Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monarchs Happened....

Monarch butterflies are well known as one of the world's great migratory insects and Cape May always sees a lot of Monarchs passing through each autumn, but this autumn we experienced something very special. Weather conditions set just right for an awesome gathering of Monarchs at Cape May Point this year, with a period of gentle northerly and north-westerly winds first ensuring that butterflies were on the move and heading for southern New Jersey. But then things changed; the weather turned against the migrants; a stornger westerly element in the wind would have meant that any Monarchs trying to cross the Delaware Bay would risk being blown out to sea, so it was time to hang out until conditions changed. And hang out they did; Monarchs drifted slowly west along the southern tip of Cape May Point then turned in to the well-treed properties behind the dunes. And here they waited, spending the day feeding on the flowers in the State Park and in private gardens around the point. What came next was truly amazing as Monarchs gathered to roost for the night, then headed out the next day. Here's a summery of the weekend of September 18th and 19th in pictures.

We knew they were coming; we all knew they were coming, but we could have no idea just how many Monarchs would be at Cape May Point by Saturday evening. It all started with a wonderful flight of Monarchs, all drifting south to the point, then west along the dunes.

By Saturday lunchtime, reports of 'roosts' were reaching the Hawkwatch Platform. In fact, these were insects gathering at rich food sources which, at this time of the year, often means Common Ivy - a plant which bears flowers in autumn and fruit in late winter.

As the sun started to lower in the western sky, there was the opportunity for some fun with backlit individuals...

...then backlit groups.

But soon it was clear that a major roost was developing in Stites Avenue - a location favored in previous years. The roost typically began on evergreen Red Cedars and American Holly, but soon spread to this Black Cherry as space ran out...

...then to this ornamental privet...

...and eventually even to the bare branches of a stand of White Poplars.

06:30 Sunday morning saw people gathering in Stites Avenue again and even as the first light cut across the point, butterflies were getting restless and were itching to get going.

By 07:00 the sun was hitting the tree tops and wings were beginning to vibrate as flight muscles were warmed.

Ever more and more butterflies worked their way into the sun to get warm and ready for flight.

The start of the big lift was not far away as the vanguard tested the air currents.

The moment before lift off, with most of the Monarchs now fanning their wings. Wondering what the tree is by the way? Well, with such a heavenly sight it can surely only be one thing - yes, it really is Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven.

With the roosts now up in the air, the dune crossover was the place to be, as butterflies tested the air currents and waited for the right moment. I call this picture simply "Look Mark, a Monarch!"

Traditional passtimes continued on the beach, but what a morning to be there!

After some pretty amazing point counts, when Tom Johnson did a quick 360 degree estimate of 5200 butterflies passing Higbee Dike and Monarchs were passing along the beach at Coral Avenue at a steady 700 per minute, the main event suddenly happened right before our very eyes. At around 08:00 the wind shifted a little, from roughly Northwest to Northeast. I felt the change on the back of my neck and at the very same moment Monarchs just happened. That sums it up for me - Monarchs happened! An uncountable mass of black and orange simply left New Jersey and headed out across Delaware Bay. How many? We'll never know, but figure on 100,000 butterflies from our one viewpoint - then add on all the ones around the corner! Later that day, we heard that Cape Henlopen naturalists - over on the other side of the bay in Delaware - reckoned on half a million Monarchs passing them that day....

That's it. Just time to add that the comments uttered at the time were all part of the occasion; Michael O'Brien: "No rarity is better than a migration event". Vince Elia: "I'm so speechless, I can't stop talking!". And I know that Vince was speechless because I heard him telling everyone!