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I have been seeing something this summer that, for the most part, has been missing during the last few summers. The once plentiful monarch butterfly, which I did not see in the wild, or saw only one or two a year, has become easier to spot this year. I have spotted them near my home as well as near friends’ homes, especially if there was milkweed present. Also, several folks who have been monitoring milkweed patches have reported monarch eggs or caterpillars. During visits to many tracts of PA State Forest and State Game Lands this summer, I have seen monarchs on roughly one third of my trips.
The question of why the region is seeing more monarchs than in the past few years may not have an easy answer. According to the official count estimate done in Mexico late this winter, colonies of monarchs covered 2.91 hectares, which is down from last year’s 4.91 hectares, but this was off the record low of 0.67 hectares that occurred during 2013/2014. Scientists were expecting lower counts this winter due to low fall migration counts. There was a warm December down in Mexico, and that would have resulted in the monarchs spreading out more, according to scientists. This would have caused the masses of monarchs to cover more area, but at fewer butterflies per hectare, which could affect the count. Also, did monarchs find more favorable habitat in the southern and central U.S. during their trek up north, enabling more to survive the journey?
Weather and wind patterns also could have affected where monarch butterflies ended up during their trip, and the timing of where the bulk of the migration was, coupled with particular weather patterns that occurred during that time, may be the reason there are more than the usual number of monarchs around compared to last year. A strong west wind could have carried many individuals further east, toward the coast, for example.
We know that the monarch population is still critically low, and much of the information on these summer sightings is anecdotal; the time I went out on state land and saw four monarchs along the trail, I could have been seeing the same monarch twice as it circled around and appeared ahead on the trail. There isn’t an easy way to gauge an accurate number of butterflies, as some can be seen again and again, and others are just not where people are and don’t get counted. The next real opportunity will come around the weeks of mid-September, when the fall monarch migration will be underway. Organizations such as the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) count migrating monarchs as well as migrating raptors at many of its watch sites. The list of watch sites can be accessed here: www.hmana.org/hawk-watch-sites/.