Monarch Butterflies Return to Santa Cruz

Monarch Butterfly, Lighthouse Field (1/15/06) © John Poimiroo

Another California Fall Color is embodied in the annual return of the Monarch Butterfly to the coast.  On Sunday, Oct. 14, the monarchs will be officially welcomed back to Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, from 1 to 4 p.m.

Park visitors can participate in numerous activities including arts & crafts, active games for children, music by the 5M’s (the mostly mediocre musical monarch mariposas), feasting on hand-cranked ‘monarch’ ice cream (it’s really pumpkin), along with informational booths including “how-to’s” for creating a successful butterfly garden.  Kids and adults are encouraged to dress up in orange and black.  Join monarch man and monarch woman in the Monarch Parade, and meet the guests of honor:  the monarchs themselves.

Monarch Butterflies are famous for their striking beauty, and their multi-generational migration from western states to the California coast.  The monarchs head to Santa Cruz from states west of the Rocky Mountains.  The new arrivals are 4 to 5 generations removed from the butterflies that left Santa Cruz, last spring.  The overwintering population you see along the coast is the longest lived generation—surviving up to 9 months before they travel to spots north and east in search of milkweed.  There, the females lay their eggs only on the milkweed plants, the only thing caterpillars eat.  By injesting the toxins contained in milkweed plants, the monarchs become toxic to most predators.

The monarchs are seen clustering on eucalyptus, Monterey cypress and other trees for protection from wind and rain.  When the weather warms to above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, a burst of monarchs may flutter about in search of flower nectar and water. Natural Bridges State Beach is located at the end of West Cliff Drive at the north end of Santa Cruz.  Butterflies can also be seen at Lighthouse Field near the Santa Cruz Lighthouse.

Return of the Monarchs

Monarch Butterflies, Santa Cruz (1/15/2006) © 2006 John Poimiroo

A tradition of California Fall Color has been to report all things autumn and colorful, including the annual return of the Monarch Butterflies to the Central Coast.

In keeping with that tradition, Natural Bridges State Beach will welcome back the Monarchs officially, on Sunday, October 9, from 10am to 4pm.  This annual event marks the homecoming of the brilliantly-colored orange and black monarchs with guided tours of the monarch grove, live music by the 5-M’s band (Mostly Mediocre Musical Monarch Mariposas), educational displays and guest lecturers that will reveal the mystery of monarch migration and more. Children can participate in monarch butterfly themed active-learning games and crafts, and everyone is invited to dress up for the butterfly-themed parade.

The park’s Monarch Grove provides a seasonal home for monarch butterflies each winter. From mid-October until early February, they form a “city in the trees.” The areas mild ocean air and protected eucalyptus grove provide a safe roost until spring. In spring and summer, the butterflies migrate to valley regions west of the Rocky Mountains where milkweed, the only plant a monarch caterpillar eats, is plentiful.

October marks the beginning of their arrival, with numbers and activity usually peaking near Thanksgiving, when many park visitors gather to enjoy and photograph the butterflies.  Visitors can view the over-wintering Monarchs by walking down the park’s wheelchair and stroller-accessible boardwalk to the observation deck in the eucalyptus grove. The Monarch Grove has been declared a Natural Preserve, thus protecting the Monarchs and their winter habitat from human encroachment or harm. This is the only State Monarch Preserve in California.

Weekend Guided tours of the Monarch Grove take place on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00am and 2:00pm, from October 9 until the monarchs migrate, usually in late January.  Monarch migration is variable; please call the park if you would like more information.  Public tours are offered on weekends and no reservations are necessary, or call (831) 423-4609 to arrange a tour for a group of 10 or more. Meet at the Visitor Center for the hour-long program. The walk is stroller and wheelchair accessible.

Natural Bridges State Park is located at the end of West Cliff Drive at the north end of Santa Cruz. Take Swift Avenue west from Highway 1, or follow West Cliff Drive north along the in-town bluffs until it ends at Natural Bridges.

Welcome Back Monarchs

Male Monarch Butterfly (1/15/06) © John Poimiroo

Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, CA celebrates the return of the Monarch butterflies on Sunday, October 10 (10/10/10) from 10 a.m. (of course) to 4 p.m.

Children will be dressing up in butterfly costumes for the annual parade, with live music by the 5M’s Band (does M stand for Monarch?), hand-cranked “Monarch” ice cream (we’re sure no butterflies are in it, cause they say it’s made from pumpkins, active learning games for kids, butterfly crafts, Monarch stories and science and guided tours of the Monarch grove.

Other locations along the California Coast to see wintering Monarch butterflies (they usually hang around to early March) are Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz, Ardenwood Farm Park in Fremont, Pacific Grove and Pismo Beach.

What amazes visitors and biologists alike is that the Monarchs (danaus plexippus) have so short a life span (six weeks to six months) that it is their progeny (great, great grandchildren) who return to the same winter roosting sites.  Why they do this is no mystery, but how they return to the same locations is puzzling.

For more about Natural Bridges State Park’s Welcome Back Monarchs Day, call 831-423-4609.

Photo Credit: © 2006, John Poimiroo