PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — There are a number of reasons to visit the coastal town of Pacific Grove in the winter. It has beautiful views, the temperature is comfortable, and it is welcoming to visitors. In fact, winter is when Pacific Grove’s visitor count is at its highest.
Pacific Grove is known as “Butterfly Town, USA” and from mid-October to mid-March, you will find thousands of monarchs literally hanging out in the middle of town.
Natalie Johnston is a volunteer butterfly counter at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary and says the eucalyptus trees planted in this area act as a sort of wind break for the migrating insects, some of which travel from several states away.
“This is one of the largest overwintering sites for the western monarch in California and we keep a weekly tally of how many we find,” said Johnston. "Monarchs utilize the entire habitat. They are resting in the trees, they utilize the flowering plants for food. They even utilize the underbrush, the leaves and the shrubs."
Butterflies help pollinate the food we eat. Without them, many plants would die. In the 1980s, scientists started counting clusters or groups of the western monarchs hanging in trees. Since they started counting, the population has been on a steep decline.
“In 2020, there were none clustering in Pacific Grove. None clustered,” said Johnston. “This is a very threatened species and by getting these numbers we can get the science that leads to environmental protections.”
When monarch butterflies sleep, they gather in groups or clusters on tree branches. Sometimes, hundreds of monarchs can be seen in one cluster. The zero-cluster count in 2020 is big deal because other than the mountains of Mexico, Pacific Grove is one of the largest Monarch overwintering sites.
“It is a good indicator species. By studying the monarch over time, we can get an idea of how the entire ecosystem that they are a part of is doing,” said Johnston.
Counting is a tedious task, but when it is done during the cold hours of the morning, it’s easier to spot the clusters and the good news is monarch numbers have increased since 2020. Updated Monarch numbers in Pacific Grove are reported weekly on the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History website.
You can visit the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary from October to March. The sanctuary is open daily.
GET MORE YUCK FOR YOUR BACKROADS BUCK: John looks for the squishy version of the popular UC Santa Cruz banana slug mascot.