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First Fall Monarch - Zilker Park - September 26, 2018

A couple of weeks ago a friend of mine sent a text, “Anybody know the monarch butterfly forecast?”

I did a quick Internet search to see if I could answer her question. And my take on it is that while the monarch watchers appear to be very optimistic this year, until these butterflies reach their destination in Mexico, it is still a rather vague and hope-filled prediction.

Male Monarch on Frostweed - October 25, 2018 – 2:15 PM

I saw my first fall monarch of 2018 at Zilker Park in Austin.

Then yesterday (October 26) the monarchs started arriving in my yard in significant numbers. I’ve observed more monarchs in just a few hours than I’ve seen in total since moving to Hays County three years ago.

At least twenty unique individuals can be seen at a time in one small area of my yard…truth is, in the wild flurry of activity, there are more than I can count!

This influx is timed perfectly with the revival of fall pollinator plants - a very good sign for the 2018 fall monarch migration!

The monarchs seem to be most active in mid-morning to mid-afternoon.

They are pumping up on nectar from a White Mistflower shrub in my yard and are also very busy working a stand of Frostweed at the back of my property.

It appears to me that males outnumber females by about four to one. Though my observation is purely unscientific, I wonder if it has any significance.¹

October 27 - 10:30 AM - Monarchs sampling my neighbor’s salvia

Impact of Summer Breeding Grounds This summer and into early fall, my business partner and fellow nature-lover from northern Indiana observed a noticeable increase in his local monarch population. In sharing this with me, he recalled a time in the early 80’s when monarch caterpillars were readily collected by his young son, and yet in the more recent past, his now grown son had taken his grandson out into the field to see the caterpillars, only to discover that none could be found.

July 5 – South Bend, IN

But there has been a movement afoot in his community to restore monarch habitat by planting medians, parkways, and vacant lots with native milkweed.

And it seems to be making a big difference!

September 16 – South Bend, IN

“Two Sides of the Same Coin” The monarch below on the left is most likely a 5th Generation monarch. Unlike her predecessors she will live up to eight months. She is preparing to journey 2,000+ miles to her overwintering home in Mexico, where she will stay until early spring and produce the first generation of monarchs for the return migration north. Perhaps she started out in Canada or Michigan and has just stopped over in South Bend, IN on September 16th to stock up on nutrients before continuing. Or maybe she was born in South Bend and is just getting ready for her long journey to the south.

The photo on the right was taken in my yard on October 26. It is also a 5th Generation monarch that has already traveled over 1,000 miles and is more than half-way to its final destination.

Could the butterflies in these two photos be the same individual?

South Bend, IN - September 16, 2018

How long does it take a monarch to travel 1,200 miles from South Bend, IN to San Marcos, TX? 20 days? 30 days? 40 days?

  • The USDA Forest Service states that monarchs can travel 50-100 miles in a day; and it can take up to two months to complete their journey.

Can monarchs fly through rain and wind storms, or do they have to stop and wait it out?

  • (Scientific American) During heavy rains and wind, butterflies are rarely seen. Not only does rain pose a direct threat of injury or death, but the cool air associated with storms may also reduce temperatures below the thermal threshold for butterfly flight.

San Marcos, TX October 26, 2018

If the South Bend monarch pictured above leaves on September 26 and travels 50-100 miles per day, and if the weather is clear and calm for the trip, it could arrive in San Marcos within 12-24 days. However, if the weather is rainy and windy, our monarch will have to take cover and wait it out. With the heavy rain and wind in September/October, it could easily take the monarch 30 days or more to arrive in San Marcos. So, yes, the monarchs in the photos above could be “two sides of the same coin” - it is possible they could be the same butterfly!

The summer monarchs of northern Indiana are making a comeback. Where milkweed has been planted and is being allowed to flourish, monarch numbers have increased. Where monarch sightings had once become rare, they are becoming commonplace again. The importance of repopulating native milkweed in the Northern US and across the Midwest cannot be overemphasized. It is obviously helping these beautiful, amazing insects.

Can we point to it as a factor in the 2018 migration that we are seeing here in Hays County? This enthusiastic Master Naturalist says, “YES!” I am optimistic we are on the right path. It seems that concerned citizens are joining with nature lovers across the nation in strategic efforts to improve habitat for monarchs. This is good news!

Can more be done? Definitely! The promotion of native landscapes and the deliberate addition of fall pollinator plants is another step in assisting the migrating butterflies, as well as for all wildlife and the ecosystem in general. Organizations such as Monarch Watch, Native Plant Societies, and our own Texas Master Naturalists are impacting the efforts to save these beautiful butterflies through outreach, education, and milkweed restoration.

On November 3, Jacob’s Well Natural Area will host a free family event from 11:00-12:00 to uncover and celebrate the Mystery of the Monarchs

HCMN Melinda Seib is leading the event. She will be supported by Quincy Kennedy, Park Specialist – Education & Outreach with the Hays County Parks Department, along with other HCMNs and monarch experts from the community.

If you have kiddos that would enjoy this special outing, please bring them to learn about the Monarch’s 5th generation return to Mexico and to join in the fun and activities planned for this Monarch Marathon.

Article and photos by Betsy Cross with special thanks to Tim Liddell for use of his photos.

¹After writing this article, I was searching for additional information on the migration and ran across a reference about the male to female ratio. Interestingly, it confirmed my observation, stating that during the breeding season, the ratio of males to females is the same, but during the migration, the ratio is skewed toward males, adding that fewer than 30 percent of the migrating monarchs are females. This would be very close to my observed 4:1 ratio of males to females. I was relieved to read this, as I was slightly worried that there might not be enough females, but apparently, this is a known fact and quite normal.