The morning sun rises over a distant tree line, bathing the gulf in a golden blanket of light, its reflection glistening over the rippling water. The sound of chirping crickets accompanies a brisk morning sea breeze as a crowd of individuals wielding nets and flashlights traipse through the brushy terrain along the shoreline. It’s dawn at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, and a group of eager volunteers, guided by park rangers Richard RuBino and David Cook, are on the hunt for Monarch butterflies.
Each Saturday morning from the middle of October and through November of each year, volunteers and members of the community are encouraged to participate in the Monarch tagging process, hosted at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, located in Wakulla County. According to RuBino, the 30-40 thousand Monarchs that have been tagged at St. Marks since around the year 2000, have been bound for Mexico. However, not all of them will necessarily end up there. The Monarchs begin their journey around late August/early September, usually originating from the New England area, or even as far north as Toronto, Canada. During their migration period, some of the Monarchs opt to spend the winter along the gulf coast near the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. “The reason for tagging them is to see where they end up.” says RuBino. “Usually the best time to get involved and to see Monarchs here is around the middle of October. That’s usually when the peak period for Monarchs occurs in this particular area.”
The volunteers who come out and assist in the capturing and tagging of the Monarchs have the opportunity to learn about the butterflies themselves, and work with professionals in order to further understand their migratory patterns. During the morning tagging expeditions, the rangers and volunteers meet at the St. Marks lighthouse bright and early at 6:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. They check the wind direction and speed, gather some nets and flashlights, and begin their search along the dikes that surround the lighthouse. Once the Monarchs have been captured and counted, they meet back in front of the in the parking lot, tag the butterflies with delicate hands, and release them, but not before grabbing a few interesting snapshots.
The small circular tags placed on the underside of the Monarch’s wings have a unique alpha/numeric ID, as well as the contact information for Monarch Watch, a group of volunteers and researchers who study the Monarch butterfly and monitor fluctuations in their population. “Once we tag it, it’s kind of like putting a note in a bottle” exclaims park ranger David Cook. “People that will recover the Monarchs either alive or dead can report that information, and we’ll have one more piece of the puzzle about not only where these things are going, but how they’re getting there”.
The rangers strongly emphasize the importance of community involvement in the effort to tag the butterflies. “This project would not be what it is without the support of the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service, without the support of the friends of St. Marks, the St. Marks association, and it would be impossible without volunteers coming out here and helping us to do this work.” mentions Scott Davis, another ranger for the refuge. “It’s a lot of fun, a lot of comradery, and it’s very, very easy to get involved.”