Over the holidays I took a day trip across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to bird the southern tip of Virginia’s eastern shore. It was unseasonably warm and sunny, as much of our winter has been this year, and as I walked around the trails of the wildlife refuge I stumbled upon several overwintering butterflies, including one big surprise, a Monarch butterfly!

As most of us know, the Monarch population of the entire Eastern United States migrates to Mexico every fall. Millions of adult Monarchs overwinter there in huge “clusters” or colonies in the higher elevations of Mexico’s mountains. We’ve all seen pictures of these colonies, with layers and layers of butterflies hanging from the trees (photo below courtesy of http://goodnature.nathab.com/). These butterflies don’t begin their northward migration back to North America until around March.
I had no idea that any Monarchs actually overwintered in North America, so I did a little research. It is indeed a rare occurrence, but a few adult Monarchs, for unknown reasons, do spend the winter here, mostly on the Gulf Coast. “Journey North,” a web-based citizen science program, has collected data from reports submitted to them by people like you and me who observe wildlife, and they found that over a 9-year period between 2002 and 2009, 242 reports of overwintering Monarchs (January-February) were submitted. Of these, predictably, 80% of the Monarchs were seen in Florida and Texas. Only one report, submitted in 2006, came from as far north as Virginia. That report came from a Virginia Beach couple who documented a Monarch that wintered in their garden between September 5 and March 6 of that year. (If you’d like to read the entire published article about this study, go to http://www.hindawi.com/journals/psyche/2010/689301)I was not the only person to see Monarchs on the Eastern Shore over the holidays. Another birder who lives in Cape Charles reported seeing “many” on one of the warm days we had. I reported our sitings to Journey North, as anyone who sees a Monarch here in January or February should do. (http://www.learner.org/jnorth) What a great way for us “regular folks” to contribute to scientific study, especially in a year like this when the climate is out of whack!)


The other species of butterfly that I saw that day was the Clouded Sulphur (photo above), and I saw several. Sulphurs are known to overwinter here in our region in their adult, winged stage. They tuck themselves away into a protected spot where they are sheltered from the elements, and go into a torpid state during the cold months. On unusually warm winter days, they do sometimes emerge to fly and look for food sources.

This has been such a mild winter that many of the bird species that usually migrate here from more northern areas have not arrived in Virginia. Because of this year’s warmer weather, they have been able to find food sources in the north that are not usually available to them, and they have no need to continue their journeys further south. The reduced number of waterfowl in particular has been particularly evident this year; in the past I have seen thousands of Scoters and other sea ducks wintering in the waters along the Bay Bridge-Tunnel, but this year there have been only a handful.


On the other hand, some species that usually migrate to the south of us have stopped here this year for the winter because it is so mild. I’m certain that the weather is responsible for the higher-than-normal numbers of orioles, for example, that are being reported this winter. Last month I blogged about four Baltimore Orioles (photo of one of them, above) that were visiting my yard and my sugar water and grape jelly feeders; I’m please to tell you that they are still here, and the group has increased to at least six individuals! The only problem is that most days it’s so warm that the honeybees are flying, and they compete with the orioles for the sugar water!


Last winter was bitterly cold and we had several snowstorms including the famous one that dropped 14 inches of snow on Chesapeake. This year it’s so warm that bees are flying and some of my perennial flowers are actually blooming right now. I don’t know what that means for the state of our planet, but it certainly makes for interesting and diverse wildlife watching year to year.

Addendum: I ran out of grape jelly for the orioles, so I put out some blackberry jelly that I had on hand. They emphatically rejected it! It’s got to be grape, and Smuckers is their favorite!

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One thought on “Monarchs in January??

  1. Hi Karen,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog. Very interesting info about monarchs; who would have thought you would be seeing one in January! I did notice in my own yard last fall that I was seeing them later than usual – all the way through October into early November.
    Keep me updated on your new program (alan.pulley@gmail.com). It definitely sounds like something I would be interested in and would be happy to help spread the word.

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