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Monarch butterflies' winter getaway

Will Heinz


The eucalyptus grove sits on the eastern side of California's Ellwood Mesa. A few hundred yards away, the mesa drops 30 feet to a wide beach and the Pacific Ocean, but here in the gently sloping grove it's quiet and cool. Only when a ray of sun comes through the leaves for a few minutes does it warm up. This is just how thousands of monarch butterflies like it. I knew the beautiful orange and black creatures were migratory. Monarchs travel great distances to ancestral mating grounds every year. But I had thought monarchs spent their winters in Mexico, sunning in warm breezes and sipping juices from tropical flowers - a butterfly's Club Med.

It turns out that only monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains make international flights. Those west of Denver winter along the Southern California coast. And one of their favorite spots appears to be this quarter-acre grove near Santa Barbara.

My wife and I followed a dirt trail into the woods and soon found the grove, a dozen butterfly enthusiasts and more butterflies than we'd ever expected to see in a lifetime.

Hundreds of monarchs flittered about, passing through sunbeams and shadows. As my eyes adjusted to the shade, I realized there were thousands more. They hung from the ends of branches in clusters, their wings closed in an effort to conserve heat. They appeared in the dim light to be little more than clumps of browning leaves.

But when a ray of light hit a cluster, the monarchs warmed and spread their glorious wings. Other butterflies drifted in from the treetops to take their place in the sun. It was magical.

These monarchs had come from as far north as Washington state. They migrate to the mesa for several months, reaching peak numbers in December and January, when as many as 60,000 grace the grove.

No one is sure how the butterflies find their way back each year. Leading theories suggest a pheromone trail, possibly in combination with an internal compass based on the sun's position in the sky.

However they do it, their journey has become increasingly difficult. Many groves like this one have been transformed into cul-de-sacs with beachfront properties. At the Ellwood Mesa, local activists are fighting an uphill battle against a luxury home development.

Worse, a study published in November predicted global warming could make the winter home of Mexico-bound monarchs too wet for survival.

Researchers fear the monarch population will vanish within 50 years. Watching the monarchs arrive unobtrusively to their tranquil winter home, we marveled at the strength and determination of these fragile creatures.

As the sun set and the air took on a chill, we left the grove both sad and elated, having witnessed such a delicate, yet endangered example of nature's majesty.

Will Heinz lives in Sykesville.

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