Monarch Butterflies Head South for the Winter

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We expect to see flocks of migrating birds overhead during the fall as they make their way to winter homes in warmer regions of the world, but an unlikely candidate for long migrating travels is the Monarch butterfly. Even more surprising is that one of the most successful spots to view this migration is right here in western North Carolina.

This large black and orange butterfly is the only butterfly in North America to fly south in the fall and begin a return migration in the spring. Directly in its flight path is Asheville, North Carolina. Starting in the latter part of September and continuing for several weeks, Monarch come through the western mountains on a 2,000 mile journey. They do not migrate in flocks but travel as individuals. The Monarchs that winter in Mexico start the journey back in the spring but die on the way, leaving it up to their descendants to finish the journey to northern breeding grounds where they lay their eggs on young milkweed plants.

The Monarchs that come through Asheville probably came from eggs that were laid in milkweed meadows in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Canada. They start their migration in mid-August and can easily travel about seven miles per hour. They can be seen anywhere from downtown Asheville to the ridges of the Craggies. They usually travel at treetop level or lower and can be seen in greater concentrations as they funnel through low gaps in east-west ridges.

A good viewing location is at Wagon Road Gap at milepost 412.2 south of Mount Pisgah on the Blueridge Parkway. The best viewing time is after a cold front has moved through and the wind is blowing from the north. At over 5,000 feet, the elevation of Wagon Road Gap makes it one of the only places to witness the migration of the Monarch along its journey to Mexico.