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

 

 

LOST

Perhaps there was a violent storm raging in the northern Pacific. Perhaps the storm came up suddenly, while the little bird was in flight, starting its migration from Kamchatka to Cambodia. Perhaps the creature became separated from a flock and flew down the Alaska and British Columbia coast instead of the northern Asian coast. Perhaps it was exhausted and a bit desperate. We’ll never know.

All we know is that one Red-flanked Bluetail, entering its own personal Twilight Zone, ended up alone in the winter drizzle of a Vancouver, British Columbia, park. An observant person sketched the bird’s coloration and showed the sketch to an expert, and the unusual visitation was confirmed. This tiny bird of the Russian taiga decided to make the best of its wintering grounds, and began daily circling a little territory under the cedars, which included a childen’s playground, two picnic shelters, and scattered logs and brushy islands where it could perch.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-30-2Showing its identifying colors, this Red-flanked Bluetail is a hemisphere away from its kind

Meanwhile, its arrival spurred a sensation, spread at Facebook and Twitter speed, with birders flocking from all over North America, arriving by plane and car and SkyTrain and on foot, to experience the wonder of this little creature. Some days, there were 60 people at once. The Bluetail was pretty much unperturbed by its newfound celebrity, and went about its rounds regularly, the people following it like disciples following a mystic.

We drove the 220 miles to Vancouver to see the Red-flanked Bluetail on a recent Sunday. At the Canadian border,  the guard asked me the name of the bird when I told him we were going to see a specific bird, and I answered correctly (I think he was trying to trip me up). He let us through, mentioning that they had experienced a lot of people coming north to see it. We drove through busy neighborhoods and ended up in the community of New Westminster, where we entered Queen’s Park. We parked our car, then a local dog walker pointed the way to a small cluster of birders, and we joined them and almost immediately saw the target bird. During the two hours of our visit, there were friendly local Canadians, as well as a man from Georgia and another man from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. One young teen was perhaps the best birder there, with acute hearing and vision and a passion for birds that can lead to a life-long obsession.

Red-Flanked_Bluetail-20The Bluetail constantly twitched its tail, like some of the closely related flycatchers

Later, we ventured to a neighborhood of old homes in Vancouver, where we wandered down a back alley and trained our binoculars on a thicket in a small yard, where there was another rarity: a Brambling. This one had been reported by a kindly homeowner who fed the birds and noticed a strange one among the regular Golden-crowned Sparrows and House Finches. The Brambling is also from Eurasia, and is a bit more common than the Bluetail (which had last been seen on one of the Channel Islands off Los Angeles).

Still another wanderer, a Citrine Wagtail, was observed for a couple of months on Vancouver Island, beginning in November and ending with its disappearance in January. I didn’t get to see that one, but it was as rare as the Red-flanked Bluetail and also attracted human observers from all over North America.

We can all feel sorry for these lost little souls, so far from their kind and their familiar surroundings. Yet we can also imagine them as castaways, trying to keep life going when the going has gotten rough. Sometimes people have been stranded on remote islands by a storm, and they try to make the best of it. Birds can end up the same way, and sometimes evolution can lead to a whole new line of colorful creatures in an unexpected place.

Carry on, brave little Bluetail. I hope you make it home.

I don’t have the ears or eyes or passion to be a great birder, but I admire those who are. One of my favorite movies of all time is the gentle comedy/drama The Big Year, which follows several birders traveling all over the country trying to see as many different kinds of birds as they can in one year. It stars Steve Martin and Jack Black. Both are great in the film, and play the roles with an uncharacteristic laid back charm.

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