Monarch mania: Butterflies swarm Cape May for fall migration

CAPE MAY, New Jersey (WPVI) -- "This is it. September and October, I don't want to be anywhere other than Cape May," said Mark Garland.

Garland is the director of the Monarch Monitoring Project, a New Jersey Audubon program dedicated to research and conservation of the important pollinator. With a net in hand, he spends the early days of autumn scoping New Jersey's southernmost shore in search of brilliant butterflies.

"With our monarch project, we've got one program or another every single day, and we love seeing other people that care about nature, care about wildlife, and sharing our enthusiasm with them," said Garland.

A calendar of events shows activities for the family happening near-daily until October 24. Today, a drop-in demonstration was held among the gardens at Triangle Park, a hot spot for migrating monarchs.

"Everyone is mesmerized by monarchs. They're a perfect species to talk about," said Kyra Madunich, a field naturalist with the program. "The geography of the area makes Cape May a funnel. So you get all of the butterflies and all of the birds that are migrating through."

The migrating butterflies are often four to five generations removed from the previous year's batch, so the instinct to fly south can be mesmerizing.

"As summer is waning, something flicks a switch inside the next generation of monarchs and says, 'Go to Mexico'," said Garland.

Experts with the project say monarchs can be found scattered around the cape during the day. On cold nights, clusters gather to roost like ornaments on a Christmas tree. As fall crawls along, the butterflies will leave New Jersey and make their way down the east coast.

In order to monitor the insects, harmless stickers are fastened to their wings with a unique identification number. Due to lack of GPS functionality, the sticker must be read and reported by another human to gather data about its travels.

"We've now had nearly 100 from our project tagged here in Cape May that were found in Mexico," said Garland. "We've found that their migratory route is staying east of the Appalachian Mountains, hugging the Gulf Coast until they get to Texas, and then heading to Mexico."

The data collected about monarchs can be indicative of other less-eye-catching pollinators that are essential to the growth of food products.

"If monarchs are healthy, probably lots of our beneficial insects are healthy, and our agricultural system is healthy, and you and I get to eat dinner tonight," said Garland.

To learn more about the Monarch Monitoring Project and how to get involved, visit their website or Facebook page.

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