I have been traveling a lot and so am tardy in sharing some very good news. I’ve heard from wildlife gardeners near and far that their milkweed patches have been discovered by egg-laying Monarchs. Caterpillars are still being found, lots of caterpillars! Chrysalises too, like the one above that I enjoyed today in Virginia Rettig’s lovely North Cape May wildlife garden!
Today I stopped at the West Cape May Elementary School to see their “Schoolyard Habitat” and was thrilled to find their thriving Common Milkweed patch with at least 5 Monarch chrysalises on the brick school and in under steps of wooden ladders placed near the garden (for just that purpose — a safe spot off the beaten path). Hopefully more and more schools will create and utilize outdoor wildlife gardens like this to connect students with the natural world.
I also stopped by the Cape May Bird Observatory’s Northwood Center (701 E. Lake Drive, Cape May Point, NJ) and was dazzled by their Monarch Migration display and by their terrariums full of hungry caterpillars and chrysalises!
Don’t miss the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project’s fun opportunities to learn about Monarchs this fall:
MONARCH TANK TALK
Fridays: Sept. 23, 30, and Oct. 7
10:00 to 10:15 a.m.
At the CMBO Northwood Center (701 E. Lake Drive, Cape May Point, NJ) . Free.
MONARCH TAGGING DEMOS
Every Friday, Saturday, Sunday, & Wednesday
Sept. 14 through October 16 (weather permitting)
2:00 to 2:45 p.m.
Meets at Cape May Point State Park at the East Shelter, the picnic pavilion next to the Hawkwatch Platform. No preregistration required. Family-friendly. FREE.
As many of you know I have written many posts about Monarchs and Milkweeds for “Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.” I’d love to share the links with you here so that you can do more reading, but sadly that lovely website is no longer.
Back in February the Press of Atlantic City pointed the finger at wildlife gardeners as contributing to the demise of Monarchs, specifically that by planting Tropical Milkweed we “may be killing” Monarchs. My e-mail box overflowed. My phone rang off the hook. I promised to get back to folks but didn’t get a chance until now.
I’ve addressed the issue and the latest news of Monarch numbers this past winter in Mexico, which directly affects the coming year.
To learn more be sure to read my latest post on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens:
PLEASE leave any comments in the comment section at the end of my post. That way other readers can benefit from your comment and my reply (rather than writing to me directly). Thanks a bunch!
Many are concerned and planting milkweeds, but there too you have to be careful of where you buy your native milkweeds. Don’t buy milkweeds from big box stores because many plants sold by big box stores have been treated with insecticides called neonicitinoids. Monarch caterpillars will die eating these plants! Read more HERE.
Other posts I’ve written about Monarchs may also be of interest:
This year, I’ve been asked more times than I can count, “Where are the Monarchs?”
It is now fall and Monarchs are migrating through Cape May on their way south to the mountains of Mexico where they will winter. They’re not absent. We’re seeing some. But few came from our wildlife gardens, where previously our gardens were responsible for generation after generation. My garden in all of 2013 (so far) has attracted less than 20 Monarchs and I’ve only found 1 caterpillar. That’s OFF, big time!
I fear that this coming winter (2013-2014) their numbers at the winter roost sites in Mexico will be even lower than last winter, which was the lowest in 20 years.
Read my latest post on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens, “Where are the Monarchs in 2013?” to learn about the plight of eastern Monarchs and why we’re seeing so few.
Late-breaking GREAT news (and photos) from Jean Gutsmuth!
At the garden of a friend in Haddon Heights, New Jersey, the numbers of chrysalises hanging from EVERYWHERE on her house and garage is amazing; she estimated 95 to 100 on September 20, 2013. They are hanging from eaves, window sills, around door frames, and even on the bricks of her house. The friend shared that she never saw more than perhaps two pairs of monarchs at one time. Although she had a fairly good size garden of milkweed, it is pretty well stripped. Thank you Jean for giving us this GREAT news and sharing your photos. Let’s hope there are many more pockets of Monarchs like this!
It’s spring and Red-spotted Purple caterpillars are venturing out of their winter hibernaculums. Partially grown caterpillars created these safe retreats last fall by silking a tiny leaf shut, silking the leaf to the tree, then crawling inside and going to sleep for the winter. All the other leaves fell from Black Cherry trees and Beach Plum bushes, but the hibernaculum leaves remained still attached – a tell-tale sign to a keen naturalist that some creature might be inside.
As temperatures warm, these teeny tiny caterpillars (about one-quarter inch long) are venturing forth, sunning in the warmth and looking for tasty buds on their host plant (Black Cherry, Beach Plum, . . .).
Around homes, as treasured wood piles are dismantled for firewood over the course of a winter, possibly quite a few Mourning Cloaks, Question Marks, and Commas are disturbed from their slumber on brutally cold winter days and meet their demise.
To ensure the survival of these unique butterflies that overwinter as adults, consider building a Butterfly House.
Learn how easy it is to build a Butterfly House by reading my latest column at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.
On September 23, 2012, I watched one of the very last Red-spotted Purples in the garden. It danced around the Beach Plums and I thought it must be laying eggs. I looked closely at leaf after leaf, zeroing in on the very tip where Red-spotted Purples carefully lay their jewel-like egg, but could find none.
As I scrutinized the leaves I spotted a different treasure than expected – a teeny-tiny caterpillar silking a bit of leaf to the branch and silking the leaf curled shut.
I stepped back from the Beach Plum, looked at the bush as a whole, and noticed other similar leaves . I knew just what I was looking at, though I’d never seen one before – a nearly completed HIBERNACULUM, where a partially grown Red-spotted Purple caterpillar would winter, hopefully safely.
This fall’s Monarch Migration at Cape May has been magical. Each cold front has brought another wave.
Flights on September 23 and 24, 2012,
were steady all day long with Monarchs floating down the beachfront from dawn till dusk. Each of those evenings, by late afternoon, Monarchs began gathering at roost sites in Red Cedars near blooming Groundsel-tree in dunes along the beachfront and in deciduous trees near blooming English Ivy along the rural streets of Cape May Point.
Still finding Monarch eggs and caterpillars
And through it all we’re still finding Monarch caterpillars on milkweed, so please, please, please, DO NOT cut down the milkweed in your garden. Despite looking “done” it’s still helping the Monarch population swell.
Monarch Roost, 7:00 to 8:30 a.m.
Yesterday morning (September 25), at first light, I visited sites where Monarchs had roosted through the night. As the sun warmed them and they were able to fly, they dropped down onto blooming Groundsel-tree and nectared heartily. It was magical – no other way to describe it!
Even though I’ve witnessed Monarch evening roosts dozens of times over the many falls we’ve lived in Cape May County, I can never get enough of them. Red Cedar trees sometimes adorned with a thousand plus Monarchs, wings closed and looking like dead leaves until a newcomer flies by and they all open their wings as if to say, “Join us, this is a safe place to rest.”
Winds switched the morning of September 25, coming from the southwest – a headwind for a migrating Monarch (winds that do not help them continue their migration south). With this being the case, many Monarchs could not continue their migration, but are still around Cape May.
Next coldfront: Thursday, September 27
Another cold front is predicted for Thursday (September 27), winds that just might bring another wave of southbound Monarchs.
If you’ve never witnessed the magic of the Monarch Migration at Cape May, this is the fall to do it. Not every autumn is accented with magical Monarch flights, but this fall is proving to be just such a fall.
Don’t contact me to learn if there’s to be a Monarch flight
I may be out of town and you might miss one.
Instead, pay close attention to the weather
If it turns cold and you’ve got to track down flannel pajamas
and pull up the comforter at night
get to Cape May the next day!
That cold weather is a cold front – with north and northwest winds – winds that carry Monarchs and other migrants (Red Bats, dragonflies, warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, raptors, and so much more) out to the coast and south to land’s end at Cape May Point!
If the weather is warm and Indian summer-like, well . . . the winds are probably from the south and pushing migrants away from Cape May. If that is the case, well, don’t bother coming. But if it is cold and blustery, get here quickly.
Monitor the 3 websites I’ve listed below and read the posts
On these posts, folks often predict when they feel the next good Monarch flight might happen. Monarchs often gather at roosts in the dunes and around Cape May Point from about 3 p.m. on at the end of a good flight. If there’s been a cold front any time from mid-September through October, Monarchs may pour to the tip, Cape May Point.
Attend some of the Cape May Bird Observatory’s “Monarch Tagging Demos.” The folks who help with the Monarch Tagging Demos are “in the know” about roosting Monarchs. Talk with them and express your keen interest, and they’ll gladly share how you can best keep your pulse on the Monarch migration and not miss a good gathering.
We were away in South Carolina running two butterfly counts (in their 20th year – a whole other butterfly-rich story to tell). Upon our return on August 29th, we found our garden swimming in Painted Ladies. We tallied 21, far more than we’d ever seen in our garden before.
To give you a feel for just how unusual this was, we never saw a single Painted Lady in our garden in 2011 and only 9 in 2010.
Much to our amazement, numbers steadily rose each day: 35 on August 30, 54 on August 31, and 70 on September 1. Numbers held steady at 70 for a few days, then shot up to 106 on September 5. Clouds of butterflies lifted, scattered, and settled back on blooming Sedum and other plants as we slowly and reverently walked through our magic garden.
We were told there were thousands of Painted Ladies at lands end, Cape May Point.
A cold front hit on September 6, bringing rain and “raining” migrant songbirds. Our garden filled up with hungry Common Yellowthroats and other warblers and flycatchers. They feasted on butterflies and moths and the wealth of other pollinators in the garden.
Since then Painted Lady numbers have slowly nudged back up to 60. Not the 106 of September 5, but still a sight to behold. It’s quite magical as they lift off, scatter, and settle back on blooming Sedum when we walk through the garden. Throughout all this there have been small numbers of the normally more common American Lady mixed in.
Funnily enough one of our Leopard Frogs has decided that the feasts to be had in the garden are far more desirable than the feasts to be had in the pond. Several times now we’ve found this opportunistic Leopard Frog nestled down in the sedum patiently waiting for an easy snack.
Can’t wait to see how the rest of the fall of 2012 unfolds.
Painted Ladies were formerly called “The Cosmopolite” because they are found on every continent (except Antarctica). Yet, they can not tolerate freezing temperatures in any form (as an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, or adult). They safely winter on the Mexican Plateau (northern and central Mexico) each winter. By spring they begin to repopulate the US from Mexico. Some years their numbers here in the East are nonexistent, other years very low, and every now and then their numbers are good. But in our 35+ years of watching butterflies and gardening for them, we’ve never seen explosive numbers like these! Robert Michael Pyle shares in his book, the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, that these drastic fluctuations from year to year are due to a variety of factors: cycles of parasite attack, caterpillar plant defoliation, and / or superabundance of nectar following heavy winter rains.
I’ve had lots and lots of wildlife gardeners all over New Jersey and the Northeast share their Red Admiral sightings with me. Hopefully you saw some of this mega flight yourself, involving many millions of Red Admirals, so many that cars everywhere couldn’t help but hit hundreds (or probably thousands) of them some days.
My fist awareness of the MEGA Red Admiral movement was on May 1st, the day we returned from presenting a program to Chesapeake Audubon Society in Maryland. Our lilacs were covered with them. We’d just learned that Pink Lady-Slippers were blooming, so visited a woods along Kimbles Beach Road in the Cape May NWR to see them and were astounded by the 100s of Red Admirals (and lesser numbers of American Ladies, Question Marks, and Painted Ladies) pouring out of the woods, all dashing north. That evening I drove to Wildwood on an errand and the flight continued the entire length of my drive . . . I saw 100s of Red Admiral pouring north everywhere along the way, so many that I couldn’t help but hit my fair share of them.
May 3rd I stopped what I was doing (preparing for a “Backyard Habitat for Birds, Butterflies, Dragonflies, and More!” workshop) to drink in the explosion of Red Admirals nectaring on Black Cherry trees. I’d never seen anything like it and could only compare what I was seeing to a butterfly house (where 100s or 1000s of butterflies are raised and released every day into an enclosed butterfly house to entertain visitors). The numbers on each blooming Black Cherry tree were off-the-charts. Every few seconds 100s exploded out of the tree, to land again and continue nectaring. The tree seemed alive with Red Admirals. It was hard to capture on film, so I focused on some portraits of nectaring Red Admirals and Question Marks and American Ladies. I had to pull myself away to get back to work.
May 6th I visited Cape May NWR woodlands on Kimbles Beach Road to show a friend an enormous Red Cedar I’d found (8′ 7″ around at chest height), a real big’n. It was about 10:00 a.m. and we saw a few Red Admirals flitting about. But when we entered the woods it was like entering a magic woodland, in that every sunlit patch of the forest floor was covered with 20-40 Red Admirals (and lesser numbers of Question Marks and American Ladies) that lifted off the forest floor, sailed around, then settled back down onto the forest floor to warm up for the day. We ended this visit by driving the road out to the Delaware Bay shoreline and were dazzled by another natural history show unfolding, 100s of Horseshoe Crabs tumbling in the tideline, mating.
May 8th I was interviewed by Phaedra Laird of NBC 40 WMGM-TV and her cameraman, wanting to learn of the Red Admiral migration. Numbers had dropped off. The Black Cherry trees were still in full flower, but Red Admirals were not in attendance. But our Stinging Nettle patch was another story. I’d dared to plant it in our wildlife garden, just for Red Admirals. I was able to point out Red Admiral eggs on the leaves of my Stinging Nettle. The more I looked, the more I found, until I realized that the patch supported 100s and 100s of eggs. Several female Red Admirals were in attendance, laying more, one after the next. We peeked inside a curled-shut leaf and found a teeny-tiny Red Admiral caterpillar.
Rick Cech and Guy Tudor’s great book, Butterflies of the East Coast, An Observer’s Guide, shares the following really cool natural history information. Red Admirals withdraw from the North each fall and maintain thin, permanent resident populations from the Carolinas south. They steadily repopulate the north every spring, but this movement north usually goes unnoticed. Though about once every 10 years, massive spring flights on the East Coast have been documented: 1981, 1990, 2001, and now 2012. This year’s MEGA flight could be due to the mild winter where many more Red Admirals survived the winter to mate and lay eggs and grow in number until this explosion north.
Looking back at my notes from the May 5-8, 1990 flight Clay reminded me that we’d found 100s washed ashore along the ocean front, individuals that had been blown offshore and never made it back to land. Let’s hope that this flight has not triggered something similar.
Jack Connor has compiled many observations and counts tallied by naturalists all over South Jersey of this MEGA May 2012 Red Admiral spring migration. Go to his South Jersey Butterfly Blog to read these fun accounts: as of May 7 and as of May 5.
Manage your wildlife habitat for the survival of the wildlife you’ve attracted. Mourning Cloaks need leaf litter, brush piles, and hollow trees for their survival. Learn more about these ethereal butterflies by reading my latest post on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.