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

 

 

THE WAR ON OUR FEDERAL LANDS

Red Sandstone Mesa In Indian Creek National Monument
Red sandstone mesa straight out of the Old West in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA

President Obama had a long process of consideration and public meetings and cooperation with five Indian tribes in creating Bear’s Ears National Monument. Trump and his henchman, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, ripped all that up with inflamatory rhetoric and caving to local interests who want to cut open the land, encouraging uranium mining, coal mining, and oil and gas drilling. Local people have a long history of looting ancient Indian graves and archaeological sites, and want to keep our American lands as their own personal playground.

The latest proposal for Bears Ears is to split it into two separate and much smaller national monuments, to be called the Indian Creek National Monument and Shash Jaa National Monument. These would reduce the total national monument land that has been protected by the Bears Ears proclamation by 85%–a devastating loss to those of us who love our national lands.

These photographs were taken during a few magical days in October of 2017, and show the Indian Creek National Monument lands that will still be preserved. And thank God that they will, at least until there is a big discovery of uranium or coal under the surface. This is an iconic landscape of the American West, with its sweeping valleys, high sandstone mesas, and evidence of early Indian occupation.

At the end of SR 211, the road leading through Indian Creek Valley to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park and immediately outside the park entrance, there was a one square mile section of land owned by the State of Utah. This was put up for auction to the highest bidder early in 2017. There was a possibility that it could have ended up in the hands of a mining corporation or a big developer, thus ruining the Old West feel of the entire valley. We dodged a bullet when the highest bid came from Jennifer Speers, a Salt Lake City environmentalist and philanthropist who vowed to keep the land as it is.

The State of Utah passed the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act in 2012, which called upon the federal government to transfer most of its lands in Utah to the state. This hasn’t happened, of course, but it could, if Satan’s stars align. If this occurs, vast sections of the state could be sold off to developers, ranchers, miners, drillers and other private interests, which would make the state rich, but would make the rest of us poorer as we lose our Western Heritage of vast lands available for the soul and body to explore.

Remember Edward Abbey’s rallying cry: Hayduke Lives! If the worst comes to pass, many among us will become Hayduke.

North Six Shooter Peak In Indian Creek National Monument
North Six Shooter Peak with its talus cone, a favorite tower climing destination in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Utah State Route 211 In Indian Creek National Monument
Utah SR 211 winding through the canyons of Indian Creek, along the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway, in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, on the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah, USA
Red Sandstone Mesa In Indian Creek National Monument
Red sandstone mesa straight out of the Old West in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Red Sandstone Mesa In Indian Creek National Monument
Red sandstone mesa straight out of the Old West in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Autumn Fremont Cottonwoods In Indian Creek National Monument
Autumn Fremont Cottonwoods, Populus fremontii, with sandstone mesas, in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Uranium Mining Installation in Indian Creek National Monument
Wooden aquaduct that may have been part of uranium exploration in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Beef Basin Road at Indian Creek National Monument
Beef Basin Road running through Beef Basin’s autumn Fremont Cottonwoods, Populus fremontii, with sandstone formations, in or near Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
North and South Six Shooter Peaks In Indian Creek National Monum
Autumn Fremont Cottonwoods, Populus fremontii, with North and South Six Shooter Peaks, in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Beef Basin In or near Indian Creek National Monument
Beef Basin, in (or near) Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Utah State Route 211 In Indian Creek National Monument
Utah SR 211 winding through the canyons of Indian Creek, along the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway, in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, on the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park in southern Utah, USA
Autumn Fremont Cottonwoods In Indian Creek National Monument
Autumn Fremont Cottonwoods, Populus fremontii, with sandstone mesas, in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock In Indian Creek National Monument
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock In Indian Creek National Monument
Animal or human track petroglyphs made by Ute People at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock In Indian Creek National Monument
Deer petroglyphs made by Ute People at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock In Indian Creek National Monument
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA. Note the bullet hole left by a local yahoo.
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock In Indian Creek National Monument
Petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA
Corral for Cattle In Indian Creek National Monument
Historic corral for cattle grazing in what is now Indian Creek National Monument, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument, southern Utah, USA

Resources:

Hayduke Lives!

Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act

Jennifer Speers Buys Land Near Canyonlands National Park

High Country News about Trump’s slashing of Bears Ears

 

GREATER SAGE GROUSE: Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain

Greater Sage-Grouse dance on their sagebrush lek each spring in the high desert of Eastern Oregon.

 

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

 

 

They gather in darkness, males on a mission.  Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations.  Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess.  Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey.  These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.

 

Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky.  It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse.  We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening.  We turned off the car engine, and began watching.

 

The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway.  We counted 13 males, many strutting at once.  After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break.  Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.

 

We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago.  The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable.  On our first morning this year we were the only humans at

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,

Directly across the road from the lek

 

the lek.  We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars.  Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles).  Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds.  Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby.  We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.

 

Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!).  One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip.  Which, in a sense, she was.  From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up).  After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.

 

The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual.  Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lek

A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance

 

On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done.  One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely.  The next morning, we left before the grouse did.  On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek

 

If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge.  The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.

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


The Old West Lingers on in the Oregon Outback

The “Oregon Outback” in the high desert south of Burns is among the most remote areas of America, where ranching traditions of the Old West are kept alive.

 

 

Cow skull decorates front of Frenchglen Mercantile, OregonAn old cow skull and handmade chair on the porch of the Frenchglen Mercantile

 

“Next gasoline 99 miles,” read the sign just east of Bend, Oregon.  We were on a late April trip to eastern Oregon, land of high desert and vast, sagebrush-covered distances.  There used to be several mom-and-pop gas stations along this straight stretch from yuppie Bend to cowboy Burns, 

remote oregon outbackbut these places now sport broken windows and tumbleweeds.  Just the kinds of places that Americans think of when we imagine Route 66.

 

Driving past the road to the Pine Mountain Observatory; it’s the wrong time of day to stop for sky-watching.  Passing Glass Mountain, a mountain of shiny obsidian (black volcanic glass); someday we’ll stop, but our time is limited.  A quick stop to check out the restored buildings in the historic Civilian Conservation Corps at Gap Camp Ranch, where young men labored under the hot sun and into hope.  

 

Into Burns, a small town of ranchers and loggers hit hard by the timber wars of the 1990s, that left mills without enough logs from public land to stay open.  Burns is the place to fill up with gas and groceries for the push into even more remote country.  I stop here for some quick photos of signs and an abandoned motel.  Then we push on for another 60 miles without a town along the route.

 

We pulled into Frenchglen (population 11) as twilight approached.  This town was named for Peter French, a cattle baron of the late 19th century who controlled most

 

The streetscape of Frenchglen, Oregon 

of the land in the vast valley of the Donner und Blitzen River.  He left his mark on the land with scattered ranch outposts and a spectacular round barn in the middle of nowhere.  Alas, in old West tradition, he was murdered by an outlaw.

 

Frenchglen is tiny.  There is a K-8 school that draws kids from the surrounding ranches.  Eleven of them, as counted in a photo from the Frenchglen school website, but a more recent article pegs the number at 14.  Just imagine, in our world of vast suburban sprawl, that this directOuthouse at Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site descendent of the one-room schoolhouse still exists!  And how different the education of these children must be.

 

Across the road, the Frenchglen Mercantile stands tidy … and empty.  As does the house next door where I believe the owner used to live.  A sign on the window of the store says you can still get gas here if you place a phone call to a nearby resident:  $40 minimum plus a $2.50 service fee; cash only, please.  I imagine this recession and high gas prices and the increasingly urban interests of our society made life difficult for the owner of this little store.

 

Just down the road is the Frenchglen Hotel, which is actually a state historic site that still offers lodging to folks passing through.  As of 2008, the price for a room was $67.  There is a colorful true story about the hotel’s manager from 1948 to 1974.  One night, after a few drinks, Kenny Pruitt decided that he needed to remove his own appendix and did some self-surgery.  It didn’t have a good outcome, as you might guess.  Read more about Pruitt and the colorful history of theFrenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen, Oregon hotel in an article by Richard Cockle at The Oregonian.

 

We drove on a couple more miles to our destination, the pleasant Page Springs Campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.  This camp sits at the base of Steens Mountain, accessible by road in the summer but certainly not in April, when snow still blankets the nearly 10,000 foot peak.  We set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags after I tinkered with a few night photos in camp.  

 

We awoke just after dawn, to a temperature of 22 degrees F.  You might think late April in the desert would be relatively warm, but this is high desert.  The campground is at a 4,200 foot elevation, so nights here can be cold until summer

 

Hereford cow and calf 

arrives.  From here, we spent three intense days visiting a Greater Sage Grouse lek, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the Diamond Craters volcanic area.  I’ll describe these in detail in another post, but one more note about the settlements of the area.  The next day we visited the hamlet of Diamond, which sports two signs:  one says “Population 5,” and the other says “Congestion,” seemingly with a straight face.

 

Highway 205 centerline in the Oregon high desertHighway cut through a rock outcrop near Frenchglen

 

 

Cattle trails on range near Burns, OregonCattle trails on rangeland near Burns

 

Central Hotel BurnsThe classic Central Hotel sign in Burns has Art Deco touches

 

 

Western Juniper and stars near Malheur Refuge, OregonWestern Juniper in our campsite with a dazzling starry sky above

 

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

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.