Migration of Monarch Butterflies: Monarchs Dig the California Sun

I recently interviewed for a blogging job with a nature-based nonprofit foundation. The director of the nonprofit sat and talked with me for two hours about his fascination with nature, especially a recent trip he and his wife had made to the Monarch Butterfly Grove near Pismo Beach, California. The couple was intrigued by the migration of monarch butterflies in and concerned about the decline of California monarch butterfly populations. Inspired by a recent viewing of the IMAX 3D film called “Flight of the Butterflies” at the California Science Center, they found themselves immediately embarking on a two-and-a-half-hour road trip north of Los Angeles to see the monarchs for themselves. The director was a decent wildlife photographer and showed me a half dozen photos of the monarchs that annually overcome the area like a biblical plague. (Photos included here are not his, but mine, except where noted.)

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Autumn leaf imposters pictured here in long hanging clumps in the direct center and right center of this photo.

When the director of this nonprofit first showed me a photocopy of his photos from the trip, I wondered, Where are the thousands of butterflies? In some photos, all I saw were pictures of dull, densely leaved trees; in others, some close-up shots of the monarchs and their caterpillars. I felt foolish at first, but on closer examination, the butterflies crystallized into view. The director mentioned later in our conversation that when it comes to natural wonders, it’s common for people to not see what is right in front of them.

After our meeting was over, I searched the internet and found a video of the migratory monarchs. They were clustered en masse on eucalyptus and pine trees, their beautiful orange wings flickering like blinking lights on an early Christmas tree. I felt a rush of emotion at the wonder of it, and even wiped a tear or two from my eyes. Admittedly, nature does that to me. So, I, too, set out with a camera to a migratory site along the California coast north of Los Angeles. I’m so glad I did.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Adult monarchs shown here forming clusters on eucalyptus trees. The scientific name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus.

I didn’t make it all the way up to Pismo Beach, which seems to garner the title of the “best spot to see monarchs” but there are plenty of other locations to witness the California monarch butterfly migration, albeit with smaller populations. At these less-populated sites, it might take a bit of patience and self-education to locate monarchs, but it’s still pretty darn cool when you find them. Even though the butterflies are draped from the trees in clear view, depending on the temperature and cloud cover, instead of bright shades of orange, folks may see what I did in the photo: the underside of wings colored a dull yellow-brown that make the butterflies look like dead leaves on autumn trees. They are clustered together on branches of eucalyptus keeping warm while waiting for the sun, at which point they will take flight in search of water. The fact that they sometimes look like dying autumn leaves strikes me as apropos because monarchs arrive at Pismo and much of the central and southern California coast in late October each year. Those that travel to Mexico for overwintering tend to arrive between October 31 and November 2, coinciding with All Hallows Eve, All Souls Day, and All Saints Day respectively. To the Mexican community, the monarchs symbolize the annual return of the dearly departed, a joyous and reverent time of year.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Pictured here is an adult monarch showing off its beautiful wings. Monarchs have a 30-day metamorphosis from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, and finally to adult butterfly.

Whether it is in California or in Central Mexico, overwintering monarchs will not make it out of their winter location alive. Instead, after four months of near dormancy, they will become active, feeding and mating until they die. It is their offspring that will make the trip back north in the spring. Each spring and summertime generation of offspring will have a short lifespan—as short as two to six weeks—continuing the mating, dying and propagating cycle as each successive generation makes its way further and further north. Once the colder fall weather creeps in, the migratory cycle starts all over again.

California’s monarchs will only be in the area until about March, at the latest. By then, their caterpillar offspring will have eaten through the surface of their eggs, gorged themselves on milkweed plants, and will have emerged from their chrysalises ready to head back north.

Migration of Monarch Butterflies and the Decline in California Monarch Butterfly Populations

Monarch Butterfly Grove boasts the highest overwintering monarch population in the United States, but it is not the only destination of monarchs in North America. In fact, monarchs that reside west of the Rocky Mountains tend to overwinter in coastal California, while monarchs residing east of the Rocky Mountains tend to overwinter in Michoacán, Central Mexico. There are exceptions to these rules but overall, there are two primary population sets in the United States. Monarchs can start their trip from as far north as Canada, but the butterflies destined for Mexico (some 2,500 miles from southeastern Canada) represent the bulk of the migratory butterfly population. Several hundred million monarchs arrive in Mexico each year, though the numbers are dwindling. Those destined for the California coast once topped out at 230,000 in the 1990’s but now run only in the tens of thousands.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Even the bees love eucalyptus trees, especially the flowers.

What’s So Great About California?

So, what exactly lures monarchs to the California coast? Is it the warm California sun? The superior dining options? The Beach Boys music playing off in the distance?

The warm California sun has a lot to do with it. Monarchs need to escape freezing weather but they are content to winter in slightly above-freezing temperatures. They also require water for drinking but need to be protected from the elements. Coastal California fits the bill for warmer winter temperatures and a marine layer that provides just enough dew and moisture to make monarchs happy. The areas that monarchs like best are those that have plenty of eucalyptus trees to hang out on all winter and plenty of milkweed plants to lay their eggs on in the spring. Milkweed is the one and only food source monarch caterpillars like to consume. The consumption of milkweed makes monarchs poisonous to eat, which is key to keeping their predators away and allowing monarchs to survive and thrive.

What’s NOT So Great About California?

There is so much that is not known about monarchs and their migration patterns that pinpointing the reason(s) for a decline in California monarch butterfly populations becomes an exercise in  speculation. Some of the culprits likely to influence the monarch population are:

          Urbanization, human overpopulation, and the misuse and overuse of natural resources

          Increased pollution

          Changing weather patterns

          The overuse of pesticides affecting food sources and water sources

Random weather events can have a catastrophic effect on the monarch population as well. In 2002, a bad winter storm in Mexico caused the death of so many monarchs that some forest floors were almost two-foot thick with dead butterflies. Logging activities in Mexico have impacted the population as well. And in the United States, urban and suburban sprawl threatens populations by overtaking natural habitats—homes, buildings, and highways are popping up more than dandelions in a spring field.

As interconnected as the earth’s ecosystem is, there are too many factors to definitively say what is causing the fluctuation of population even in just one little area. But if you live anywhere along the coast of California on up to Canada and love the gift of seeing the monarchs each year, there is something you can do to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

migration of monarch butterflies, decline of monarch population
Shown here is a monarch caterpillar enjoying milkweed. Milkweed also doubles as a nectar source for adult monarchs. Milkweeds belong to the family Asclepiadaeae, derived from Askepios, the Greek god of medicine and healing.

What Can You Do To Encourage The Butterflies To Stay?

Whether the monarchs are in California for a temporary visit or are considering making it their permanent home, coastal Californians can extend their hospitality by sprucing up the accommodations:

          The most immediate and effective thing you can do to ensure the survival of monarch butterflies is to plant as much milkweed as you can. It is a critical food source for monarch caterpillars, so make room on your property for milkweed. Plant it, or at least resist the temptation to cut it down. Remember, if there is no milkweed, monarchs will not have a place to deposit their eggs.

          Plant pine, cypress, and eucalyptus trees on your property. Monarchs tend to overwinter in groves with these particular trees.

          Natural Landscaping: Nothing says “I love you, Mother Earth” more than using natural landscaping on your property vs. overusing pesticides and over-manicuring. Reconsider your use of weed killers. Nature has graced us with plants and weeds that serve an important purpose in the food chain. When planning out your garden, try to use plants indigenous to the area. Do your part to help the ecosystem do what it does naturally.

          Less is more—less square footage to live in, that is. Instead of being part of the urban or suburban sprawl where building bigger and bigger houses and patios and living spaces is the norm, why not downsize or at least resist the desire to takeover more natural habitats? Humans and nature are in a battle for resources and humans are winning. Use what you need but leave the rest. Try totilt the scale in favor of nature.

With just a little consideration for nature and preparation for one of its most fascinating annual miracles on the California coast, maybe next year, the monarchs will come to your home to visit YOU! In the meantime, if you live in the area, be sure to visit the Monarch Butterfly Grove between November and February. Admission is free!

Check out the following links for more information related to the migration of monarch butterflies and the decline in California monarch butterfly populations:

·         IMAX 3D film, “Flight of the Butterflies” at the California Science Center: http://www.californiasciencecenter.org/Imax/Features/FlightOfTheButterflies/FlightOfTheButterflies.php

·         MonarchButterfly.org has great information on the Monarch Butterfly Grove near Pismo Beach, including population counts and the primary viewing locations all along the west coast of the United States:  http://www.monarchbutterfly.org/

Sources of Milkweed Seeds and Plants:

·         LiveMonarch.com provides free milkweed seeds:  http://www.livemonarch.com/free-milkweed-seeds.htm

·         MonarchWatch.org provides a list of sources of milkweed seeds and plants: http://monarchwatch.org/bring-back-the-monarchs/resources/plant-seed-suppliers


Teardrops in Joshua Tree: Not Only How, But How Often?

A few words from Sue . . .

Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
The “Silver Bullet” and Sue at Joshua Tree National Park’s Indian Cove campground.


HOW did I not make plans to visit you sooner?

HOW OFTEN can I manage to plan a long weekend to escape and see you again?

Joshua Tree National Park Teardrop trailer
All the comforts of home.

Mark and I took the “Silver Bullet” (our teardrop trailer) to Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms, California, last weekend and fell in love (with Joshua Tree, that is!). What an amazing place! I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and recently went to Sedona, Arizona, so I know what amazing looks like, and Joshua Tree definitely had that same “WOW!” factor. (I’ll write a post on Sedona soon.)

Joshua Tree National Park
Yes, the Silver Bullet is THAT special. 🙂

If you want to feel like a kid again, head to Joshua Tree. You will be climbing and scrambling rocks with ambition and without thought, just like you did when you were twelve years old. It makes no difference how old you are or what shape you are in, you will climb! Trust me.

Joshua Tree National Park rock scrambling
You’ll be scrambling rocks before you know it!

We snagged a group site where we joined our local Boy Scout troop for a 3-day camping weekend. It was only a 2-1/2 hour drive east from Los Angeles (location of Joshua Tree shown here). The drive was easy. The group campsite for the 40 of us (10 or so adults; 30 or so kids) was enormous. We stayed at one of around 9 campgrounds in the area (Joshua Tree campgrounds listed here); ours was called Indian Cove. There was a huge expanse between the ‘adult side’ and  the ‘kid side’–an imaginary line set when camping with the boy scouts which encourages the boys to camp autonomously, as do the adults. The kids set up camp at least 80 feet away from the adults.

Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
Adult-side of group camp
Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
Kids passing wood down the line to the adult campfire
Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
Kids’ side of our group campsite, waaaaay over there by the rocks!

As cavernous as the group campsite was, there were a few more in the area that offered the same expansive privacy. The first day we were there, we were already having a blast without leaving the campsite. We were surrounded by a mini-mountain range of huge boulders that reminded me of the town of Bedrock in the Flintstones cartoons. Curiosity creeps into your brain and the call to go rock scrambling starts ringing like Pavlov’s bell.

We spent the second day in Joshua Tree National Park proper, where we took a great hike on Split Rock Loop Trail. It was a memorable 2-mile hike that took twice as long as anticipated because we couldn’t keep from stopping and taking photos every 10 feet or so. The later it got in the day, the more interesting the patterns of shadow and sunlight.

Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock. Mark is hiding in the split. 🙂
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
Sue hiking on Split Rock Trail
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
We called it tulip rock.
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
Sliced and diced.
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
Joshua tree on Split Rock Loop Trail.
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
Holey Moley Joshua tree!
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
Geologist heaven. These bands of rock ran through much of the huge boulders and became a game of a sort to follow their lines across the landscape.
Joshua Tree National Park Split Rock Loop Trail
We called it gorilla rock; doubtful we were the first to do so!

We enjoyed 70-degree-Fahrenheit temperatures during the day and 35 to 45 degrees at night. The night sky was brilliantly bedazzled with stars, and at dusk and dawn, the sun and moon played at opposite ends of our mini-mountain range, vying for our attention–a real mind blower.

Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
Here comes the morning sun at the group campsite!
Joshua Tree National Park Indian Cove campground
And not to be outdone, the morning moon at the opposite side of the group campsite.

Water had to be carried in, but was available at the Indian Cove Ranger Station. It is desert-like at Joshua Tree, so plan your trip wisely; there are no lakes, streams or showers in the bathrooms. This would be a great time to invest in a solar shower bag (and curtain) if you haven’t done so to date. The bathroom facilities are clean, but are outhouse-style (no flush toilets or sinks). There are a ton of official rock climbing areas so bring your gear if that’s your thing. There’s mountain biking a-plenty and scores of other activities possible. Check the campground link above for a listing of possible activities.

Joshua Tree National Park Teardrop trailer
Tough enough.

To sum up, we really hated to leave Joshua Tree. But, we’ll be back, if, for nothing else, to take some more photos of our teardrop trailer on the stunning backdrop of Joshua Tree National Park!

Happy trails to you,


The First Rule to a Stress-Free Life is: Keep It Simple!

Welcome to my blog. I’m a custom-built teardrop trailer. My parents, Mark and Sue, gave birth to me in Fall 2011. If you haven’t yet been introduced into the world of teardrop trailers, you’re in for a treat. We’re pretty neat. We’re lightweight and compact and make traveling with some creature comforts nice and easy. Since my parents started traveling with me, they’re like a couple of kids. They’re always taking off on last-minute trips because I’m mostly pre-packed and ready to go! And, boy oh boy, we sure do have some great trips planned this year!

Come back soon and I’ll tell you a little more about myself (including details about how I was built), and my parents will tell you about some of our travels together. They’re a couple of nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts, so you’re likely to hear about the benefits of being outdoors and the wonders that await you when you’re out there playing! They’ll also give you some great travel, camping, hiking, and backpacking tips to keep in mind. We often travel with a large 80-pound dog, so they’ll let you know in what ways that impacts where we go, what we do, and how we do it. They also do a lot of trips without me (Sniff! Sniff!) so you’ll hear about that as well. Life can be stress-free. You’ve just got to keep it simple and enjoy the little things–like me!

Yours truly,

The Silver Bullet

teardrop trailer travels
The Silver Bullet