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Volume 39 Issue 19 • Sept 10-16, 2009
now in our 39th season
In This Issue

Catching Butterflies

During mid-September, the warm island air is filled with fluttering orange-red-and-black butterflies as the Monarchs make their annual migration over Nantucket on their way to Mexico.

You can help in a nationwide effort to track and study these delicate creates this week and next week as the Nantucket Land Council participates in the Monarch Watch program founded and led by Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor, a professor of entomology at the University of Kansas.

All ages are welcome to join Land Council Resource Conservationist Emily MacKinnon for three more sessions of catching, tagging, and releasing the migrating monarchs.  Each Monarch butterfly will be tagged with a number that is entered into a database with the location where it was tagged.  If the butterfly is caught again, the number is re-entered into the database so the migration can be tracked and monitored.

The remaining field trips will be held on Friday, September 11 at 1 pm, on Tuesday, September 15 at 3 pm, and on Wednesday, September 23 at 3 pm.  Because the butterflies need the sunshine to be active, tagging will not be done in the rain.  Call Emily at the Land Council at 508-228-2818 or email her at emily@nantucketlandcouncil.org for meeting locations.

Since 2005, MacKinnon has been participating with the Monarch tagging project and she has involved local school groups.  Last year she began to offer field trips to the public as well.  “It’s a terrific way to get people outside on the vast conservation land we have here on Nantucket...and it’s a lot of fun!”

Most butterflies shouldn’t be handled.  But according to MacKinnon, Monarchs are pretty resilient, “after all, they do travel thousands of miles...still, we handle them as little as possible,” she explained.  Volunteers catch Monarchs in nets, and MacKinnon carefully affixes the tag.  These tags are tiny stickers each the size of a pencil eraser.  One is placed on a specific spot on the hind wing of each Monarch caught.  

Most Monarchs live from two to six weeks, but the brood that emerges at end of August and beginning of September can live for up to eight months.  The ones seen on the island now are the butterflies that will make the migration to Mexico, overwinter, then in March or April head back north to breed.  Their offspring hatch, feed, and continue the trip north — that generation will live two to six weeks, making it part of the way to Nantucket.  It is the next generation that might reach Nantucket and beyond. 

“A lot of butterflies traveling along the coast find Nantucket a convenient spot to stop [during the migration] and build up fat stores. One of their primary sources is goldenrod, and we have plenty of that!” MacKinnon added.

It is a mystery how generations of Monarch butterflies that have never been to Mexico know when it’s time to leave and how to get to their destination, just as it is a mystery how the following generations know how what route to travel to get back north, sometimes to the exact tree where their great-grandparents settled.

Through tagging, the Monarch Watch program hopes to discover more about the migration and the homing system as well as how the migration is influenced by weather.

Those interested in joining Emily MacKinnon in the Nantucket Land Council tagging trips should wear long pants and closed toe shoes.  Participants may bring their own butterfly nets or share the nets provided by the Nantucket Land Council.

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