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Hiking: California

Following the Flight of the Butterfly

September 22, 1996|JOHN McKINNEY

Every fall, millions of monarch butterflies migrate south to the damp coastal woodlands of Central and Southern California. The monarch's migration and the formation of what entomologists call over-wintering colonies are two of nature's most colorful autumn events.

The butterflies seem to have a knack for wintering in some of California's most beautiful coastal locales, where they hang on trees in thick bunches, resembling so many triangular dead brown leaves. When the warming sun raises the temperature above 55 degrees, the monarchs spread their wings and fly around the aptly named butterfly groves, seeking nectar.

The migration begins in August, when great groups of monarchs from Wyoming, Montana, southern Canada and other locales west of the Rockies begin their long journey to wintering grounds in the Golden State. Arrival and departure times vary from year to year and from locale to locale, but, generally speaking, the butterflies make it to the California coast in mid-October and may stay until mid-February or even March.

While monarchs begin life as caterpillars, there's nothing sluggish about their pace. Monarchs have been known to fly as far as 2,000 miles and as fast as 30 miles an hour at a cruising altitude of 1,000 feet.

How monarchs determine where to go remains a mystery. Do they follow food sources? Scents? Is it all instinct? Do they operate with some kind of celestial navigation? The mystery is all the more baffling because no single monarch completes a round trip.

The female monarch lays her eggs on milkweed plants. A couple days later, caterpillars emerge and feed voraciously for two weeks. Each caterpillar then attaches itself to a twig and forms a chrysalis (similar to a cocoon). After about two weeks of metamorphosis, the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly and joins the northward migration.

The monarch's evolutionary success lies not only in its unique ability to migrate to warmer climes, but in its mastery of chemical warfare. The butterfly feeds on milkweed--the favored poison of assassins during the Roman Empire. The milkweed diet makes the monarch toxic to birds; after munching a monarch or two and becoming sick, birds learn to leave the butterflies alone.

The butterflies advertise their poisonous nature with their conspicuous coloring. They have brownish-red wings with black veins. The outer edge of the wings are dark brown with white and yellow spots. While one might assume the monarch's startling coloration would make them easy prey for predators, just the opposite is true; bright colors in nature are often a warning that a creature is toxic or distasteful.

Monarchs are an excellent field thermometer. When the temperature exceeds 55 degrees Fahrenheit, the monarchs flit about on branches and fly around seeking nectar. However, if it's colder than 55 degrees, rainy or very damp, the monarchs cluster together in trees for warmth and for protection from the wind and rain.

While the monarchs' arrival is usually a fairly predictable natural phenomena, at least in comparison to California's notoriously fickle wildflower displays, it's a good idea to call the relevant park or preserve for a monarch update before you make a butterfly pilgrimage.

Point Mugu State Park, telephone (805) 986-8591 or (818) 880-0350

Sycamore Canyon Trail takes you through a peaceful wooded canyon, where a multitude of monarchs dwell, and past some magnificent sycamores. The sycamores that shade the canyon bearing their name are incomparable. The lower branches, stout and crooked, are a delight for tree-climbers; hawks and owls roost in the upper branches. During October and November, Sycamore Canyon offers the twin delights of falling autumn leaves and fluttering butterflies.

Access: Drive up-coast on California 1 to Big Sycamore Canyon Campground in Point Mugu State Park, about 32 miles from Santa Monica.

Lake Los Carneros County Park, tel. (805) 568-2461

This park offers many reminders of a Goleta gone by: the 1901 Goleta Train Depot; Stow House, a restored Victorian open for weekend tours; Lake Carneros, patrolled by a flotilla of water birds and encircled by a family-friendly one-mile trail. Monarch butterflies cluster in great numbers in the park's eucalyptus grove.

Access: From U.S. 101 in Goleta, exit on Los Carneros Road and turn north (toward the mountains). Drive a quarter of a mile to Lake Los Carneros County Park, which is on the right.

El Capitan State Beach, tel. (805) 968-1033 or (805) 899-1400

This state beach is a narrow sand strand at the mouth of El Capitan Creek. Monarch butterflies congregate in the woodland along the creek. For an excellent six-mile round-trip walk, saunter up the beach to Refugio, El Cap's sister state beach.

Access: From U.S. 101, about 20 miles up-coast from Santa Barbara, take the El Capitan State Beach exit. Park in one of the day use areas.

Pismo State Beach, tel. (805) 489-2684

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