First time observed: Hundreds of monarch butterflies cluster in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park

 [INSERT PHOTO: 3582 CAPTION: Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in an ash tree in Aquatic Park. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond [LINK: www.elainemillerbond.com]]
Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) in an ash tree in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
In late October, Berkeleyside received a tip that thousands of tiny fish were jumping in the waters of Aquatic Park.

Less than three weeks later, we received another “scoop” about the park that throngs of monarch butterflies were clustering in the trees.

I’d seen groups of monarchs in well-known gathering places, called “roosts” or “bivouacs,” in Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz. But I’d never heard of such a spectacle in Berkeley.

So I rushed the next morning to Aquatic Park, to the trees just east of the 14th hole of the disc-golf course, the site where the butterflies had purportedly been spotted.

[INSERT PHOTO: 0053 CAPTION: With wings closed, monarch butterflies blend in with the shadows and leaves. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]
With wings closed, monarch butterflies blend in with the shadows and leaves. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
I arrived before 9 a.m., when the air remained cool and clear. And, as expected, the monarchs were hunkered down, huddled together, wings closed.

 [INSERT PHOTO: 3532 CAPTION: A cluster of monarchs. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]
A cluster of monarchs. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
I hunkered down, too, waiting for the sun to rise higher in the sky and warm the pendant-like clusters. That’s when the fluttering would begin.

[INSERT PHOTO: 3217 CAPTION: Butterflies in sunbeams show their bright colors. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]
Butterflies in sunbeams show their bright colors. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
“2015 has been the biggest monarch year in northern and central California in at least a decade,” says Distinguished Professor Arthur M. Shapiro from the Department of Evolution and Ecology, College of Biological Sciences at UC Davis.

“And,” he adds, “the pattern of breeding returned to the historic one seen in the 1970s-80s.”


 [INSERT PHOTO: 1260 CAPTION: Monarch butterflies in a eucalyptus tree. Though nonnative, these trees provide a windbreak and winter nectar source for butterflies. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]
Monarch butterflies in a eucalyptus tree. Though non-native, these trees provide a windbreak and winter nectar source for butterflies. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
California monarchs suffered declining numbers for ten years or more; they began to rebound in 2014.

“The cause or causes [of the past decline in monarch populations] remain unknown,” says Professor Shapiro. “But they are not related to the amount of milkweed; we were seeing lots of milkweed not being used because the butterflies weren’t there to use it!”

Milkweed is the monarch’s “host plant,” the only plant it eats as a caterpillar and the plant upon which females lay their eggs. Some people grow milkweed in their gardens in the hopes of attracting monarchs.

[INSERT PHOTO: 0075 CAPTION: Alan Kaplan, retired ranger from Tilden Park, shows me a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed.
Alan Kaplan, retired ranger from Tilden Park, shows me a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed. “This,” he says, “is a butterfly.” Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
As for the large groupings of monarchs in Berkeley, Mia Monroe, volunteer with The Xerces Society, and coordinator of the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, says that the news is “very exciting.”

“This is the first year monarchs have been observed resting and clustering in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park,” she says.

Monroe calls the new Berkeley butterfly roost one of the “unexpected surprises” in this high-abundance year, and she says that citizen scientists are adding the site to the list of places they will monitor.

Only time will tell how long the monarchs will stay in the park — whether they will use the trees as a temporary yet critical rest stop before moving on to another refuge, or whether they will find lasting protection there through the winter’s storms.

[INS[INSERT PHOTO: 2898 CAPTION: One monarch joins the party. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]dth=
One monarch joins the party. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
Each year, monarchs gather in more than 200 overwintering sites in California, usually close to the coast. They come from areas west of the Rockies and as far north as Washington State. Most will leave in spring, flitting back toward the north and east.

By 1 p.m., it was time for me to make like a springtime monarch, and go. I’d spent more than four hours with the butterflies, watching, photographing, wondering. I’d met friendly dog walkers, listened to passing trains and young children counting butterflies, declined the offer of a hit from a blown-glass pipe.

I took one last look above me…

 [PHO[PHOTO: 3737 CAPTION: A group of butterflies is called a
A group of butterflies is called a “kaleidoscope.” I can see why. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
… then I pulled myself away.

As I walked the path back to my car, I encountered two more friendly people, outfitted with hiking gear and spotting scopes. They asked me if they were on the right track to the 14th hole.

“Yes,” I told them. “You’re almost there. They’re even more beautiful than you think.”

 [INSER[INSERT PHOTO: 1589 CAPTION: The road to beautiful in Aquatic Park.]th=
The road to beautiful in Aquatic Park, Berkeley. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
MORE ABOUT MONARCHS

 [INSER[INSERT PHOTO: 1776 CAPTION: Monarch butterflies. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond]th=
Monarch butterflies. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond
HOW TO BE MONARCH-FRIENDLY

  • Don’t spray herbicides or pesticides.
  • Grow nectar plants that butterflies prefer.
  • If you’d like to grow larval (“host”) plants, consider native milkweeds.

Special thanks to Andy Gilbert for suggesting this colorful story — and to Professor Shapiro, Mia Monroe, Alan Kaplan, Rusty Scalf, Juan García, Bill Shepard, and John Greenleigh.

Elaine Miller Bond is photographer for “The Utah Prairie Dog: Life Among the Red Rocks” (University of Utah Press) and author of “Dream Affimals” (Sunstone Press) and “Affimals” (LIT Verlag). Look for her forthcoming board books, “Running Wild” and “Living Wild” (Heyday Books).

See more of  the stories Elaine Miller Bond has written for Berkeleyside about local wildlife.