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Where to see monarch butterflies as they flock to the California coast in an exciting bounce

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If there was ever a time to see monarch butterflies on the central coast, this is it.

Butterflies pass along the California coast each winter, clustering in groups on Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees, glistening orange as light filters through the forest. In recent years, their numbers have fallen dangerously low, which is why their unexpected population boom this season is a welcome surprise, as well as a reason to go see them while they’re around.

Scientists who study and track butterflies, including arranging meticulous counts every Thanksgiving weekend with a volunteer infantry, are happy to see that the total population of Western Monarchs on the Central Coast will reach around 200,000 this year. This number is not yet official, but it is expected to increase significantly from less than 2,000 in 2020. However, scientists do not know the reason for the rebound, or if it will last.

“It looks like this will be the best year in at least five years,” said Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “Worth celebrating.”

Pat Rutowski (center), a volunteer at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, chats with a man at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, where monarchs reappear this season.

Nic Coury / The Chronicle Special

The celebration comes with a caveat, she said, as the population of western monarchs, which winter from October to February on the coast from Mendocino County to Baja California, then migrate to California. central and further east and north, has fallen 99.9% since the 1980s, since last year.

Pelton said the predicted 100-fold increase is an example of how insect populations tend to be “rebounding,” which means they can decrease or increase dramatically.

“We didn’t know they were that tough,” Pelton said. On the other hand, she said, “We have never seen the population drop as low as it has in the past three years. So we are in uncharted territory as to what to expect.

A butterfly at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove

A butterfly at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove

Nic Coury / The Chronicle Special

All the more reason to see monarchs now, especially if you have a vacation coming up. Although the butterflies, with their distinctive patterned wings, often appear during the winter in some groves of East Bay and North Bay in particular, they do not make much of an appearance in the Bay Area this year, a Pelton said.

Instead, the closest sites with significant numbers of monarchs are Natural Bridges in Santa Cruz and Pacific Grove near Monterey. In San Luis Obispo County, Pismo State Beach is home to the highest number of butterflies in the state. Monarchs should still exist until January and even early February, but the sooner you get there the better.

A group of monarch butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California on December 18, 2021

A group of monarch butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California on December 18, 2021

Nic Coury / Special for The Chronicle

If you want to see the butterflies in clusters, the best time is in the morning, when it is still cold. At this point, they’re closed, and the faded color on the backs of their wings can make them harder to spot. In the afternoon, they begin to flutter and show off the inside of their rust-orange colored wings, said Natalie Johnston, a volunteer and community science coordinator at the Pacific Grove Natural History Museum, which runs tours and performs counts of monarchs in the nearby sanctuary. .

“It’s fascinating. Monarchs are cold-blooded creatures. When the temperature is below around 55, they literally can’t move,” she said. If you walk through the sanctuary later in the day, she says, “It’s almost like a little parade of stained-glass windows passing in front of your head. Their wings are much more vivid when they’re open.”

Learn more about where to see monarchs this winter.

The Strait family of Oakland, Calif., Visit Monarch Butterflies with the help of performer Martha Nitzberg at Natural Bridges State Beach on February 2, 2014 in Santa Cruz.

The Strait family of Oakland, Calif., Visit Monarch Butterflies with the help of performer Martha Nitzberg at Natural Bridges State Beach on February 2, 2014 in Santa Cruz.

Brant Ward / The Chronicle

Monarch Natural Bridges Trail

Just north of Natural Bridges State Beach, the Monarchs Trail in the adjacent nature reserve takes you for a short walk through the eucalyptus grove where monarchs winter. This year, only around 2,000 butterflies were counted, compared to 8,000 or more in previous years, a contrast to other regions which are experiencing a huge resurgence; but you can still find them in a cluster among the olive green leaves. It is the only state monarch reserve in California, and the butterflies here have often disappeared in January.

2531 W. Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz. Open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day.

A butterfly at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California on December 18, 2021

A butterfly at the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove, California on December 18, 2021

Nic Coury / Special for The Chronicle

Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary

Although there were no monarchs in official counts last year, this city park has seen around 13,000 on average this season. Butterflies flock to the Eucalyptus, Monterey Cyprus and Monterey Pine grove to congregate in the winter. Smaller nectar-bearing plants have been planted for the butterflies to feed on before they head east. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History offers an audio tour of the grove.

250 Ridge Road, Pacific Grove. Open from sunrise to sunset every day.

Monarch butterflies hang in a grove of trees at Pismo State Beach.  Butterfly numbers are on the rise this year after a number of years that have seen the population plummet.

Monarch butterflies hang in a grove of trees at Pismo State Beach. Butterfly numbers are on the rise this year after a number of years that have seen the population plummet.

Jayson Mellom / Associated Press 2004

Pismo State Beach Grove of Monarch Butterflies

Pismo State Beach has a monarch sanctuary that attracts the most butterflies in the state, with around 22,000 counted recently. The grove’s peak season ends in early January, when the butterflies begin their migration to central California, so the holidays are a good time to stop.

400 S. Dolliver St. (near North Beach State Campground), Pismo Beach.

Tara Duggan is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: tduggan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @taraduggan



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