How to find clusters of monarch butterflies at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge

Wouldn’t you love to see hundreds of monarch butterflies clustered together? It happens all across Iowa every September and some folks are lucky enough to have it happen right in their own backyard. However, if you’re like me, it doesn’t happen in my personal backyard, but it is available to me with just a short drive to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa.

Address: 9981 Pacific St, Prairie City, IA 50228

Website: Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge Website

Why does it happen in Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge?

As the monarchs settle down to rest each night, they are looking for both shelter and a nearby source of nectar. At the refuge, the sawtooth sunflower is their nectar source. In fact, the US Fish & Wildlife Service states that there are 5 “super stops” in the US during fall monarch migrations – and Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa is one of them. It’s the sawtooth sunflowers that provide the abundant source of nectar that is the primary attraction.

These are sawtooth sunflowers and they are very common at Neal Smith National Refuge. They are the nectar source that attracts the monarchs.

What does it look like when large groups of monarch butterflies roost?

Roosting is when monarch butterflies rest – they gather into clusters, close their wings and settle in for the night. Sometimes they will roost in small clusters of less than 20 and other times they will roost with thousands of other monarchs.

YouTube video
Here’s a quick video I took of monarch butterflies roosting in a tree after sunset at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge.

What is it like when the butterflies wake up in the morning? do they take off individually or in groups?

Technically, they can take off individually, but it’s also common to see them take off in mass. Here’s a short video I took showing a cluster take off as a group about 20 minutes after sunrise at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge.

YouTube video
A monarch roost waking up and taking off from a tree at Neal Smith Refuge.

What’s the best spot to find them and what time of day is best?

The best time is either right after sunset or just after sunrise. This is because monarchs actually travel alone during the day when they migrate. It’s only a night that they congregate and roost together for warmth and protection.

Suggestion #1: Travel along the gravel roads just after sunset or right during sunrise. (NOTE: not the gravel road where the bison are, just any other gravel road in the refuge that has sawtooth sunflowers along the road.) Scan the fields, looking for small clusters of monarchs. Here’s an example photo:

In this example photo, the tall sunflower in the center is starting to get monarchs to roost – and over the next few minutes, as the sun goes down, more monarchs will likely join the roost. You may also want to pull over and walk through part of the prairie – although I suggest wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts. You should also take a flashlight to help find your way, as it gets dark pretty quick. I’ve noticed that the flashlight doesn’t seem to both the monarchs, as once they roost, they close their wings and they are out cold – the light doesn’t seem to disturb them.

Monarch resting for the night on a sawtooth sunflower. I saw the group while walking along a gravel road just after sunset and walked into the field for a closeup. This photo was taken with just an iPhone with the flash turned on.
YouTube video
A video that I captured of a small group of monarchs on the roadside, getting ready to settle in for the night.

Suggestion #2: Stop at trees along the gravel roads. Use a flashlight to scan the lower tree branches, as it’s another common roosting spot. In fact, the roosts on the trees are always larger in size, since the tree has more space.


Look for roosts of monarch butterflies in the lower branches of the trees along the side gravel roads in Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge.

If I visit during the day, can I still spot them?

Yes, monarch butterflies can be seen during the day. However, we have to remember that monarchs travel alone during the day while they are migrating., so they are not in clusters or groups.

Monarchs are still viewable during the day – just not in large groups.

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