Monday, February 16, 2009

Monarch butterfly watching: free family fun

How can you find beauty on the fly (and for free)? It’s easy, when you visit wintering clusters of monarch butterflies at sites along the California coast from Pacific Grove (near Monterey) to as far south as Huntington Beach (near L.A.).

And right now is prime time. The insects’ wintering season (October through March), brings clouds of orange and black -winged butterflies to select coastal locations, where they cluster in thick bunches on trees (often eucalyptus or pine). Volunteers have played a big role in preserving these sites and are often on hand to answer visitors' questions.

The monarchs' story—and their migration— is unique. These featherweights may cover up to 2,000 miles to get to a place they’ve never been before. With most migrating species (like birds), the same individuals traverse the same routes yearly; presumably, older individuals teach younger ones the way. But the monarchs in these spots have never been here before; they’re several generations past last year's butterfly visitors.
How they get here is still somewhat mysterious: the Earth's magnetic field and the sun's positioning are involved, say scientists. 

But when you see them up close as I did in Pacific grove recently—the pattern on their quivering wings as fragile and lovely as a stained glass window—their continued survival can only be called a miracle.

Look for them on branches, in the air around the trees (especially on warm days), and on the ground and low bushes. Their lives are short, so the butterflies make the most of their sunny winter resort, which means you can see their tender mating rituals as well. 


Pacific Grove: The Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is at Lighthouse Ave. & Ridge Rd. For more, check with the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History at 831/648-5716 or click here.

Huntington Beach: Shipley Nature Center within Huntington Central Park,17851 Goldenwest St.; the Shipley Nature Center is free, donations appreciated; call 714/842-4772 or click here. Another site: Norma Gibbs Butterfly Park, 16641 Graham St., near Meadowlark Golf Course.

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