cope with Monarch toxicity and take advantage of the enormous food source present for half the year. The Black-Headed Grosbeak has evolved an insensitivity to the poisons contained in the Monarch and has no problem eating the entire abdomen. Another bird, the Black-Backed Oriole, carefully dissects the Monarch's body and eats the poison-free soft tissues inside, avoiding the more toxic body parts. Finally, the Scansorial Black-Eared Mouse has also developed a tolerance to Monarch poisons. On average, an individual mouse consumes 37 Monarchs per night, with over 1,000,000 Monarch consumed by the mouse population each year! With very little other competition for this food source, it is obvious why these two birds and mouse species have come up with way to deal with the otherwise distasteful and deadly Monarch, giving them millions of free meals each season. (Source: Predation : At Overwintering Colonies (Monarch Watch))

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Status Quo

Not much change in the monarch situation on Wednesday.  South winds kept monarchs from moving into Cape May Point and it's likely that some drifted off the Point to spots a bit further north.  Those same southerly breezes kept the remaining monarchs off the beach and dunes and in the sheltered gardens around the Point.

Still, 2012 is proving to be a year of abundance for monarchs along the Atlantic Flyway, and there are still lots of monarchs to be seen here.  We had plenty for today's tagging demo, much to the delight of those in attendance, as illustrated below.

Winds look to become gradually more favorable for monarch migration in the coming days, with a big monster of a cold front due sometime during the weekend.  We're hoping for at least one more big wave of monarch migration when the winds change; stay tuned for updates.

Lynn Lee & Julia Druce took the lead at Wednesday's tagging demo.
Nobody is too young to marvel at a monarch butterfly!
Patsy Eickelberg tags a monarch while two eager students observe.
The last step of the tagging process: release back into the wild!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Pause in the migration

It's raining in Cape May right now, with rain and southeast winds likely to stop all migratory movement.  Numbers of monarchs in Cape May are lower than they have been for about two weeks, yet there is still no shortage.

This morning, before the rain began, the breezes were keeping most monarchs off the dunes and the local gardens were the best places to visit.  Below we show monarchs nectaring at lantana and butterfly bush at a private garden in Cape May Point.  If you're looking for monarchs today, wait for a break in the rain and try the public garden at Triangle Park, located at the corner of Lighthouse and Coral.

If the forecast holds, Wednesday is likely to be another slow day for monarchs in Cape May, but the next cold front is due to arrive on Thursday.  We hear reports of many monarchs still to our north, so the end of this week might bring another surge into Cape May Point.  Whether there are any monarchs or few, Team Monarch will be working and we'll try our best to keep our readers updated regularly.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Settling into the dunes

By Monday afternoon many monarchs were settled down around Cape May Point, with many fewer in the air than during the morning.  Time to eat and rest before continuing the journey, and one of the monarchs' favorite food plants, seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) is now in bloom all over the upper beaches and dunes around Cape May Point.  While many may still be found in private gardens throughout the Cape May area, your best best for seeing monarchs during the day will come from a visit to the dunes.  Most of the streets in Cape May Point that end at the dunes will have a walkway that will take you to the top of the dune; head on up and check the goldenrods, you're likely to see a scene like the one below.

We can't be certain about what the monarchs will do this evening, but usually after the goldenrod begins to bloom they will settle into overnight roosts in the cedars and pines close to the beach.  My best guess is that tonight's largest roost will be near the corner of Cape & Lincoln in Cape May Point, which has been loaded with monarchs the last two nights.

Monarchs in the seaside goldenrod near the dune crossing at Whilldin Ave.

There are many dangers along the monarch migration route.  While the cardiac glycosides that monarchs assimilate from milkweed plants as caterpillars provide a chemical defense from vertebrate predators, invertebrates can prey on monarchs if they can catch them.  One of the more efficient monarch predators is the praying mantis; the one below was hiding near goldenrod flowers and successfully ambushed a monarch.  There are many such hazards along the 2000 miles between Cape May Point and the monarch wintering grounds in Mexico, and it seems miraculous that millions make the journey successfully every autumn.

"River of Monarchs"

I'm diligently working in the office today, and word comes from our project field coordinator Louise Zemaitis that there is a "river of monarchs" streaming along the dunes in Cape May Point.  I guess the office work will wait.  If you're close to Cape May Point, maybe I'll see you there in a few minutes.

Monarchs still plentiful

Hundreds of visitor to Cape May Point delighted in big numbers of monarchs over the weekend, with nearly 300 attending our three tagging demos.  Gentle winds, mostly from the northwest, have kept bringing monarchs into Cape May and also giving them good conditions for continuing on Delaware, the next stop on their journey to Mexico.

Sunday was a bit warmer than Saturday, so we didn't see as many monarchs roosting in the conifer areas along Lincoln Ave., but we found a number of smaller roosts all around the point, many in deciduous trees or on vines, such as the ones below.  The next few days are supposed to be warmer, and we're guessing that there will be more monarchs departing than arriving.  Don't be deterred from visiting Cape May Point, however, as they will surely be good numbers of monarchs around all through the coming week.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Roosting spectacles

It was a great day in Cape May, both for birds and monarch butterflies.  The afternoon saw many monarchs streaming down the dunes into Cape May Point.  A number of sizable roosts were found, the one shown below with about 3,000 monarchs.  Monarchs will surely be plentiful in the morning on Sunday, and with gentle north winds forecast for tomorrow, we could see monarchs departing for Delaware or we could see monarchs arriving from the north to spend time at Cape May Point.  What actually will unfold tomorrow?  We don't know for sure, but I'll bet there will be monarchs both leaving and arriving, and that Sunday will prove to be another spectacular day for observing monarchs in Cape May.  Join our team for the tagging demo at 2 pm at the East Shelter, Cape May Point State Park.

 Two shots of one of the big monarch roosts along Lincoln in Cape May Point.

Tonight's sunset over Delaware Bay.