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Suspense in the Monarch Meadow

By Heidi Ware Carlisle, IBO Education and Outreach Director

Perhaps our most exciting (and nerve wracking!) sighting at the Diane Moore Nature Center happened this fall when we discovered a late season Monarch caterpillar. Our team of interns documented a record number of monarch caterpillars in our habitat restoration plots this summer (twelve total!) but we hadn’t seen a caterpillar in weeks. We figured the season had come to a close. But then, visitors to our banding station found a large 5th instar caterpillar on September 24th.

The caterpillar was feeding on milkweed plants in our “monarch meadow” where students and community members have planted hundreds of milkweed plants and wildflowers. Based on its size and life stage, we knew it would have to pupate soon.

a chubby yellow, white, and black striped caterpillar with long black antennae sits on a green milkweed leaf
The caterpillar was feeding on milkweed plants in our “Monarch Meadow” where students and community members have planted hundreds of milkweed seedlings and wildflowers. Photo Credit: Gretel Care

Our work study intern, Aaron Connolly, followed up on the caterpillar a few days later and was amazed by what he discovered…

… it had formed its chrysalis right on the milkweed plant where it had been feeding!

This was an amazing find since many monarchs crawl off their milkweed host to pupate on other shrubs or twigs nearby. We’ve never found a chrysalis at our site before, and this beautiful pupa was a “lifer” for most of our team!

a smooth green pupa hangs from the bottom of a green leaf by a tiny black stem. A line of gold shines at the top, and six gold dots decorate the bottom of the chrysalis
The sparkling golden highlights on the chrysalis were almost impossible to capture on camera. Seeing this chrysalis in person was truly stunning! Photo Credit: Gretel Care

We excitedly watched the chrysalis, checking it each day and bringing groups of students to see the beautiful gold shimmers that decorated the outside. Looking online, we found that most monarchs emerge after 10 to 14 days…but these dates were based on chrysalises formed during the hot days of summer.

As we passed day 15, 16, 17, we started wondering… was the chrysalis dead? Would it ever emerge?

a green chrysalis hangs from the bottom of a leaf, contrasting strongly with the bright yellow leaf that is glowing, backlit by the sun
As the weeks passed, the milkweed plant began to wither and turn yellow. Photo Credit: Heidi Ware Carlisle

The cool October nights continued to get cooler, and the milkweed plant changed from lush green, to withering yellow, and eventually to a crispy and precariously flimsy thin brown stalk. Each day we checked and watched the plant blowing in the wind, the chrysalis hanging by a thread, we lost more and more hope. We felt like anxious parents waiting on the arrival of a new baby.

Only worse, because each day we left our “baby” hanging on a flimsy leaf, where any person or animal could trample it at any moment!!

But then, on day 19, we spotted a change….the once green chrysalis had darkened a bit! We could make out a curved outline that we imagined might be the folded wings of the developing butterfly. Hope sprang anew!

a greenish chrysalis hangs on a dry brown leaf. The bottom and edge of the chrysalis are a dark grayish color
On day 19 we found that the chrysalis had started to darken! Photo Credit: Gretel Care

The next morning we arrived to band and anxiously rushed to the meadow to see whether the chrysalis had changed. It was October 15th, our very last day of songbird banding for the season. The 10 day weather outlook was starting to seem grim: temperatures in the 40s and rain were on the way.

 It was now or never.

the chrysalis is all black, with no green. It still has some gold spots
We arrived in the morning on day 20 to see that the chrysalis had fully darkened! Photo Credit: Gretel Care

Peering under the dry milkweed leaf, we saw that the chrysalis had changed again. It was dark black! As the sun rose and light washed over the chrysalis we could see the stunning orange, black, and white markings of the folded monarch hindwing.

Everything in our google searches said today had to be the day!

Each net check we visited the chrysalis, carefully taking photos to see whether we could spot any minute changes in appearance. Nothing. We finished our banding day, packed up, and left. IBO bander and self-professed bug nerd, Gretel, said she would visit later that evening to check one last time.


on the side of the all black chrysalis you can see the orange wing with black wing veins and white dots
As the sun rose we could start to make out the orange and black patterning of the monarch’s folded wing inside the chrysalis. Photo Credit: Gretel Care

I went home and wondered. Then, around dinner time, the text came through…

…a photo of an empty chrysalis shell!!!

a thin transparent shell hangs from the leaf. it looks like a crinkled plastic candy wrapper
The chrysalis was empty! Photo Credit: Gretel Care

And then…wait for it…

a crisp and beautiful monarch butterfly sits on a dry brown milkweed plant
The newly emerged female monarch sat on the milkweed drying her wings. Photo Credit: Gretel Care

An emerged female Monarch! What a beautiful sight!

Gretel had the amazing opportunity to watch the monarch flap her wings, testing them in the same way we’ve watched many a raptor nestling flap their wings while holding the edge of the nest. As the sun set, the monarch seemed to settle in for the night.

She has an incredibly long and perilous journey ahead of her.

She is the generation destined to fly south to Mexico or California for the winter. If she survives the journey, she’ll gather on pine trees with millions of her kin, waiting out the winter. Then in spring, her children and grandchildren will make the step-by-step migration back north. With any luck, her great-grandbutterflies will make it back to Idaho, lay a tiny egg on a milkweed plant, and start the cycle all over again.

Would you like to help with the work that makes this habitat restoration possible? You can donate today to support the Diane Moore Nature Center, sign up to volunteer on our next habitat restoration project, or join the Golden Eagle Audubon Society to help restore habitat through the Boise River ReWild project.

This article is part of our 2022 end of the year newsletter! View the full newsletter here, or click “older posts” below to read the next article.

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