Monarch Caterpillars: Numbers in Gardens this late Summer and Fall (2016)

sm-monarch-chrysalis-in-virginiarettiggdn-9-25-16001-sigHi Gang,

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.

Display at CMBO Northwood Center on 9-25-16

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:


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.


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.

Full details about these and other programs can be found in CMBO’s Kestrel Express.

To keep your finger on the pulse of the Monarch migration through Cape May this fall, go to the Monarch Monitoring Project BLOG.

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.


Monarchs and Milkweed in 2015

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A meadow of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in Cumberland County, NJ. I’d love to see wildlife management areas around NJ and elsewhere thick with this native wildflower, but sadly invasive non-natives have crowded them out in many places


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:

Monarch & Milkweed Concerns — 2015

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:

Too, I’ll be giving my “Milkweeds for Monarchs” program, packed with helpful information, three times this spring.  Check out our “Upcoming Events” page for details and plan to join me.

Monarchs, Where are They in 2013 ?

Monarch on Giant Sunflower in my fall wildlife garden

I am very concerned about Monarchs

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.

If you are not familiar with the many posts I wrote for Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens (as well as the other excellent daily posts), you might want to bookmark the site and learn from it daily.

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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!

sm-95 chrysalises (Haddon Heights GDN)-by JeanGutsmuth-9-20-13 (001) sm-95 chrysalises (Haddon Heights GDN)-by JeanGutsmuth-9-20-13 (002) sm-95 chrysalises (Haddon Heights GDN)-by JeanGutsmuth-9-20-13 (003) sm-95 chrysalises (Haddon Heights GDN)-by JeanGutsmuth-9-20-13 (005) sm-95 chrysalises (Haddon Heights GDN)-by JeanGutsmuth-9-20-13 (006)

Red-spotted Purples are waking up

Red-spotted Purple caterpillar on its first walkabout, April 15, 2013. Notice its hibernaculum, the home where if safely survived winter.

It’s Spring

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.

From late June on this lovely butterly is a regular in our garden, especially if we maintain a dish of gooey fruit – which they favor over flower nectar


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, . . .).

To learn more about the neat life history of this stunning butterfly, read my April post on Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

How to Build a Butterfly House

Mourning Cloak – survive winter as an adult

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.

Our butterfly house



Learn how easy it is to build a Butterfly House by reading my latest column at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens.

Hibernaculum: Winter Home to Red-spotted Purple

Partially grown Red-spotted Purple caterpillar preparing its hibernaculum (winter home)

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.

Learn about the complete life cycle of the Red-spotted Purple and how they survive the winter in my latest column at Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens, where fellow long-time wildlife gardeners share what we’ve learned over years of sometimes painful trial and error.

Monarch Migration at Cape May — Fall 2012

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.

Even nasty looking Common Milkweed is still vital to Monarchs, leave it standing through fall

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.

Monarchs on a blooming male Groundsel-tree, September 25, 2012

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.

I’ll be sharing my “Milkweeds & Monarchs” program on Monday evening, October 1, 2012, at the County Library, 30 Mechanic Street, Cape May Court House, NJ.  Join me!  It’s FREE.

Good luck with the miracle of migrating Monarchs!

See you in the field.

Painted Lady Explosion – September 2012

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.

Painted Lady and American Lady ID is a puzzle to many. These photos should sort it out for you.

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.

Opportunistic Leopard Frog patiently waiting for its next meal

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.

Red Admiral MEGA Migration, May 2012

Red Admirals nectaring on Black Cherry blossoms, 5-4-12

Hi Gang,

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.

Pink Lady-Slipper, 5-1-12

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.

RedAdmiral (1)
Red Admiral on Black Cherry blossom
Red Cedar.jpg
Ancient Red Cedar, 8′ 7″ around

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.

Horseshoe Crabs
Horseshoe Crabs mating in tideline of Delaware Bay, 5-6-12

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.

A blizzard of Red Admirals on Black Cherry tree blossoms, 5-4-12

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.