Monarch Madness At National Wildlife Refuges

PEOPLE start calling the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida as early as August to find out when the Monarch Butterflies are coming. Monarchs, after all, are a species of wonder. On the Gulf coast of Florida, 25 miles south of Tallahassee, St. Marks Refuge is the last stop for thousands of migrating Monarchs before they fly out over the open water of the Gulf of Mexico.

Every year on the fourth Saturday of October, St. Marks Refuge has its annual Butterfly Festival. Refuge Ranger Robin Will says that somehow the tired butterflies “just know” to drop down and feed on salt bushes, which bloom about the time they arrive in mid to late October. They wait there for the wind to shift offshore and carry them toward Mexico.

Every fall, the brilliant orange and black butterflies travel thousands of miles from where they first emerged from cocoons to a handful of overwintering sites in Central Mexico. Beginning as far north as Canada, the Monarch’s long journey captures people’s imaginations.

St. Marks Refuge’s daylong festival offers demonstrations of butterfly tagging, a tent filled with live butterflies, guided butterfly walks, butterfly talks, butterfly crafts for children and van tours to where butterflies are feeding. All of that is in addition to the refuge’s usual attractions. St. Marks Refuge covers 43 miles of Florida coastline, encompassing a variety of habitats that provide food and shelter for a large number of migratory birds. Fishing is allowed year-round, and there are over 85 miles of marked trails. Will said there were more monarchs on the refuge during the 2006 festival than she has seen in 20 years. In the two days before the festival, volunteers tagged 2,000 butterflies.

St. Marks Refuge isn’t the only national wildlife refuge on the migration trail of the Monarch. Here are some others:

In 1999, the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge had 100,000 monarchs in one night, remembers Refuge Manager Susan Rice. She says the butterflies filled the air and virtually dripped off of trees. But Monarchs are subject to huge swings in population. Each year, the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory, working at the refuge, conducts a count that records how “fat” the Monarch is, the condition of its wings and its gender. Then the butterfly is tagged.

The tagging operation runs during Monarch season, from mid-September to late October, and is open to the public. Butterflies are also a big part of the annual Birding Festival, scheduled for October 5-7, 2007, and coordinated with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce. During the three-day event, the refuge and nearby Kiptopeke State Park offer butterfly walks along their butterfly trails and gardens.

The 1,157-acre Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge is open every day during daylight hours. At the tip of the Delmarva Peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay, the refuge is an important stopover for migratory birds. The refuge does not charge an entrance fee. For more information, call 757-331-2760, or visit

In late September/early October thousands of Monarchs a day flutter through the prairies and oak Savannahs of Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in Texas. Sometimes, Refuge Manager Deborah Holle says, the butterflies “are on a mission, up high and flying through,” increasing the challenge of butterfly tagging activities that take place on the refuge at the height of butterfly migration season. If the Monarchs can be reached, they are tagged with tiny stickers. Holle says about seven of the butterflies tagged at Balcones Canyonlands Refuge have been found in Southern Mexico.

Butterfly tagging is just one activity offered during Balcones Canyonlands two-day National Wildlife Refuge Week celebration October 13-14, 2007, at Doeskin Ranch. ( Butterfly walks and talks are also available, as are presentations on native garden plants, including those that attract butterflies. Balcones Canyonlands also offers butterfly walks during its Songbird Festival in the spring.

Where the Great Plains and the Gulf coast meet, Balcones Canyonlands Refuge is made up of limestone hills and spring-fed canyons, habitat for plants and animals that live nowhere else. The refuge charges no fees. For more information, call 512-339-9432, or visit

Toward evening, the best areas for viewing Monarchs at Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in Kansas are sheltered places that are cool and damp. During the day, look for them in the wildflower areas. Here, in the central Kansas wetlands, Monarchs tend to appear through mid-September.

The season reaches its peak when the refuge is turned over to “Monarch Mania” during the third Saturday in September. A guest lecturer discusses such topics as butterfly gardening or the varieties of butterflies found in Kansas. Then everybody gets the chance to tag monarchs. Refuge Manager Dave Hilley says Monarch Mania is one of the refuge’s most popular events, especially for children and their families.

Hilley says the butterflies tend to come through the refuge in waves. Some years, he says, the butterflies are up too high to be caught for tagging. Other years, it’s possible to catch multiple Monarchs with one wave of the net. Wildflowers bloom in profusion throughout Quivira Refuge, attracting butterflies. But the interpretive trail extension, dedicated to butterfly viewing may be the best bet for Monarch spotting. For more information call 620-486-2393, or visit

Nancy Gilbertson, manager of Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, is expecting a good year for Monarchs. She says the numbers of butterflies have been increasing since a big freeze in Mexico a few years ago. Neal Smith Refuge is a great place to see them.

Near Prairie City, Iowa, the refuge is in the midst of one of the nation’s largest tallgrass prairie restoration projects. More than 3, 000 acres have been planted with native plants, many of which are attractive to Monarchs. Monarchs can be seen along the Tallgrass Trail and along the sides of roads in the refuge. Or, Gilbertson says, they can be viewed by just sitting still.

Retired Drake University Professor Robert Woodward counts Monarchs at the refuge every year. In a little more than three hours on September 20, 2006, he counted 432 Monarchs among the refuge’s sawtooth sunflowers. He had thought the migration was ending, but as the day warmed, Monarchs began to emerge from the tall bluestem grasses where they had sheltered for the night.

Neal Smith Refuge held its first Monarch Madness Day in 2006. Ninety people tagged 250 Monarchs during the day; almost 500 were tagged over the season. Since then five tags have been returned from El Rosario, Mexico. The event will be held annually on the second Tuesday each September. For more information, call 515-994-3400, or visit