By CLAUDIA NEWCORN
Brownish garlands of dead leaves clumped on the Monterey pines and eucalyptus trees of Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula shouldn’t be of much interest, right? Not unless you’re coming to see the annual butterfly migration at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary where tourists and locals alike eagerly flock to view a spectacular transformation as the huddled “brown leaves” take flight into countless thousands of orange and black-speckled Monarch butterflies.
An Amazing Journey
From late-October and running roughly through mid-March, the Monarch butterflies take as much as a 2,000-mile trek to spend the winter in “Butterfly Town, U.S.A.”. Since 1939, Pacific Grove has celebrated their arrival with a Butterfly Parade, where kids and their teachers dress in costumes and parade through town to celebrate the butterflies’ return.
It’s anybody’s guess how many thousands of years this migration has been happening, and the more you learn, the more intriguing it becomes. A tropical butterfly, the Monarch ranges all the way from Mexico up to Canada, and even across the Rockies. However, it can’t survive freezing temperatures, so it migrates to safe wintering sites to feed.
Different Monarchs have different destinations. Those east of the Rockies spend winters in Central Mexico’s high mountains. Monarchs west of the Rockies fly to Pacific Grove and several other locations on the central California coast, journeying some hundred miles a day. But what makes this migration even more unique may surprise you.
First Time Visitors
According to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, in many migratory species such as whales and birds, the same individuals journey over the same routes every year, learning the route through practice. However, for every Monarch that migrates to Pacific Grove, it’s the first and only time they visit.
It gets even more complex. Several generations of Monarchs will have lived and died since the previous year’s butterflies visited, so there’s absolutely no “connection” between last year’s pioneers and this year’s. How do they find their way? Scientists conjecture they may rely on the position of the sun, the Earth’s magnetic field, and the polarization of the sun’s rays. Only the butterflies know the secret to their internal GPS system.
Fun fact: Some butterflies are actually tagged to learn their travel routes! Cal Poly–San Luis Obispo carefully tracks the little travelers through Project Monarch Alert. A delicate tag is placed on a wing’s underside; if a person finds a tagged Monarch, they are asked to contact the University (http://monarchalert.calpoly.edu/).
Monarchs can’t fly when the temperature falls below 55 degrees. So, when I visited the Sanctuary one chilly day which never warmed up, I couldn’t find them. They like to hang high up in the tall trees, and usually only the trained eyes of the pleasant “Butterfly docents” who escort and educate guests about the winged visitors are able to locate them and point them out. They really do look like bundles of droopy leaves from the ground.
The Sanctuary was still a pleasant place to mosey about, even if the main attraction was snoozing above in the fragrant tree tops. Ongoing restoration efforts by the Museum and volunteers continue to transform and enhance the park, which is open year ‘round. But it did teach me to do an extended weather check before planning a butterfly viewing excursion.
Located at 250 Ridge Road off Lighthouse Avenue, the Sanctuary is open from October through early March. There is no admission fee, and parking is free – although you may need to park and walk some distance if it’s busy. Note that no dogs are allowed on the paths, and visitors are asked to not be noisy and to be considerate of others since the Sanctuary is in a residential neighborhood.
The Pacific Grove Museum (PGMuseum.org) offers the butterfly docent-led tours as well as fascinating insights on these colorful little fliers. Weather permitting, the docents are present every day from November through February between noon and 3 p.m. which is when the butterflies are most likely to be flapping about in the Sanctuary. I recommend you check with the Museum before heading out to confirm the butterfly docents will be on site if you want a tour.
IF YOU GO
MONARCH BUTTERFLY SANCTUARY
250 Ridge Rd., Pacific Grove
Noon to 3 p.m. daily now through mid-March