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 29, 2018

Monarch updates and the caterpillars of Cape May

Migratory activity has been finally speeding up for the season, and our team is very eager to be out and about on the point with monarchs abounding. Typical for this time of the season, fewer are being found nectaring on thoroughwort while more and more are choosing to feed off of butterfly bush. This transition will continue, and eventually seaside goldenrod will provide nectar for migrating monarchs. 

With falcons soaring and diving across the point, Friday's cloudy weather and strong winds put a temporary halt on monarch activity in Cape May. However, this was the perfect opportunity to go out and find monarchs in their other stages of metamorphosis. 

In addition to tagging migratory monarchs, the MMP also raises a small number of monarchs from eggs and caterpillars at the Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center. If you're in the area, it is definitely worth coming to check out our tanks, where eggs are hatching and caterpillars are demolishing fresh milkweed faster than we can supply it. It is a bustling terrarium, and if you're lucky, maybe you'll see a caterpillar pupate, or a chrysalis eclose. 

When the tagging has been slow, in our daily travels Sarah and I have come across an interesting array of other caterpillars we'd like to share. 

An early instar black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) feeding on increasingly bare stems of dill. They are commonly found in gardens because they feed on the leaves of parsley, dill, carrots, fennel, and other related plants. If you see them form chrysalises, don't move them indoors because unlike monarchs they will overwinter locally as pupa.

A snowberry clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) feeding on its host plant, a native honeysuckle. As adults, these moths are day flying nectar feeders and will often be seen at the same flowers as the monarchs. 

Brazilian skippers are here in Cape May! While they are typically restricted to Florida and Texas, they will occasionally make their way north into Cape May. If you seen Canna leaves rolled up, they are probably tucked away inside to hide from predators.

A personal favorite - the saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) was found in a garden on Canna. You can look, but don't touch, because they are covered in urticating hairs that can cause a painful sting and lasting reaction. They belong to a family of moths called the slug moths, named for their strange often sluglike appearances. 

A snake on the monarch blog? Not today - this is the clever spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus). Their bright eyespots are used to scare away birds, due to their resemblance to snakes. They can be found on their namesake spicebush, in addition to sassafrass and sweet bay. 

And finally, we couldn't wrap up the blog without including the monarch caterpillar. For as often as they are seen, they never lose their magic in enticing folks of all ages and backgrounds into the world of wildlife. Their thick yellow, black, and white bands can be surprisingly well hidden below leaves of milkweed, but if you turn over enough leaves, you're bound to be rewarded with a look at one of these charismatic creatures. 
Happy caterpillaring!

[Post by 2018 Field Naturalist Lindsey Cathcart]

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