Close up of monarch butterfly nectaring on a pink thistle flower.
Monarch butterfly: In the fall, monarch butterflies travel from Wisconsin all the way to conifer forests in the mountains of central Mexico, a distance of more than 1,700 miles. © Janet Haas

Stories in Wisconsin

September Wisconsin Nature Notes

Amazing Monarch Migration

Many migrations are underway come September, including one undertaken by an animal so small and delicate that its journey seems impossible – the monarch butterfly.

In the fall, Wisconsin’s monarch butterflies travel all the way to conifer forests in the mountains of central Mexico, a distance of more than 1,700 miles. It is difficult to imagine that a butterfly can travel that great distance, yet monarchs do and their numbers typically peak in the state on their way south during the first two weeks of September.

South-bound monarchs are bigger than most, built for the rigors of their long journey. These migrants often follow landmarks such as river valleys or the Lake Michigan shoreline. Occasionally, large groups of monarchs will settle overnight in one location – observers once found hundreds of butterflies on pine boughs in Kohler-Andrae State Park.

The monarchs that overwinter in Mexico do not make it back to Wisconsin the following spring. Instead, the monarchs flying north lay eggs and produce caterpillars that metamorphose into another generation of butterflies that continue the journey. Three to four generations of monarchs may be required to complete the return trip to Wisconsin each year.

Loss of winter habitat in Mexico, extreme weather events and changes in agricultural practices that have resulted in fewer milkweed plants, which sustain growing caterpillars, have led to a decline in monarch numbers. The Nature Conservancy protects the habitats that monarchs need here in Wisconsin and in other places along their migratory route. You can help monarchs by planting native milkweed in your yards and gardens.

Wild Rice Harvest in Full Swing

Wild rice was the most important food used by American Indians in the Upper Great Lakes region. It dominated the diet of the native people, accounting for nearly one-quarter of their caloric intake. Some 30,000 Native Americans were likely supported by the extensive stands of rice in what is called by botanists today the “wild rice district” of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

While this emergent aquatic grass grows from Maine west to Saskatchewan and south to Florida, its greatest densities occur in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin—some 20,000 acres in Minnesota, and 6,000 acres in Wisconsin. The myriad shallow kettle lakes and marshes of the North Country provide ideal habitat for rice to thrive.

Remarkably, today in the United States, the only native grain we commonly eat is wild rice.

Wild rice starts to mature in mid-August and lasts through mid-September. Since wild rice is an annual plant, it has to start anew each year, and every year the harvest varies in quality and quantity.

Ricing hasn’t changed much over the centuries. The only tools required are a canoe, a long pole with a duckbill bottom, two ricing sticks, and an inexpensive license. Gathering wild rice isn’t difficult because the rice is self-shattering. Ricers “knock” the ripe rice heads, and the grain simply rains into the canoe.

To see this native grass that seemingly “grows on top of the water” and enjoy watching the array of songbirds and waterfowl that also love wild rice, visit The Nature Conservancy’s Wabikon Waters and Woodlands near Crandon in Forest County. Here the shallow waters of Wabikon and Riley lakes have produced extensive stands of rice for as long as people can remember.

Fall Birds Migrating by the Millions

Bird migration “stitches continents together,” writes ornithologist Scott Weidensaul. Indeed, more than 5 billion birds migrate annually across the Northern Hemisphere, so migration helps globalize our thinking about conservation.

In Wisconsin, tens of millions of migrating birds sweep through in autumn and stop at a variety of sites on their way as far south as Argentina's Tierra del Fuego. Of Wisconsin’s 235 breeding species, 133 are neotropical migrants, meaning they winter in Central and South America south of 25°N latitude. The champion long-distant migrant is the common tern, which flies as far as 16,000 miles on its fall migration flight.

The vast majority of birds, including songbirds, shorebirds, and some waterfowl, migrate at night when it is cooler, the air is calmer, and there are fewer predators. Along their migration routes, birds need to stop to rest and refuel just as we do on long trips. The best stopover sites provide plenty of nutritious food, safety from predators, and adequate shelter from inclement weather. These sites are typically natural areas, undeveloped rural lands, parks, and wildlife refuges of relatively large size.

The Mississippi River, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, and Green Bay provide critical habitat and navigational routes for migrating waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors. One very good viewing area to spot waterfowl is at the freshwater estuary formed by the Mink River and Lake Michigan in Door County, which is protected and managed by The Nature Conservancy.

In 2013 and 2014, we protected most of St. Martin Island, located in Michigan waters about five miles from Washington and Rock islands at the tip of the Door Peninsula. St. Martin Island provides critical stopover habitat for migrating birds. In 2016, the island became part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which also includes Hog, Plum and Pilot islands.

Collecting Prairie Seeds is Fun!

Yellow coneflower, purple prairie clover, lead plant, Indian grass and prairie dropseed are just some of the Wisconsin prairie plants that set seed in September. The Nature Conservancy, The Prairie Enthusiasts and many other groups and individuals engaged in prairie restoration at places like the Military Ridge Prairie Heritage Area near Barneveld are busy collecting seeds from native prairie remnants, prairie nurseries started with local seed and sometimes even roadside ditches (with permission, of course!). Using local seed is best in prairie restorations because it’s adapted to local growing conditions and the plants have a better chance of survival. It also helps maintain the diversity of the prairie species and the prairie community.

Seeds are gathered before they fall from the plant and must be dried and cleaned before they are planted. Collected seed is air dried and then fed through a fanning mill that removes the chaff, producing “pure” seed that can be planted immediately or stored for later use. Seed can be sown in the fall to overwinter naturally or planted in the spring, perhaps soon after a prescribed burn. 

Volunteers are an essential part of the seed harvest. Gathering prairie seed is a great way to get outside in the fall and is a fun family activity. Those interested in helping can learn about volunteer opportunities by clicking on the Get Involved link at the top of this page and searching “Wisconsin” for Volunteer Events.