St. Marks – home for migrants

Posted on 18 May 2011

Have you ever wondered where the Monarch butterflies go after they have stopped at your milkweed plants?

Well, if you take a drive to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge during the month of October; you will be able to view the hundreds of Monarch butterflies that stop there to feed on the saltbush plants before they make their long journey to the Sierra Chincua in Mexico. One-hundred million or more make this journey south and have been doing so for thousands of years.

My husband and I had the pleasure of viewing this spectacular site the third week of October. After stopping at the visitor center, which has numerous exhibits of the many species found in the refuge, we followed the Lighthouse Road to the end. To the right of the parking lot is the Levee Trail. It is a half-mile trail that focuses on coastal plants.

We saw many saltbush plants covered with Monarch butterflies. We were also able to view the salt marshes, Apalachee Bay and the historic lighthouse from the Levee Trail. On the way back on Lighthouse Road, there is a short boardwalk on the right side of the road where one can photograph the lighthouse.

The Monarch butterfly actually goes through four stages during one life cycle and four generations in one year.

The four stages are the egg, the larvae, the pupa and the adult. You can read more about this at The butterflies that migrate through St. Marks are those from east of the Rocky Mountains. Monarchs from west of the Rocky Mountains migrate to the Monterey Peninsula in California where they hibernate in eucalyptus trees.

Monarchs have a 4-inch wingspan and weigh one gram.

They travel with cold fronts at 10 to 30 mph and often cover 80 miles a day. They are poisonous to birds because of the toxins from the milkweed they feed on. When the Monarchs emerge from hibernation in late February, they mate and travel north and lay their eggs on the way. Not many of the adults survive the trip; it is the offspring who continue the journey.

St. Marks NWR is located 25 miles south of Tallahassee, Fla., and is open year-round. In addition to the Monarch butterflies, one may observe birds, ducks, migrating shorebirds, Florida black bear, bobcats, sea turtles, manatees and many more.

St. Marks has a Butterfly Festival, which is usually held the third Saturday of October and offers butterfly tagging, walks, crafts for children, van tours and wagon tours. There is a $5 car entrance fee, or you can purchase an annual pass. They also accept Federal passes such as the $10 Senior Pass.

There are many walking trails and the refuge is the gateway to the Panhandle Section of the Florida Birding Trail.

St. Marks also offers several photography opportunities. There are classes, an annual photo contest and a photo club. The website for further information about the refuge is or you may call (850) 925-6121. More of my photographs of St. Marks can be viewed at

If you are interested in butterflies, there is an organization called the NABA-Hairstreak Chapter Apalachicola Region. The Hairstreak Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association covers the Apalachicola region of the Florida Panhandle. I had the pleasure of going on a kayaking trip with them from Three Rivers Park in Sneads, Fla. We paddled along the shores of Lake Seminole looking for butterflies. They also sponsor many field trips in the northwest Florida and southwest Georgia area. To contact the NABA-Hairstreak Chapter Apalachicola, email

Migration of the whooping crane

Another migration that takes place at St. Marks NWR is that of the whooping crane.

The Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership is a group of non-profit organizations and government agencies that have joined forces to reintroduce a migratory population of whooping cranes to eastern North America. Their website is

In the 1940s, there were only 15 cranes left.

Since 2001, three ultralight aircraft have guided 10 groups of birds from Wisconsin’s Necedah National Wildlife Refuge to Florida. There are now approximately 96 whooping cranes in the wild in eastern North America.

In years past, the flyovers were just outside of Climax, Ga.

St. Marks NWR is where half of the flock now winters. The other half winters in Chassahowtizka, Fla. You can follow the areas the cranes stop over at You can also view a take-off that took place on Nov. 6, 2010, at

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