blog_20101115_img2Along California’s central coast is a wonderful family destination called Natural Bridges State Beach.

The park derives its name from naturally formed arches that were carved from the sand and mudstone cliffs. In the early 1900s three arches were visible, but over the years wave action undercut the formations causing two of them to fall. The third, and last remaining arch is visible today (shown).

Most people think of summer as being the best time to visit the coast, but November can offer clear skies, warm sunshine, very comfortable temperatures, and beaches generally free of crowds – even on weekends. At noon on this weekend day, only two-dozen people were visiting this 65-acre park.

But the park was being visited by hundreds of non-human visitors.

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In just a quick five-minute walk inland were hundreds of monarch butterflies! A stroller accessible boardwalk near the visitors center leads to a monarch preserve hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Here monarchs flit overhead and offer great opportunities for humans to see and photograph these beautiful butterflies. In the side photo is a winsome looking monarch that flitted down and landed near the boardwalk. An interpreter at the preserve said that an estimated fifteen hundred monarchs were currently visiting.

Every autumn, generally mid-October, the monarchs begin arriving at Natural Bridges State Beach. This is just one of several hundred locations along California’s coast where the monarchs stay for the winter. The coast offers them shelter from the cold inland temperatures of winter.

Especially fascinating is the monarchs arrive at the coast after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.

North America is home to two distinct populations of monarchs. The continental divide along the Rocky Mountains provides a natural barrier that the monarchs rarely cross. The monarchs from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States migrate to their wintering home in Mexico while the monarchs in southwestern Canada and the western U.S. migrate to areas along California’s coast. When they arrive they bunch together on branches sometimes forming large clusters. In the spring, as the weather warms, the monarchs begin traveling north looking for milkweed. The milkweed plant is the food source for monarch butterflies.

This year at Natural Bridges the monarch population is low compared to previous years when an estimated ten thousand would arrive. When I first saw these monarchs twenty years ago the branches were weighted down by massive clumps of monarchs. Although the number the monarchs are less this year they are still an impressive sight.

To learn more about the park visit the Natural Bridges State Beach website.

Here are some interesting Monarch mini-facts found on an interpretive display in the park’s visitor center:

• If a human baby grew as fast and as large as a monarch caterpillar, it would be about the size of a school bus and 2 ½ weeks old!

• A monarch tagged in eastern Canada was recovered in central Mexico after traveling a distance of nearly 3,000 miles.

• Monarch butterflies have been introduced to every continent in the world except for Antarctica. Only in their native North America do they engage in mass migrations.

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