Eyeing the monarch; Lowcountry study underway for threatened butterflies

A monarch butterfly feeds on plant nectar at a bush on Folly Beach.

Gorgeous orange butterflies are maybe the last animals you’d expect to stay here for the winter. But on a mid-November afternoon, the air dances with their fluttering wings.

“There are thousands out here,” wildlife ecologist Billy McCord said as he tags monarch butterflies on the seat of his truck pulled over on Folly Beach. At least a few of them, and others that follow, are expected to stay until spring, gliding back and forth across barrier islands and points nearby.

The idea would have been unheard of a few years ago. But catching and tagging by McCord of James Island indicated that it happens.

What’s next is to see where the butterflies go to breed in the spring before they die — they live only about eight months.

An effort is now underway by volunteers in at least 16 locations along the South Carolina coast to do just that. It could be a key to the designation of the monarch butterfly as a threatened species and how the recovery would be managed. With the butterfly declining across its range, a distinct eastern United States population could become a lifeline for the species.

“There really wasn’t a whole lot of information on monarchs on the East Coast, specifically overwintering (population),” said Craig Hernandez, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coastal program biologist.

“If we start to see large distribution in this state, not just a strange exception or aberration, that would support our decision.”

The survey is a S.C. Department of Natural Resources project paid for by a $7,000 Fish and Wildlife grant. McCord is handling it as a volunteer. This is the project he has worked for since 1996.

The monarch is the spectacular “king” of insects — orange, black and white-spotted with a 4- to 5-inch wingspan that makes it one of the largest butterflies. Each fall, migrating flocks, largely from the Midwest, embark on a near-mythic odyssey largely to Mexico. The awe-provoking part is they aren’t the ones who made it last year; they are descendants.

Monarchs along the Eastern flyway were long thought to be part of that migration, so little was known about them. Until McCord’s work few surveys had been attempted. His surveys indicated that the East Coast migration heads to Florida and Caribbean islands.

Lowcountry beaches are part of the flyway, and at the peak of the fall migration thousands of the butterflies at a time might be sipping nectar across a single barrier island. The arrival of one of those migrating “pulses” has become a watched-for moment of coastal life.

The Mexico-migrating monarchs are considered to be in severe decline due to habitat loss — particularly the removal of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s sole food source, in developed areas — and mortality resulting from pesticide use for crops and landscaping.

After a catastrophic winter storm a few years back killed off masses of the wintering population in Mexico, the Center for Biodiversity among other conservation groups petitioned Fish and Wildlife to declare the species threatened. The petition is under review.

The Eastern butterflies might be in as bad a straits because of the loss to development of Lowcountry habitat here such as marsh edge plants they feed on.

McCord, now retired from DNR, took on tagging the butterflies in 1996 as a side project on his own time, out of a fascination with the butterflies and a frustration not much was known about them. He is gruff and self-effacing. He doesn’t want his picture taken. He doesn’t want to be distracted from the time-sensitive tagging.

“It’s all science, trying to discover something” that people don’t know the significance of it yet, he said. “The more tags I get out there the more I could learn from it.”

Reach Bo Petersen at (843) 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.

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