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Winged Wonders

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine. Photos courtesy of Patricia Sutton

Tiger Swallowtail

Butterflies flutter by, and many are butter yellow in color, hence their name – butterfly! This is true of the Orange Sulphur, a very common butterfly in the Cape May area because of all the farmlands and places like Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area where alfalfa and other clovers flourish – the plants on which Orange Sulphurs lay their eggs.

You might see over 100 different kinds of butterflies in Cape May County, but only if you explore spring through fall and only if you visit as many different habitats as possible: overgrown fields, grassy pastures, wet meadows, salt marshes, freshwater marshes, pine-oak forest, wet woods, and of course public (and private) butterfly gardens. Often the big and showy butterflies catch one’s eye, like Tiger Swallowtails.


A butterfly’s drink of choice is flower nectar, though not all flowers are butterfly-friendly. Over the years old-fashioned flowers have been replaced with cultivars that may look pretty to the eye, but no longer satisfy butterflies. That, coupled with the disappearance of grassy wildflower meadows, explains the low numbers of butterflies in so many places. But here in the Cape May area, we are fortunate to have high numbers and high diversity because so many natural areas have been preserved, allowing butterflies to survive and flourish.

Butterflies and plants are intimately linked. Not only do they obtain nourishment (nectar) from flowers, all butterflies lay their eggs on plants to create the next generation. Watch a butterfly lay an egg, and treat yourself to a close and personal look. Focusing on the Question Mark (so named for the silver “question mark” or half circle and dot on the underside of the wing) let’s look at the amazing life cycle of a butterfly. Question Mark eggs look like jewels and can be stacked one upon another. The caterpillar hatches from the egg and begins to eat the plant it finds itself on, in this case Hackberry, a common tree in the Cape May area. This caterpillar is quite ferocious looking, all the better for survival, since many birds are looking for just such a tasty morsel to feast on or to feed to their young. Just a few butterflies winter over as adult butterflies, seeking refuge in wood piles, under shutters and shingles, and in hollow trees – the Question Mark winters in just this way. It is seen late into the fall and is one of our first butterflies of spring.

Common Buckeye

With fall upon us it’s time to enjoy Common Buckeyes nectaring on one of our loveliest wildflowers, Seaside Goldenrod. Many Common Buckeyes migrate south through Cape May, heading to coastal North Carolina and further south. Sometimes in the fall we also see huge numbers of Painted Ladies. They too survive the winter by migrating south, but in the case of the Painted Lady they migrate all the way to northern Mexico where they can safely winter.

We all eagerly anticipate the autumn Monarch migration through Cape May, a world-famous natural history phenomenon. Monarchs can carpet the dunes nectaring on lushly blooming Seaside Goldenrod. They might come in ones and twos, sailing over rooftops and down the dune line. Many of them find their way into butterfly gardens planted with nectar delights like New England Aster and Tropical Milkweed.

Migrating Monarchs roost in a red cedar.

Waves of Monarchs migrate south, arriving on the coattails of gentle north and northwest winds. Hundreds, and some days thousands, travel south down the Cape May Peninsula to the tip, where they gather in huge numbers. They nectar by day, but by late afternoon you are likely to find them roosting on trees and shrubs in or near lush vegetated dunes.

New Jersey Audubon Society’s Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) has studied the fall Monarch migration since 1996 by tagging and weighing thousands upon thousands of these amazing lighter-than-a-feather butterflies that make the greatest migration of any insect in the world. Nearly 40 Monarchs that were wing-tagged at Cape May have been refound at their winter home in the mountains of Mexico. Free “Monarch Tagging Demonstrations” in September and October are offered by CMBO (call 609-884-2736 for details).

The towns of Cape May Point, West Cape May, and Cape May probably have more private backyard butterfly gardens than any other similar sized area in the country. Many of these private butterfly gardens are not your typical everyday garden, but instead over the top! Butterfly gardeners are a unique breed. They tuck nectar and caterpillar plants into every available sunny spot, often right up to the road edge. They feel compelled to garden furiously for butterflies since many yards offer so little to these winged jewels.

Right now waves of migrating Monarchs are dropping into local butterfly gardens, drinking nectar, tanking up, spiraling up into gentle north winds, and letting those winds carry them a bit further south on their way to Mexico.