Just because it’s predictable doesn’t make it any less incredible.
The annual fall migration of monarch butterflies has begun, when scores of the iconic, imperiled black-and-orange winged insects travel thousands of miles to their southern wintering grounds in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.
But the butterflies that make this journey are not the same butterflies that flew to Michigan and other parts of the northern U.S. and southern Canada this spring. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, they’re actually the spring migratory monarchs’ great-great-grandchildren, called the “super generation,” a cadre of monarchs born in late August and early September that travel farther and live longer than the four to five generations of monarchs born earlier in the year.
As they make their way through Michigan, traveling up to 50 miles a day, the super-generation monarchs follow “flyways” that often hug the Great Lakes shorelines where wind and weather patterns help push them along. Their route includes favorite roosting spots where they’ll congregate at night and in inclement weather, sometimes gathering in such numbers as to create a monarch-colored kaleidoscope in the trees.
Michigan’s most well-known migratory monarch waystation is the southern tip of the Stonington Peninsula, part of the U.P.’s Hiawatha National Forest and home of the historic Peninsula Point Lighthouse. When conditions are right, the monarchs will cluster together in the area’s cedars before traveling across Lake Michigan — a spectacle that’s always impressive, whether it’s just a few butterflies, or a few hundred.
Given how many monarchs stop over at Stonington every autumn, it’s long been the site of butterfly tagging and counting as volunteers and researchers hope to keep tabs on a species whose numbers have declined by more than 80 percent in the past 20 years. It’s also a popular and particularly beautiful spot for fall travelers hoping to catch a glimpse of migration in action.
Chris Williams, a wildlife biologist with the Hiawatha National Forest, says the best conditions for viewing monarchs at Stonington are in the morning after a rainy cold front moves through. The monarchs will stage in the cedar trees, and when the sun comes out, they’ll spread their wings to dry them and then launch south with a little help from northerly winds.
Another great Michigan spot to witness monarchs on the move is Tawas Point State Park, where a hook-shaped spit of land is a common migratory pit-stop for both butterflies and birds. When the weather lines up right, sometimes the park will see thousands of monarchs roosting over the course of just a couple days — walk the park’s main trail, past the historic Tawas Point Lighthouse, and keep your eyes peeled for butterflies nectaring in wildflowers or roosting in trees.
Monarch migration in Michigan runs from the end of August through early October, peaking in September. Find more resources and real-time migration maps at JourneyNorth.org/monarchs, where you can also submit reports of monarch sightings to help researchers track their migration patterns.
You can also check Hiawatha National Forest’s Facebook page for updates on monarch activity at the Stonington Peninsula site.
Learn more about monarch conservation at fws.gov/savethemonarch.