Big Bend / Wildlife

Celebrate the Monarch butterfly migration in Florida’s Big Bend

Monarch butterfly by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson

Monarch butterfly by Kenneth Dwain Harrelson

Everyone ends up in Florida sooner or later it seems, and monarch butterflies are no different.

On their 2,000-mile fall migration from North America to Central Mexico, thousands of monarch butterflies stop over in Florida’s Big Bend and Panhandle in October and November.

One of the best places to witness the monarch migration is the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in picturesque St. Marks, Florida, a half hour south of Tallahassee.

The 1831 lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

The 1831 lighthouse at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

St. Marks NWR has an annual Monarch Butterfly Festival. This year it is Saturday, Oct. 28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The festival offers educational demonstrations, wildlife exhibitions and entertainment.

Admission to the festival is free. Here are details.

The town of St. Marks, by the way, is holding its annual Stone Crab Festival on the same day, making this a two-for-one destination.

Monarch butterflies have experienced a dramatic decline in population in the last two decades. While monarch butterflies are found across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, their numbers have declined by 90 percent because of loss of habitat due to agricultural practices, development and cropland conversion.

The monarch butterfly migration is unique – each butterfly is on its own, not following a parent, exhibiting an inherited behavior, not a learned one. Migrating monarchs hatch during the summer and they make the round-trip only once.

Floridawildlifeviewing.org says you can see hundreds or even thousands of monarch butterflies at St. Marks refuge and the best place is around the picturesque historic St. Marks lighthouse.  The site reports: “Monarchs are reluctant to fly directly across the water, so they bunch up at the lighthouse, located on a small tip, beside the Gulf of Mexico. They tend to stay for a time because the food supply is good at this time of year.”

The refuge also leads another interesting activity for wildlife lovers: Weekly monarch butterfly counting and tagging project.

Every Saturday morning from Oct. 14 to Nov. 25, volunteers can join experienced taggers before the sun rises for 90 minutes to two hours of volunteer activity. (You need a headlamp to work in the dark, shoes that can get wet and avoid wearing insect repellent.)  See details here.

Even without monarch butterflies, we found the St. Marks Refuge to be a beautiful place to explore. You won’t find a more scenic lighthouse than St. Marks, and there are many hikes in the area. (Start at the beautiful refuge headquarters, with a walk around their pond and into adjacent woods.)

Here’s a Florida Rambler report on St. Marks and the Wakulla Springs area. This region offers a great variety of recreational opportunities – a lovely paved bike path through the forest, one of the biggest and most beautiful springs in Florida, a picturesque river to kayak, charming small towns. You could spend days here.

More about the monarch butterfly migration in Florida:

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Monarch Butterfly Festival. There is a $5 per car entry fee to the refuge.  St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is at 1255 Lighthouse Road, St. Marks .

Also celebrating monarchs: The Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre presents Monarch Madness Oct. 20-21.

US Fish and Wildlife Service “Save the monarch butterfly” site.

Monarch Watch for information on monarch waystations, free milkweed and more.

Wild for Monarchs – Information about developing native habitat.

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