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Orange crush

Every fall monarchs lay siege to Central Coast trees. A squad of upstart butterfly sleuths is out to learn why, as Hilary E. MacGregor reports.

November 25, 2003|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

Big Sur — "Everybody got binoculars?" scientist Sarah Stock calls out to her passengers.

There's a neck check. All binoculars here. Clipboards too.

"I got a little bit of a library," says right-hand man and fellow scientist Jason Scott, passing along some well-thumbed books on birds, butterflies and plants.

Last in is the fabled butterfly net, a tapering circle of round mesh affixed to a long pole.

With more than 40 miles to cover today on the winding coast of Big Sur, the team has to keep moving. These researchers are on a mission to count every monarch butterfly from one end of Monterey County to the other in the next two days. Last year they found fewer monarchs than any year since 1997. This is their first time out this fall, and they are hoping for a comeback.

The team -- made up of three researchers from the Ventana Wilderness Society, three volunteers and one intern -- is gathering data on monarch populations along California's Central Coast, where 70% of the species spends the winter. In an annual phenomenon, scientists and the public alike fall under the spell of these orange drifters and the mystery of their migration. The Ventana squad's annual monitoring is critical to the monarchs' conservation. A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests global warming could drive the monarch to extinction in 50 years.

Stock and Scott hop into their 1986 natural-gas-powered Ford Aerostar minivan -- the monarchmobile. Stock, 30, the ringleader, has a mane of white-blond hair, a brilliant smile, a sunburned nose and painted-green fingernails. Scott, 27, her colleague, wears a sheepish grin and his hair stuffed under a big woolly hat. His pants sag, not for fashion's sake, but with the weight of the gear stuffed in his pockets -- a Kestrel to measure wind and moisture, a compass to measure direction, a calculator.

The backdoor of the van is broken, so everyone has to scramble over the passenger seat to get in. The crew is a cross between surfers, snowboarders and Gen-X scientists. They are equally at ease handling high-tech instruments, sounding like characters from MTV's Real World and running through poison oak. These are serious scientists, but the minivan has the feel of a troupe on its way to a Phish concert.

First stop is a grove typical of many of the overwintering sites up and down the coast: a stand of blue gum eucalyptus close to the ocean. The team fans out, footsteps muffled by dirt and damp leaves. The air sizzles with a stew of wild fennel, dewy grass and particles of Pacific Ocean. Breaths float in cold clouds.

"That is an intense amount of butterflies," Scott says suddenly, gazing at a clump of monarchs dangling like a cluster of grapes from a eucalyptus tree.

A shaft of sunlight slices through the canopy above and strikes the cluster. The butterflies unfold in a flash of brilliant orange. A tornado of fluttering whirls, swift and furious. There are so many clustered so thick that the task seems as impossible as picking out a 1-inch square of the Milky Way and counting stars. It seems unscientific, random, a joke.

"It's tough," Scott reminds the volunteers, some out for the first time. "You have to remember they are three-dimensional."

But the numbers come in -- 623, 500, 625, 620, 600 -- surprisingly consistent. The guy who got 500 is told to count again -- apparently, he is a notorious undercounter. They take the average, 593.

Later, they checked themselves using a smaller branch. First they count, then they do a pull-down. Scott raises the net to a branch and shakes the butterflies down. Too cold to fly, most of them tumble into the net like leaves. Scott kneels and pulls the fluttering bits of color out one by one. Their wings are thin but strong, silky membranes like the most delicate of flower petals, covered with a dusting of pollen. They are off by only five. Astonishing. The males have dots on their hind wings, and clasps at the tips of their abdomens. The females don't.

The team has its own field jargon, which everyone tosses around enthusiastically as they romp through the woods. "It's a flyer!" (a butterfly in flight, said as an exclamation); "There's a sunner!" (a butterfly basking, said with a "whoa-dude, check-it-out" inflection; "Eeewww. It's a grounder!" (a dead, or almost dead, butterfly, said with the regret of finding a fallen comrade).

Counting is tedious, neck-cramping and, in the coastal winter fog, often bone-chillingly cold. Stock says her neck once got so tired she just lay down on the ground to count. She ended up with a case of poison oak, from her neck to her ankles.

Stock and Scott are clearly rooting for the butterflies, willing them to multiply and thrive. They find one tree with so many, they turn giddy. "This is impressive, like out of control," says Scott. He whistles. She exclaims. They laugh hysterically, punch-drunk at the sight.

Winged obsession

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