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On todays episode I am going to share a few of the expeditions that I took this winter. I said expeditions but what I am talking about is visits that I made to monarch overwintering sites in California. I did not visit all of the more than 100 locations. I visited six locations. The first two were great because of their location in San Diego but didn’t have many monarchs. The last four locations were amazing because they were monarch butterfly honey holes. I’ll try to give you a few tips about the overwintering locations that I visited so that if you retrace my steps you get the most from your visit.
Welcome to Grow Milkweed Plants podcast episode two. I am the host Brad Grimm and thank you for joining me today. At the time of recording this episode it is January 30th 2015 and it very near the end of the overwintering season in both Mexico and California. But more importantly, in my opinion, it is nearly the beginning of the Spring migration. The Spring migration is massive. So if you are in southern Texas or Sacramento the migration will be sooner than if you are in Winnipeg or Spokane. If you are patient and you are growing milkweed then I wish you luck is seeing monarchs in your own backyard.
Very early in the monarch migration season, on November 13th 2014, I flew down to San Diego. I had collected some data that was published in 2009 by UCSD that there are three overwintering sites in San Diego. The first location is called Grape Street the second location is at the Presidio and the third location is on the UCSD campus. The first location, Grape Street, is at the edge of Balboa park where grape street terminates into a parking lot for a dog park. The second San Diego location is in old town San Diego at the Presidio.
The Presidio is a beautiful location. I was not able to make it out to the third location which is on the campus of UCSD so I won’t be able to comment on that location today. There are two reasons I was only able to visit two of the three locations in San Diego. The smell of tacos at The Alamo restaurant in old town was amazing and overpowered my desire to search for monarchs and because I was limited on time because and needed to catch my return flight.
As I arrived via bus, the Weather in San Diego was fast approaching the hot 70º high temperature. I walked a few blocks to the Grape Street dog park. There are no signs pointing toward the eucalyptus trees for monarchs. I did a lot of wandering around and besides seeing about five monarchs I came to the conclusion that there was not going to be any clusters on this warm November morning. The visit did have some highlights which includes seeing a great horned owl resting high in the trees. It was also good exercise. The official monarch count at Grape Street is 15. I think I may have seen them all this winter.
Back on the bus I made a transfer in downtown san diego and headed to the Presidio that is on a hill above old town. I walked a path straight up the side of the hill and arrived at one of the most beautiful areas for a picnic. Ocean views and shaded lawns made me think that if I were a monarch that that is where I would stay for the winter. Despite the beautiful location and ideal weather conditions there were no monarchs in San Diego besides the few that I saw flying about in gardens. I retreated toward the airport but not before having a couple delicious carne aside tacos and a local brewed beverage at the restaurant I mentioned earlier. The official monarch count at the Presidio Park, Old Town is 30
Turning the dial forward to November 21st. It is only 8 days later and my wife, Ashley, and I go to Santa Cruz California. It is still considered early in the overwintering season but I had heard that there were pretty good monarch counts. I should say that the premise of the trip was to visit the Monterrey Bay Aquarium to view sea life in their world class facility. It is only due to the extreme patience and understanding of my wife that I was fortunate enough to parade her thru the monarch groves on this visit.
First stop. Natural Bridges on the north side of Santa Cruz. The state beach and monarch butterfly trail are delightful during any time of year. Although there is a quiet buzz in the air today. We paid the state park vehicle fee and parked in the main lot near the visitor center. I could see there were others visiting the monarchs. I felt a little under prepared because my camera was about one tenth the size of what others were carrying. But it’s not about the photos you leave with. In fact, it’s not about gaining anything from the experience. For me, what I try to do while under neath the thousands of butterflies, is learn from them. I’m not talking about getting lecture notes from a butterfly. What I am trying to convey is the idea of being more butterfly like myself. Some may say zen or meditation and that is pretty close to what I mean. The monarch butterfly gives us so much by doing so very little. The monarch is able to do what it does best which is be simply amazing and live among us without being destructive or a nuisance. People like me on the other hand do destructive things and call it progress. Lets take farming for example. Some farmers plow under all the native milkweed and grow corn or soy beans. Is that progress? I’m not a farmer and if you are then I am not saying to stop farming. It is a systematic process of changing the natural course of the land. Monarch butterflies on the other hand fly over the field and see that there is no milkweed and simply die off as a result. Wow. that sounded kinda dark. I wonder if that’s a factual representation found in the real world. I’ll let you decide.
Back to the experience at natural bridges. It is a facility that is easily accessible for everyone. I would recommend you visit in December or January. The season may be longer in some years but your prime time for monarchs will be those two months. Either bring a big camera and a tripod or bring no camera at all. but your iPhone is only going to get good photos in the milkweed garden because monarchs are in trees high above you. The official monarch count at natural bridges is 3,400
The following day on November 22nd 2015 Ashley and I parked at Pacific Grove monarch butterfly sanctuary. The site is basically like a wild backyard with tall trees and shady trails. It was raining and despite having an umbrella everything was pretty wet except my tiny camera. We got there early because the main stop is the Aquarium. After homing in on the entrance to the monarch sanctuary we walked a very short distance to the trees where thousands of monarchs were clustering in the cool moist air. At first we walked right by most of the clusters. It wasn’t till we looked where others were looking that we saw them. The pine needles were thickly covered. I wanted to cheer for them like it was a sporting event. Having driven hundreds of miles to see them I felt like I had just won the game or hit the jackpot. I refrained and I kept my voice to a whisper like everyone else. The pamphlet says that loud voices disturbs the environment for the monarchs. So after our necks were throughly tired from gazing up at the tree limbs we departed for a wonderful day indoors at the Monterrey bay aquarium. The official count at pacific grove is 24,122
Turning the dial forward again to January 17th. Ashley and I headed back to the coast but this trip was to go whale watching near Half Moon Bay California. On our route I had cleverly routed us past Ardenwood Historic Farm. Ardenwood is a working farm and part of the East Bay park system. Entry is $3 per person. We visited on a Saturday and after walking the paths for a while we met at the milkweed garden and greenhouse where two employees greeted everyone and talked about monarchs and milkweed. I love hearing other people talk about my favorite subject. Time stands still when I am learning about milkweed. It seemed like the talk lasted only seconds. On the milkweed there was a few caterpillars. I saw a small one and a big one. There was also a monarch laying eggs on the tropical milkweed. I am going to save my opinions about the choice of milkweed that was growing at Ardenwood for a future episode. It was not native milkweed and that is all I will say right now. We headed down well traveled dirt path toward some of the tallest eucalyptus i have ever seen. It was another warm day, maybe 67º and the monarchs were very active. I wouldn't say we saw thousands but there were more than one hundred that were on the move. The location combined with the butterflies makes this mu second favorite place to see monarchs only after Pacific Grove. The official count at Ardenwood Historic Farm is 2,061 monarchs
Whale watching was a bust, no whales, but we did have a nice boat ride and a great experience overall. Once on land my wife and I went to Yurba Buena Native plant nursery where I got three new milkweed plants. Two of them are showy milkweed and the third is mexican whorled milkweed. They are still doing well and I will have them in the ground in the next month or two. As we headed away from the coastside we stopped at the golf course in san leandro. We weren’t there to hit balls. I brought my wife to yet another overwintering site for monarchs. Did I mention how patient she is? Very patient.
It is super important to know that this site is on private property. The only days that you may visit to see the monarchs is on Saturdays and there is a process to participate. Ashley and I arrived on a Sunday. With my tiny camera I approached the entrance seeking permission. We were directed to the clubhouse to see the general manager. I pleaded with the GM for access and he must have taken pity on me because he was kind enough to present two waivers that we signed before entering the course. We safely dodged all the golf ball while we took the path to the back of the property. Flying around in the trees was a few hundred monarchs. I felt like it was my lucky day because I was surrounded by monarchs. I just wish I could see that many monarchs every summer; everywhere.
When an acorn falling 70’ from above hit me in the forehead I decided it was time to go. This concludes my season visiting overwintering sites in California. The official count at the golf course is 7,750 monarchs I think there was a larger population being the driving range but given my experience with the acorn I wasn’t going to risk going there without a tour guide.
Thank you for listening to the second episode of Grow Milkweed Plants. Visit www.growmilkweedplants.com for more information and photos of the places I talked about in this podcast. If you are signed into itunes and enjoyed the show then please take a moment to subscribe, rate & review this podcast. On the next episode I will tell you what the total monarch population is in both the Western and the Eastern population and much more.