Butty Fries

When we were growing up, my little brother, Steve, called butterflies “Butty Fries” and ever since I have called them that.

A couple of years ago my wife and I went to Pacific Grove, Ca, on the Monterrey Peninsula, to see the butterflies in the Monarch Butterfly Grove. We were disappointed to find that there were very few at that roost and only saw a few and couldn’t get any good pictures because these little critters had moved to a neighboring backyard, and access was non-existent.

                         Welcome to Pismo’s Monarch Grove

We decided to go down to see the migration again this year, but read that the grove at Pismo Beach, Ca., just a few hours south of Monterey, CA was the place that we were most likely to see them. The estimated population was 15,000 individuals and the weather forecast was for sunny skies and 68°F ( 20° C), which is nearly ideal conditions for the Monarchs to be active.

Monarch Butterflies range throughout the Pacific coast of the Americas from Canada to Mexico, migrating south between October and February. They like to shelter in eucalyptus groves where they are somewhat protected from the weather. Similar patterns of migration exist on the Atlantic coast and Central US as well.

Monarchs only live for 6-8 weeks feeding on milkweed plants and reproducing the next generation. Interestingly, the last generation of these beautiful insects live 8-9 months and migrate over these long distances to the warmer climates where they winter and return as far north as Canada.

Unfortunately, the weather along the California coast had been quite uncooperative and rain, fog and colder temperatures were the order of the day when we arrived late in the afternoon at the neighboring city of Arroyo Grande.

               Highway crossing at the Monarch Grove

The following morning the fog and cold persisted, but the rain had subsided for the most part. Arriving at the Pismo Beach Monarch Grove we found that the majority of the parking was right on the shoulder of California Highway 1, also called El Camino Real (The Royal or King’s Highway) or The Pacific Coast Highway.

Traffic can be heavy at times across the 2 lane stretch in front of the grove, so caution is the word for those with physical challenges.

Having traversed the crossing, we found the grove to be just a few acres of compacted dirt walkways circling through the tall eucalyptus trees. Looking up into the trees, a few Butterflies could be seen occasionally leaving or returning to what seemed to be a mass of leaves. Without a telescope or binoculars it was hard to determine what you were looking at since the sky bright with gray overcast. Even then it was difficult to tell just exactly what was there.

                                              Monarchs in the mud

We came around a turn and there, in the middle of the muddy track was a beautiful orange and black Monarch vigorously flapping its wings. A closer look at what appeared to be a beautiful creature in the midst of it’s death throws, was a second butterfly, on its back, flat on the mud. They were male on top and female on the bottom; mating.

After a short time the male flapped its wings and flew away. The female lay motionless for a few moments and then flipped over and also flew away. This was played out by mating pairs all around the grove; on the mud path, the long green grass and on carpets of eucalyptus leaves.

In the image, the whitish spots on the orange segments of the male’s wings is mud.

The docents in the Grove had set up spotter’s telescopes and trained them on clusters of butterflies. Otherwise it was nearly impossible to see them against the gray sky background. They were also at least 60 feet from the ground so not even a high powered flash wouldn’t help.

                     Monarch cluster with 300mm

To get my pictures, I pointed my camera, with the Tamron 16-300mm lens, at the spot where the docents had aimed their scopes and let my camera do the rest in Program Mode. Tamron lent me this super lens for this trip and I am very happy they did; more on the lens is in my post “A Zoom to Consider”.

To get the shot below, I focused on the darker mass on the left and then, holding focus, moved the camera to center on the smaller cluster to the right. As can be seen in the cropped shot from the 300mm left image, the focus was super and the detail of these tiny creatures was captured very well.

           Monarchs cropped from 300mm image

I took 5 frame each time I depressed the shutter. Each frame was one f-stop from the next and ranged from 2 two under and 2 overexposed. With the overcast it was like trying to take a picture of someone sitting in front of a brightly lit window. In the computer, with the proper software the 5 images were processed with HDR (High Dynamic Range) routines. This     essentially uses the best parts of the 5 images to make the final photo.

In addition to visiting the Pismo Beach Grove we stopped at the Pacific Grove, Ca Monarch Grove on the tip of the Monterey Peninsula, and further up the coast at Natural Bridges Monarch Grove in Santa Cruz, Ca. Neither one of these sites had any butterflies due to the recent storms and cold weather. The Santa Cruz Grove in particular experienced torrential rains as well as extremely high winds which took down trees and normally sheltering trees. The Monarchs did move on to a more inaccessible sheltered area nearly two miles away..

Although these little critters are hearty, their numbers are dwindling due to loss of habitat, use of pesticides and other factors. The organizations that are attempting to help stage a comeback say that they will come back if people will just plant Milkweed in the empty spaces almost anywhere along the migration routes in the Americas.

Interestingly, Milkweed, although it is a perennial, does not propagate itself well. In the wild it is estimated that only 1% of its seeds germinate and grows to a mature plant that the Monarch caterpillars can feed on.

To contact the Monarch people click HERE.

For an assessment of the butterfly population click HERE.

To see many more pictures of the Pismo Grove trip, click HERE.

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