November 18, 2012

Monarch butterflies are fewer but still the stars in Pacific Grove

PACIFIC GROVE – Accepted alliterative butterfly verbs, spoken most often by the monarch-mad folks here each winter, generally fall back on the old standbys, "flit, flutter and float."

PACIFIC GROVE – Accepted alliterative butterfly verbs, spoken most often by the monarch-mad folks here each winter, generally fall back on the old standbys, "flit, flutter and float."

But early butterfly arrivals observed on a misty early November afternoon in the hallowed eucalyptus grove that serves as their winter home proved far more versatile. They tended more to soar, swoop and shimmy. They also huddled, hunkered and occasionally hovered. They may have even primped and preened, if eyed through a pair of high-powered binoculars.

The monarchs that for decades – centuries, more likely – have mysteriously wintered among fragrant eucalyptus trees smack dab in the middle of this chilly and charming Monterey peninsula burg are treated like royalty, spoken of with reverence and verbal exactitude.

Every flutter is followed, every new arrival celebrated. It's a yearly ritual duly noted by ecologists with multiple academic degrees, fretted over by locals hoping to maintain the civic mantle of "Butterfly Town U.S.A.," and celebrated with paparazzi-like zeal by tourists from Amsterdam to Zimbabwe. What's more, each October, generations of schoolchildren have donned orange and black wings and antennae and paraded through downtown, as if re-enacting a sacrificial ceremony to Mother Earth herself to ensure safe butterfly passage.

Take away this annual migratory phenomenon, and Pacific Grove would be plunged into an existential identity crisis.

Being home to monarchs from British Columbia and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest may not be Pacific Grove's raison d'etre – there's a lovely lighthouse, quaint downtown shops and the Julia Morgan-designed Asilomar campgrounds – but even a cursory look around suggests what a huge blow an insect absence would inflict. Carved wooden butterflies adorn houses and buildings, everything from real estate offices to dry cleaners to the Butterfly Grove Inn only a few flits west of the sanctuary.

"This place is Pacific Grove's Walden Pond," said Robert Pacelli, a local filmmaker and TV photojournalist and outspoken sanctuary proponent. "It's a wonderful gift, and we've got to make sure we protect it. I'm no Birkenstock-wearing hippie, but the place is magical."

Rest easy knowing that, despite annual worries, the butterflies have arrived once more. They may never again reach the dizzying numbers of 15 years ago, when the annual Thanksgiving Day count in town numbered upward of 50,000, but there already are hundreds more in residence at the city-owned sanctuary than the paltry number (some say 793, some say just 70) that showed up in 2009, after city maintenance staff decided to trim the "dead branches" of eucalyptus in the sanctuary, essentially razing the butterflies' condos and evicting them from their dwellings.

Ironic, given that the city long ago passed an ordinance imposing a $1,000 fine on anyone "molesting" the butterflies.

2009 blow to the habitat

The fallout from the falloff of butterflies was more than just dispiriting to Pacific Grove denizens; it resulted in plunging tourist numbers and equally plunging (estimated at 25 percent) business revenue that winter and spring. Talk about a winter of discontent.

L'affair papillon in '09, in which limbs as high as 50 feet were severely pruned without consulting habitat experts, led the mayor to apologize to the whole town for "a horrible mistake." The public works director was pruned of his job because of it. Citizens, led by Pacelli, took action, passed the hat and raised enough money to buy boxed eucalyptus trees and move them to crucial windbreak positions in time for the next migration.

So, crisis averted, right?

Sort of. Monarch numbers the past two winters reached the low thousands and, as of early November this year, the figure hovered around 1,000.

Experts are not sure why the butterflies aren't alighting in Pacific Grove and Pismo Beach and Santa Cruz in numbers as large as in the past.

"Monarch populations have been down on the Pacific Coast all right, and their dispersal and breeding patterns have changed," said UC Davis ecology professor Robert Shapiro, who declined to speculate as to why – but among the theories are climate change, the proliferation of housing developments resulting in eucalyptus cutting and a decline in Central Valley milkweed on which monarchs lay their eggs.

Whatever the cause, Pacific Grovans are fretting, maybe even flitting with anxiety.

"It's undeniable that there are a whole lot less," said longtime docent Pat Herrgott, who along with her sister Sally helped spearhead the effort to build the sanctuary in 1989.

"It's not the butterfly that's diminishing; it's the habitat. People are cutting down their habitat to build houses. When you start building things too close or trim or cut down the eucalyptus tree, which is (the butterflies') tree of choice in California, you lose the overwintering sites.

"Are we worried? Sure. We're worried about stupid arborists who take it upon themselves to cut trees for no reason. But people are taking steps to make it right. The population is still much lower, but rebounding."

Habitat restoration takes time. Years, even decades, might pass before it is known for sure how fully the monarch wintering in Pacific Grove will rebound. Pismo Beach and Los Osos in San Luis Obispo are perhaps better off, since those sites have not been victim to recent inopportune habitat pruning.

Monarchs on the rebound

As for this winter, the butterflies are fulsome enough to be worth a day trip to Pacific Grove. Just don't expect the swirling, breathtaking visuals of thousands of butterflies flitting and soaring and cavorting (yeah, they can do that, too) like in some Technicolor 3-D Panavision film.

Maybe by February, when temperatures are more apt to hit the sweet spot of 60 to 65 degrees that butterflies crave, a parade of floating insects will be a daily occurrence. For now, it's enough that visitors can crane their necks, adjust their binoculars and see the migratory monarchs clustered on a few overhanging eucalyptus branches.

On a drizzly, early November morning in the high 50s, the 2 1/2-acre sanctuary, tucked between a small housing development to the east, a school to the north and the Butterfly Grove Inn to the west, seemed the last place one could find clumps of monarchs holding a block party.

Actually, they were just chilling, wings tucked in tightly. Mostly it was because of the chill. Though it was hardly cold, especially for the Monterey peninsula, monarchs need dappled, refracted sunlight through the trees before they spread their wings and move. Until then, they are locked in suspended animation on the long, fingerlike eucalyptus leaves, their bodies blending into the dusky light brown of the foliage.

As a sign at the habitat helpfully suggests, the best time to visit is "the warmest part of the day," and advises that the "population tends to peak in late November to early December."

A group of German tourists spent 10 minutes pacing up and down the winding, immaculately landscaped crushed granite path, chins pointed skyward, before giving up and heading back to the parking lot.

Their mistake: They came too early in the day. Sure, the butterflies were there; it's not as if they come and go like workers punching the clock. But they tend to clump and shiver and try to keep warm, hiding from the elements and the prying eyes of humans.

So, unless it's unseasonably warm, plan an afternoon trip.

Museum provides context

If you need to kill time waiting for the temperature to rise – or, you know, actually want to learn the history and science behind the migration – a side trip to the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History can take up a good chunk of the day and be eminently edifying. Displays flesh out the monarchs' "dramatic cycle of life" on their "sweeping journeys" across the continent.

You learn that monarchs that summer west of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada choose the central coast of California because of its attractive microclimate (not too cold to freeze, not too warm to promote too much movement). Those east of the Rockies tend to go to central Mexico to winter. You also learn that the butterflies don't reach sexual maturity until early spring, when they turn up the Barry White music and mate in acrobatic, spiraling couplings in the weeks bracketing Valentine's Day.

Alas, the butterflies born from those couplings in the spring and summer are short-lived. But the fall migrants – the great-grandchildren of the butterflies now in Pacific Grove – are known for their longevity. They live up to nine months, egg-larva-chrysalis-etc., and prove to be a hardy breed, able to travel up to 2,000 miles on their way south.

Just why and how they alight in a particular stand of eucalyptus trees in Pacific Grove and similar habitats in other coastal locales remains one of nature's most delicious secrets.

Some say they are drawn by magnetic fields in that particular patch of eucalyptus. Other theorize that it has to do with the polarization of the sun's rays. Or maybe it's just instinct. But we do know they need a closed canopy of trees, sheltered against the wind and driving rain, and either direct or refracted sunlight to warm up those delicate wing muscles.

The mystery of the whole process is what fascinates butterfly aficionados.

"You ask, with millions and millions of eucalyptus (trees), why do they choose to come here and a handful of other places?" said Pacelli, who isn't an ecologist but has filmed the monarchs from the same location, year by year, for more than 20 years. "Yeah, it's the microclimate, but that doesn't just include things like moisture and wind. It also includes filtered sunlight and the thermals (winds) that drive them here. Or is it the magnetic resonance of the ground, as some have suggested?

"I mean, when you think about it, it's incredibly magical – and incredibly sensitive. It'd be a shame if we ruined it."

Butterflies are late risers

Later on that early November day, after a leisurely lunch in Pacific Grove's mostly chain-free downtown, a visitor was gladdened to see that the butterflies finally seemed ready for their close-ups. Sunlight had broken through the foggy haze. Time for a little wing-stretching.

Tourist Theo Shagen from Holland had his zoom lens poised high in a tree on a large cluster of monarchs, unfurled in orange and black and batting wings with impunity.

"You have to look hard, way up," he advised. He snapped off a few shots, tucked away his camera. He said he had heard about the Pacific Grove sanctuary in a guidebook in his native land and marked it as a special place to stop on his tour of California.

"Maybe I came a week too early," he added. "But I wanted to see it. In Holland, we have only small butterflies."

Likewise, Vince and Elodie DeSilva from provincial France said they learned of the habitat through the travel guide Lonely Planet. Tamzyn French, a tourist from London, seemed a trifle disappointed by the low butterfly turnout.

"There certainly aren't as many as the guidebook said there would be," French said. "Maybe they're all asleep."

Craig and Freadel Taylor, on a butterfly trek up and down the Central Coast, said Pacific Grove's bounty paled compared to that found in Pismo Beach the day before.

"Over 6,000 already at Pismo," Freadel said. "I've only seen one cluster here. We weren't exactly butterfly experts, but aren't they just so pretty? Just looking at this one cluster, it's amazing. Even if you don't care much about butterflies, you'll want to come see this, at least once. I just wish there were more."

Had these tourists been privy to Pacific Grove's recent calamity, they might've felt fortunate that there was anything at all left to see.

Pacelli says he hopes the town has learned its painful lesson from the overzealous pruning episode. He's taken steps to make sure no one forgets. For one thing, he has posted YouTube videos of the habitat, pre- and post-destruction. For another, he ran for City Council in a bid to keep attention on the habitat.

"The only thing that's consistent is our ability to take care" of the butterflies, Pacelli said. "We know what that takes, and that's to, basically, leave them the hell alone. Stop screwing with nature and leave the sanctuary be."

The Herrgott sisters, for their part, expressed optimism that the monarchs will endure. Pat calls them "tough little buggers," to endure the hardship of migration. And she is constantly amazed at the hold these seemingly delicate creature have on visitors.

"A lot of people see visiting here as a very spiritual experience," she said. "There are a lot of elderly people (who) come in wheelchairs. In the monarch's life cycle, they see their own. We're only here for a time, and then future generations come back and carry on. It's a kind of a metaphor for (continuity) in life. I like that."


Address: 263 Grove Acre Ave., Pacific Grove

Hours: Dawn to dusk. Docents available on weekends and throughout November, starting at noon.

Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 80 West to I-680 to Highway 101 south toward Los Angeles. Take exit 336 toward Monterey and merge onto Highway 156 West. Merge left onto Highway 1 and take exit 402B (Del Monte/Lighthouse Avenue). Follow Lighthouse Avenue until it becomes Central Avenue and then changes back to Lighthouse. Take a left on Caledonia Avenue, then a right back onto Lighthouse Avenue. Go a quarter-mile and turn left on Grove Acre Avenue (look for signs pointing to the butterfly sanctuary).


The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History is at 165 Forest Ave., just off Lighthouse Avenue. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free. For more information:; (831) 648-5716.

Point Pinos Lighthouse: 90 Asilomar Ave. Tours, 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

For more information:

Asilomar Conference Grounds: 800 Asilomar Ave., Pacific Grove. 107 acres of ecologically diverse land within a state park.

Asilomar Beach: 1950 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Grove

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