The Great Migration: In Search of Monarch Butterflies in Cape May

Posted by on Oct 3, 2012 in Cape May, Culture, Featured | 6 comments

The Great Migration: In Search of Monarch Butterflies in Cape May

The forecast called for rain. We had everything packed for a weekend in Cape May: five sets of clothes for Baby Erika, the camera with a brand new zoom lens, snacks, water, a good attitude.

The drive to the Cape was smooth, enjoyable and went by rather quickly. Matthew drove all the way since I don’t drive a stick shift, and baby Erika went blissfully to sleep after the car started. Crisp weather, small gusts of wind, with leaves already changing color: it was a perfect fall day.

Cape May Horses

Carriages in Cape May help make the area look stately

Cape May Victorian Home

Beautiful Victorian homes are on almost every block

We were on a mission to spot the butterfly migration we had heard so much about. Earlier in the week, I had spent inordinate amounts of time pestering the Cape May Birding Observatory:

“Are there butterflies still in the area?”

“Yes ma’am”

“How many?”

“Too many to count. Hundreds. Perhaps thousands.”

“Will they still be there when we arrive?”

“Hard to say, when are you arriving?”

As if, Mother Nature ever waited for anyone. By the time we made it down past Exit Zero, it was well past noon. Thick, gray clouds hung ominously over the landscape, threatening to spill but they never did. We drove over the bridge connecting the Delaware Bay with the Atlantic Ocean. Downtown Cape May was lively and people covered every inch of its cobblestone streets on the Washington Mall, but we were more interested in the area near Higbee Beach, where the birds and butterflies.

As an island located at the tip of the Jersey Shore, Cape May enjoys a delicious summer, visitors who can’t get enough of their several Victorian houses, and a laid back attitude. A decidedly quaint, small-town vibe permeates just about everything here. Most residents choose to walk everywhere and there is hardly any traffic.

At the Cape May Bird Observatory, there were several visitors with serious looking binoculars, chasing birds with their eyes. A couple dressed in matching olive green jackets were looking at a tall pine tree, and something moving in the leaves, presumably a warbler.

“Tell me, are you professional bird watchers?”

“Far from it,” the man replies, his gaze still fixated on the warbler. “But we like to think we are.”

Many visitors, amateurs and professionals alike, come to the Cape during the fall because it’s one of the best bird spotting areas in the country. The best times to visit—if you want to partake in Naturalist activities—are the Spring and Fall migrations. Tim Friday, a professional birder with Fish & Wildlife says, “There are three flyaways in the country, and Cape May has the best one on the East Coast. Birds and butterflies that fly over the ocean will land in Cape May because it’s the first land mass that they see.”

The Great Migration: In Search of Monarch Butterflies in Cape May

Baby Erika and Matthew, in the middle of migratory Monarchs

Cape May Butterfly Monarch Migration

Cape May Butterfly Monarch Migration

A young girl tries to net a few Monarchs

Monarchs in Cape May

Monarchs in Cape May

Located along the Atlantic flyaway, Cape May houses one of the busiest bird and butterfly corridors on the planet. You can find well over 180 species of birds, and butterflies ranging from the pale-yellow chiffon like chartreuse to the well-known Monarch.

Birds too, are plentiful, from the Semi-Palmated Sandpipers to Ruddy Turnstones, songbirds, grackles and warblers. You’ll find plenty of gulls on the beaches, unflinching even in the presence of the crowds.

But we were especially curious about the Monarchs and we couldn’t see one anywhere. Surely, there were a few floating around? While Monarchs have a short life span (most, only three months), those that do make it to Mexico live a little longer, and sometimes for as long as six months.

Someone had spotted a whole bunch of them on the corner of Yale Street, not too far from the Cape May Birding Observatory. We quickly hopped in the car and sped off to the location, as though on a time sensitive scavenger hunt.

Monarch Migration in Cape May

A sunset in Cape May

A sunset in Cape May, to finish off the spectacular day

We approached the street, and we were glad to see a few Monarchs floating by, weightless and beautiful. At the end of Yale Street, there was a cluster of parked cars, and half dozen people excitedly peering through their binoculars, oohing and aahing. We had found the spot!

The next few minutes were a blur, half way between spotting some hundred Monarchs studding the pine trees and realizing that this was not a dream. Who knows how they came to that particular spot and decided to perch and sip? That afternoon, all of us became tangled in a migratory fairy tale, blissfully happy that we had somehow stumbled upon the Monarch Penthouse, a sort of randomly constructed hangout.

We had done what we came to do, and seen so many more butterflies than we could count. In several cultures, butterflies are thought to bring good luck. We had had more than our fair share.

The Cape May fall migration typically lasts from the middle of September until the first week of October. Many tagged Monarchs are found in Mexico, around 6,000 miles from the Eastern Seaboard.