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A white sign that reads "Monarch Butterfly Festival, October 27th, St. Marks NWR, 850-925-6121"
Information icon The festival takes place Oct. 27 at the refuge, located on Apalachee Bay on the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

It’s monarch time

Butterfly festival goes on despite Hurricane Michael

St. Marks, Florida — And now for a small bit of good news in a part of the country where a hurricane has made nearly every tale bad:

The Monarch Butterfly Festival will take place as planned. Walk, drive and — yes — fly to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to celebrate that colorful flutterer, Danaus plexippus.

The festival is Oct. 27 at a refuge where Hurricane Michael came calling earlier this month.

The Category 4 storm hit the refuge, plus its sister compound, St. Vincent, on Oct. 10. It came with stunning storm surges. In some places, the roadway here was under six feet of water — perhaps more; no one is sure. Meteorologists say the Panhandle hadn’t been hit by a storm so fierce in at least a century.

St. Marks reopened 11 days after the hurricane’s landfall, after crews cleaned debris from roads and made sure structures were safe. Anglers, birders and other outdoor fans have returned.

Following the storm, the Service also dispatched workers to Panama City, 95 miles west of here. There, crews wielded chainsaws, operated heavy machinery and gave out water and food to storm-stunned residents.

Now, with the Service’s immediate duties largely accomplished — roads opened, trees cleared, food and water distributed — it can focus on the festival and other events showcasing nature at its best.

A woman wearing a USFWS polo shirt with a smile
Robin Will, supervisory ranger at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, has participated in every Monarch Festival since the first debuted in 1991. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

For that, Robin Will is grateful. The refuge’s supervisory ranger, she has participated in every monarch celebration since it debuted in 1991. This year’s gathering will be the 27th — proof that humans, like butterflies, can rise above nature’s tempests and get on with the business of life.

‘Looking monarch-ish’

On a recent morning, Will made a leisurely, seven-mile drive to the festival site at the St. Marks Lighthouse. With her was biologist David Cook, a butterfly expert with the Florida Wildlife Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Like Will, he’s a pageant veteran; this year’s fest will be his 15th.

Kayakers fish from their watercraft in front of a grand, white lighthouse.
The St. Marks Lighthouse is ringed by plants that monarchs like. The current structure has stood since 1840. Photo courtesy of FWC.

Will slowed her van as she neared the lighthouse, standing stark and white against a dazzling blue sky, ringed at its base by a tangle of greenery. Since 1830, a light has stood near the water’s edge to warn vessels away from the bay’s shallows. (The current structure was built in 1842.)

St. Marks Refuge Monarch Butterfly Festival

Cook peered through the van’s window. “It’s looking monarch-ish,” he said.

Will nodded. “Oh!” she said. “There!”

A monarch, brilliant orange against the faded blacktop, flitted in the breeze. It looked like a Post-it note come to life.

The monarch is a marvel. With a wingspan no wider than a playing card, it flies steadily south every autumn from the United States to Central America, roughly a 2,500 mile journey. Some stop at the refuge, where St. Marks’ flora provides welcome food for the next leg of the journey. They have been doing this for millennia. But only recently did humans take notice.

‘Something different’

A butterfly with orange, black and white wings perched on a flower
Monarch butterflies migrate thousands of miles every year. Photo courtesy of FWC.

In the mid-and late 1980s, Tonya Van Hook, a graduate student at the University of Florida, noticed the butterflies when she made fall visits to the refuge.

“I thought, ‘Something different is going on here’,” Van Hook said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Tennessee.

Van Hook shared her findings with others, who confirmed what she suspected: For roughly a month, from mid-October to mid-November, St. Marks becomes a monarch hotspot. Service officials decided there was nothing cooler to showcase these temporary visitors than a namesake festival.

Even now, nearly three decades after that first festival, Van Hook remains vaguely surprised at its longevity. Sure, she’d hoped the fest would take wing, but who knew?

“It’s still going,” said Van Hook, who has a Ph.D. in etymology. “It’s pretty amazing.”

One of the annual event’s highlights: tagging some butterflies’ wings with blue stickers to help document their migration. That’s Cook’s job.

Those little tags, smaller than a dime, have yielded big surprises. Two years ago, a blue-tagged monarch turned up in Ontario, Canada — 900-plus miles from St. Marks’ windy shores.

The festival here is not unique; at least five other annual fests commemorate the monarchs’ annual migration. They include a springtime celebration in California where people celebrate the butterflies’ return; and a gathering in Minnesota where festival-goers bid the monarchs goodbye in early fall.

And, of course, an observation here, where the Florida Panhandle embraces the Gulf of Mexico’s salty depths.

Will and Cook strolled past the lighthouse, eyes to the ground. They hadn’t gone far when —

“Look,” said Cook. “Another one.”

This monarch dipped briefly in the breeze, nearly touching the ground before straining skyward. For a moment it was a flash of brilliance in the deep-green shadows of a palm. Then it was gone.

Will and Cook stood for a moment, perhaps lost in admiration. Monarchs are that hard to ignore.

A man in a blue shirt looks through binoculars
David Cook, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, will tag monarchs during the festival. The tags will help track the butterflies’ migration. Photo by Mark Davis, USFWS.

Will the monarchs this year ignore the festival — stopping, perhaps, later in the month? That’s anyone’s guess; butterflies don’t file flight plans.

Will, ever an optimist, believes the monarchs will be here to greet visitors.

“I hope we have a couple,” Will said. “But I may be pleasantly surprised.” They have surprised her before.

Cook also thinks another species — Homo sapiens — may show up to admire the winged travelers.

“Looking at monarchs gives people a vested interest, to put their hands on a live, wild species,” he said.

That chance is imminent.

“Families have been looking for things to do,” Will said. “The kids aren’t in school because of the hurricane. We’re hoping people will be ready to get out and see some butterflies.”


Mark Davis, Public Affairs Specialist

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