The magical Season of Christmas is upon us. Scenes of snowy landscapes and star-filled night skies are to be expected in this week’s posts. But here I am in So Cal with no snow to talk about. Instead, I have my own gift to contribute: a visit by a handsome Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on the day before Christmas! Normally, I would spy a Monarch, and he would fly away from me and be gone, long before I could take out my camera, but this one waited for me, flirting, attending to the puffy blossoms of Baccharis salicifolia (commonly called Mule Fat) and flashing his open wings at me. Finally I got his picture~
At one of my favorite campgrounds, Leo Carillo State Beach & Campground, I have yet to determine if the west coast Monarchs officially overwinter here, as they do at various spots along the coast, but I have seen them every week for the past month. I suspect the big stands of Eucalyptus trees & Sycamores, their favorite trees, are comfy enough for them to spend winter nights. Large golden Sycamore leaves are making their slow & sultry journey to the canyon floor even now, while the sun shines on a warm afternoon. Why fly anywhere else?
With the sad stories of diminished Monarch populations elsewhere: winter habitat cut critically by deforestation in Mexico, and habitat across this country poisoned by Roundup-ready chemicals, I am delighted with this special sighting today, meant just for my eyes only, or so it seems. I am happy the west coast Monarchs appear to be having a better time of it than their east coast cousins this year. Though the Xerces Thanksgiving Monarch Count showed the numbers to be down from years past, I believe it has to do with the fact that winter weather has been slow in coming and so, too perhaps, the Monarchs at the overwintering spots where counts are taken.
Let me take a moment to recount the story of west coast Monarch migration. Most everyone knows about the east coast Monarch migration to Mexico each winter, to a spot where for generations their ancestors have gone. Even though they have not been in contact with these ancestors, somehow they know where to go! And so will their offspring.
But what some of you readers might not know is that the west coast Monarchs do not follow this familiar pattern. They do not overwinter in Mexico, (except to certain spots in Baja along the coast). In fact, they never meet their east coast cousins, for they stay west of the Rockie Mtns. Instead, they head for the beach. Hey, why not? They want a temperate climate, and the coastline of California provides just that. They do not need to travel to Mexico, but overwinter in a number of spots rich in tall trees right here. So, they are not subject to the whims of farmers in Mexico; though they are still plagued by the Round-up ready farms right here in the US.
The monarchs come to the west coast overwintering sites along the California coast beginning in November and stay through February. Each butterfly acts as an individual, and as such there is no huge mass of them flying in all at once like a bird migration. Rather, they arrive day by day until it becomes very cold at night, and they huddle together in the trees, wings closed shut against the cold.
The west coast Monarchs will stay there together until early February. During this time, there will be no attempt at breeding. There will be little to no flowers for them to nectar on either.. no food! They are in a state of semi-hibernation now and able to tough it out on the food they have stored up to this point! But they still need water. And the coastal mist can supply that even on year with little rain.
A reminder, the Monarch is a milkweed butterfly, so if you want to see more Monarchs PLANT MILKWEED!
Wherever you are, may the magical Season of Christmas find you and share with you the wonders of nature ~
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