Monarchs at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Oct 8-10, 2010
Posted by Denise Gibbs to another website:
"For those interested, there are lengthy detailed descriptions below
about the monarch fall-out of about a half-million monarchs at
Chincoteague NWR Oct 8-10, 2010. My field observations for Oct 1-10 were
also posted on the Monarch Watch list serve (www.monarchwatch.org
photos were posted on the Oct 7 and 14 issues of the monarch migration
update on www.journeynorth.org
CNWR study sites include areas off-limits to the visiting public. The
largest congregations of nectaring monarchs were at the wet meadows of
Bidens laevis (large-bur marigold) at the D-Dike about 2 miles north of
the recreational beach, the Solidago sempervirens (seaside goldenrod)
growing on the intact primary dune 2-7 miles north of the recreational
beach, the Solidago graminifolia (grass-leaved goldenrod) just before
the causeway, and the interdune areas from the NPS Visitor Center to the
Tom's Hook at the southern tip of Assateague Island.
Chincoteague Monarch Monitoring Project
for data from
Notes from my field journal:
_Oct 8, 7am - 12:30pm, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island, VA_
This is the day I've been waiting for! At sunrise there was no dew, the
temp was 58 degrees with full sun and wind NNW at 4mph. As soon as the
sunlight touched them, the monarchs were off their roosts and in the
air. They soared from a few feet off the ground to about 30-50' high.
Some flew higher and I could see them only with binoculars. There was a
constant stream of monarchs drifting by (what a sight!) until about 9am,
when the wind became WNW at 8mph. Monarchs continued to migrate but flew
just over the waves as they broke on the shore. They faced the direction
they wanted to go (southwest), but they flew sideways to the south,
flapping all the time to keep themselves from getting blown out over the
ocean. I sat on the primary dune and watched each one with binoculars
and none that I watched went out over the ocean. I did a few site counts
and the average was 27 monarchs per minute. The migration continued like
this until 11:45am when there was an abrupt halt to the wind. It became
very still and then monarchs started dropping down into the seaside
goldenrod to nectar. At 12:15pm the wind had shifted and was WSW at
9mph. Within minutes there were hundreds of cloudless sulphurs swirling
around the seaside goldenrod. The monarchs and the sulphurs were
nectaring by the hundreds in the seaside goldenrod areas. Now at 2:30,
the wind is SSW, which should keep all the monarchs here the remainder
of the day. I am headed back now to look for tagged monarchs in the
goldenrods, and to tag some of my own.
_Oct 8, 3pm - 5:30pm, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island, VA_
Birders always hope for a "fall-out" of warblers during spring and fall
migration. I have seen a few fall-outs at places like Cape May, NJ and
Dolly Sods, WV. It is a wondrous event you remember forever. In all my
years here at Chincoteague, I had never seen a fallout of monarchs---
until this afternoon.
Every flower stalk of every seaside goldenrod plant in the interdune
area along Tom's Cove had multiple monarchs nectaring on it. I have
never seen that many monarchs nectaring in one place at one time. One
year early in my study I had about 10,000 monarchs roosting in a wild
black cherry tree. But today in the interdune area, there may have been
several hundred thousand monarchs. I walked one mile along the shore of
Tom's Cove and still did not reach the end of the nectaring monarchs.
I am glad I had several witnesses and that I took photos until my memory
card filled. I searched for tagged monarchs (other than mine) but didn't
see any. The monarchs were so intent on feeding that I was able
to capture them by hand, tag them and put them back on the flowers. I
was so focused on the monarchs that I didn't realize I had an entourage
of visitors who were filming and photographing the process. People who
had never seen a monarch were just in awe. Well, so were the rest of us!
The event sparked lots of questions, so when all my tags were used up, I
sat down in the sand and spoke about monarchs until everyone's questions
were answered. I will never forget this day. . . And, I can't wait to
see what happens tomorrow when winds will be out of the NW.
_Oct 9, 7am-9am, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island, VA_
I arrived on the beach 10 minutes before sunrise. I was hoping there
would be a mass liftoff of all the monarchs that I thought had roosted
in the seaside goldenrod last night. But that was not the case. I left
the beach at 5:30pm last night and my guess is that the winds died down
just before sunset and the monarchs flew north back up the beach to the
remaining thickets of bayberry/groundsel-tree/marsh elder. They had
scattered throughout the thickets and roosted there. I was very
surprised to see some roosting on the bare exposed branches of dead
eastern red-cedar trees. I found this to be very interesting because
these were the very trees that (in past years) held large monarch roosts
when the trees were alive and full of dense conifer branches.
At 7:10am this morning, the temp was 62 degrees with full sun, no
humidity or dew, and a NW wind at 4mph. Most monarchs were off the roost
by 7:25am, but others continued to leave a few at a time until 7:45am.
Even though conditions were perfect for migration, I did not see any
engaging in directional flight. They swirled around as if testing the
air, but then landed in the seaside goldenrod and began
nectaring. By 8:15am they had all settled back into the seaside
goldenrod. I thought that very odd, given the weather conditions, so I
netted a few and saw that they had very lean abdomens (eat first, fly
later). Unfortunately, by 9am the wind shifted and was W at 8mph. I saw
a few monarchs lift off, got caught in the wind, flapped like crazy and
still got blown down to the ocean edge. They were able to make it back
to the goldenrod, but not without expending lots of energy.
It is 2:30pm now and the wind is WSW at 8-10mph. So the monarchs should
still be nectaring. This island truly is a critical stopover for
migrating monarchs. I hope they build up lots of fat during this
layover. I am heading back down to search the beach at low tide for any
washed up monarchs. More later.
_Oct 9, 3pm-5:30pm, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island, VA_
Usually on this island, all the attention goes to the famous
Chincoteague ponies. But today was different. Photographers were not set
up at the pony pen; they were lining the sides of the causeway with
their tripods and 2'-long lenses, photographing something none of us had
ever seen. The wind shifted again and was straight out of the west,
bringing common buckeyes, green darners and more monarchs by the
thousands from the Delmarva and probably the mainland to this tiny
island. Unbelievable is the word that best describes the scene. If
anyone is in the area, you may want to get yourself here before sunrise
tomorrow. I couldn't even guess how many monarchs were here this afternoon.
The monarchs were engaging in a feeding frenzy on all three species of
goldenrod in bloom. It was not like yesterday when they were so mellow I
could capture them with my fingers. Today they were skittish and would
flush from the plants if I moved too quickly or got too close. Perhaps
it was because the west wind was 10-15mph and they were getting quite a
ride on the flower stalks. This time I had my video camera and filmed
through two batteries and cassettes. When I return home I will post some
footage on YouTube. But there were so many people filming today, you
might be able to find one of their videos on it right now.
At exactly 5 pm, the wind shifted again, and was NW at 4-5mph. The wind
speed was low enough that the monarchs could fly back to shore from out
over the ocean. And as I walked the beach looking for dead monarchs I
started seeing monarchs returning to shore about 3 per minute. I
followed their path and saw them landing in closest clump of seaside
goldenrod. Wait til you see the photo; it was one crowded plant.
I have not seen the weather forecast for Sunday and I don't know what to
expect. But you can bet I will be out there well before sunrise
to witness what happens next.
_Oct 10, 6:45am- 9am, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island, VA_
A dense fog shrouded the refuge this morning, and everything was covered
with dew, including the monarchs. The beads of water on their wings
glistened with the first rays of sunlight. At 7:10am they spread their
wings to bask. The weather conditions were full sun, 68 degrees, wind NE
at 2mph, and humid (the salt marsh mosquitoes have been anxiously
awaiting these conditions). At 7:25am the first monarchs lifted off,
even though their wings still looked damp. It was finally time to leave
I found a small roost in the shade and discovered one of the monarchs I
tagged 3 days ago in almost the same spot. Thanks to the seaside
goldenrod, his abdomen was noticeably larger than it was 3 days ago.
By 7:45am the NE wind had increased to 5mph. Most of the monarchs had
lifted off and headed southwest toward Tom's Cove. I stood at the
water's edge, happy to see that the surface was a mirror for the sky. I
watched the monarchs fly out over the cove, turn around to head back to
land then head back out again. They appeared to be testing the wind, to
make sure it really was safe to cross water. I have never seen this
hesitancy on good migration winds. Finally the monarchs relinquished
their control to the wind and off they soared over calm blue water.
By 9am there was not a monarch to be found anywhere. But at 9:30 the
winds shifted and were ENE at 7mph-- perfect conditions to bring any
monarchs still left at sea back to land. I will be out there waiting for
_Oct 10, 1:30-5pm, Chincoteague NWR, Assateague Island VA_
Monarchs started drifting in off the ocean to the beach during early
afternoon east winds. They headed straight to the goldenrods and
nectared for most of the afternoon. We spent 2 hours hauling water and
giving the seaside goldenrod plantings one last good soaking. As we
watered, we saw small numbers of monarchs flying SW out over Tom's Cove.
I didn't find any dead monarchs on the beach, but I did find several
scattered piles of monarch wings in the interdune area. I think a swarm
of green darners must have feasted on monarchs.
On the drive back to Chincoteague Island, we noticed monarchs flying
right down Maddox Blvd, crossing over Main Street and going right up the
ramp to the new bridge over Chincoteague Channel. Perhaps it is easier
for them to fly over pavement instead of open water. I have also seen
this behavior on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and on the above-ground
sections of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel from Kiptopeke to Norfolk.
I will be heading back to Maryland tomorrow, but one of my
former research assistants will be here later this week. I look forward
to hearing about her monarch observations through the 3rd week of
October. I think anything is possible this migration season. Denise Gibbs"