by Janet Koed
We all have different ways of measuring the success of our personal day’s accomplishments.
Yesterday, mine started out with a trip to Dos Pueblos Ranch to count monarch butterflies for the record books. Accompanied by a couple adventurous friends, Nancy Tobin and Susan Ferguson, we set out in hopes of a better count than last year. We were greeted by the ranch owner and escorted through the gate to specific identified site where the monarchs have returned annually for much longer than the 4 years that I have been counting with the Xerces Society on the Gaviota Coast.
Those winged wonders are difficult to spot in thick wooded areas. First you have to find the trees they are known to have congregated on in the past. It’s important to find them before the sun hits those trees and sparks the monarch’s metabolism. That’s when they take flight. The butterfly clusters look like dead leaves as they cling in to hanging branches. At 9:00am on a warm November morning, we found them fluttering around but couldn’t find a cluster. The healthy dense eucalyptus underbrush covered fallen branches and twigs which made our movement challenging. I couldn’t help but wonder what lurked down below.
At last, I spotted a cluster of 15 or so (you have to do a little estimating as the groups get larger). This is just a small number but then we saw a couple more small clusters… and then a burst where suddenly about 100 monarchs took flight. It’s a spectacular sight. We tied a yellow ribbon around that tree so we might be able to find it when we come back for the New Year count. Monarchs have been known to move to different trees in the same general area from year to year.
The Xerces Society is a good place to learn many things about the monarchs and their migrating patterns. Charis van der Heide is the representative biologist in charge of the Gaviota area and beyond. She is now teaching others to lead training sessions on counting monarchs. It gets tricky when there are large clusters and when they take flight. A monarch’s metabolism is triggered to motivate flight at about 55 degrees F. Counters must do their work early in the morning to catch the insects sitting still.
On our next trip, over 30,000 monarchs were counted at the Dangermond Preserve. It took two days to get the job done. On the first day, we counted one site on the property and just after we arrived at the second site, the clusters burst into flight. We were embraced by thousands of the orange, black and white flyers. They were like stained glass fragments moving in nature’s cathedral. We were brought to our knees in wonder.