A Winter Rest

Animal and insect migrations can be truly fascinating. I have enjoyed the snow goose migration in northern New York for a number of years and have never tired of them ushering in winter as they pause on their way south along Lake Champlain. I’ve also recently experienced the wonderful “over-wintering” phase of the Monarch butterfly migration in southern California. Many of us have seen photos of Monarchs clustered in the thousands on their favored eucalyptus trees. Witnessing it in person is, however, truly magical.

Walt Whitman studies a butterfly, 1873. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

“Not for a moment, beautiful aged Walt Whitman, have I failed to see your beard full of butterflies.” – Federico Garcia Lorca

royalty graces my thumb

According to monarchwatch.org early settlers who came to North America from Europe, particularly those from Holland and England, were impressed by the sight of the brilliant orange butterfly so they named it “Monarch” after King William, Prince of Orange, stadtholder of Holland, later named King of England.

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Monarch butterflies born in the spring and summer live a brief 4-10 weeks. Those that migrate south for the winter, however, live as long as 8 months, spending a large portion of their lives in semi-hibernation. That’s what the butterflies in California’s Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove are doing right now – spending most of their days clustered in trees seeming to just be resting. When the sun warms them they tend to become more active and flutter about looking lovely. They are just now beginning their mating season and pairs can often be seen during warmer days locked in an embrace.

The Monarch travels as much as 1500 miles, more than any other butterfly, to their winter grounds. Those we see in the east in summer usually migrate to Mexico. The butterflies here in Pismo may have come from as far away as the Rocky Mountains or even western Canada. Groves in Mexico usually hold much higher numbers of butterflies than those in the US.

Monarch numbers have fallen precipitously!!
Monarch numbers have fallen precipitously!!

The current estimated butterfly population in the Pismo grove is hovering between 20,000-30,000, a very significant drop from an estimated high of 230,000 twenty years ago. The Monarch population is obviously dwindling and there are groups such as the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity trying to get this butterfly placed on the endangered species list to help protect it. In the meantime, since milkweed is the only plant on which Monarchs will lay their eggs, one small way that we as individuals can help is to plant milkweed in our yards (and don’t mow it down).

Five counties along the coast of California have sites where Monarchs over-winter, with Pismo generally considered the best spot to see them up close in large numbers. The cypress and eucalyptus trees they cluster in to enjoy protection from wind and rain were planted here about 100 years ago. People began to really notice the butterflies in Pismo around 1940 and it was designated a state park in the 1960s.

A group of very dedicated volunteers give lectures during peak season; answering questions, setting up viewing scopes and selling goods to support the grove – also warning visitors when a mating pair of butterflies is underfoot! (as was the case with the mating pair featured in the attached video, which was saved by a sharp-eyed docent named Ralph just before we began to film it!) Fellow visitors often stand for long periods just marveling at the butterflies clustered on the tree branches or while they are engaging in their mating ritual – and mating, as you will observe in the video, is quite a ritual! A male will glom onto a female, bring her to the ground and initiate a ‘negotiation’ period. She may then accept or reject him. If accepted he carries her into the trees for a mating session that can, according to one docent, last as long as 16 hours.

After enjoying seeing Monarchs in northern New York during summer to early autumn for a number of years, it’s really a thrill to finally see this huge gathering of the beautiful little creatures in the warm California winter air. The Monarchs present in California groves this season are separated from last winter’s butterflies by a staggering four to five generations! Those who left last year mated, headed north and east, and laid their eggs on milkweed. That generation then headed further north, mated, laid their eggs on milkweed and so on – with each cycle living only four to ten weeks – until finally the autumn generation came along and began to head south. They leave their northern homes in late August to early September, arriving in Pismo in October. They will stay in this grove or move to another nearby until warmer weather, and perhaps other phenomena, signal the beginning of their breeding season.  They then begin moving north and inland, and the circle begins anew.

Unlike the snow geese this group of creatures have never actually seen their winter homes! We can imagine what guides them – surely instinct and temperature. But might smells also provide clues? – such as the ocean air, or the eucalyptus trees’ distinct fragrance? Perhaps the orientation of the sun in the atmosphere?  Traveling only in daylight, they spiral up into the clouds until they hit the south flowing jet streams. They hitchhike on those winds to warmer weather so the species will survive the winter and continue this multi-generational cycle. Truly amazing ~

Our understanding of monarchs and their habits has increased significantly as a result of visiting them in their winter home. For more about the Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove check out their website www.monarchbutterfly.org

Update! The Washington Post has an article on the front page about disappearing Monarchs and a new effort to try to save them: The Monarch Massacre… 

Check out the video from Yosemite of Monarchs and other creatures feeding on milkweed – amazing footage including rare, slow-motion video of monarchs and other insects doing spectacular things! Yosemite Nature Notes’ Monarchs and Milkweed Produced by the National Park Service and Yosemite Conservancy

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