A Monarch Retreat

For Californians, Thanksgiving is prime time for butterfly counting.

Photo by Edward Rooks
Photo by Edward Rooks

Delicate, muted brown leaves shroud the bowed branches of a tree on the California coast. At least, that’s what they look like. On second glance, a few bursts of deep orange reveal the true identity of this false foliage—monarch butterflies. Wildlife artist Edward Rooks captured the iconic insects in this photograph while they wintered at Lighthouse Field State Beach in Santa Cruz in 2007.

Every Thanksgiving since 1997, the Xerces Society—a nonprofit organization focused on invertebrate conservation—has been tracking the number of western monarchs at dozens of sites throughout California, including the Santa Cruz habitat. Xerces Society executive director Scott Hoffman Black says that the weeks surrounding Turkey Day are primetime for monarch counts because the insects “have usually coalesced into an overwintering site,” forming large clusters like the one seen in Rooks’s photograph.

Rooks considers monarchs among the “few spectacles that really can be used to grab the public’s attention” and inspire them to love nature. A little TLC (tender, loving, conservation) may indeed be needed to revive western monarchs, a geographically distinct population from the butterflies that migrate east of the Rockies, between Canada and Mexico. Xerces Society data, collected by a cadre of committed volunteers and citizen scientists, have shown an 80 percent decline in the monarch population at the sites that they monitor. The year Rooks snapped this photo, 5,700 western monarchs—which travel from states including Oregon and Nevada to California each fall—were nestled among the eucalyptus and cypress trees at Lighthouse Field. Ten years earlier, an estimated 70,000 butterflies congregated near this stretch of sea, according to Xerces data.

Lack in milkweed—a plant on which monarchs lay eggs—and the expansion of real estate development into overwintering locations could be responsible for the precipitous decline, says Hoffman Black, although “climate is the overarching issue,” he adds. But Hoffman Black tries to remain optimistic. “We’re always hopeful to see more monarchs at these sites and not less,” he says. And soon enough, the results from The Xerces Society’s Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count—which runs from November 16th to December 8th this year—will help determine if we have a few more monarchs to be thankful for.

For more on the status of both the western and eastern populations of monarch butterflies, see the North American Monarch Conservation Plan.

Meet the Writer

About Becky Fogel

Becky Fogel is a newscast host and producer at Texas Standard, a daily news show broadcast by KUT in Austin, Texas. She was formerly Science Friday’s production assistant.

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