Happy Equinox, ya’ll: here’s how to track the Monarch migration from your desk

Sometime today, at 3:01 PM Central Standard Time in San Antonio, the earth will reach the point in its orbit when, for a few short moments, the sun shines directly on the equator. This results in the Fall Equinox, the celestial milestone that makes for a day of equal parts light and dark. As we march into Fall, the days get shorter, the nights grow longer and temperatures drop.

Monarch butterflies pick up on these cues. Using solar receptors in their antennae, the migrating orange-and-black insects start moving south in “directional flight” toward their winter home in Mexico. Most butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains will arrive in Michoacán by the first week in November where they overwinter until spring to start the life cycle anew.

Scientists and those who follow Monarchs are anticipating a rebound population this year, and we’re already seeing the famous international travelers in random sightings here in San Antonio and elsewhere in the Texas Funnel. We expect the big pulse of Monarchs, what is typically called “peak migration” weeks, to arrive the last half of October, right in time for our Second Annual Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival, October 20 – 22.

To figure out peak migration time in your neighborhood, check out this calendar assembled by Monarch Watch, the citizen science initiative that tracks the migrating insects. The calendar uses tagging data collected over decades to predict when the masses of Monarch butterflies are likely to move across specific latitudes on their way to Mexico.

The best way to enjoy the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration is to get outside as much as possible to see what’s going on with the famous flyers. But that’s not always possible. Work, school and/or other obligations always seem to get in the way.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Won’t be long and Monarch butterflies will be passing throughout the Texas Funnel.  Check out the online tools that will help you track the migration.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Not to worry. By tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to stay on top of the migration right from your desk or mobile device.  Check out the tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science listed below.

Journey North

First stop should be the Journey North website.  A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles.   This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing.  Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that hundreds of thousands of people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.

And with good reason.  Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted.  Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.

The Monarch migration is moving south from Canada and is stalled in the midwest by strong winds, according to Journey North. Map via Journey North.

Journey North also publishes a weekly migration update on Thursdays, often written by founder Howard, like this one from September 21. “Strong and persistent south winds across the Central Flyway have held the migration in place for the past week.” Meet Howard at our  scientific symposium, Butterflies without Borders: the Monarch Migration and our Changing Climate, a discussion of atmospheric and political change and how it affects pollinator advocacy during our Festival. The panel takes place Friday, October 20.  Tickets available here.

 Twitter

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on Monarch butterfly news, from many favorite sources, including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 328+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterfly sighting” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

For example, this search of “monarch butterfly sightings” on Twitter today, retrieved a feed that included the  reports at pictured at right.

 

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings. During Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing.  If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.

Wind map gives a glimpse of what resistance Monarchs will encounter. Photo via Hint.fm

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late-blooming flowers.

Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming.  Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s  visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.

As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook Pages

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch and Journey North Facebook pages.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With almost 42,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, professional and amateur biologists and entomologists all join the conversation.

The Facebook page, Migrant Monarch Tag Reports, allows you to post a notice or photo of a tagged butterfly to figure out its provenance. Photo via Facebook

The Journey North Facebook page, with more than 28,000 fans, is equally engaging.  Journey North posts regular updates and from visitors and citizen scientists. Numerous other Monarch butterfly pages have cropped up on Facebook in recent years, including this one that tracks Migrant Monarch Tag Reports. The page is a closed group, meaning you have to request access. It describes itself as a page “created for those people who find tagged monarch migrants. Take a picture if you can of the tag number or post the tag number so people can track their tagged monarchs. Please only post about tagged monarchs you’ve witnessed or found.”

Monarch Watch Website

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

tagged recovered Monarch

Thanks to Monarch Watch and the miracles of social media, I was able to determine that this ragged fellow, netted at the Texas Butterfly Ranch on October 1, 2016 on the Llano River near London, Texas, was tagged in southern Oklahoma. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to Monarch Watch, I was able to determine that the butterfly I netted on October , 2016, had been tagged in Tishomingo, Oklahoma nine days earlier.  Pretty cool story–read it here.

The site posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look and you can join thousands of others to get on the mailing list.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 800 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexippus, the D-PLEX is an old-fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful. Sometimes exchanges devolve into rude online arguments. I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check periodically, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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