Right Place, Perfect Time: Monarch Butterfly Migration

See these colorful flutters fuel up for the long flight to Mexico.
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See these colorful flutters fuel up for the long flight to Mexico.

Birds get a lot of attention from list-keepers, but the butterfly migration—as millions of monarchs swarm south to winter in Cuba and Mexico—is in a class by itself when it comes to winged spectacles. And the sight doesn’t get any better than in the Florida panhandle, where countless Danaus plexippus stop en route, fortifying themselves with milkweed nectar to sustain the epic journey. The peripatetic insects arrive at 68,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge by the thousands in the third week of October and into November, where they refuel before heading south across the Gulf.

Although the refuge has 50 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail, the best way to see the monarchs is via kayak, hugging the shoreline. Put in by St. Marks Lighthouse (on CR 59, 25 miles from Tallahassee) and cruise along the coves and bayous in either direction, or head up the St. Marks River. Be on the lookout for more than a dozen other butterfly species, including the similarly colored, but non-migratory, gulf fritillary. If possible, schedule a paddle during a cold front, when relatively chilly northwest winds move the monarchs along en masse.

Maps Florida Trail Maps 11/12, St. Marks-Aucilla & Econofina River ($6, floridatrail.org) Info (850) 925-6121; fws.gov/saintmarks