Butterfly fans: Migrate to Pacific Grove


September 27, 1992|By Deborah Roberti | Deborah Roberti,Contributing Writer

You've heard of bird watching and whale watching and even girl watching. But butterfly watching?

Every fall, thousands of monarch butterflies return to coastal roosts in Central California's seaside village of Pacific Grove, where they flutter and flaunt their wings for droves of adoring fans.

It's an amazing spectacle, mainly because these quivering creatures are so numerous and so colorful. As hundreds cluster together for warmth, blanketing the trees in flaming orange garlands, it's easy to see why the Mexicans believe that monarchs embody the tender souls of departed children, bound for heaven. They are fragile and beautiful and seem not of this earth.

Monarchs are commonly sighted throughout North America during the summer months, flitting from flower to flower, feeding nectar and morning dew. As autumn approaches and temperatures plummet, monarch populations east of the Rockies begin an annual mass migration to Central Mexico's Transvolcanic Range, while groups to the west return to California, congregating in small groves of Monterey cypress, pine and eucalyptus. Some fly as far as 4,000 miles, rivaling North America's migratory seabirds, and have been spotted by glider pilots at altitudes of 10,000 feet.

For scientists, the monarch's migratory behavior is still somewhat of a mystery. Finding the perfect microclimate is essential to the species' survival. Temperature, wind velocity, on must coexist in perfect balance, and for reasons that still puzzle the experts, ancestral roosts in Pacific Grove have maintained this delicate ecological harmony for decades, perhaps even centuries.

In 1914, resident Lucia Shep- herdson was the first to document the annual appearance of thousands of butterflies in Pacific Grove -- a quiet, Cape Cod-like village nestled at the northernmost tip of the Monterey Peninsula. Today, the Grove is better known as "Butterfly Town U.S.A." Practically every business is named butterfly this and monarch that, and the townspeople are protective of their colorful winter visitors and primary tourist dollar. A $500 fine for "molesting a monarch in any way" is strictly enforced.

Butterfly Parade

Since 1939, the monarch's annual return to Pacific Grove has been marked by the Butterfly Parade, scheduled this year on Oct. 10. Dressed in elaborate monarch costumes, Pacific Grove elementary schoolchildren participate in a celebratory march through the downtown area.

Although the monarchs begin to trickle into town in October, peak butterfly-watching season is between November and the end of February. In Pacific Grove, dense clusters are frequently spotted in Washington Park off Pine Avenue, but most of the monarchs gather on eucalyptus trees off Central and Lighthouse Avenue near the Butterfly Grove Inn.

The best time for butterfly watching is during the morning and late afternoon, when the air is cool and the monarchs cluster together for warmth, seldom leaving the roost. Monarchs can't fly when temperatures dip below 55 degrees, so chilly, overcast days make for prime butterfly watching conditions. When it's sunny and warm, many leave the roost but can be seen flying around town, flitting from flower bed to flower bed. At monarch migration sites, keep as quiet as possible. Monarchs are nervous creatures, easily disturbed by excessive noise and commotion.

There are about 50 spots in California where monarchs are known to congregate annually, but residential and commercial real estate development has caused the decimation of at least seven of these sites over the past five years, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to designate monarch migration a "threatened phenomenon." Although the monarch is one of America's most common butterflies, the species' future remains tenuous at best.

Last year, Pacific Grove residents voted down a subdivision plan that would have allowed the owner of the 2.7-acre migration site adjacent to the Butterfly Grove Inn to build five single-family homes and a multi-unit dwelling on this prime waterfront land. After months of heated debate, the residents approved a $1.2 million bond issue that raised property taxes but enabled the town to purchase the land and set it aside as a permanent and protected monarch butterfly sanctuary.

If you want to learn more about monarchs and their migratory behavior, stop in at the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History, (408) 372-4212, on Forest Street. Just look for the life-sized cast of Sandy the Gray Whale out front on the sidewalk. Voted the best natural history museum of its size in the nation, the museum is open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and also features California Indian artifacts, an extensive shell collection, native fish and mammal exhibits, and a mounted bird display of more than 400 specimens.

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