Vanessa Migration Project

Red admiral One of the red admirals migrating through our yard©Janet Allen

We were surprised to find out that monarchs aren't the only butterflies that migrate. Vanessa butterflies, such as the red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) do, too. The red admiral's migration is not like the monarch's, though. They migrate from the south to the north in the spring, but do not migrate back south in the fall. Our population is replenished the following year by new migrants from the south.

This wasn't a project I planned to participate in, but in the summer of 2010 we had a huge migration going through our yard. We noticed a posting about the Vanessa Migration Project on the Monarch Butterfly listserv from the scientist doing this research. He also studies the other Vanessas: the American lady (V. virginiensis) and the painted lady (V. cardui).

Before we started to observe officially, I noticed that one piece of information the project asked for was whether there was directional flight. Directional flight? How would I know if they were going in a certain direction? Don't butterflies just flutter around?

As we watched, though, it clearly was "directional flight"! It was amazing to see this steady stream of butterflies entering and exiting our yard at almost the exact locations. These weren't large groups of butterflies, but rather only two or three at a time, though at a fairly steady rate. For the most part, they were all business—not much stopping to look around. Some did occasionally land to refuel, but they were clearly on a mission. Apparently, many of them ended up in Canada, where people reported record numbers in 2010.

I was glad we found this project; it made watching this migration much more interesting. We're lnow on the lookout for them each year. We didn't see this migration in 2011, but it reoccurred in 2012. At one point I recorded 84 butterflies crossing our yard in a southwest to northeast direction in just 5 minutes!