|A Cluster Near Light House Field Beach, CLICK TO ENLARGE
Arrived at SFO, checked into Westin Hotel. Took naps. Not enough time left in the day to scout sites. The reason is that getting the rental car took a couple hours longer than we expected. The rental company was supposed to have a car at the Marriot Hotel, and instead we had to chase it down.
Visited Stern Grove (1) and looked around for a couple hours. Asked several people if they had seen monarchs and where. We got no real specific information about a cluster. At last we saw one individual flying overhead, but did not see where it went. I took a photo of the location. The temp was 55 degrees F at the car.
Left there and drove north to the Rob Hill Campground at the Presidio (2). Walked everywhere in that site, on, and pretty much off trail, but found no clusters and saw no butterflies. I noted that the official naturalist for that site said on the video that the habitat was “sensitive” and visitors should stay on the trails. The habitat was not sensitive. The ground was covered mostly by English Ivy, which is not native and is extremely durable. We had decided to leave, but I wanted to walk one more loop. Eventually at the top of the hill, near the open, cleared area, we saw a monarch or two. A man with a mountain bicycle was standing there. I asked him if he had just seen butterflies and he said, Yes. That was 2:pm. He told us of his interest, and while we talked I counted 24. Some of those may have been counted twice, and I’m sure we missed several. He was originally from the Highlands of Scotland and said his name was Fraser. He did organic farming and sold produce. Had done “tech” before. After awhile it cooled some and we saw no more monarchs. Did not find a cluster, but I think we might have if we had seen before what they looked like and how high they normally were.
We left there and drove to
. It was a long and confusing drive, and once
we turned around and went back because we weren’t sure we had the right
road. We didn’t yet have a Big Basin Redwoods State Park California road map, and
using Siri on Edie’s photo did not tell us north from south. We eventually made it and set up our tent in
the dark in a redwood grove containing mammoth trees.
In the morning we packed up and went for a short loop walk in a redwood grove that featured one tree 60 feet around at chest high. The state park is a place worth returning to someday. From the park we drove south and bought a road map at a small town, probably Ben Lomand. From here we traveled around the outskirts of
Santa Cruz to
(3). We never actually went to the beach,
and the one natural bridge we saw didn’t seem terribly impressive. We first spoke with a park ranger who told us
that the blue jays were attacking the clusters and eating the monarchs, and
most of the butterflies had moved south to a different site. I met a docent who was about to leave for the
other site. She sent me a photo of the
cluster at Natural Bridges. The monarch grove at Natural Bridges was down a
paved path into a dell. There were lots
of people. We saw one small cluster and
a lot flying. Two great horned owls
tried to sleep in a close-by tree. I got
pictures of them. I and others
speculated that the owls kept the jays away.
I shared with a woman and her husband about the new, southern site,
which we left for as soon as we could.
We did not stay for the program. Natural Bridges
I believe the other site is called
Beach (4), which is in a eucalyptus
pine grove next to a neighborhood. I
heard from someone (I think the park ranger) that this site contained 15,000
monarchs. The clusters were certainly
larger than anything we had seen before or since. There were four or five of them in the pine
boughs. I took the best pictures there,
though the light was not very good. Actually, I just looked at a map and the
site we went to was not at the Lighthouse Field beach, but a couple blocks
north, down a residential avenue, just east of the Surfer Sculpture.
We left there and drove down Highway 1 around the
and then slightly north through the town of Monterey,
including Cannery Row into the town of Pacific
whole area is highly developed. The Pacific Grove monarch
grove (5) is a square of land, covered in trees, in the middle of a residential
area. It features a nice, paved (I
believe), winding trail. Right next door
on the uphill side is the pink Monarch Inn, or an inn of a similar name. We hadn’t made any reservations for the night
and we would have stayed there, but it was full. New Year’s Eve and all. We walked up and down
the path a couple times, and while we saw flying monarchs, we couldn’t find a
cluster, nor could anyone else we spoke to.
It was starting to get dark and cool, so we left and drove through Carmel and down the 20 miles to . Because online it was saying it was full, I
hadn’t reserved a campsite, but we found one anyway. We set up our tent in the dark. About midnight some of the campers let out a
whoop and a cheer, waking me up. Their
new year celebration. Pfeiffer Big Sur
We had heard that Highway 1 had been blocked south of us, but I didn’t know exactly where. We finally figured out in the morning that we could not get where we wanted to go without backtracking. We drove south a ways further just to see more of the famed coastland, and then turned around. We had passed Andrew Molera State Park (6), said to have a monarch site, in the dark on the way down, but I decided to check it out now. The park didn’t look like much. No more than a gravel parking lot, two overbusy outhouses and a trail to the beach. A good bit of the park was closed due to winter storm damage. I guessed that the monarchs were in the closed part. A Hispanic maintenance man pulled up to maintain the outhouses and I asked him where the butterflies were. He told me that it was up the trail a mile, passed the yellow tape. He said that it was dangerous to go there and there was no other access, not a road to it from the highway. We waited until he was not visible, ducked under the tape and walked up the trail. It meandered along a wide creek and in places was washed out, but it was nothing we couldn’t bypass and there wasn’t anything remotely dangerous, unless it was the six-point buck we flushed. I got some good pictures of him. The trail led to a large green field that was the park’s campground. It was a nice place. It appeared that the park was closed due to lack of funding as much as it was to damage. We happened to see no damage to the campground, actually. From the northern end of the campground, I could see a large eucalyptus grove and sure enough, we saw flying monarchs there. I could also hear bees among the flowers in the tops of the trees. We walked further until the trail was totally washed away by the stream and the water was more of a lagoon. We could hear the waves crashing on the other side of the dunes. We walked a road back to the highway up the hill from the campground and did not return via the trail, proving the maintenance man to be dishonest about the information he gave us.
From here we returned to
and cut across to Highway 101, taking it south to Atascadero
and 46, which crossed a mountain pass and was lined with dozens of
well-arranged vineyards. At Los Osos we
stocked up at Ralph’s Grocery, part of the Kroger chain. My camping reservation
was for site 42, but after seeing it, I was able to change it with the host to
44 between two giant art pines. I
gathered leftover firewood from the pits of the empty campsites and found a
chunk of pitch pine. One piece of wood
was smoldering so I didn’t need a match.
As a birthday party, Edie and I shared a little chocolate cheesecake
that we got at Ralph’s. I made a video of it, and me singing Happy Birthday.
We walked on the beach in the morning and got our boots soaked. We left our tent up since we planned to return, and drove south to
. The campground gave evidence of the monarch
grove, but it never said exactly were it was.
We had to ask. Turned out it was
a very short distance further south. I
want to write extensively about our experience at the Pismo Monarch Grove (7),
so will save it for later and in a more reflective style. We spent the entire day there. Pismo State
The Pismo Grove monarch experience, and indeed the whole western monarch phenomenon, is very much different than anything in the east. For us in the eastern states, we know monarch butterflies in the spring, summer, and fall. For us the migration, sometimes in large numbers, captures our attention. When we think of the winter monarchs, we immediately think of
Mexico. Many people here have heard of monarchs and
seen them, either in fields or on the move south, but few of us even know of
the western migration and overwintering butterflies on the coast of California. It simply isn’t within our field of
vision. Neither do we in the east have
much in the way of organized observations.
Educational efforts, yes, but nothing like what I saw at . Pismo Beach
It stands to reason. The overwintering season lasts three months or so. The butterflies hang out within small geographic areas, sometimes in clusters adding up to thousands of individuals. Many sites are near high density human populations. It makes sense that people would establish preserves and ways for people to see the clusters and the feeding, mating, sunning, watering and anything else monarchs might think of doing on their winter grounds.
The Central Coast Park Association (CCSPA) organization is a private auxiliary to the
state parks. When I first arrived at the
Pismo Grove, I met one of CCSPA’s docents, Jene Schaefer. She told me that they have 80-90-some docent
staff members in the monarch program (120 in the whole district), who explain
and interpret the monarch site and happenings to the visitors who flood the
grove during the monarch winter season, anywhere from 800 to 2,000 a day. In 2015-2016, as one of the two docents I
talked to said, the total number of visitors was 100,000. In 2017-2018, 80,000. They arrive by car or by the busload. Some, I imagine, camp in the next door state
The docent who seemed to be in charge that day was Betty Sleeth. I talked with her at length, though not as much as Jene. Betty told me about the IMAX film that covered the monarch migration. Flight of the Butterflies.
The Pismo Grove site has the feel of a small fairground. Gravel walkways comprise the public parts of the grove and the eucalyptus tree area is protected with a split rail fence. The grove has no permanent bathroom facility, but a couple smelly outhouses serve the urgent needs of the thousands of visitors. As with most such places, the outhouses are located right next to the heaviest foot traffic, so if a sense of privacy is needed, forget it. Those with less urgent need who wish for better facilities may hike through to a campground bathroom to the north.
A small trailer with a large window functions as a bookstore and information center. The docents use this as their headquarters. The docent trailer makes $80,000 a year for the monarch program. Nearby is a circle of benches where the docents give presentations twice a day. They set up telescopes that are focused on the clusters and the docents make sure that no one touches the scopes so as to keep them on target. The docents seem knowledgeable, though some are more up to date than others.
The grove is right next to the busy Highway 1, which was crowded with traffic, some of which being heavy trucks. On the other side of the highway was an active rail track. During the hours we were present, two, maybe three Amtrak trains passed by. The grove has only a handful of parking spaces, so most people parked along the road in either direction as they found space, and they have to negotiate their way across the traffic. There are no crosswalks. I spoke with two docents about this, and they both had the same response. The
transportation system owns the road, and the margin of the road, so the monarch
people are afraid that if they ask for crosswalks, “Caltrans” will punish them
by forbidding parking. They both said,
separately, that they only thing that will change the situation is if a “child
is killed.” Clearly this subject has
come up before and the docents have a ready answer. My response was to say that there was risk
either way. One on hand a risk that
someone will get killed, and on the other hand, a risk that Caltrans will be a
big butthole. I wouldn’t assume that
such an institution, one with the purpose of serving the public, would act that
The site is far from pristine. What the monarch situation teaches is that monarchs do not need pristine conditions in order to survive. Pristine and protected might be necessary for them to flourish and thrive, however. They are not likely to find those conditions everywhere in western
California. But with 460 sites, as compared to the 20 in Mexico,
it’s clear that monarchs are highly adaptable.
It makes me wonder if the decline in overwintering numbers both on
California and Mexico is due to the difficulty for humans in finding the sites,
meaning that there very well could be many more than 460 and 20. We certainly had difficulty in finding
clusters. Flying monarchs are much
easier to see, but they can be easily missed unless someone is looking for
The story told by the park ranger at Lighthouse Field beach certainly testifies to the monarch’s adaptability. Their traditional site was hostile with attacking bluejays, and the butterflies moved south. Naturalists responded by putting up a few signs and yellow tape and posting their docents.
There’s weird irony in the
California monarch picture. So much of the thinking and conversation
about conservation centers on preserving the migration and the numbers. But in California
at least the migration may not be natural.
The reason is that it seems the overwintering butterflies depend upon eucalyptus,
which is not native at all. The tree originated
in Australia, was brought to
supposedly to produce lumber, blooms in the winter, and provides nectar. I wonder of the western migration occurred at
all prior to when the tree was introduced.
I’ll have to look into this more, to see if historical records give
evidence of the monarchs spending the winter in the region.
The public viewing groves for me are more like zoos. The monarchs are protected, as they should be. But the setting is far from ideal. I’d personally rather experience the butterflies in wild places and apart from crowds of people, if it is all possible. The public groves are a place of intersection. They are where people can see the monarchs without going to too much trouble, because most people aren’t going to take a lot of trouble. For them, visiting the monarch grove is one event of what is likely a busy day with a number of goals, or destinations.
We, even visitors to the crowded groves, think of the monarch migration as a wonderful, natural event or process, and it is. Quite possibly it’s been going on for thousands of years. This seemingly frail, small creature embarking upon and completing an epic journey while encountering unthinkable obstacles. It’s almost supernatural. For me it’s like contemplating anything that resembles the eternal. Like gazing at the stars or a wild land or seascape. When we take time for this, when we allow our minds to rest in the vastness of the created universe, we feel at home. We see that we have a place. The troubles and conflicts of our lives seem small in comparison, and from that perspective. We might feel cold and lonely with this contemplation. And yet, I don’t. I feel at such times that I am part of the eternal, and this gives me comfort.
Note: Part of our trip was to visit a relative who was dying. The relative, however, sustained an injury and died while we were looking for monarchs. We changed our homeward flight to be able to attend the memorial service.