Catch the Beauty of the Annual Monarch Butterfly Migration

From early September to late October, witness one of the most delicate migrations in the animal kingdom! The only insect in the world known to do so, the monarch butterfly makes its annual southern migration in the fall, travelling up to 3,000 miles to overwinter in Mexico.

Should you happen to catch the butterflies as they make their journey south, you can expect to see neighboring trees and shrubs covered in a blanket of orange and black. Each year thousands of delicate butterflies travel 50-100 miles per day for two months to reach their winter home in Mexico. During the day, the butterflies gather a few at a time and stay only stay a short while, to rest and refuel on nectar-bearing plants; at night dozens are known to gather in trees to stay the night and wait for the next cold front to carry them on their path.

As monarch butterflies live in all parts of North America, there is a chance you can view them in many parts of the country. Monarchs living in the West migrate toward the California coast and Mexico. State parks, sanctuaries and preserves up and down the California coast are the best places for butterfly watching as they settle into their winter homes.

Butterflies from Canada travel down through the Midwest. Located on the north shore of Lake Erie in Canada, Point Pelee National Park is an amazing place to view the butterflies as they rest before crossing the lake. Similarly, butterfly viewing is plentiful along the Texas coast as the monarchs pause before crossing the Gulf into Mexico. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge near Marble Falls, Texas, anticipates that butterfly viewing will be better than ever this year due to heavy rains in the spring. Tagging and butterfly walks are only some of the activities planned for the National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration on October 13, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Doeskin Ranch.

On the East Coast, the butterflies travel down through the northern-most states before continuing on one of two paths. Some travel west through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before turning south. In Ohio the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a sister park of Point Pelee National Park mentioned above, sees monarchs though not in the large numbers as the butterflies tend to scatter on the shoreline in Ohio.

The second path for the East Coast butterflies is to continue down the coast to Florida before crossing the Gulf into Mexico. Near New York City, monarchs stop to rest at Fire Island National Seashore and Gateway National Recreation Area, including Great Kills Park on Staten Island. Here, the arrival of the monarchs is dependent on the bloom of Goldenrod and New England Aster, with mid-October being the peak of migration.

In Virginia the Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Festival, October 5-7, is focusing on the migration of the monarchs this year. Visitors wishing to view the migration are also invited to the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge to watch as taggers record the size, condition, and gender of the butterflies.

Once the butterflies reach Florida, one of the best places to view the migration is St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Monarch viewing in this area is prime as the butterflies stop to rest before migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. The St. Mark’s Butterfly Festival is planned for October 27, which is the anticipated peak of the monarch’s arrival at the panhandle.

The journey for the butterflies is not and easy one; it can take up to four generations to complete the round-trip migration. Sadly, the fate of monarch’s is in jeopardy as their habitat is threatened, making the migration harder each year. Many national parks, such as Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio are working to protect the butterflies as they make their journey. The CVNP has wonderful tips on how to help protect these delicate creatures, as well as more information on the monarch butterfly.

For more information about the annual migration, or to find events near you, visit monarchwatch.org.

Image: Monarch butterflies drape a shrub with color. Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa hosts its annual Monarch Madness festival on October 8 to herald the butterflies’ fall migration south. Credit: Gene Nieminen