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Cape May Monarch Madness

Photos by Pat and Clay Sutton

by Clay and Pat Sutton

This year's Cape May Monarch migration has been bringing dozens, hundreds or thousands of Monarchs a day, floating south along the beachfront, across marshes, over dunes, and through gardens on their way to Mexico. Gentle winds from the north or northwest are best, pushing huge numbers our way. They pile up at the tip of the first major peninsula on the East Coast, in Cape May and Cape May Point.

Thankfully many Cape May County residents welcome Monarchs each fall into their gardens, gardens they’ve filled with a variety of nectar plants and healthy stands of Milkweed!

This past summer these very same gardens hosted generation after generation of resident Monarchs, each living about 4 to 6 weeks. Summer Monarchs busily mated and laid eggs on Common Milkweed, Butterfly Weed, Swamp Milkweed, and Tropical Milkweed (all members of the Milkweed Family).

Plants were stripped, sometimes bare, as hungry caterpillars munched and grew. Each full-sized caterpillar wandered off to a safe off-the-beaten-path spot and transformed into a chrysalis (the miracle of metamorphosis . . . a complete change in life form).

Eight to eleven days later an adult Monarch butterfly emerged from the chrysalis . . . joining the swelling summer population.

Even in late September, local gardeners were still finding Monarch eggs on milkweed, laid by remaining members of the summer generation. From egg to adult butterfly takes about one month. Do the math!

Late Monarch's

Some migrating Monarchs are yet to be born. Eggs found in late October are the reason we sometimes see adult Monarchs passing south in late November and early December.

The final fall generation of Monarch is programmed to migrate, and NOT to mate. Because of this they live longer, up to 8 or 9 months. Throughout the eastern U.S. the final fall generation of Monarch migrates to the mountains of central Mexico where they will winter.

They begin crossing into Mexico in mid-October and reach the winter roost areas by late October. By mid November at 10,000 foot elevation Oyamel fir trees in the heart of the roosts sites are covered in Monarchs. Others continue to arrive into December and later.

Millions upon millions of Monarchs winter in Mexico at high altitude roosts where flowers are scarce, surviving on fat reserves they’ve build up during their fall migration. A pathway of wildlife gardens along the coast and at land’s end (Cape May and Cape May Point) certainly plays a key role in the survival of migrating Monarchs, as do natural areas and vacant lots full of healthy stands of blooming Seaside Goldenrod, one of their favorite nectar plants!

In February when temperatures warm in the mountains of Mexico, these millions upon millions of Monarchs become sexually mature and mate. They begin to journey north in March, females laying eggs on milkweed as they go. Their children (hatched from eggs laid on Milkweed along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana) journey further north, perhaps reaching Cape May by mid to late April.

And so the leapfrog of Monarchs repopulate the U.S. and southern Canada each spring, wherever milkweed grows. We can only hope that a pathway of gardens, including stands of milkweed, will greet them along the way so Monarch Madness can be savored again and again and again!

Monarch Banding Demonstrations

Free half-hour Monarch Tagging Demos are offered by teh Cape may Bird Observatory every Friday through Monday and Wednesdays (weather permitting) at 2PM through October 17. Meet at the Cape May Point State Park at the East Shelter, the picnic pavilion next to the Hawkwatch Platform.

Wildlife Gardening Workshops

Pat Sutton will teach three instructive Gardening for Wildlife Workshops for NJ Audubon’s Nature Center of Cape May (609-898-8848):

  • Saturday, November 17, 2007: “How to Create a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.”
  • Saturday, December 1, 2007: “How to Create a Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden.”
  • Saturday, December 8, 2007: “How to Create a Wildflower Meadow and Pond for Wildlife.”

Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and authors.

Click to read more about Clay and Pat Sutton's new book!


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