Monday, November 23, 2015

Natural Bridges State Park -- and Monarch Butterflies!

"Want to make a day trip with us?" I asked our grand-daughter Lillian. "I promise not to nearly die."

With no ill will towards me after my debilitating encounter with noxious chemicals on our previous road trip, Lil enthusiastically agreed to make it a day of wonder and go to Santa Cruz, to Natural Bridges State Park for a visit with hundreds upon hundreds of monarch butterflies.

There are a few spots on the West Coast where the butterflies congregate, and a big colony in Mexico. These are the fourth generation of the year, and they live six to eight months -- enough time to travel to the communal hibernation grounds, winter over, and then head out in the spring to produce Generation One. One, Two, and Three spread east and north, mating and laying eggs on milkweed plants, living only about two to six weeks. Then back Generation Four comes.

We got to Natural Bridges at a perfect time of the morning on a perfect day. Usually when we've gone to Santa Cruz, it's fogged in and chilly. This day was clear and warm, and at 10 am, the butterflies in the eucalyptus grove were just being touched by the sunlight, making them flutter and then take off looking for breakfast.

Some of the butterflies at the top of the trees got warmed up enough to take off, but in the chill morning air, fell out of the sky. This one on the right landed on the observation deck and sat there in a chilly stupor until the ambient air temperature rose.

It was astounding to be able to get practically nose to nose with the beautiful creature; when can you get close to a butterfly in your garden? Not very often -- I've tried.

The observation deck is at the bottom of a gully, with ramps leading down to it from the parking lot and park offices. The gully has a grove of eucalyptus trees and thick vining vegetation on all of its sides. Visitors standing or sitting on the observation deck were quiet, in awe, looking up at the clusters of monarch clinging to the branches, the warmer ones sailing about in every square yard above.  There was a sense of holiness to the place, a sense of being part of something so large and mysterious that there were no ready words to describe it, as though even trying to put a description to the heart's feeling would be wrong.

They're hard to get on camera up there in the trees, though, especially if you've got a relatively feeble camera. A LOT of the visitors I saw had lenses on their cameras nearly as huge as the ones you see on the sidelines at NFL football games, the lucky hounds. (I would envy them, but I doubt that I have the arm strength to hold anything that size steady.)

This cluster was just starting to have the sun illuminate it, and so the monarchs on the sun side (to the left) were beginning to spread their wings to the heat.

Bernie and I have been to Santa Cruz to visit with the monarchs quite a few times in the past; often enough to shout at the butterflies headed west across our property, "See you in November!" I don't know if Lil was impressed enough to want to do it again next year or not. She seemed to really enjoy the trip, but the sun was so scrumptious that she wished she had been prepared to wade in the ocean, prompting her to rant about preparedness for adventure.

 What's so amazing is the number of butterflies. The photo to the right looks like a tree with dead leaves thickening it. But they aren't leaves, you're just seeing the underside of the wings of thousands of monarchs. Down in the gully, there's not enough light to see the color, and by the time the sun brightens up that brilliant orange, the monarchs are ready to flutter away.

Sadly, there's a big decline in monarch populations, largely due to farmers' indiscriminate use of herbicides. Milkweed, which is the food for monarch caterpillars, is a weed. It grew in the fields and forests of Pennsylvania, where I grew up. (Which had to be one looooong trip for the poor monarchs headed back to Mexico in the fall.) But it's also due to people with good intentions planting prettily-colored tropical milkweed, which harbors a caterpillar parasite that damages the insect. (Back-east milkweed was just green, with insignificant whitish flowers.)

 But back to the visit. The sun rose, and the lovely lady spread her wings. "Recharging her solar power panels," a ranger told us. And indeed, she turned from facing into the sun to present her back and wings to the most light.

We know she's a lady monarch because the dark lines on her lower wings are thicker, and contain no black dots. Boys have dots, girls don't.

When we had hogged all the time we could on the observation platform, we saw a herd of kindergarten children swarming with their teachers, on a field trip to introduce the little Santa Cruzians to their winter neighbors. It was time to take a gentle hike down the trails to the beach. ...And then backtrack, because recent rains had flooded the end of the trail. We made our way through the park to the sun-warmed rocks by the ocean, and spent another hour or so watching the waves and the seabirds. By then, it was lunchtime, and we had plans.

After a ten year absence, we were headed back to The Crow's Nest, a restaurant on Santa Cruz Harbor. We loved it ten years ago (has it really been that long since we were there?) and it did not disappoint us at all. The menu is a little different, but the interior was impeccable, the wine list lovely, and the food was good. I think if we mention that we'd be doing dinner there again, Lil would jump into the car and wait for us.

One last thing, let's be equal opportunity photographers, and get a boy monarch into the picture, with his dotted lower wings:

See? A tiny black dot on his much thinner black stripes. A fashion statement from the insect world.

1 comment:

Terry said...

Love it! Thanks.