Monarchs: One of Nature’s Crowning Glories

Each fall, Hidden Oaks Nature Center hosts families for a monarch tagging and native pollinator garden program. It’s part of the citizen science project Monarch Watch (https://monarchwatch.org.) If we lived in Kansas, where Monarch Watch is based, we would have the opportunity to potentially tag thousands of monarchs during their peak migration week. In Annandale, Virginia, we may tag 50 over the season.

Monarchs tend to hug the coast as they wing their way towards Mexico. The biggest concentrations for tagging are areas such as Cape May in New Jersey, Point Lookout State Park in Maryland, and the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. In Northern Virginia, Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria attracts monarchs with their nectar and host plants. We are having significantly better success this year at Hidden Oaks with monarch eggs being laid on our milkweed patches. The monarchs we tag in our September programs are ones that we rear from first instar caterpillars purchased through Monarch Watch. The most we have ever had to tag in one program was six, so dreams of netting one monarch after another for a tag and release is just not likely in this area.

Monarch on Coneflower.

Surprisingly, several homeowners’ gardens seem to attract a high number of monarchs each season. Usually a combination of large areas of preferred nectar plants, such as asters and goldenrod, will lure monarchs into the patches of milkweed. Since each caterpillar needs about 18 inches of plant material to grow and a monarch can lay over 200 eggs, a large patch of milkweed is helpful in establishing a backyard experience in the wonder of metamorphosis. The reasons as to why one well-established garden succeeds in attracting monarchs while another does not is a mystery.  

Monarch. Photo credit: Jane Gamble

Monarch numbers in the metro D.C. area are not significant until mid to late summer. The few monarchs that do arrive in spring struggle to find enough monarch plant material to develop effectively. Planting common milkweed, which is a tall, broadleaf plant, is preferable for monarchs due to the amount of milkweed needed for the metamorphosis. Tidy, compact milkweeds with common names of swamp and butterfly weed are attractive. Unfortunately, their thinner leaves and shorter profile cannot support multiple monarch caterpillars.

Watering milkweeds in the summer enables them to thrive in late summer and early fall. The final breeding generation of monarchs arrive then and need fresh host plants on which to lay eggs. The last generation is the migrating generation. This late summer/early fall monarch is physiologically different from the previous four generations and will not be ready to mate until late February/early March. Ideally, they will be in Mexico at that time, arriving by early November. Heading to Florida is a poor option as a deadly bacterial infection is rampant in the monarch population.

To see a steady stream of monarchs, head to coastal areas that are common stopover spots and that have large areas of nectar plants. Sometimes streams of monarchs are seen out of high-rise office windows or gliding thousands of feet up in the sky on thermals that help them soar to Mexico. A few generations later we hope to see their descendants next summer.

According to Monarch Watch and based on our latitude, our area’s peak migration time is around September 25. Hidden Oaks Nature Center had a dozen or so monarchs in various stages of development they reared through mid-September 2020. 

Author Suzanne Holland is the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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