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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Monarchs Still Migrating

Female monarch THW 569

The monarch pictured above has already made impressive headway on her journey south.  With frost already having hit northern New Jersey, Delia Smith brought this female monarch that she had reared, 155 miles south, from Wagner Farms Arboretum to Cape May Point.  In a chance meeting with one of our field technicians, Delia's monarch was tagged before it was released in the Triangle Park this afternoon.  This female now sports the tag code THW 569, and we have the highest hopes that she will continues a successful migration southward, and hopefully be recovered along her journey.  

Delia shared with our team that she is in her final semester, studying landscape architecture at Temple University.  She also shared that she educates and advocates for the use of native plants in landscaping.  In saying this, Delia is already a volunteer for the Monarch Monitoring Project.  The importance of using of backyard and public space as a place for butterfly gardening and wildlife habitat is something that our team shares with visitors every day.  

Chrysalis in Triangle Park.
In doing our field work, we see far fewer chrysalides outdoors than we do caterpillars.  Today, we did spot one in the Triangle Park.  It is at the end of the walkway, (where you can turn right and walk toward the benches and picnic table), nestled in the morning glory.

It is late in the season, but monarch butterflies and caterpillars are still being seen all over the point.  There are still unhatched eggs on the tropical milkweed in Triangle Park.  The monarch life cycle, (from egg to adult butterfly) takes about one month.  The chances of these eggs becoming successful migratory butterflies is slim. Monarchs are tropical butterflies and don't have the adaptation to withstand freezing temperatures, so the first heavy frost will kill any eggs or caterpillars.  

The unhatched monarch eggs laid on tropical milkweed are pushing the limits of the fall migration.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Recapture named TJA 034

Yesterday we found this tagged Monarch with the tag number TJA 034. Currently we don't believe this code is one of our own. This is exciting news! It means that we've likely found a tag from a different tagging effort. Who knows how far away this Monarch may have flown from? It was quite worn so I would guess it has come quite a ways. Only time will tell!

Once we find out where it was tagged, we'll learn more about Monarch migration routes, and pace if migration. We can hopefully answer some questions like: Where do the Monarchs migrating through Cape May come from? How quickly were those Monarchs moving? How long has it been travelling, and how has that contributed to its level of wear? This is what our project is all about, and I'm very excited to hear more news of our little friend.

We will report this to Monarch Watch and in due time they post a summary of all of the year's recaptures. But we get enthusiastic about recaptures and would like to speed up the process. So if you know of any other groups or individuals who are tagging, please share this post (or the one from our facebook page, Cape May Monarchs) so that we can reach out to the lucky taggers more quickly.

The Season Isn't Finished

A surprising number of monarchs are still being seen around Cape May Point -- our team tagged over 100 on Monday!  Tuesday's predicted high temperature of 72 suggests another great day for monarchs and other butterflies.  Come and enjoy them if you can, we can't expect many more days like this in 2014.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Late season update

The wrap-up day for the Autumn Birding Festival was a hit. The winds were good for bringing in hawks and birds, and some Monarchs came along with them. The numbers of Monarchs migrating today came at a moderate pace. The butterfly bush at Triange park has been a reliable source of nectar for many species butterflies. The Triangle Park is one of few gardens still providing nectar for these fall migrants, as well as Tropical Milkweed on which to lay eggs. While most Common Milkweed has succumbed to the cold, Tropical Milkweed is still flowering and remains bright green. Whether or not the Tropical Milkweed is beneficial for the Monarchs or detrimental remains to be seen, and more research will have to be done to understand the effects of this non-native host plant on Monarch migration.

Today I saw a very early instar caterpillar feeding on the Tropical Milkweed flower. The milkweed flower is the only part which actually contains protein. This is an explanation for why the Monarch adult lays the eggs at the top of the plant, often on the underside of the top leaves or flowers, in order to provide the young caterpillar with the best possible food source. I was surprised to see such small caterpillars at this time of year. It seems that this young generation of caterpillars will probably have a hard time, considering that they're at risk of experiencing any overnight frosts in the coming weeks. Sadly, this is part of evolution; only those Monarchs that emerge at the right time of year can migrate and make it to Mexico before winter hits.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Autumn Weekend

We have big news! A Monarch tagged here on October 7th by Mark Garland was re-captured yesterday in St. Marks, Florida! These updates remind us that the work we do here is contributing to the overall picture of Monarch migration routes, speed, and overall changes occuring to the butterfly throughout this journey. Maybe this won't be the only re-capture this year. We know many of you who came to our demos have sponsored Monarchs, and we are eagerly waiting to see if your Monarchs will be recaptured. For any interested potential donors, it's not too late to sponsor your own Monarch! Pick up one of our brochures at the CMBO for details.

This has been a busy weekend for the Cape May Bird Observatory & the MMP with all of the exciting events going on. Today the MMP hosted 2 different demos. One was an exciting talk given by Mark Garland including images and video taken from the over-wintering grounds in Mexico he visited: Trees covered with Monarchs, the sky swarming with Monarchs in the morning as they come down to drink dew off the grass, visitors walking gingerly so as to not accidentally step on one of the Monarchs flying all around them. I think everyone in the room left his talk with the feeling that they needed to book a trip to see this magnificent wonder of nature for themselves.

The weather for this autumn weekend has been fantastic, there have been northwest winds and sunny days with cool breezes. Though we don't have huge numbers of Monarchs, I did note today a slight increase in species diversity coming through. Below are just a few visitors to Cape May Point Triangle Park:

Red Admiral

Orange Sulphur

Common Buckeye

There's one more day of autumn weekend, if you haven't been to any of the events yet, here's the schedule:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Monarch Evacuation

On Tuesday morning Cape May Point was loaded with monarchs.  Numbers had been building for several days, and by Monday evening we were seeing the biggest overnight roosts that we'd found all year, such as the one shown below.

By midday Tuesday, however, the numbers had begun to drop.  We stood on the dunes and watched as monarchs flew out over Delaware Bay.  A few came back, perhaps intimidated by all the water, but most departed that day.  By late afternoon the scene was dramatically different, with only a few monarchs found in the gardens and on the goldenrods.  Most of the monarchs were gone.

Our feelings are mixed by the big departures.  We're thrilled when the monarchs are here, yet we know they have to go, there's a long journey awaiting.  And it seems the monarchs got away just in time, for on Wednesday afternoon rain and heavy wind came to Cape May, and high winds are expected to continue for several days.  Terrible weather for monarch migration.  We miss you monarchs, but we're glad you got away when you did, and we wish you good luck for the journey that awaits.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Good Morning!

Wake up everybody! The driving census count this morning was the best yet. The Monarchs roosting along the dunes are warming up and are looking ready to get up and find some food. With this intermittent rain and West-southwest wind they haven't left to cross the Delaware Bay yet. This may be our last shot at such great numbers so take some time to cruise around the Point today.

Photo by Mark Garland, taken late yesterday afternoon.

The great numbers died down by this afternoon census. By this time, the winds had shifted to Northwest and had become rather weak. Perhaps it was good enough weather for crossing over to Delaware. The next couple of days are predicted to be rainy, so we shouldn't expect to see much until the rain passes over us. Luckily, the weather will be good for the Autumn Birding Festival! Monarchs are part of the events on Saturday, so make sure you plan your weekend around it! Here's the schedule:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sudden influx!

If you are reading this post today, go out to Harvard Avenue and follow the dunes. Monarchs are in the air and fluttering around the conifers in good numbers! Gentle winds have the monarchs active again, and more have arrived. This is unusually late in the season for such a big movement of monarchs, so enjoy the sight while it lasts, we don't know how long these groups will be with us!

Strong winds

Monarch nectaring on seaside goldenrod, trying
to avoid today's strong winds.

Sunday Cape May was hit with strong Northwest winds, greater than 20 mph for most of the day. The driving census totals were very low, because few butterflies were willing to fly in such wind. Many small roosts that formed along the dunes under conifer trees on Saturday didn't change much during the day. The 20-40 monarchs in these roosts only shifted position so that the butterflies were not windward. Thankfully, the dunes are there with intact tree cover.

Dunes occur naturally along the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean in New Jersey, but historically they would shift position periodically due to storms and persistent winds.  When humans build along the shore we don't allow the dunes to grow and shift naturally, and therefore it's necessary to replenish beach sands and rebuild the dunes periodically.  The last major project in Cape May was begun about 10 years ago.  Without the vegetated dunes, many monarchs would be without essential shelter from the wind. Seaside goldenrod grows along the dunes and is a critical food resource for monarchs, as few other native plants on the dunes are still blooming and providing nectar during the late stages of the monarch migration season. Concerned citizens of Cape May Point annually plant new patches of seaside goldenrod on the dunes.

Unfortunately these strong winds meant that some migrating birds and insects would be pushed over the Atlantic waters. Lighter winds are predicted for Monday, and we expect to see monarchs on the move again and birds returning to Cape May and trying to get back on course.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Wonderful Monarch Show

Today was one of the better monarch days we have had all season.  Monarchs were seen all over Cape May Point.  Our census numbers were high, the tagging was constant, and we even had a group of school children come and spend the day with the Monarch Monitoring Project.  It was a busy day that did not slow down until sunset.

Monarchs didn't even mind sharing nectar sources! 
The west winds, warm temperatures, and sunny conditions made this the perfect autumn day and brought many new winged travelers to Cape May.  The morning census had 65 total monarchs, and the afternoon had 81.  For an individual census run, both of these figures are much higher than we typically count.

It will be interesting to see what tomorrow brings.  The wind conditions are predicted to be west/ northwest, which is always what we look for in a good flight.  It is going to be cooler tomorrow, and breezier as well.  Some weather forecasts are calling for gusts up to 26 miles per hour.  We will have to see how these conditions work together, and influence the monarch flight.

Clear skies, warm air, and lots of butterflies.

We were happy to spend the afternoon with a school group from Parkesburg, Pennsylvania.  Some of the kids who visited came with their own experience raising monarchs, and others were learning about monarch ecology for the first time.  They were certainly a lively bunch, and were counting monarchs, learning about the tagging process, and asking questions all afternoon.  

As the sun was going down, monarchs were settling in to small roost sites along the dunes.  There were many small groups anywhere from 10 to 30 monarchs, in the pines, as well as on the goldenrod.  We hope tomorrow continues the great monarch show.  

In the pines across from St. Peters

Friday, October 17, 2014

Good Monarch Day With More on the Way

Monarchs were seen in good numbers today.  If you were walking, you might have even been able to catch the shadow of a monarch on the ground as it glided overhead.  It was a great day for all kinds of pollinators, and many insect species were seen nectaring on this warm and pleasant day.

Our team had a busy day that started off with a visit to West Cape May Elementary School.  Our seasonal field technicians were the guests of the kindergarten and pre-kindergarten class.  Both Angela and Lindsey read a story on monarchs, showed the students live monarch caterpillars, and went with the students on a walk which ended with a monarch butterfly release.  Both the kids and our interns had a wonderful time, and we are pleased to say that a patch of common milkweed was planted and growing in front of the school.

When the class went outside, there was even an unexpected surprise in the milkweed patch.  A beautiful green monarch chrysalis was attached to one of the milkweed seed pods.  This meant that the students got to see larva stage, (caterpillar) pupa stage (chrysalis) and newly emerged butterfly, all up close!

The weekend weather is looking very promising.  The forecast is still calling for west and west-northwest winds through Saturday and Sunday.  If these predictions hold true, then our team will certainly be doing a lot more tagging!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Monarch and Milkweed Update

Many monarchs can still be seen fluttering around the gardens of the Cape May Point.  The fall season may have one more push of monarchs in store.  This coming Saturday and Sunday call for sunny conditions, and are forecasted to have northwest, and west northwest winds.

The Monarch Monitoring Project has a tagging demo during Autumn Weekend, but our team is always happy to talk about tagging and monarch migration while working in the field.  We love when people have questions, and are always happy to do an impromptu demo.

A small male monarch - 48mm forewing length.

Fall is the season when milkweed naturally goes to seed.  If you have wanted to add a small milkweed patch to your garden, now is the perfect time.  The seeds need to be exposed to the cold of winter in order to grow in the spring, so now is the opportune time to plant.  The milkweed seeds don't need to be planted deep into the soil.  It is actually best to place the seeds on top of loose soil, and then lightly cover them with grass clippings or fine dirt.  

Photo Credit: Karen St. John - Common milkweed seed pods

Aside from serving as the host plant for monarch caterpillars, the milkweed plant has a fascinating history on its own.  During World War II, the white floss that is attached to the seeds was collected and used to stuff life jackets. The floss from milkweed plants is six times more buoyant that cork, and proved to be the perfect life vest filling.  

Bedding is also another use for milkweed floss.  Hummingbirds often use the floss to line their nests, and because the floss is a better insulator than goose down, it has been used by humans to stuff mattresses and pillows.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Southest winds

Today was a sunny and breezy day with Southeast winds. Butterfly bushes, Seaside Goldenrod, and New England Aster around town were bustling with activity. This was a welcome change after the past few days. I tagged almost 50 Monarchs and gave several casual tagging demonstrations to any curious passersby. This is a great aspect of the job, because I get to meet people with all different backgrounds and share the spectacular story of one amazing insect.

The rainy trend is predicted to continue tomorrow and the Thursday, giving everyone time to gear up for Friday,  which has potential to be a great migration day.

I've been noticing more Eastern commas around today. These butterflies have irregular wing edges and erratic, fast flight. The inward-facing side of the wings are well adapted for autumn due to its orange and coppery reds with dark brown spots.

Eastern comma (Polygonius comma) from front and back side. Note the silvery "C" on the hind wing.

Photo credit: Matthew Drollinger