We knew they were coming; we all knew they were coming, but we could have no idea just how many Monarchs would be at Cape May Point by Saturday evening. It all started with a wonderful flight of Monarchs, all drifting south to the point, then west along the dunes.
By Saturday lunchtime, reports of 'roosts' were reaching the Hawkwatch Platform. In fact, these were insects gathering at rich food sources which, at this time of the year, often means Common Ivy - a plant which bears flowers in fall and fruit in late winter.
As the sun started to lower in the western sky, there was the opportunity for some fun with backlit individuals...
...then backlit groups.
But soon it was clear that a major roost was developing in Stites Avenue - a location favored in previous years. The roost typically began on evergreen Red Cedars and American Holly, but soon spread to this Black Cherry as space ran out...
...then to this ornamental privet...
...and eventually even to the bare branches of a stand of White Poplars.
06:30 Sunday morning saw people gathering in Stites Avenue again and even as the first light cut across the point, butterflies were getting restless and were itching to get going.
By 07:00 the sun was hitting the tree tops and wings were beginning to vibrate as flight muscles were warmed.
Ever more and more butterflies worked their way into the sun to get warm and ready for flight.
The start of the big lift was not far away as the vanguard tested the air currents.
The moment before lift off, with most of the Monarchs now fanning their wings. Wondering what the tree is by the way? Well, with such a heavenly sight it can surely only be one thing - yes, it really is Ailanthus altissima, the Tree of Heaven.
With the roosts now up in the air, the dune crossover was the place to be, as butterflies tested the air currents and waited for the right moment. I call this picture simply "Look Mark, a Monarch!"
Traditional passtimes continued on the beach, but what a morning to be there!
After some pretty amazing point counts, when Tom Johnson did a quick 360 degree estimate of 5200 butterflies passing Higbee Dike and Monarchs were passing along the beach at Coral Avenue at a steady 700 per minute, the main event suddenly happened right before our very eyes. At around 08:00 the wind shifted a little, from roughly Northwest to Northeast. I felt the change on the back of my neck and at the very same moment Monarchs just happened. That sums it up for me - Monarchs happened! An uncountable mass of black and orange simply left New Jersey and headed out across Delaware Bay. How many? We'll never know, but figure on 100,000 butterflies - then add on all the ones around the corner!
That's it. Just time to add that the comments uttered at the time were all part of the occasion; Michael O'Brien: "No rarity is better than a migration event". Vince Elia: "I'm so speechless, I can't stop talking!". And I know that Vince was speechless because I heard him telling everyone!
Something for the hardened birder. Bird migration was certainly slow today, but Bunker Pond came up trumps with this Hudsonian Godwit. Tomorrow is another day - see you there my friends! [All photos by Mike Crewe]