From South to North: Spectacular!

Red admiral, photo by Pat Sutton in Goshen (Cape May County) 5/4/12.

Hey, everyone: Whew! Can this continue?

If you are new to our log and blog and have come here in response to the red admiral, American lady, and question mark flight of yesterday (May 4), that’s great. Please see the post beneath this one about three ways to note your impressions of the flight.

The flight has been building for more than a week with a mini-peak on May 1, followed by a temporary hold because of gray/damp weather May 2 and 3 (which probably contributed to yesterday’s explosion), and then yesterday May 4, one of the most spectacular flights of the last ten or twenty years (at least).

The flight will probably continue today, so this account is just a rough, temporary sketch. If you get out today, please try to get some estimates of numbers, flight direction, and percentages of the three species involved. We have been calling it a “red admiral flight,” but American ladies and question marks are also coming through in very high numbers.

A quick selection of a few notes that have come in (please send more):

Tom Reed in Stone Harbor Point estimated 55,000 butterflies passing him:

Remarkable afternoon flight– estimated total from 4 hours of observation. 50-100/min from 12pm through 1pm, then gradual increase, reaching ~200/min by about 3:15pm. Definitive peak shortly before 4pm, with minute-long counts of 700+ passing fixed point as viewed through binoculars. Flight tapered along outer beach once sea breeze developed shortly thereafter. Almost all movement SE->NW, coming in off the ocean and continuing inland. A number of dead/exhausted individuals littering the beach (ditto for Question Mark, Am Lady).

Pat Sutton in Goshen:

Today on a black cherry in our neighbor’s yard and then across the street in a black cherry on a property not lived in [and black cherry in our yard also]. Each of these trees was covered with a swirling mass of mostly Red Admirals, though fair numbers of American Ladies & Question Marks too.

Today’s swirling, whorling, dashing hither and yon, explosion of Red Admirals was like nothing I’ve ever seen, except in a Butterfly House where they, of course, release 100s or 1000s into a confined area each day to entertain the visitors. Each tree had 100s on it.

Question mark, photo by Pat Sutton in Goshen (Cape May County) 5/4/12.

Will Kerling in Cape May Courthouse (see the log for his other reports from the day):

Bicycled 10 blocks at 1:50 pm and counted 224 RAs streaming by S to N and this pace continued basically for the next two hours / counted looking out a front window around 3 pm / saw along one fence 102 RAs going rapidly S to N!!

Sandra Keller in Palmyra Nature Cove (Burlington County) counted nearly 400 there:

Most were streaming NE over the Delaware River bank. Some were inland, but still heading northerly. This spectcular flight slowed around 4:45PM. I started counting around 4:10PM. I presume a lot of Admirals put down here!

Chip Krilowicz counted more than fifty in his yard in Haddonfield and noted the difficulty of counting:

While heading to my detached garage I noticed butterflies overhead. Upon a closer look I seen that they were all Red Admirals. I went back to my deck and started to count them. The numbers started to mount so I decided to use a sticky paper app on my phone to keep track of what I saw. After 45 min went by I chose to end it after an hour. I did not use any bins because I felt I would miss close ones flying by.

After the count I worked in the yard all afternoon and the flight continued. Getting to the end of my work, I noticed that there were more butterflies in the air and decided to do a short count. My phone has a stop watch and just kept the count numbers in my head.

For both counts I stood at the back of my house at the centerline. My back was to the house and I was facing North the entire time. I only counted butterflies that came from behind my field of view (left, right and overhead) and flew past me. The width of my count was only 100 feet, with me at the center. So any butterfly that came from the South and passed through the 100’ line was counted.

10% of the flight stopped on the azella, rhododendron and Am Holly, 20% just flew by without any hesitation, 20% flew by interacting with one or more admirals. 50% flew by made a course change to the blooms but just inspected them and flew by. I was glad the none of the butterflies decided to fly North to South over my line. I did not have to worry about subtracting any numbers.

Michael Gochfeld’s email report to NJ Birds:

While quite a few lucky people have been able to get out to experience a good bird migration morning, it is worth noting that there is a pretty heavy migration of Red Admiral butterflies streaming north (mainly) through Piscataway (Middlesex County) at this moment. I am counting
about 8 in five minutes as well as about 2 Question Marks. It would be interesting to see how wide a front is experiencing this migration as well as how early it starts and how long it persists. The migration has been light for at least two weeks, but after several cloudy days, today seems to be making up for last time.

Jesse and I counted at two spots, mostly in our garden in Port Republic (Atlantic Co) from late morning when sun came out (about 10:30 am to past 5:30 pm, where Jesse stayed all day). We estimate ~7000 red admirals came by with peaks in late afternoon — 150/5 minutes (=30/minute) at 3:30 and 180/5 minutes (= 36/minute) at 4:15. Our house runs east/west so helped us count as most butterflies veered around it (maybe 10% went over). The flight for all three species was dead-on north. We estimate 500 American ladies and 100 question marks were in the mix.

Red admirals flew most directly through the yard, stopping to nectar on our black cherry, and landing more briefly elsewhere. Question marks were only slightly more hesitant, but several stopped to oviposit on hackberries in our yard. American ladies followed the most leisurely flight, stopping to nectar frequently and also to oviposit on globe thistle (Echinops sphaerocephalus). We have never seen a flight like this one in our yard. (The two previous biggest flights we remember were July 2001 and June/July 2007.)

Question mark eggs on hackberry, Jesse Connor’s garden (Atlantic Co.) 5/4/12.

I drove over to Forsythe NWR to see what was happening there. From 12:30 to 2 pm walked to Leeds Eco Trail and also along James Akers Trail. Surprised to find that American ladies outnumbered red admirals there. Wind was strong from the south there — maybe dispersing the flight some?

Saw Linda Gangi there who told me the flight at her backyard in Manahawkin had been spectacular that morning: “Too many to count. They even landed on me.”

Please, everyone, keep sending in your reports. I’ll quote again from C.B. Williams who studied insect migration all over the world for more than forty years. This passage comes from a 1970 article about painted lady movements in North America and closes with a couplet from Homer:

The field study of insect migration is a science in which little can be planned in advance [and] observations can seldom be repeated. The observer must be ready to take advantage of the opportunity of the moment, and all students must depend on the experience of others as well as their own.

By mutual confidence and mutual aid
Great deeds are done, and great discoveries made

Keep those reports coming!


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