Migration Meanderings: The Flight of Kings

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2764 a Many years ago, my family was enjoying an early evening at the Jersey Shore when a butterfly fluttered by. Okay, nothing remarkable there. What followed was: a nearly identical butterfly passed by, followed in swift progression by two more, then three, five, eight more… In a matter of minutes we went from a clear evening sky to a cloud of butterflies, dozens of them, all flying one direction – south. We looked at each other and asked “Do butterflies migrate?”

Cape May Lily Lake_4811 aWe didn’t know it then, but we were witnessing the migration of the Monarch butterflies. Scientists now know that these orange and black insects fly from the northern U.S. and Canada to overwintering grounds in Mexico. Just like for birds, Cape May County is an important stopover for migrating Monarch butterflies.

Cape May Lily Lake_4840 aA Monarch butterfly has a four inch wingspan and weighs a fraction of an ounce, yet it still manages to fly 2,500 miles in a short period of time. What may be even more amazing is that the butterflies that fly south have never been to Mexico. Neither have their parents, or grandparents or great-grandparents. It’s their great-great grandparents that left Mexico the previous February. They made it as far as Texas or Oklahoma before laying the eggs that would become the first generation of the year.

That first generation went through the life cycle of egg, caterpillar and chrysalis before becoming butterflies that would continue the journey north during their six week life.

HNWR BF-Monarch_0357 a The second generation was born in May or June; the third generation in July or August. This butterfly is from that third generation; it was photographed at Heinz NWR in August.

OC Corsons Inlet_4753 aThe other Monarchs shown in this post were seen in Cape May County in September; they are members of the fourth and final generation of the year, born in September or October. These are the butterflies that migrate south. They don’t immediately start a new reproductive cycle as their parents did. Instead they enter a non-reproductive phase known as diapause, which can last six to eight months. During that time, they fly to Mexico, spend the winter, and then return north to start the next year’s cycle.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2796 aAll that flying is accomplished on an all-liquid diet consisting mainly of the nectar of plants like milkweed, goldenrod, aster, and others. The butterflies drink the nectar through a straw-like appendage called a proboscis, shown coiled up, above. The Monarch caterpillars are much more finicky – they only eat plants of the milkweed family. So Monarch females are careful to seek out milkweeds on which to lay their eggs.

FUN FACT: Monarchs are poisonous! A chemical in the milkweed they eat as caterpillars provides a distasteful and dangerous defense against predators. And the predators know it, and avoid them. This in turn is exploited by the Viceroy butterfly, which isn’t poisonous but looks very similar to the Monarch, an adaptation called mimicry.

Stone Harbor Wetlands Institute_2771 a This is a male Monarch. How do I know? See those small black spots on the hind wing near the end of the abdomen? That’s how. Females don’t have those spots.

CONSERVATION PIECE: The Monarch butterfly’s survival as a species is threatened both by deforestation in their wintering grounds and the disappearance of milkweed plants due to herbicide use in the U.S. Want to help the Monarch thrive? Go to your local garden shop, ask for milkweed plants native to your area, and plant them in your yard. Host a caterpillar!

Cape May Point State Park_4100 aIt just wouldn’t be September at the shore without these tiny Kings of the Air.

Coming up: The Critter Radio Traffic Report

Salt Marsh Safari

Cape May Skimmer Egret_6493 a The day started quietly, with a drive through mist-shrouded farms and forests tinged with early fall color. The calendar said “October”, but by the time we arrived at the dock, the day was already doing a fine imitation of summer. We were here on Cape May Harbor for the Salt Marsh Safari, a two-hour tour on the 40-foot Skimmer through the back bays of Cape May. Before we even got on the boat, we had some great looks at Snowy Egrets (above.)Cape May Skimmer_6484 a

Cape May Skimmer Peep_6823 a FUN FACT: Here’s a Semipalmated Sandpiper. A big name for a little bird! Its feet have short webs between the toes, hence the name. The holes in the mud are made by crabs, a few of which we’ll meet in an upcoming post.

Cape May Skimmer Tri Color_6638 aSome of those aboard were veterans of springtime Skimmer trips, and reported that there weren’t nearly as many birds this go-round. It didn’t bother me, as I still saw two life birds this trip. Quality over quantity! Here’s the first lifer, Tri-colored Heron.

Cape May Skimmer_6525 aThese are not the Skimmer, but a couple of fishing boats anchored along the harbor.

Speaking of fishing, a couple of times our captains scooped up marine life with a bucket for us to examine. There were sea urchins, shrimp, crabs, and a sea star at least six inches across. We also found a couple of large whelks. Most people know these for the empty shells found on the beach, but they are actually snails. Every time the captain tickled the soft creature inside the shell, it fired back with a jet of water.

Cape May Skimmer_6969 a Here’s the second life bird, Whimbrel. The captain brought the boat in for a really close view. Being on a boat has its advantages. As does that long downturned bill, for the Whimbrel. It’s perfect for digging yummy tidbits out of the mud.Cape May Skimmer_6986 a

Shameless plug: if you’re in the Cape May area and want to learn about the wildlife of the marshes, or just want a relaxing boat ride, check out the Skimmer. The captains are friendly and really know their stuff. http://www.skimmer.com/default.html

Cape May Point SP Duck_7099 a After lunch, we went for a land-based trek through Cape May Point State Park. With marshes, ponds and forests, there’s always a lot to see here. As the afternoon wore on, the unseasonable heat was getting to animals and humans alike. A couple of Mallards found a nice patch of shade.

Cape May Point SP Frog_7292 aA Green Frog knew how to keep cool.

Cape May Point SP Butterfly_7315 a Seaside Goldenrod was in bloom everywhere, and attracting lots of butterflies and bees. This bee is loaded with pollen. Cape May Point SP Bee_7020 a

Cape May Point SP Night-heron_7207 a Here’s the Bird of the Afternoon. This is a juvenile Black-crowned Night-heron. We found him at the base of a footbridge crossing a small stream. He couldn’t have been more than ten feet away, and he barely budged the whole time we were taking his portrait.

It may have felt like summer, but the golden hues hint at autumn to come. What better way to spend a glorious fall day than soaking it all up in Cape May.Cape May Skimmer_6731 a

Coming up: Migration Meanderings

Summer’s Fleeting Beauty

Morris Arboretum BF-Spicebush ST_9639a Where did this summer go? Labor Day is past, and the calendar is poised to turn over to a new season. June, July and August just seemed to fly by, didn’t they?

If the summer passed quickly for us, imagine how it must seem to be a butterfly, dragonfly or other bug. Most of these insects live only a few weeks or months, just long enough to breed and lay the groundwork for the next generation. Their time to live, and our time to enjoy them, is very short indeed. Soon it will be cold, and these lovely creatures will be just a memory. All the more reason, on the eve of the autumn equinox, that we should savor the beautiful colors of summer.

HNWR BF-ET Swallowtail_0901aEastern Tiger Swallowtail

HNWR BF-Comma_1555a Eastern Comma

FUN FACT: Punctuation in butterflies! There are several species known as Commas, for the shape of the white mark on the underwing. There’s a similar butterfly that has a dot at the end of the curved mark; it’s called a Question Mark. We all agree it’s really a Semicolon.

HNWR BF-Hackberry_0550a Hackberry Emperor, above and below. This guy came to visit and wouldn’t leave. Here he’s happily slurping up the minerals deposited by sweat on the hand of Cliff, our Butterfly Whisperer. (Without whom I wouldn’t be able to put a name to many of these beauties)HNWR BF-Hackberry_0586a

HNWR BF-Red Admiral_1831aRed Admiral

FUN FACT: Ever called a butterfly a “flutter-by”? It turns out that was what these insects were called prior to 1865. Reverend A. W. Spooner studied and gave many talks on flutter-bys. Spooner was known for his mangling of words, inspiring the term “Spoonerism”. In his seminars, he frequently transposed “flutter-by” into “butterfly”. The term caught on, and has been in use ever since.

HNWR BF-ET Blue_1401a Eastern Tailed Blue

HNWR BF-Summer Azure_1798aSummer Azure

HNWR Moth Luna_8022a Luna Moth

HNWR Caterpillar Smartweed_1436aSmartweed Caterpillar, which becomes a Smeared Dagger Moth

HNWR Snail_1688a Snail, moving at surprising speed

HNWR DF-Blue Dasher_0830aBlue Dasher

HNWR DF-Common Whitetail_5125a Common Whitetail

HNWR BF-Red Admiral_1779a

Have a colorful fall!

Coming up: Cold Duck