Butterfly with empty chrysalis shell on Saturday, Aug. 22, at 10:45 a.m. Moment of emergence unknown; possibly an hour earlier. Photo: Judy Isacoff

NATURE’S TURN: Monarch butterfly emerges, flexes its wings, flutters, flies

Special edition for late August, 2020

Monarch butterfly caterpillar in its ‘J’ stage, Aug. 5, 2020. Photo: Judy Isacoff
Monarch butterfly caterpillar, Aug. 3, 2020.

Mount Washington —At the time I finished writing my Edge column “Plant it and they will come” on Thursday, Aug. 20, I had been observing a monarch caterpillar and then its chrysalis since the beginning of the month. At that moment the chrysalis was at the extreme end of the predicted nine to 14 days from chrysalis formation to butterfly emergence, and I had begun to doubt that the chrysalis was viable. On the 20th, it appeared shrunken and black, seeming to confirm my hopelessness. Intending to convey only the wonder of being witness to the unfolding of a beautiful life story a few steps from my front door, I concluded that article, published on Monday the 24th, without revealing my pessimism. In retrospect, I was so influenced by the references I had consulted that I had given up careful observation on the 14th day.

The chrysalis as it appeared Aug. 19 at 8:55 a.m., its 12th or 13th day. Notice the fully developed wing pattern beneath the surface of the jade green casing. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Defying statistics and to my wildly amazed eyes, I found a gorgeous monarch butterfly on Aug. 22, the 15th or 16th day after the monarch formed its chrysalis. The butterfly’s predicted due date was off by as much as two to seven days.

Sitting on the ground among the swamp milkweed plants in the garden, I observed the monarch butterfly next to the empty shell of the chrysalis, shown here on Saturday, the 22nd at 11:01 a.m., 16 minutes after I found it.
In this image, captured at 11:51 a.m., the butterfly is shown beginning to open its wings as it climbs up the stem of its home plant. Photo: Judy Isacoff
Closed-wing view of monarch butterfly. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Opening and closing its wings while climbing, our monarch arrived close to the plant’s topmost leaves between 11:56 and 12:14 p.m.

Monarch butterfly with fully open wingspan. Photo: Judy Isacoff

At 12:27 p.m., monarch, perched atop the milkweed plant, displays its full wingspan. It is a female. If it were a male, it would show a short black mark on each hind wing.

One minute later, the butterfly was airborne!

Monarch butterfly spreads its wings. Photo: Judy Isacoff

I scrambled to aim my camera. There it is; the lens met the monarch at 12:28 p.m.

I had turned away just before the butterfly’s moment of takeoff. It had been 90 minutes since I sat down beside the vividly colored and patterned insect to observe its entry into the world. My curiosity demanded that I continue observations that began with the caterpillar. I had forgotten myself, forgotten about the need to move, drink and eat. Distracted by all those cravings, my attention had wandered.

My gaze returned to my subject to glide with her as she took her first flight.

Monarch butterfly in Sungold tomato plant. Photo: Judy Isacoff

Landing in a Sungold tomato plant (too pedestrian for the occasion!) a few seconds after 12:28 p.m., the butterfly seemed to “hang” in its newfound environment, its wings mostly tucked as they were shortly after emerging from the chrysalis.

About half an hour later, at 1:10 p.m., the monarch took its second flight, fluttering out to a beautiful stand of tall, purple flowering ironweed. Seeing her spread her wings wide in the sunlit flowers, I bid her farewell.

Monarch butterfly in purple flowering ironweed. Photo: Judy Isacoff