Monarch butterflies begin to appear along the California coast early in October, when the first chill of fall and a decline in nectar signal the need to migrate to the south to escape the killing cold of northern winters. The butterflies may travel over the Rockies and the Sierra, from as far away as Canada, to seek protection here in groves of Monterey pine and eucalyptus that offer shelter from the wind and a foliage that the butterflies can clasp with their sharp tarsal claws.
The butterflies will form dense clusters on the trees, each animal hanging with its wings down over the one below it to form a shingle effect that gives some shelter from the rain and warmth for the group. The weight of the cluster helps keep it from whipping in the wind and dislodging the butterflies. If a butterfly is dislodged it may fall victim to insects or field mice, since it cannot fly at temperatures much lower than 55 degrees and at temperatures lower than 40 degrees is unable to move at all.
On warm, calm winter days, the Monarchs leave their clusters to search for food of about 90% water and 10% nectar, which is supplied by the eucalyptus during its blooming period of October through November. When the day cools the butterflies again cluster, but not necessarily in the same groupings.
The Monarchs remain in the more protected areas along California's coast into March when the warmer days of spring herald the northeasterly migration. The flight south is leisurely, but the return journey is swift; the Monarch's wings, beating rapidly through 120 degree arc, propel them at speeds up to 30 miles per hour.
The male Monarch initiates the mating which takes place before and during the Monarch caterpillar migration. The female seeks out the milkweed plant and lays her eggs; multifaceted creamy yellow spheres. Within three to four days the egg turns dark and the larva eats its way out. The larva eats milkweed nonstop for 15 days, and its weight increases 2,700 times. By the fifth day the caterpillar has outgrown its skin and must shed it, or moult in order to grow. This happens three more times before it reaches maturity. Around the fifteenth day the skin begins to harden and internal changes are taking place. Metamorphosis is about to begin.
The caterpillar finds a suitable protected area above the ground and lays its mat of silk fibers. The Monarch chrysalis hangs upside down and sheds its skin one last time replacing it with a shell-like covering. During the next nine to fifteen days, changes take place within the chrysalis; the leaf-chewing caterpillar that disappeared into the chrysalis emerges as a radiant, nectar-sipping butterfly.
Clinging to the chrysalis, the animal pumps body fluid into its limp wings expanding them 60 times in size. The new, adult Monarch must spend several hours basking in the sun, hardening its wings and getting its body functioning, before it is ready to fly.
There are four locations on the central coast to look for the Monarchs: Natural Bridges State Park in Santa Cruz, George Washington Park and the sanctuary in Pacific Grove, and here at Point Lobos. Walk the Whalers Knoll Trail and look for butterflies in the warmer protected areas on the northeast side of the knoll.
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve and Point Lobos Association
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