Royal Guests on Gaviota

Migration Patterns of the Western Monarch

On Tuesday, I received a text from Charis van der Heide, asking if I wanted to join her for the Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count the next day. I jumped at the opportunity to visit this property on the Gaviota Coast located near Jalama. Charis flew all the way from her new home in the Netherlands to participate in the Count which she has been helping with for over a decade. Her calling with monarch butterflies began 20 years ago with an encouraging project offer from a professor in the biological science department at Cal Poly where she graduated.

Charis tracks the Western Monarch Butterfly with the Thanksgiving and New Year counts, and her work is focuses on Santa Barbara County, an area spanning from Vandenberg AFB to Carpinteria. As a volunteer with the Count, she trains and enlists the help of volunteers to count the dozens of monarch sites in the county that are visited every year. She is also an environmental consultant.

Charis at Naples

Charis at Naples

We set out from Goleta at 7:00am. It’s optimal to catch the monarch clusters before the sun hits their wings. Heat sparks their metabolism and they can disburse in flight when the temperatures reach above 55 degrees F. We hoped to find large clusters clinging to the eucalyptus branches in the cool morning. As we turned off Hwy 101 toward Jalama, the fog shroud magically disappeared. It was a crystal-clear day all the rest of the way. Once we left the truck, the sounds of hawks screeching among other bird calls reminded me of how different this remote location, devoid of traffic, is from our urban existence. Several mule deer munched on grass in the nearby pasture.

Janet with New Binocs!

Using the New Binoculars

Armed with a new pair of binoculars, I felt confident about locating monarch clusters as I had been taught to do in this same place last year. We spotted a few encouraging flyers but as we walked around, looking high above, our spirits were dampened. Where were the clusters?

We may have spent a half-hour searching and found absolutely no clusters. Charis is an expert at spotting these royal winged ones. She knows they like to congregate in certain “cathedral” overhangs with an opening in the center or over a damp area. Our total count was 12 flyers – not a good sign. Then we hopped into the truck and drove to the next site further up the canyon. Our second location was dry and eerily devoid of monarchs. Our hearts sank. We counted three flyers.

I asked Charis what was happening with the other counts. Her explanation mirrored information posted on the Xerces Society website at  The Xerces Society has released this recent blog post and press release about the monarch count so far this season and unfortunately, it is not looking good for the monarchs locally but throughout California as well.

Monach nectaring on Rabbitbrush

Xerces Society:Monarch Nectaring on rabbitbrush - Photo Courtesy of Stephanie McNight

“Historically, western monarchs have made a spectacular annual migration to overwinter in forested groves along the coast of California. Each spring, the butterflies fan out across the West to lay their eggs on milkweed and drink nectar from flowers in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah.

That migration is now in crisis. In the winter of 2018, and again in 2019, the western monarch overwintering population has reached the lowest level ever recorded—less than 1% of historic populations, and a dizzying 86% drop from the year prior. In response to this, the Xerces Society has spearheaded the Western Monarch Call to Action, working in partnership with universities, government agencies, other organizations, and communities to stabilize and recover this imperiled population.

These actions are building upon the Xerces Society's decades of western monarch conservation work. Western populations have been less well-studied than their eastern counterparts, and have unique conservation needs. To that end, the Xerces Society conducts annual surveys of overwintering populations; assesses the status of overwintering sites; provides guidance for the management of breeding, migratory, and overwintering habitat; advises on habitat establishment and restoration; and researches the distribution of monarchs and milkweed in the West.”

Monarch Cluster on Gaviota

Monarch Cluster near Gaviota - Photo Courtesy of Charis van der Heide

I asked Charis if there was a glimmer of hope to leave readers and monarch fans with. She explained that insect populations naturally fluctuate and it’s possible that in the right conditions one strong reproductive season could facilitate an increased population. And so, we encourage you to go to the link, the “Western Monarch Call to Action” to learn more about these magnificent creatures and how we might help. Pay attention to their journey when you see a monarch in flight.