CAPE MAY POINT — So many monarch butterflies are still migrating through the southern tip of New Jersey, the Monarch Monitoring Project will continue its count into November for the first time in its 26-year history.
Those who study the insects are debating whether this year’s mild fall delayed migration or just allowed for an extra generation to grow to maturity.
In harsher autumns, they may have died as caterpillars, speculated Mark Garland, project director for New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.
“If it really is a sign of climate change, this becomes year one” of a new calendar for conducting the count, Garland said.
Tuesday at 2 p.m. saw the biggest census count of the year, he said, when 247 monarchs were counted in a five-mile, slow drive from Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area through the Point.
The last day of October was supposed to be the final day of the count, which started Sept. 1.
But on Wednesday morning, an estimated 1,500 butterflies roosted en masse on a double pine tree on the beach path at Ocean Avenue and Lake Drive, near St. Peter’s-By-The-Sea Episcopal Church.
At first light, just after 7 a.m., the butterflies began to wake up and fly, one or two or three at a time.
They headed toward Delaware Bay, then turned back over land when they encountered strong winds. If the winds lessen, they will head south for their destination in Mexico.
“It’s our first time seeing this,” Elaine Lawler, of West Cape May, said of the huge number of butterflies hanging together in torpor on the tree. “It’s awesome.”
She brought her 6-year-old son, Shane, before taking him to school. He watched the butterflies wide-eyed along with a group of about 15 people who had heard about the roost. The location had been found the afternoon before by people with the monitoring project.
Just a couple of blocks away, another tree roost held about 900 butterflies, Garland said.
Mild weather this year has meant the influx of monarchs has continued and even increased in late October.
“Some years we are down to essentially nothing this late,” Garland said. But in those years, there had already been significant freezing weather to the north.
But plenty of monarchs have already made it to their wintering grounds, Garland said.
“We got word of a major arrival on the 30th down in Mexico,” he said.
“This is like a mini Mexico,” said Linsey Brendel, visiting from Michigan. She worked as lead naturalist for the Monarch Monitoring Project for three seasons in the past.
Last February, she visited the mountains of Mexico where the monarchs spend the winter, roosting on trees in a state of torpor.
The extra days’ data from this year can’t be compared to other years, since for the past 25 years the counts stopped with the end of October.
Garland said the monarchs are mainly feeding on annuals such as zinnias, marigolds and cosmos, which are still blooming in the area.
This year’s data is not complete yet, but Garland previously said that halfway through the 10-week counting season, it was the best year for monarch numbers in four years.
Retired nurse Beth Polvino, of North Cape May, said she has had up to 300 monarchs roosting in her yard in the past couple of weeks. She has extensive butterfly gardens, she said.
“They have roosted on the cherry tree and on red cannas,” she said. She said it’s been the best year for monarchs in the seven years she has gardened to attract them.
Garland said there’s a concern that monarchs migrating through this late might not make it to Mexico, but he doesn’t share that concern.
“I’m not worried. There were plenty of on-time monarchs,” Garland said of this year’s migration.