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Festivals celebrate monarch butterflies fall migration

Numbered stickers are being attached to monarch butterflies in California to track their winter travels. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Numbered stickers are being attached to monarch butterflies in California to track their winter travels. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

NATURE -- If you're looking for a different sort of fall vacation, consider focusing on one of five national wildlife refuge hot spots for the Eastern population during the fall migration of monarch butterflies.

Every fall, monarch butterflies fly thousands of miles from as far north as Canada to overwinter in Mexico. When swarms of monarchs pause en route to rest and feed on nectar-bearing plants, admirers will be ready to see them blanket trees and shrubs in orange and black.  

See more details on both the East and West migrations.

Read on for more details about monarchs and some prime viewing spots in five states.

From the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

People start calling St. Marks National Wildlife Refugeas early as August to ask when the monarch butterflies are coming. The refuge is the last stop for thousands of migrating monarchs before they fly over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.

If all goes right, St. Marks’ Butterfly Festival(this year, on Saturday, October 27) will coincide with peak monarch arrival on Florida’s Panhandle ─ when swarms of the tired butterflies drop down and feed on blossoming salt bushes and goldenrod. Then they wait for the wind to shift offshore and carry them to Mexico.

St. Marks Refuge’s festival offers butterfly tagging demonstrations, guided butterfly walks, butterfly talks, butterfly crafts for children and van tours to where butterflies are feeding.

Each year during monarch season (from early September to late October), the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory counts and tags monarchs at Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge, at the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay. Visitors are welcome to watch. Taggers record monarch size, condition and gender.

Butterflies are also a focus of the annual Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival, scheduled this year for October 5-7. See the refuge’s video of monarch migration.

In late September/early October, when conditions are favorable, thousands of monarchs a day may flutter through the prairies and oak Savannahs of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, where the Great Plains and the Gulf Coast meet. Last fall was not one of those times. “We hardly saw butterflies of any kind because of the drought” ─ the worst to affect Texas and northern Mexico in more than a century, says Rob Iski, outdoor recreation planner for the refuge.

This fall’s butterfly-viewing prospects are looking brighter. “We’ve had some good rains during the winter and spring, so this year is already far better than last year,” says Iski.

Butterfly tagging and butterfly walks are among planned activities of the refuge’s National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration on October 13, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Doeskin Ranch.

“Monarch Mania” ─ one of the most popular events with families and children at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge– takes place this year on Saturday, September 15. After an introductory program on monarch biology, visitors can help net butterflies for tagging, then release them. Butterflies also will be the theme of a children’s craft activity.

The butterflies tend to come in waves, based on weather patterns. Migrating monarchs feed on asters and goldenrod and other wildflowers that bloom throughout the refuge in the central Kansas wetlands. If winds frustrate butterfly hunters, visitors can catch monarchs inside an enclosed butterfly pavilion.

During the day, look for monarchs in wildflower areas. Toward evening, the best viewing areas are sheltered places that are cool and damp. Monarchs are expected in Kansas in mid to late September.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refugeheld its first Monarch Madness Day in 2006. Ninety people caught and tagged 250 monarchs during the day; almost 500 were tagged over the season. The annual event will take place this year on Saturday, September 8. You catch the butterflies; refuge staff tag them. They’ll also record your name so they can send you a certificate if your butterfly is found in Mexico.

Through the refuge’s tallgrass prairie restoration project, thousands of acres have been planted with native plants, many of which are attractive to monarchs. Monarchs can be seen in large number along the Tallgrass Trail and along the sides of roads in the refuge. The refuge has monarchs year-round.


Q: When will the butterflies arrive this year?

A: Timing depends on seasonal patterns, weather conditions and storm activity. Falling temperatures and shrinking daylight generally prompt butterflies in the northernmost states of the Lower 48 to start their migrations by late August. But a big tropical storm could set back their schedules.

Q: What are the prospects for good monarch viewing this year?

A: Mixed. The country’s mid-section is parched, though in Texas, last year’s drought is easing. In Iowa, where a mild winter and warm spring have wildflowers blooming early, biologists are seeing fewer monarchs this summer. Experts say long-term monarch trends are worrisome. reported low monarch numbers in Mexico this winter, continuing a downward trend. Among the factors it blames:

  • stepped-up conversion of pastures and grasslands to crops for biofuel production,
  • increased planting of herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean crops (less likely to harbor monarch-friendly milkweed), and
  • excess mowing.

Q: How do the butterflies travel south?

A: They ride a cold front, often at speeds of 10 to 30 miles per hour, covering up to 80 miles a day.

Q: Do the same butterflies return from Mexico when the winter is over?

A: Yes, but they’re on a tight time clock. Migrating monarchs live up to nine months longer than other butterflies. That gives them just time enough to fly several hundred miles north in the spring before laying eggs and dying. The next two generations proceed further north. The fourth generation begins the migratory cycle again.

More information:

Monarch biology and migration.

How the US Fish and Wildlife Service is protecting pollinators.

More about pollinators.

Citizen science programs on monarch butterflies.

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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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