Helen Drives Ms. Mattie


monarchCertified Green Guide Helen Cooper has always loved butterflies. She is a native to Wakulla County and grew up chasing butterflies near her home in downtown Crawfordville when children could run in the street by the Courthouse because the only traffic was on the weekend when folks drove south to the coast. She is a descendant of the Roberts and Tuckers on her daddy’s side, and kin to the Taffs and Carraways through her mama. If you live around these parts, you will know the generations of these longstanding families. If not, a drive through the county will quickly acquaint you with these names familiar on street signs, assorted businesses and buildings.

Helen became a Green Guide through the Tallahassee Community College Ecotourism Institute because she is drawn to the outdoors and the discovery of details specific to area flora and fauna. She especially enjoys nature photography. It was at one St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge Monarch Butterfly Festival several years Monachsago when Helen went to photograph butterflies, that she became enamored with the beauty of the monarch. Soon afterwards, she became a volunteer for the Monarch Project where she learned to count, capture and tag monarchs travelling on their epic 2,000 mile journey from the northern American boundary to the mountains of central Mexico. Millions of monarchs pass through the river corridors and along Florida’s Gulf coast to get to a certain 70 square mile forest located in central Mexico. It takes four generations for the butterflies to finally reach their destination where they spend their winter hibernation in the very same trees each and every year. This incredible migratory phenomenon happens here in our area beginning about the third week of October and lasts until mid-November.

“When you help others, you help yourself,” says Helen insightfully.

Not only does she help count and tag the monarchs every fall, Helen is employed as a devoted caregiver driving her special charges to and from physician and therapy appointments, or just driving  - on outings to fresh air, to take in scenery, or simply to break the confinement of inside walls. Helen also helps others by generously sharing her love of nature and butterflies as illustrated in this lovely little story she recently wrote and then shared with me. She calls it “Driving Ms. Mattie"


“On Tuesday, November 1, 2011, it was warming up after a cool start to the morning. As we headed down Ms. Mattie’s ramp, I was walking behind her. Ms. Mattie was riding her scooter chair. She gave me one of those smiles that I had come to know, as she stood up using her walker to transfer from chair to car, that she was glad to be getting out of the house. On the drive from Sopchoppy to Newport, we talked about the changing fall landscape and places that had changed in our lifetimes while living in Wakulla County, she having more stories to tell having spent more than 80 years living there.

As we entered the gates into the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, talk turned more to changes at the refuge since the days when her late husband, Oscar, worked and retired from there, the family picnics they enjoyed with the other refuge employees and their families, the decreasing bird populations, the improvements to the St Marks NWRroad, the new Nature Classroom Building, the dikes her husband had worked on, and his friendship with Culver (“Red”) Gidden. Pulling up in a parking space near Lighthouse Pool Levee Trail Gate, rolling down the car windows to enjoy the salt air, we sat and enjoyed the view of the water before I unpacked my gear to begin collecting and tagging Monarch Butterflies.  As a volunteer for the Florida Wildlife Monarch Butterfly Migration Counting and Tagging Project at the Refuge, Ihave permission to tag and release Monarch Butterflies and have helped with the project since the fall of 2006. Unloading my homemade butterfly case and the net lent to me by the Refuge, along with data sheets, clipboard, toothpicks, pen, and hanging the cage on the mirror of my car door, Ms. Mattie sat and watched from the car as I was about to start. People visiting the Refuge were already walking up to me and asking what I was going to do before I got set up. Keeping close to the car, I walked through the gate to check Salt Bush for nectaring Monarch Butterflies that migrate south during the fall, flying directly through the Refuge by the thousands. Coming over the top of the butterfly, holding the net up to keep it open so that they will fly up into the net, and then folding it down so they will stay in the net, I get my rhythm going to transfer them into the cage.  We then started tagging the Helen Cooperbutterflies – which is information recorded onto datasheets by tag number i.e., the sex, wing condition, wing dimensions, location and date the information is being taken. The tags are small stickers that are put underneath the right front wings of each monarch.  We use a toothpick toremove the sticker tag from a sticker sheet and then gently place it under the wing. The stickers are normally white but the Refuge uses blue so that we can easily spot the ones we have tagged. If we see a white tagged monarch, we know it came from somewhere else. The first tag for the day was No. NHT864 ending with NHT874 – 2 females and 8 males, totaling 10. Many people gathered around the car to talk about the project. Soon it was time to go to the picnic pond for our bag lunch and look at the butterfly garden before we headed home.”

Helen writes this story in memory of Mrs. Madelyn Joyce Crowson who got her wings in December 2011. “May the wings of the butterfly kiss the sun And find your shoulder to light on, To bring you luck, happiness and riches Today, tomorrow and beyond.” ~Irish Blessing

Monarch festivalVolunteer help is needed now with the 2012 Monarch Project encourages Helen. Volunteers can assist by recording data, counting, capturing, and tagging the migratory monarchs. Says David Cook, wildlife biologist and project manager, “We go on Saturdays so the public can join in, but days associated with cold fronts we go out too.”  Cook explains that the secret is to find the trees and shrubs that are their overnight roosts. “We shine the flashlights to count them as they are closed up and sleeping and then capture them with nets.” On a total of nine mornings last fall, 2,865 monarchs were counted in St. Marks and 2,584 were tagged. Helen adds they also record data including present weather conditions, habitat vegetation and gender of individual butterflies.

Interested volunteers for the Monarch Butterfly Migration Counting and Tagging Project, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, can contact David G. Cook, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 850-921-1021 or e-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Even if you are not able to volunteer with the Monarch Project, you still have an opportunity to get up close and personal with the monarchs. Plan to attend the 2012 St. Marks Wildlife Refuge Monarch Butterfly Festival, Saturday, October 27 when you can view thousands of the butterflies as they prepare for their long journey across the Gulf of Mexico to wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico. This annual event celebrates the migration of the Monarch butterfly with tours, butterfly tagging demonstrations, presentations, live butterfly garden, butterfly plant sale, crafts, exhibits and more. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Refuge, 1255 Lighthouse Road, St Marks, FL Call 850-925-6121 for additional festival information.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 October 2012 21:19 )