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.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Slow and steady.

While your Monarch Monitoring Project team has stayed busy with presentations to many Cape May visitors, the monarch migration hasn't changed much, with a few monarchs passing through every day and small clusters found in the mornings and evenings at various unpredictable locations around Cape May Point, but usually in wooded lots with lots of blooming English ivy.  Rest assured that we will post quickly whenever we see a significant change in the numbers of monarchs anywhere in the Cape May area.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Over a hundred monarchs at Stites Ave. roost on Wednesday evening.

We counted over 100 monarchs at the roosting area along Stites Ave. this evening.  The numbers have been going up gradually this week, but every day has seen more monarchs in Cape May Point.  There are probably a few other roosts around the Point, but we haven't found them yet.  We'll be out there looking again tomorrow.  

Numbers continue to increase

The monarchs are coming!! With a whopping 63.05 monarchs an hour during our daily census today, this has been our highest number yet. The migration is not at its peak- it is only beginning. Remember to check out our website's data page for daily and weekly census updates. Here you can also compare our current data to the numbers we have had during past years around this time. Keep in mind that because this year's migration is delayed, our current numbers appear to be much lower than other years. Since the migrants seem to only be starting to make their way through Cape May now, we are hopeful that the numbers will catch up soon!

Monday, September 23, 2013

Monday update, Sept. 23, 2013

Monarchs are clearly moving into Cape May today, though still in just modest numbers, but our census numbers are higher than they have been all season.  We suspect some small roosts will develop around Cape May Point this evening, with the Stites Ave. site (see previous posts for details) a good first place to check.  Let's hope this is just the beginning of a big movement of monarchs onto the Cape!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday update, Sept. 22, 2013

So far the number of monarchs that we're seeing around Cape May is only up a little bit today.  We'll be checking to see if any roosts are developing, and we'll report back when we know more.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A few more monarchs today make us eager for tomorrow.

It seemed like a few more monarchs were around Cape May Point on Saturday, and we discovered the first small roosts of the season.  A modest number of monarchs gathered both this morning and this evening in a vacant lot along Stites Ave. in Cape May Point.  This evening I estimated 25 to 30 monarchs here.  Rain tonight is signaling the arrival of a cold front, with moderate northwest winds predicted for Sunday.  Conditions look perfect for bringing more monarchs into Cape May over the next few days, so we are hopeful, but we never know for sure.  We'll be sure to post one or more updates tomorrow as we see just what unfolds.  If you come to Cape May on Sunday, be sure to come to Cape May State Park at 2 pm for the season's third monarch talk and tagging demonstration, held at the East Picnic Pavilion (next to the big hawk watch platform).  We usually run somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, and there's no charge for this program.  Get there early if you want a seat, we had 90 people there on Saturday!  And if you're interested in monarchs AND other migrants, there's a good chance that Sunday's northwest winds will also bring other southbound creatures into our airspace.

The monarchs gathered today in a vacant lot across
from 310 Stites Ave., a lot filled with ivy-covered trees.
We're hoping for much larger roosts in the days to come,
but this is a start.

If you visit this site, remember you're in a residential neighborhood
 and keep your voices low.  Also please don't park right next to the roost.

We're guessing that Sunday's weather will bring a good raptor migration,
with Merlins (above) and other falcons likely to be plentiful.
Stilt Sandpipers were seen at the State Park today.
Sunday could also bring many migrating dragonflies
to Cape May, such as this Black Saddlebags.

Friday, September 20, 2013

First Demo of the Season was a Hit!

So our first tagging demo of the season was a big hit! With only 10 monarchs on our census count for the entire day, we had over 6 times that amount in (human) attendees to the program. Details of time & location given in previous blog post, but make sure to come check us out and see what we do if you haven't before! More than just a chance to meet our butterflies and watch them get tagged, but learn all about monarch biology, ecology, their migration, and about what our project entails from the experts themselves. This is also the place to get those awesome monarch car magnets if you don't have one already. Hope to see you soon!

Tagging Demos begin today - Friday, Sept. 20

The first Monarch Tagging Demonstration and Talk will take place Friday, Sept. 20, at 2:00 pm.  Meet members of the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Team at Cape May Point State Park, at the East Picnic Shelter, which is adjacent to the Hawk Watch Platform.  This program will repeated every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday through October 19, always at 2 pm.  Duration is usually between 30 and 45 minutes and there is no fee charged, though donations are accepted.  No reservations, just show up and meet the monarchs up close.  You could be one of the lucky ones chosen to release a newly tagged monarch back into the wild.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Counting Monarchs One by One

No, it isn't quite the peak of the monarch season just yet, but yes their numbers are beginning to increase! People are worried that this year may be one of the lowest ever- however that may not necessarily be the case. This post expands a little further into our census counts described previously in the our post titled "Numbers."

Long Term Data

Over the past 21 years, numbers have ranged from an average of only 9 monarchs per hour along our census route, to almost 360! So far, the first 2 weeks have averaged about 6 monarchs an hour along our census route, but today (9/15/13) alone has already increased to 12 monarchs per hour. The cold front has definitely started bringing more in our way, and this is only the beginning of the season. We still don't know exactly when the "peak" of the season is here, but we will keep you posted! It seems to be a bit delayed, but keep your fingers crossed it'll be higher numbers than expected!

So how do we count our monarchs anyway?

Well, our count is basically an estimate of all the monarchs around the point, but counting them ALL would be physically impossible. Even guaranteeing we are able to see every single one that makes its way along our census route isn't always possible, so we make sure we have experienced researchers who are very focused and have excellent "monarch radar" to see as many as they can.

Our census route runs from Higbees Beach Wildlife Management Area, all the way down to Alexander Ave. in the Boro of Cape May Point. The route has been the same for the past 22 years, and tries to follow the coast of the Cape May Point as much as it can (since migrating monarchs flying over water get pushed in by the wind and appear along the dunes). The census route is approximately 5 miles long, and takes around 20 minutes to complete the survey by car, going at an average of 20MPH. The census is done 3 times daily from September 1-October 31 at 9AM, 12PM, and 3PM. Here is the link to a Cape May Bird & Butterfly Map, which includes the roads used for the census.

While driving along this route, a member of the project has a counter that they punch for each monarch they see within their direct or peripheral vision along the drive. You're probably wondering if other drivers along this route get frustrated with a vehicle going only 20 MPH, and often times they do.. so we always make sure to encourage other drivers to pass the vehicle, since pulling over and stopping or  increasing speed to keep up with traffic can alter our data.

We also record the exact time the census run began, the number of minutes total, weather conditions, wind direction and wind speed. All of these factors can affect the number of monarchs seen along the route.

Daily numbers

For daily census numbers of the 2013 season, and a table of the census averages over the past 20 years check out our data page. Daily census counts are usually updated in the evenings, once the day's counts are completed and the data numbers have been calculated.

Why Count Monarchs?

In order to study monarchs and their phenomenal migration, it's crucial to collect data to see how the population is doing. As seen in previous years' census counts, numbers can vary tremendously. It's crucial to study the numbers of monarchs traveling to Mexico so we can link monarch numbers with the factors that affect the migration such as climate change, land development and habitat loss, loss of host plants (milkweed), pesticide use, reproduction success, etc. Education is also extremely important to encourage the planting of milkweed and creation of butterfly gardens and habitats to help increase local populations.

Peak of the Season

The peak of the season seems to be delayed this year and we can't be quite certain of exactly when the largest abundance of migrating individuals will pass through Cape May. Keep checking our websitethis blog, and the Facebook page for updates on when the monarchs are arriving and when the best time to visit is! It can be anytime between now, and the end of October. Once the time comes, we are hoping it will look something like this.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Monarch Nursery in the CMBO & Info on How to Make Your Own!

As most people know, there are a few life stages of a monarch butterfly: egg, larvae, chrysalis, and adult. But how often do people get to witness the metamorphosis and incredible transformation of a "baby" monarch into an adult?

Monarch adult

Today, while setting up some caterpillar tanks, which I am renaming the "monarch nursery" at the Cape May Bird Observatory, I had visitors appalled at small size of caterpillar eggs and in disbelief that I was actually able to locate them in a garden patch of milkweed. They are visible to the human eye, however the small yellow speck can be easily missed by the average person if they don't know what they are looking for. Even more incredible is the small size of a day old caterpillar- so small you almost need a magnifying glass to tell what it is.

A newly hatched monarch caterpillar

Well it's that time of year again... it's probably the last reproductive cycle of monarchs up here in the north east. As soon as temperatures begin to drop (surprising that will happen with the crazy summer weather we've been having!) monarchs will halt their reproduction and newly emerged "Mexicans" will start to prepare for their long journey. It's almost backwards how this generation gets to enjoy existing for reproduction purposes.. yet it isn't them, but their kids that will be taking the honeymoon for them.

Monarch larvae (more commonly known as a caterpillar)

You too can raise caterpillars of your own. With the expected drops in monarch numbers this season, it's more important than ever that newly hatched caterpillars toughen up and survive their life changes to becoming a butterfly. The great quantities of caterpillars growing and eggs being laid is giving us some hope that monarch numbers in Cape May can partially be restored. If you have milkweed of your own, it's possible you will have eggs or caterpillars in your garden. Eggs are small and yellow, they are commonly laid on the underside of milkweed leaves. Caterpillars are black and tiny when they first emerge, and become yellow, white, and black striped as they shed their skin and mature into a new "instar". Milkweed should be fresh for caterpillars to eat it and remember that milkweed is a monarch's only "host" plant, meaning it is the only thing the caterpillars will eat. To be kept fresh, milkweed should be snipped and put in water.. but the bowl or cup of water must be covered because caterpillars are clumsy.. and they can't swim! (Louise's creative idea is to use a mason jar, cover it with plastic cling wrap and put the screw on ring back on. Poke holes just big enough for the stalk to fit, prop it up, and there you go, done! Same thing can be done with tupperware containers, plastic wrap and rubber bands to hold it). An empty fish tank, critter keeper, or any storage container will make a great caterpillar house, but remember that eventually those caterpillars will be able to climb so your container but have a lid (but holes so they can breathe!). Caterpillars do not need water; they get all the water and nutrients they need from the milkweed plant. Remember to feed your caterpillars fresh milkweed every day. For about 2 weeks they will eat, and grow, shedding their skin a total of 5 times as they do this. When they are ready to form a chrysalis they will start searching for a place to make one, (most likely the lid of the container they are in) and form a "J" while hanging upside down. Once they form a chrysalis it will take about one and a half to two weeks for them to become a butterfly. The warmer it is, the quicker it will develop. You know they are ready to emerge when the chrysalis turns black, and then transparent so you can see the butterfly inside. Once the butterfly emerges it will take about an hour for the wings to dry and be ready for flying. When it's ready, you can release your monarch outside to be a part of the magnificent migration this season! Raising butterflies is very simple, enjoyable and also addicting for people of all ages.. you don't need to be a kid to appreciate their magnificence and mystery in a truly amazing metamorphosis (although raising butterflies with kids is a very educational and fun-filled process). Just make sure to have a constant supply of milkweed to feed your caterpillars every day for 2 weeks! If they run out of food, they will not survive.

Monarch eggs on milkweed leaves

Raising your caterpillars straight from the eggs is the best way to ensure they are healthy and don't pose a risk of parasites (some insects actually use the monarch caterpillars to feed on and grow as part of their own life cycle.. I'll leave this topic for another future post). Parasitism in monarchs is a very upsetting and heart-breaking part of the natural process.. not all individuals can survive, but the only way to guarantee YOURS will is protect each monarch from birth... or in other words from an egg. However, if big caterpillars are all you can find, it's still fun to raise them, most of them should be healthy and this way the full process to getting a butterfly will be much quicker!

So there you have it- that's how you raise them, and it's exactly what we are doing right now in the Cape May Bird Observatory. We are just getting started though... with 3 young caterpillars, 6 newly emerged day old caterpillars, and about 20 eggs. Come see for yourself, our very own "monarch nursery" where we are raising baby monarchs in their own safe haven with plenty of food, protection, and love. Right now they are still very tiny but over the next few weeks they will be forming their way into adulthood, and will be tagged and released into the world to make the incredible journey all the way to Mexico. How cool would be it be to have a hand-raised monarch be one of the ones to make the whole journey? We sure can't wait to find out!

Come check out the tanks, and our new bulletin board in the Cape May Bird Observatory, Northwood Center at 701 East Lake Drive, Cape May Point NJ. The board is full of monarch information, literary research, data, and pictures and will be updated often as new information is gathered. If you have any questions at all about our set-up or how to raise monarchs on your own, feel free to message the Facebook page at

Monarch nursery and display at the CMBO

MMP makes the TV News

In recent years our project seems to always draw the attention of local media.  Today we were visited by Phaedra Laird, reporter for the Atlantic City NBC affiliate.  Here's the link to the piece that aired:

Monday, September 9, 2013


"There are no monarchs this year."  We've been hearing the talk and seeing the comments on the internet; many folks seem convinced that it's a terrible year for monarchs.  Maybe it's true.  The census of overwintering monarchs in Mexico resulted in the lowest numbers since these studies began.  See this opinion piece by Dr. Lincoln Brower (our project's scientific advisor) and Homero Aridjis from the March 15, 2013 New York Times: NY Times op-ed.  The cool, wet weather in much of eastern North America last spring may have also had an impact, as outlined in this report from the great organization Journey North: Wisconsin census.

But the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project is based on science, not speculation.  For over 20 years we have conducted standardized censuses of the monarchs in Cape May, and we summarize the numbers on a weekly basis.  The first week of our census showed a low number of monarchs, 6.95 per hour, but four of the previous 21 years of study showed lower numbers in the first week.  So while these data show that, so far, it's a slow year for monarchs, it isn't the worst we have seen.  See our data summaries on our website's data page: MMP date page.

You can count on us to continue to count monarchs every day.  Our conclusion about the 2013 season will be based on data, not speculation.  And there's reason for hope.  We are seeing many monarch eggs and caterpillars on milkweed plants growing in the wild and in the many butterfly gardens around Cape May.  And there seemed to be a small influx of adult monarchs into Cape May today.  The photographs below were all taken in Cape May Point today.  So stay tuned, keep watching this blog, and come to Cape May if you can to watch the migration yourself.

Monarch egg on common milkweed leaf.

Small monarch caterpillar, probably second instar.
Fifth instar monarch caterpillar, just about ready for pupation.
Adult male monarch at private garden in Cape May Point.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Our most frequently asked question

We hear the same question over and over as the monarch migration season begins: what will be the best days for seeing monarchs in Cape May?  Unfortunately we have no crystal ball and we cannot know exactly which days will bring peak flights.  We can tell you that most migrating monarchs historically pass through our region between about Sept. 15 and Oct. 20, but during that 5-week period each year there are days with many monarchs and days with few.  A big factor is the weather.  Just like the southbound songbirds, raptors, and dragonflies, most monarchs seem to show up in Cape May after an autumn cold front brings northwest winds into the region.  But like many elements of nature, the monarch migration peak simply cannot be predicted.

So what should you do if you want to come to Cape May and see monarchs?  Come whenever you can, and stay as long as you can.  During September and October there are always some monarchs around.  Plus the weather is generally great, the summer crowds are gone, and along with monarchs there are other butterflies, dragonflies, and migratory birds to be seen.  And if you can get to Cape May quickly, watch this blog regularly.  We promise to update quickly when we see the numbers of monarchs increasing.

Monarchs migrating through Cape May are headed to the mountain forests west of Mexico City,
where they will spend the winter in clusters with many thousands of other monarchs.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Monarch Season Has Officially Begun!

Hello all! It is finally the official beginning of monarch season in Cape May! Sunday marked the official start to the season with a few flutters of orange painting the sky and appearing in local gardens. Daily census runs have started 3x daily so if you live in the area and are stuck behind a black slow moving vehicle covered in stickers... well that's me, Samm Wehman the new monarch intern doing one of these surveys.

As the new monarch monitoring project "naturalist" I would like to introduce myself.  My name is Samm Wehman and I am from Marlton, NJ but have been living in the Cape May Beach area since early spring. I have had a love for insects especially butterflies since a young age and am really enthusiastic to be working hands on with monarchs for the next 2 months. I recently graduated from Rutgers with an animal science degree w/ a minor in ecology & evolution, and hope to pursue work in the field of wildlife conservation. I just finished my first field job with NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife monitoring NJ's endangered beach nesting shorebirds (piping plovers, black skimmers, least terns, and special concern species American oystercatchers). I love nature and animals of all kinds and just hope to always contribute in some way to making our world a better place. I am also an artist on the side and specialize in customized animal artwork if you want to check it out! (

Throughout September & October I'll be spending most of my time around Cape May Point catching & tagging monarchs, so keep your eye out for me and don't hesitate to say hello! If I am able to catch a monarch I would be glad to give you a personal tagging demo and answer any questions you may have about our project. Finding me is also your best bet to get some awesome handouts, bumper stickers or bookmarks too :). Currently there are monarchs starting to flutter their way around Cape May and I have seen a good number of caterpillars in local gardens; remember that the biggest way to help out (no matter where you live) is plant some milkweed and invite a monarch to lunch! 
Tagging demos will be open to the public regularly at the state park, and more details about dates and times in which you can participate will be available soon. I will try my best to update this blog often along with the project's Facebook page (

More information about those who are directly involved in the project, history, census details, tagging, education information and ways in which you can contribute to the project can be found on the Monarch Monitoring Project's official website at Regular census updates for this season may be posted as well once the season progresses. 

Keep in mind also that NJ Audubon Society is a non-profit organization and the monarch monitoring project is funded only by donations and fundraising efforts. There are really fun ways in which you can contribute to the project by "adopting" a monarch that gets tagged, and you will be notified if your tagged individual is found somewhere along it's incredible 3,000 mile journey! Also at our tagging demos, you can purchase unique monarch butterfly magnets that can go on your car or fridge for only $2 or $5. Both awesome gifts. 

Well, I hope if you don't live locally in Cape May that you can find the opportunity to visit at some point during this incredible natural phenomenon. Fingers crossed it will be a good season for them.. some unfortunate factors have been causing what is expected to be a decline in the migrating population this year, but since there seems to be extra caterpillars marching around the milkweed plants lately we can only hope for the best..... I'll make sure to post a blog soon including more detailed and scholarly info on why our migrating monarchs aren't at their peak numbers these days. 

Thanks for having an interest in the monarchs and their incredible journey, and hope to see you soon!

 (Photo courtesy of Michael O'Brien)