Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Monarch Tagging in Cape May

On September 28th I took my mom and my older sister to Cape May as part of my mom’s birthday celebration. We had both been talking about wanting to go to Cape May to see the migrating birds and monarch butterflies. Autumn is supposed to be a great time to see these migrating creatures.

First we stopped at the Cape May Bird Observatory, where we we able to see some monarch chrysalises in a glass aquarium. One of the chrysalises was about to open. We should’ve stuck around, maybe we would’ve seen the monarch emerge. (If you want to see what the chrysalis looks like not long before the butterfly comes out, check out my friend Doug Heusser’s photo. He actually had put together a bunch of still images to make a video of the caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly metamorphosis, but I can’t seem to find that on his Instagram page anymore.)

Next we went to Cape May Point State Park and did some of the trails. We saw several different kinds of birds and a few monarchs, although not as many as we had hoped. We had heard that the Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project was going to be doing a monarch tagging demo, so we decided to check that out. Boy were we glad we did. We had so much fun learning about the amazing monarchs.

Millions of monarchs make an incredible journey to the mountains of central Mexico every year. All going to same exact location each time. The Monarch Monitoring Project (MMP) tags butterflies with a sticker that includes an identification number and a phone number in hopes that people along their migratory route will see the tag and report where they are. Their goal is to gain a better understanding of the fall migration of monarchs along the Atlantic coast. In 1998, they were lucky enough to have seven of their tagged monarchs found in Mexico.

As I have mentioned before, the monarch population has dwindled over the last ten years or so, so studying their behavior and migratory habits is becoming more and more crucial. In August of this year, MMP scientific advisor and co-founder Dr. Lincoln Brower and the Xerces Society* were among the co-signers of a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for monarch butterflies. (*Definitely check out the informative Xerces Society website. They are a non-profit dedicated to the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, which includes everything from bees to butterflies, to bugs and crustaceans.)

The Cape May MMP isn’t just about tagging monarchs, it is also about educating the public about these fascinating butterflies. Certain days in the fall, weather permitting, they do tagging demos/talks.

On monarch tagging demo days, the good folks of the Monarch Monitoring Project catch butterflies for tagging and keep them in a cooler in little cellophane envelopes until it is time for the demo. Crazy sounding, I know, but they aren’t in there very long.

They record information about each butterfly, noting any noticeable body or wing damage, checking the sex of the butterfly, and noting the size.

 Here, Angela Demarse of the MMP is measuring the size of a monarch.

Here she is pointing out the size of the abdomen. She also looks at and notes the size of the thorax, which is the middle part of the butterfly’s body.

Angela showed us how to tell a male monarch from a female. Males have thinner veining in the wings (the black lines) and have black nodes or pouches on the hindwings. Females have thicker veins and no pouches on the hindwings. This one is a male...

One of the monarchs we tagged had a bent wing, so Angela made note of that.

She showed us how strong and sticky their long legs are and let us feel how they can stick to your finger. They have quite a grip.

The tag with the butterfly’s identification number and the phone number of the MMP is put on the wing of the monarch. A little area of the scales are rubbed off so that the identification sticker can stick to the butterfly’s wing.

After recording the info and tagging the butterfly, it is set free.

This little fellow seemed to take a liking to the little girl, but did eventually fly away.

The Cape May Monarch Monitoring Project talk/demo was well worth it, especially since it was free! We learned so much about the life cycle of monarchs and their long migratory journey. To find out when the monarch tagging demos are taking place, check out the NJ Audubon/Cape May Bird Observatory online calendar. The talks/demos are held at the picnic pavilion at Cape May Point State Park.

What can we do to help the monarchs? Plant a garden! And be sure to include lots of pollinator-loving plants. If you want to specifically help the monarchs, plant milkweed. It is the only plant they will eat and they need it to survive. One of the main reasons for the decline in the monarch population is there is less milkweed than there was before, so planting it in our yards is an easy way to do our part for these amazing creatures.

To learn more or to donate, check out the Monarch Monitoring Project website and the Monarch Monitoring Project’s Blog. You can also learn more about monarchs and what we can do to help by going to the the Monarch Watch website. I am proud to say that my garden is a certified Monarch Watch “Monarch Waystation.”

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