The weekly report from the world’s birdwatching capital… by Seymore Thanu
Anybody seen any monarchs around lately? Monarch butterflies. Big, orange-and-black insects about the size of your average chocolate-chip cookie. You could hardly swing a lollipop and not hit one of the things a couple weekends ago. Various people made various estimates, but one I heard put the number of migrating monarchs in Cape May on September 18 at 1.5 million.
That’s a lot of biomass and a lot of reconstituted milkweed (the host plant for monarchs).
Wait a minute, you’re thinking, isn’t this supposed to be a column about birds?
Yes. Or maybe mostly. Or maybe no, what gave you that idea? The title?
Fact is, most people who enjoy birds don’t let their partiality stop where feathers begin and end. Any old envoy of nature is likely to be appreciated, especially something as stunning as a monarch butterfly.
I was at Cape May Point State Park and even people who wouldn’t cross the street to see a bird were stopping in their tracks. Opening their mouths. Nudging each other and commenting on all the butterflies.
Not bugs. Not insects. Butterflies. They really recognized them.
Like I said, I was at Cape May Point State Park. I tried to do ten one-minute point counts, surveying the monarchs I could see passing using only my eyes (no binoculars). The average count was 180 insects passing every minute.
Sound like a lot? It was. But it’s not even half my record. In 1999, I estimated 500 butterflies a minute. And that’s not even the biggest count I ever witnessed. Back in 1976 or 1977 (before anybody was paying attention to monarchs, including me) I witnessed a flight so massive that Sunset Boulevard was paved with butterfly wings.
Dismembered wings. The sort that fall to the pavement when cars hit flying butterflies.
Remember, there were a lot fewer cars on Sunset Boulevard at the end of September back in 1976. But there were massive numbers of butterflies.
So why am I telling you about this spectacular aggregation when it’s past? Well, because it ain’t over yet. There is a very real possibility that this great, recent flight was just a warm-up. Fact is, the big monarch migration push occurs at the end of September or the beginning of October – like when you’ll be reading this column.
It’s possible, just possible, that we’re heading for another, larger flight. Breeding monarchs do well in dry years, and this has been a very dry summer. A cold front passing anytime between September 28 and October 8 is almost certain to ferry a big orange cloud of butterflies our way.
Maybe a record flight.
In the evening, when tired monarchs call it a day, the goldenrod on the dunes turns orange beneath the weight of monarchs. Roost trees, facing east towards the rising sun, are festooned with these jeweled treasures.
Wings closed, monarchs look like dead leaves. Wings open, they look like a bright, orange dollop of stained-glass window.
The folks at the Cape May Bird Observatory are keeping tabs on the migration. They’ve been taking annual surveys for a number of years. They have tagging programs and demonstrations and it’s all free…
Well, it doesn’t cost anything to just head for Cape May Point and watch what qualifies as one of New Jersey’s most spectacular natural spectacles.
Stop by the CMBO; pick up something with a monarch on it! Just think. You could be there the day they break the monarch record. Of course, nature offers no promises. She also offers no rain checks. If it happens and you miss it, the fault will be yours.
The Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) is THE place for anything to do with nature. Located at 701 East Lake Drive overlooking lovely Lake Lily in Cape May Point, the center is open 9:30–4:30pm daily. Ask any of our staff – they are always glad to help with anything you need. Check out the monarch merchandise, the newest in books (including Pete Dunne’s newest Bayshore Summer), bird feeders, and some great new and fun merchandise – including our exclusive CMBO logo jewelry, clothing, totes, and more. Take a look at the sightings log to check what’s being seen, pick up a bargain from the vintage books section, look at some of the wonderful Charley Harper merchandise, or just browse. And if you aren’t fortunate enough to be in the area, visit us online www.BirdCapeMay.org – where birding Cape May is only a click away.
Seymore Thanu is none other than New Jersey’s own Pete Dunne, Director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and Chief Communications Officer for New Jersey Audubon. Author of several books on and about nature (available at the CMBO) he weaves information, insight and even fantasy into a net that captures minds and hearts. He has written for virtually every birding publication and for The New York Times.