MONARCHS IN WINTER

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

 

 

WENAS AUDUBON CAMPOUT: Chasing Birds and Grasshoppers

This male Mountain Bluebird took a big beetle into the nest box and left it for the nestlings; apparently he realized that he had made a mistake, because next time he came back to the box, he grabbed the beetle back and left the box with it

When I was a boy, my friend across the street loved butterflies, and he ran around the neighborhood with a butterfly net in hand, with one of those intense passions that young boys often develop. I didn’t share his butterfly passion, but I also loved being outdoors. The boys in the neighborhood all had bikes, and we would bike into town or to a park several miles away or to a baseball diamond for a pickup game. The freedom of summer was a wonderful, unstructured time that allowed for childhood exploration and creativity, without today’s parental concerns about evil lurking down the street.

The bright purples and yellows of spring wildflowers attract older people with their beauty–and they attract butterflies and bugs and thus kids who take a natural interest in insects

So it was wonderful to see a mother and her seven year old son–I’ll call him “Tim”–having a wonderful time outdoors at the recent Wenas State Audubon Campout that Karen and I attended. Tim watched Red-Naped Sapsuckers drilling into a tree; found the first Grass Widow flower on a botany hike; and spent a lot of time chasing and catching grasshoppers in the mountain meadows. He and his mother were car-pooling with us for two hikes; at the end of one hike he walked up to me and said that he hoped I didn’t die, because I was the driver to get him back to camp. Kids say the darndest things!

Tim wasn’t the only child on the trip. Among the 120+ Audubon campers, there were roughly a dozen children, all of whom seemed to be having a great time. I wish there had been more. In Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods, he stated his mission of “saving our children from nature-deficit disorder.” His thesis is that unstructured time in nature is important for children, for their intellectual and creative development, and that they are not getting this vital childhood experience. He believes that this lack of nature experiences fuels the obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression that have become much more common in recent years.

A young ground squirrel ready to duck into its burrow for safety from the big, mean humans

Let’s face it: we all spend too much time in front of colorful electronic screens. Children are not exempt, and the addictive [I use that word intentionally and from personal experience] nature of activities on computers, game consoles, and smart phones may be especially dangerous for young minds that need broad experiences, not the simple stimulus/reward experiences of gaming, Facebook, instant messaging, and online shopping.

End of rant. Just get you and your kids out there enjoying nature close to home or far away!

The Wenas State Audubon Campout is a great place to spend Memorial Day Weekend. The Wenas Campground, once a Boise Cascade public campground now owned by the State of Washington, is a big, flat Ponderosa Pine forest along Wenas Creek on the drier east side of the Cascade Mountains. People are

Camping at Wenas Campground under Ponderosa Pines and among lupines

Our campsite during a rainy evening in 2010

free to camp anywhere, except within 50′ of the creek, and the place can absorb probably thousands of campers. In the past few years, there have been groups of ATV riders and horse riders, in addition to the Audubon campers. Everyone needs to bring their own food, cooking supplies, and water. This year Karen and I set up a cook tent, in addition to our sleeping tent, because last year it rained while we were cooking.

Who can go?  Anyone.  Arrive any time and leave any time. There is no formal structure, except for meeting at assigned times for particular hikes. And that informal flexibility is part of the beauty of the weekend. There are no fees, except the voluntary donations for portable toilets and for the group camping permit. The weekend is filled with free group hikes to see birds and wildflowers in mountain and sagebrush habitats, plus campfire programs and owl prowls.

Owl Prowl leader Neil Zimmerman called in a tiny Pygmy Owl at the campground’s edge using his voice and recorded sounds; here it is illuminated by flashlight

It is so enjoyable that I’m surprised that many more people don’t take advantage of the experience.

It was wonderful to spend the weekend with people of all levels of knowledge and who are willing to share that knowledge. We saw our second Pygmy Owl and Northern Saw-Whet Owl on this trip, and last year we saw our first Long-Eared Owls. Don Knoke led some memorable botany hikes, and we had a chance to see an unusual native Brown Peony for the first time. Knoke also sets up plant identification boards around the Larrimer Tree, a big Ponderosa Pine

Plants of the sagebrush-steppe community, identified for we rain forest mossbacks of the Puget Sound area

along the stream, with a wide selection of native plants kept alive in little tube vases and on display so that people can learn about the different wildflowers of the sagebrush-steppe community.

This year we enjoyed a special new experience–visiting and birding 400+ acre Green Ranch in the Wenas Valley, now owned by a woman who had been a part of the Audubon Campout for years. She is dedicated to good stewardship of the land, which consists of riverbank forest, open pastures, and a beautiful old

Classic old barn interior on a Wenas Valley ranch

barn and outbuildings–as well as a collection (inherited from the previous owner) of several dozen old and decaying Volvos lined up near the barns; you may have heard of Cadillac Ranch; some people have called this Volvo Ranch! Note that this ranch is private land, and the visit during the Wenas Campout was by private invitation.

Over 40 of us went birding on Green Ranch, by special invitation of the owner, where we saw a good variety of birds, including Bullock’s Oriole, Western Tanager, lots of warblers, and a Wild Turkey egg

The Wenas Audubon Campout just completed its 48th year, so it is a well-established tradition that I hope will continue for decades to come. Legendary nature-lover Hazel Wolf was instrumental in getting the weekend started all those years ago, and she attended for decades until she passed away in the year 2000, at over 100 years old.

Big-Head Clover, with a flower nearly two inches across, is a lovely part of some sagebrush-steppe meadows

A beautiful meadow bordered by Trembling Aspens along the rutted and Beaver-flooded road to the campground (still, accessible to most cars)

Graceful shapes of slowly decaying sagebrush branches; especially artistic in black & white

In the photographs here you can get a sense of the natural environment and the creatures we saw during the long weekends (we have now attended for two years in a row). Don’t miss this experience next year!

Go to Wenas Audubon Campout for more information about these special weekends.

Western Bluebird male perched in Bitterbrush

Lazuli Bunting testing his lung power in a desert aria

Common Camas, a beautiful blue lily of wet meadows, was a staple food of Indians of the far west, who used the bulbs as a potato-like vegetable

With their elegant red bark contrasting with the green vegetation, the Ponderosa Pines of the Wenas Valley are the dominant large conifer

When the lighting is just right, the intensity of a male Mountain Bluebird’s feathers is extraordinary

An impressionistic view of balsamroot and buckwheat in a high meadow

Bitterbrush displays delicate yellow flowers in the spring

Townsend’s Solitaire in Bitterbrush

A graceful tapestry of Ponderosa Pine needles and branches photographed during our owl prowl

Eastern Kingbird perched on Bitterbrush

A brown cup fungus under the campground’s Ponderosa Pines

Black Canyon Trail through sagebrush-clad slopes

Female Mountain Bluebird examining the birders examining it

A Least Chipmunk feeding atop a fencepost

Pygmy Nuthatch emerging from its nest hole with a fecal sac (diaper) from one of its nestlings

In this dry country, wood weathers slowly and gracefully, as in this old fencepost end

Thompson’s Paintbrush is a creamy paintbrush common to the sagebrush-steppe

Chipping Sparrow singing his head off from atop a Bitterbrush branch

And now for something completely different: an abandoned truck among the Ponderosa Pines that has been on state land for at least two years along the road to a university sky observatory

Bullet holes and rust form a fanciful creature on the side of the blue truck

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website