It's an annual event along the California coast. Hundreds of thousands (if not more) of monarch butterflies flock to several small groves up and down the state's beachside communities. In turn, locals and tourists come out in droves to witness this spectacle of wintering that usually begins in October, peaks in December and is over by March.
But a good time to visit can be February, when the monarchs are actively fluttering about -- after all, this is mating season. Luckily, two groves in and around Southern California are some of the best places to see this.
Santa Barbara County
At the height of the season, the Ellwood Main Monarch Grove in Goleta this year became home to 50,000 monarchs, a record number in recent years (the above video was shot here).
Open seven days a week and staffed with docents from 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends, the small grove lets visitors get up and close with these orange-hued insects. They often are seen clustered together on branches - to the unobservant, they may look like dead leaves, a survival tactic - and become more active when sunshine hits. Since Ellwood Grove is dense, the best chance to see movement among the monarchs is when the sun is straight above, between noon and 2:00 p.m. "Most clusters tend to burst around 1:30 p.m.," notes Jessica Haro, the docent coordinator.
The below video, shot last month, shows how busy it can get:
Video: imageninja via YouTube
It should be noted that monarchs, which travel to the coast from the western Rockies, will not fly on cold days. If it's 57 degrees or below, don't expect clusters to break up. Same for cloudy days.
More information about the grove, which is run by the city, can be found here. For information on the neighboring Coronado Butterfly Preserve, head over to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County's webpage.
San Luis Obispo County
Head north from Goleta some 85 miles to Pismo State Beach and another popular grove can be found. This one usually can take the claim for the largest wintering population, but for unexplained reasons, that didn't happen this year. 24,000, nonetheless, made for an impressive experience at the height of the season, but last Tuesday 50 mph winds decreased that number. "This is still a wonderful opportunity, there's still lots to see" explained Peggy Koon, the coordinator for this site. 300 people were there Thursday afternoon.
The Pismo Beach Monarch Grove is in an open area, meaning more sunlight and more chance of seeing monarchs flying around. Koon says they tend to be more active from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Upon my visit in early December, they also became active about one hour before dusk as the sun neared the horizon.
For more photos, check out this video collage:
Docents are available at the Pismo Beach Monarch Grove seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., offering daily talks at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. More information can be found here.
There are a number of other groves in California. Some have small populations, such as the one at San Clemente State Beach in Orange County. Others are not very accessible or off limits to the general public like the ones in Halcyon, home to The Temple of the People, and the Morro Bay Golf Course. And then there are groves that also claim large numbers like Natural Bridges State Beach and the city of Pacific Grove.
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