In Santa Cruz, we like to celebrate all creatures great and small, especially those of the migrating variety. On one end, we are captivated by the sight of a whale surfacing from the depths of the sea and, on the other, we delight in the spellbinding magic of a fluttering monarch butterfly.
Every fall, a lively party is thrown at Natural Bridges State Beach, officially welcoming the monarchs back to their winter habitat in the eucalyptus grove, the only State Monarch Preserve in California. Starting in early October, the black and orange beauties start trickling in from colder climates to enjoy our moderate coastal weather. Scientifically speaking, monarchs are tropical butterflies and at no point in their life cycle – egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly – can they freeze, so they move with the warmer weather while migrating south.
Wondering why they choose the same eucalyptus grove at Natural Bridges as their temporary home? First, it’s located in a canyon which provides shelter from the wind. Second, the trees filter in sunlight to keep monarch bodies from freezing. And third, eucalyptus trees flower in the winter, giving the butterflies a convenient source of food.
During the weekends, from mid-October through through mid-January, guided tours of the Monarch Butterfly Grove are available at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., with peak monarch observation occurring in late-November and early-December, according to a Docent Naturalist. If you’d rather tour on your own, the park is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Because monarch migration is variable, it is recommended to call the park first for a current update.
It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the weather. The minimum temperature a monarch needs to fly is 55 degrees. Temperatures below 55, mean you are more likely to see monarch clusters hanging like leaves off the eucalyptus trees, which can also be quite mesmerizing.
While we celebrate the return of the monarchs, we also acknowledge their dwindling numbers due to loss of natural habitat and the use of pesticides and insecticides. One way to help preserve the monarch population is to become a butterfly gardener by planting nectar sources, such as marigolds, cosmos and asters- organically grown, of course. Planting milkweed is also crucial to monarch survival, as it is the only plant on which the female monarch will lay her eggs and the monarch larvae will eat. Milkweed contains toxins that help protect the monarch caterpillar from predators.
The monarch butterfly is just one of several Santa Cruz migratory wildlife mascots. Be sure to experience their magic this fall and early winter at Natural Bridges State Beach.