MONARCHS IN WINTER

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

Sweeping through the sky, driven by cold fronts and the coming snows; heading southward and westward to the central California coast, where sunny days and mild breezes await. The journey is treacherous, with predators and sudden storms poised to take a toll, but many get through, ending up in a few coastal towns in a few parks and on a few trees, where they roost by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.

As a fifth grade student back in Michigan, now many decades ago, my teacher, Mrs. Triff, took us on a field trip to see migrating Monarchs at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada, which sticks down into Lake Erie like an arrowhead. There the migrating Monarchs are stopped in their flight path by the barrier of Lake Erie and concentrate there until the winds are favorable to continue the journey to Mexico’s mountains. The extraordinary experience of seeing so many beautiful creatures in one place never left me, so I jumped on the chance to see them again.

In January of 2020 we traveled to Santa Cruz and Pismo Beach to see the winter gathering of Monarchs. We had read about it for years, but there is nothing like seeing a magnificent gathering in person. These pictures are from the two balmy days we spent along the California Coast.

In Santa Cruz, we got directions to where the Monarchs were gathered, which happened to be next to a large surfing competition for young people (what could be more Californian than a sunny day filled with surfers catching the waves rolling in?). Meanwhile, the 2,500 or so Monarchs were tightly clustered on two individual trees: a Monterey Cypress and a Blue Gum Eucalyptus. In the clusters the Monarchs hung upside down, their wings tightly overlapped and the exposed wings were the undersides, so there were patterns but with the subdued colors more suitable for camouflage. When a Monarch flew into the roosting group, several butterflies had to resettle themselves to accommodate the newcomer, briefly flashing the vivid orange-and-black patterns on the tops of their wings. We found the experience extraordinary, but local old-timers (our age!) who walked or cycled by said that this was NOTHING compared to the butterfly gatherings of their youth, when apparently the California coast was a Woodstock for butterflies. But then Jimi Hendrix died and the world went to hell and all we have left is fond memories of our youth. But I digress …

The butterflies apparently come to the same trees each year, which is extraordinary, since NONE of the butterflies here this year were here last year. When they start their migration, the generation of butterflies heading south and west from all over the western states and western Canada are bigger, stronger, and brighter than the Monarchs of summer gardens. These SuperMonarchs are able to fly up to thousands of miles to those few trees guided by what: Genetic memory maps? Scents left on trees? Scientists don’t agree on the mechanism, although day length and perhaps the drive for food as the north gets colder in the fall are the triggers for starting the migration. For a fascinating discussion of the theories, go to Monarch Butterfly Migration.

After leaving lovely Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, we drove south to another winter Monarch gathering of about the same size in Pismo Beach. Here the Monarchs were gathered on a few eucalyptus branches, with an endless stream of people migrating toward them on the path below, and pausing in a cluster to look up in wonder. Some of the Monarchs were getting in the mood for mating. An aggressive male would force a receptive female to the ground and laboriously try to pick her up. When he did, he would take her on a maiden flight into the treetops where, as the volunteer tour guide explained to the children, “they went for their honeymoon.” Extraordinary!

When spring approaches, the Monarchs begin their northward journey. The fact is, unless their summering grounds are near their wintering grounds, NONE of these individuals will make it. They procreate along the way, leaving eggs to hatch on milkweed plants. Then the hatched caterpillars voraciously feast on the milkweed, gaining nourishment and toxins (to repel predators), followed by the miracle of entering a chrysalis with golden stitches and eventually emerging as butterflies. Then the new butterflies head north, and repeat the whole process several hundred miles on, and so on for three or four summer generations. Then, come fall, the whole cycle repeats as a new SuperMonarch begins the migration south. And my sense of wonder is refreshed.

All photographs in this blog are available for licensing for use in publications or for personal use, and are also available as limited edition prints on fine art papers or metal. Contact lee@leerentz.com for a quotation.

Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Grove at Pismo Beach
People viewing Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA [No model releases; available for editorial licensing only]
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus, sipping nectar from Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, flower at its winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterfly Courtship at Pismo Beach
Pair of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, engaging in courtship at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, later, the male picked up and flew away with the female, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Sign Explaining Monarch Butterfly Migration along California Coa
Interpretive sign explaining the migration of Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering along California Coast
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, clustered together for warmth at their winter migration destination at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz, California, USA
Monarch Butterflies Wintering at Pismo Beach
Monarch Butterflies, Danaus plexippus, wintering in a dense concentration at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, California, USA

 

 

MUSHROOMING LOVE

Autumn mushroom hunting is a way of life where I live, in the rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula. Here, the autumn scent of mushrooms in the rain hangs in the damp forest air.

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninYellow Chanterelles possess a graceful beauty that makes them wonderful to photograph–as well as to eat

This fall, the autumn rains started in late August: our sign that summer was over. It was also a good sign that autumn mushrooms would start shoving up through the damp soil. Heavier rains came in late September, and have been with us off and on since then. The timing of the rains after the dry summer apparently brought a bumper crop of mushrooms.

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninThe chanterelles poke up through the soil, gathering lots of Douglas Fir needles during their brief lives

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninChanterelles share the forest floor with mosses and fallen alder and maple leaves

We drove to a favorite mushroom gathering place where we have picked chanterelles for years, which shall, of course, remain a secret, because we mushroom gatherers are like that. It is a tiny place under an old hemlock in a second-growth forest. It is hard to get to, off a steep embankment, so most mushroom pickers don’t know about it. There we have reliably harvested a few Yellow Chanterelle mushrooms for years, but never enough for a feast, unless we supplemented the harvest with a pound of chanterelles gathered from the Costco produce refrigerator. This year we gathered a few more than usual, then decided to spend some time looking outside of our normal favored place.

The forest was alive with mushrooms in bright scarlet, orange, and yellow hues, all of which glowed against the mossy forest floor. Before long, we found a small concentration of Yellow Chanterelles, and harvested several pounds of them. These are distinctive mushrooms, shaped like golden flutes; they have a mild earthy aroma with subtle spicy undertones. We also found a few Plush Purple Pig’s Ears, which is another kind of chanterelle, and took some of those to try. We went away happy, having gathered enough fungal reproductive organs for several meals.

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninAfter cutting this chanterelle, I laid it on the forest floor to illustrate the graceful lines of the ridges on the underside

Yellow Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius,  on the Olympic PeninThis is what a salamander sees when it looks up at a chanterelle

The next weekend we went back, and ventured further into the forest. This time we really hit the jackpot, coming away with about ten pounds of fungal gold. The only reason we stopped gathering is that gluttony is a sin. Otherwise, we would have stayed until dark and doubled our fortune.

Gathering Yellow Chanterelles on the Olympic PeninsulaIt was a great year for Yellow Chanterelles; here Karen is demonstrating how we cut them off far down on the stalk

Gathering Yellow Chanterelles on the Olympic PeninsulaThis is a particularly beautiful specimen

Yellow Chanterelles, Cantharellus cibarius,  Gathered on the OlyAfter a couple of hours, we had picked about ten pounds of chanterelles; this photograph shows about a third of the harvest

Yellow Chanterelle Bumper Crop on the Olympic PeninsulaAt home, we spread the chanterelles out on towels to dry them a bit, which helps keep them from molding; then we refrigerate them until we need them for cooking

Pig's Ears Gomphus, Gomphus clavatus, Sauteing in ButterHere I am cooking Plush Purple Pig’s Ear mushrooms, as I do chanterelles, by sauteing them in butter

When it comes to Yellow Chanterelles, I keep the cooking simple. I chop them up, not too coarse and not too fine, but like Goldilocks, “just right,” then put them in a hot cast iron skillet with butter, adding a bit of salt and pepper. Then I sautee them until most of the moisture has evaporated out, and they’ve browned nicely and gotten a bit crisp on the thin edges. Some people like them moister; some drier. Then I serve them on lightly browned toast, not too toasty-crunchy, which serves as a carrier for the mushroom flavor without overwhelming it.

Beef is also a good accompaniment, but the mushroom flavor is delicate and good beef can shove the chanterelle flavor aside. Sour cream mixed into the chanterelle and butter combo is also good, but my favorite is just plain butter. However, now we have so many chanterelles that I am going to try some recipes I haven’t used since 1991, which was another great mushroom year. Mushroom pie and mushroom stew and mushrooms with eggs and whatever else I can come up with will be on the menu.

Ramaria araiospora var. rubella on the Olympic PeninsulaWhile looking for chanterelles, I became preoccupied by photographing mushrooms of all sorts, which left Karen to do most of the harvesting. Here, I show a scarlet coral mushroom.

Woolly Chanterelle, Gomphus floccosus, on Olympic PeninsulaThis Woolly Chanterelle–a different species than the Yellow Chanterelle–is iffy for eating, and I won’t try it because of potential liver toxicity, though one classic mushroom book author said it was among the best mushrooms he had ever eaten.

Woolly Chanterelle, Gomphus floccosus, on Olympic PeninsulaWhen the Woolly Chanterelle starts growing, it looks like something we might imagine from another planet

Orange Coral Mushroom, Ramaria sp., on the Olympic PeninsulaAn orange coral mushroom with a Douglas Fir soaring above

The next day:

As I write this, sitting on a ferry crossing Puget Sound away from Seattle, I can still smell the essence of mushrooms from the spores lodged in my nostrils. Since it was a great mushroom year, we decided to go to the Wild Mushroom Show in Seattle, hoping to learn a few new wild mushrooms. This annual event, organized by the Puget Sound Mycological Society, attracted thousands of people this year to The Mountaineers building at Magnuson Park. The place was packed with people in this bumper mushroom year. And the scent of mushrooms hung heavily in the air in that exhibit hall; I found it overwhelming, others probably thought it was ambrosia.

The highlight of the event is a grand display of live mushrooms, organized according to their taxonomy, and identifying whether the mushrooms are poisonous, edible, or somewhere in between, using the three colors of a stoplight. Visitors can sniff and look and photograph–but not poke or prod the delicate creatures. I learned what legendary Matsutake mushrooms look and smell like (fish, and the ocean, in a good way).

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-48Live mushroom display at the Wild Mushroom Show in Seattle

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-25Karen checking out the amanitas; the red tag color indicates poison

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-7Lobster Mushroom is actually a parasite that takes over another kind of fungus; I’ve never eaten it, or even seen it in the woods, but it is purportedly delicious, with a meaty texture

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-40Cauliflower Mushroom is another one I’ve been looking for in the forest, but haven’t found

There is also a cooking area set up so that people can sample wild mushrooms prepared by great cooks. I tasted a mushroom desert soup made with Matsutake and Chanterelle mushrooms, with coconut milk, and tried another way of spicing Chanterelles with soy sauce–both dishes prepared by gourmet mushroom chefs.

At the show I also purchased a new book by author Langdon Cook, titled The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America. I’ve just started reading the book, so I can’t give a full review, but the first part of the book I’ve read is terrific. Langdon Cook embedded himself in the culture of professional mushroom pickers, who travel around the West and up into Alaska, harvesting mushrooms for the international gourmet trade.

This is a secretive culture that remains on the edges of society; members of the culture camp out and spend their lives in the field searching for morels, chanterelles, and other wonderful mushrooms in the damp, old-growth forests. In the introduction to the book, the author describes a surreptitious foray into Mt. Rainier National Park with a picker who hoped to get two hundred pounds of lobster mushrooms in a day. He only got a hundred pounds, but then had to hide his bounty far from his beater car, and pull up after dark to quickly load the bags of lobsters into the car–while watching carefully for park rangers.

I was interested in the culture of the professional pickers after seeing so many of them camped early this summer near a forest fire burn from last year. There is a species of morel, known as the Fire Morel, that pops up out of the ashes the year after a fire, and these mushrooms are worth a fortune. Karen and I gathered about a pound of them, but the professionals get hundreds and thousands of pounds. I saw them priced at Seattle’s Pike Place Market this spring for $60 a pound.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-38Lovely Yellow Chanterelles on display with other species

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-35The boletes are a favorite prize of mushroom hunters, but I don’t yet feel confident enough to properly identify them. As with many groups of mushrooms, some species of boletes are edible, and some are poisonous.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-31Another view of amanitas and other gilled mushrooms

Mushrooms are both big business and a fun tradition here in the Pacific Northwest. I hope to be out in the damp woods again this weekend.

Remember, mushrooms can also be deadly poisonous, with the toxins in some species quickly doing irreparable liver damage, so it is essential to know what you’re doing. If you want to pick mushrooms, it is good to go into the field repeatedly with an expert. A mushroom identification class would also be a good way to start. Either way, you should purchase a good mushroom field guide that has recent information about toxicity. True story: several years ago I was jogging on a trail near the town where I live, and I saw a lot of orange, gilled mushrooms. The problem was, at that point I did not jog with my eyeglasses on, and I really couldn’t see what I was picking. When I got home and showed them to my wife, she immediately saw that they weren’t chanterelles. So, wear your glasses.

Another possibility is getting lost in the woods; it is all too easy to keep your eyes glued to the ground, and oblivious to how far you’ve come. I don’t recommend going out alone: one elderly and expert mushroom picker disappeared in the Cascade Mountains this year, and searchers never found a trace of her.

But, for all my warnings, don’t let fear intimidate you: mushroom hunting is fun and is safe, once you know the essentials of identification and take precautions not to get lost in the forest.

Seattle_Mushroom_Show-53A bumper sticker seen at the Seattle Wild Mushroom Show

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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If you have any good mushroom recipes to share, please feel free to add them in the comments section!