California’s Western Monarch Butterflies Are Making a Comeback
The “close to miraculous” rebound feels like a reprieve from dire news about climate change.,
PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — On a recent Sunday, I found myself among a crowd of hushed humans in a eucalyptus grove near Monterey, our necks craned toward the tree canopy.
Above us, thousands of Western monarch butterflies were clustered on branches, camouflaged by wings that appear dull when closed. But every so often, a group would rouse and burst into a dance of orange confetti.
One family mused on the inner lives of the butterflies. A couple watched in awe, silent. Another man called a friend by video to share the magic. He told him of how they just “flutter through.”
Monarch butterflies make among the most impressive migrations of any species, flying hundreds of miles from various parts of the United States to Mexico and coastal California, where the Western population overwinters. But in the past several decades, their populations have plummeted because of global warming, development and farming practices, leading scientists to fear that the migratory population could ultimately become extinct.
“Monarchs are a harbinger of what’s going on with many species,” Karen Oberhauser, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told me by phone. She has studied the monarchs for more than 35 years.
This year, however, the butterflies’ Western population has made a modest recovery, surprising scientists. Across California’s coast, onlookers have gathered at groves to witness the phenomena. Amid dire news about climate change and after close to two years of pandemic life, the butterflies’ arrival has offered a reprieve.
“It’s like an escape,” Chris Messer, 30, said as he gazed up at the insects. “You get to see the brilliance of this orange dance in the sky.”
Clara Howley, who had traveled 170 miles from Santa Rosa to see the butterflies with her sister, said she was spellbound. “We get so wrapped up in our lives; it’s nice to see the monarchs still wrapped up in theirs,” she said, adding, “I just can’t look away.”
It is a marvel: The Western monarchs, each one weighing less than a paper clip, embark on their athletic feat from west of the Rocky Mountains. Much of how they migrate is still a mystery, but scientists believe they most likely rely on environmental cues, including sunlight and temperature. Several generations of butterflies are born and die before the journey is complete.
But why are they rebounding? That, experts say, remains unclear.
It could simply be that the butterflies had an especially good breeding season (insects can reproduce rapidly, and their populations do tend to fluctuate), or that especially warm fall weather last year changed the butterflies’ breeding and migration behavior, throwing off the count.
The current numbers, however, are still a far cry from previous population totals: In the 1980s, millions of monarchs flocked to California for the winter. In 2017, an annual count found about 200,000 butterflies. Last year, the same count found fewer than 2,000.
“I was really saddened,” Oberhauser told me, adding that she had worried “we might be seeing the end of an incredible migratory phenomenon.”
But the rebound, she and others say, is cause for cautious optimism. This year, volunteers have already counted more than 100,000 butterflies, according to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
“It’s close to miraculous,” said Paul Meredith, 77, a volunteer with the butterfly sanctuary, who that Sunday was seated — binoculars around his neck, insect pin in his cap — among the trees.
But, he added, “there’s a lot of things we don’t understand.”
To see the magnificent butterflies, visit these groves:
Monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach (20,000 butterflies, estimated by the Xerces Society)
Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Pacific Grove (14,000)
Camino Real Park in Ventura (3,000)
Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz (2,000)
Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria (1,700)
Livia Albeck-Ripka is a reporter for The New York Times, based in California.
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The rest of the news
Hazardous chemicals: The ocean could soon flood more than 400 toxic sites in California and expose residents to dangerous chemicals and polluted water, The Los Angeles Times reports.
A post-Roe reality: How the politics of abortion are poised to intensify.
Uber settlement: The company will pay $9 million for failing to comply with state regulators about sexual assault claims, The Los Angeles Times reports.
Ransomware attack: Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles affiliate said a hacker had compromised information for 400,000 patients.
Beverly Hills shooting: The police have arrested a suspect in the killing of the philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, wife of the music producer Clarence Avant.
In-person learning: A San Diego County school district will allow unvaccinated students to learn in person, defying the state’s vaccination mandate, The Washington Post reports.
Drug crisis in Fresno: Meth has taken control of a large swath of Fresno, killing more people in 2020 than any other drug or suicides or homicides, CNN reports.
Jail guard indicted: A correctional officer faces several counts of sexually assaulting female inmates at the San Joaquin County Jail, months after another officer at the same facility was convicted of similar crimes, The Associated Press reports.
PG&E penalty: Regulators fined the utility company $125 million for its role in causing the deadly Kincade fire in 2019.
College admissions scandal: Two Palo Alto parents pleaded guilty to paying $25,000 to cheat on their son’s college admissions test, The Associated Press reports.
What we’re eating
Cheesy baked pumpkin pasta with kale.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s travel tip comes from Brice Yocum, who recommends the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden:
“The garden has many sections on 78 acres, including a redwood forest and desert displays. In all, there are more than 1,000 native California plants, and nearly every one has a sign or tag to let the visitor know what they’re looking at. It’s a great place to spend the day, or just go for an invigorating walk. The sights and smells are fantastic, and the staff and gift shop are delightful.
Two pro tips: The gardens open to the public at 10 a.m., but if you become a member, you can enter at 9 a.m. and beat the crowds. So worth the price, and your donation makes this amazing place even more amazing. Second, cross the road to the new Pritzlaff Conservation Center and you can get stunning views of the islands off the Santa Barbara coast. Worth the price of admission!
Last note, if you go soon you can see a once-in-a-lifetime event: A Shaw’s agave is blooming after about 30 years, after which the plant dies. See it soon!”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re recommending
This new documentary goes inside a top-performing San Francisco public school.
Has your child been vaccinated against Covid-19?
Share stories of your children receiving their coronavirus shots and how it has affected your holiday plans. Please include your child’s name, age and city of residence — and even a photograph, if you’d like.
Email me at CAtoday@nytimes.com and your submission may be included in a future newsletter.
And before you go, some good news
The Santa Barbara Zoo is now home to four highly adorable baby otters.
Born last month, the pups are Asian small-clawed otters, the smallest of all otter species and typically found in India and China.
The infants and their parents will be off exhibit for two months as the young ones mature and learn to swim, The Santa Barbara Independent reports.
But the zoo is still sharing pictures of these tiny cuties. Check them out.
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Monday. Enjoy your weekend.
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Phone ding or buzz, e.g. (5 letters).
Soumya Karlamangla, Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.