As summer winds down, birds and retirees aren't the only ones flying south for the winter.
Monarch butterflies — the regal pollinators known for glimmering orange and black wings — are about to embark on an annual journey to Mexico that will span thousands of miles. Along the way, many will pass through New Jersey, drawing tourists to the Cape May area and providing New Jersey Audubon researchers with a golden opportunity to measure their numbers and activities.
The organization's Monarch Monitoring Project will keep close tabs on the butterflies from September through October, as it has annually, for 26 years. As researchers work daily to track and tally the insects, the program will also provide the curious with a chance to learn more and, if they're lucky, even see some caterpillars emerge from their chrysalides as Monarchs.
It is important to monitor the butterflies, whose population has declined over the years, for their sake and our own, said Mark Garland, director of New Jersey Audubon’s Monarch Monitoring Project.
“The migration that the Monarch butterflies undertake is really one of the great wildlife spectacles of North America,” he said. “We also know that as the Monarch goes, so goes other insects. The Monarch is no doubt something of a canary in the coalmine when it comes to insect health. We carefully track their health.”
In the upcoming weeks, researchers will conduct a daily census of the migrating butterflies. They will drive along the same five-mile route, near the Cape May Bird Observatory, three times per day, counting the number of Monarchs they see.
“Because this sampling occurs each year, it provides researchers with a remarkable long-term data set to track an important population,” Garland said.
Equally important is the group's campaign to track individual Monarchs. Researchers place tiny adhesive tags on their wings. If they encounter these butterflies again, the compiled data offers critical insights into the direction and speed of the migration.
In 2016, researchers tagged 3,592 Monarchs, most of them at Cape May Point. Since the project began, New Jersey Audubon staffers have recovered 70 tagged butterflies in Mexico.
“Each one that's found in Mexico represents many, many more,” Garland explained. “We also found that most stay east of the Appalachian Mountains and then near southern Georgia and northern Florida. They make a right-hand turn and follow the Gulf coast to Texas, and from there they beeline it to the mountains of Mexico.”
In one fascinating case, a butterfly tracked in Cape May traveled hundreds of miles to Georgia in just three days.
The Monarch Monitoring Project also undertakes an educational outreach campaign. New Jersey Audubon hosts dozens of public programs each fall, teaching thousands about Monarchs, how they are tagged and how people can grow butterfly gardens to nurture the insects.
“Everybody loves these programs,” Garland said. “You can just see the smiles on people's faces.”
New Jersey Audubon project maintains a terrarium stocked with caterpillars at the Cape May Bird Observatory - Northwood Center. There, guests can watch the insect run through its life cycle. When one begins to emerge from its chrysalis, staff members call over patrons, who then get the enviable chance to witness a rare part of a Monarch's life.
These public-facing activities are important because they help people grow more passionate about the Monarch, which faces dangers because of the chronic loss of milkweed habitat and climate change. What's more, the butterflies spark interest in conservation and natural history, Garland said.
To meet its research and awareness goals, the Monarch Monitoring Project came under New Jersey Audubon's wing. Working with the top environmental organization in the state has proved a welcome benefit for Garland and his team, he said.
“To be able to take advantage of New Jersey Audubon's tremendous outreach into the communities and help us spread the word about the need for conservation has been delightful,” Garland said.