They soar over sand dunes with effortless grace and cling to the seaside goldenrods as the wind whistles across the beach. Every September and October, monarch butterflies stop in Cape May Point before continuing their 2,000 mile migration to Mexico.
“Monarchs do not have an adaptation that allows them to survive winter’s cold in any of their life stages and in one of the more spectacular migratory movements of North America, tens of millions of monarch butterflies leave eastern half of United States, southern Canada on an epic trek all the way to the mountains west of Mexico City,” said Mark Garland, communications director of the Monarch Monitoring Project. “Monarchs literally do migrate over every place in the United States but geography conspires to have an abnormal number of monarchs come through Cape May.”
Cape May Point acts as a highway rest stop, so to speak, for the butterflies. They descend on the beach town to feed on its many flowers before making the 10-mile journey across the Delaware Bay.
“The monarch has this special quality of … hold one up and people stop and they want to hear more about it, they want to see them,” said Dick Walton, director of the Monarch Monitoring Project.
Walton founded the Monarch Monitoring Project 20 years ago. The team conducts daily census counts throughout September and October. This season is an especially above average year for monarch sightings.
“Why becomes a set of speculations. We can think that it was a very good year weather-wise for the monarchs along the East Coast,” Garland said. “We had not severe drought, but not real heavy rains either.”
The team monitors the monarchs’ path to Mexico by tagging the insects. Field technicians catch the butterflies, record their measurements and scratch off a portion of their scales to apply a permanent sticker.
Over the 20 years the Monarch Monitoring Project has been tagging butterflies, about 80 monarchs tagged in Cape May Point have been found in Mexico. That might not sound like a lot but it’s impressive given that one in 1,000 butterflies are recaptured each year.
The organization continues to attract people to their tagging workshops, like 4-year-old Haley Moylan. It appeared as though one butterfly didn’t want to leave Haley’s tiny fingertip.
“It was very exciting,” said Jennifer Moylan of Hatfield, Pa. “It’s the very first time we’ve ever done something like this.”
Haley’s butterfly finally took flight, leaving the crowd in awe of her beauty.
Lauren Wanko reports from Cape May Point.