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Magnificient Migration

Take a front-row seat for Mother Nature’s winter parade


I watch a tiny butterfly clinging to a eucalyptus branch in Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, the pale undersides of her wings winking in the morning light—wings so thin I might tear them with a whisper, so strong they have carried her a hundred miles a day.

She is a monarch, the species known as the king of the butterflies, and, along with her companions, she has fluttered here from chilly Canadian climes on a journey that is just one among several wildlife migrations that pass through the Bay Area each year. And now is the time to catch a glimpse of this cavalcade of creatures.

The monarch’s voyage, however, is unique. Its migration spans generations. The golden beauty I’m now admiring in California was likely born in the Rocky Mountains of Southern Canada during late summer or early fall, but it’s the great-great-granddaughter of a monarch that headed north from the Central Valley or Sierra Nevada during spring of last year. Somehow, using a mysterious, intuitive road map, the tireless pilgrim on the tree before me has traveled 2,000 miles south, to winter in the same coastal sanctuary where her great-great-grandparents waited for warmer weather. How the monarchs find their way to ancestral breeding grounds remains a delightful enigma.

Their mating ritual, though less cryptic, is just as intriguing. When Valentine’s Day draws near, the female wrestles with her potential mate, putting up a fierce fight to make sure the father of her children is strong and healthy. After the battle, confident that she has found Mr. Right, the female relaxes, then allows her mate to whisk her into the treetops, or down to the ground, where they will spend a few hours in bliss.

Shortly afterward, the male will die, and the female will make the long journey inland from the California coast to the milkweed-rich fields of the Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Pregnant with hundreds of eggs, the mother monarch will painstakingly place each egg on its slender stalk of milkweed, her children’s only food.

Exhausted from her life’s work, the mother monarch will then die. After her children are born, they will embark on the same journey that compels their species, working their way to Canada. And next year, her great-great-grandchildren may land on this very eucalyptus branch—glittering, orange, magnificent in the winter sun. n


You can spot monarchs October through March at these locations:

Monarch Bay Golf Course, San Leandro

For docent-led tours and talks, meet at the Mulford-Marina Branch Library parking lot, 13699 Aurora Dr., Saturdays at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m., (510) 577-6085, www.ci.san-leandro.ca.us/newsmonarch.html.

Ardenwood Historic Farm, Fremont

The monarchs cluster in the North Woods near the railroad tracks. 34600 Ardenwood Blvd., Fremont, (510) 796-0663,

Natural Bridges State Beach, Santa Cruz

Through February, docent-led tours are held Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Check out the Migration Festival on the second Saturday in February. 2531 West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, (831) 423-4609, www.parks.ca.gov.

Monarch Grove Sanctuary, Pacific Grove

Two-plus acres here offer a prime protected habitat for monarchs. Docents are available from noon to 3 p.m. For more information, call Friends of the Monarchs at (888) 746-6627, or visit www.pgmonarchs.org/fomh.html.

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