Butterflies Flock to San Clemente Eucalyptus Grove

Observers say San Clemente State Beach has the most monarch butterflies congregated there during annual migrations since a butterfly habitat was established in 1998.

Monarchs at San Clemente State Beach

Here are some of the monarch butterlies observed this month at San Clemente State Beach. On Nov. 14, a record 240 were counted in a eucalyptus grove next to Avenida del Presidente.

A San Clemente State Beach eucalyptus grove next to Avenida del Presidente is aflutter with record numbers of monarch butterflies, observers say.

Park personnel and members of the San Clemente Garden Club and San Clemente High School Environmental Science Club first noticed an influx Oct. 30.

On Nov. 5, park workers and local enthusiasts counted about 100. The number grew to 200 by Nov. 11.

Kris Ethington, who runs Junior Gardener butterfly-awareness programs through the Garden Club, said a count made Nov. 14 by David Marriott, director of the Monarch Program in Encinitas, noted 240 butterflies – a record since San Clemente State Beach created a butterfly garden and trail in 1998.

We asked Ethington about the influx:

Q. Where are the butterflies coming from?

A.We don’t know exactly where.

Q. Where are they heading?

A.This is an autumnal monarch wintering site, which includes a majority of male monarchs, although there are females present. I’ve seen several mating pairs. The site is believed to be a combination of migratory and nonmigratory (or local) monarchs.

Q. And the ones that move on?

A.The migratory monarchs will move on at some point to wintering sites like in Goleta and Pismo and live through the winter there and begin their journey home by February. The SCSB site is attracting the locals as well, who will possibly mate here but won’t live past their normal lifespan of two to five weeks.

Q. How long do the same ones stay?

A.David Marriott anticipates that the majority will move north by mid-December, as they need to maintain cooler temperatures while in diapause. Nothing is for certain, which is why we will closely monitor and document the numbers at SCSB.

Q. How does the current influx compare with previous seasons since the butterfly habitat was created at SCSB?

A.The previous record high of 150 was recorded in 1998. In 2008, there were 100 reported at the park. The current number is 240, with last year only recording 15.

Q. Why so many this year?

A.Community volunteers and park personnel have begun to restore the pollinator habitat areas on the trail and by the guard station (assisted by an Earth Day grant from the California State Parks Foundation). That project is in its infancy and hasn’t likely contributed to the increased numbers … although we have added milkweed (larval food plant) to the site and it has appeared to make a difference.

Q. How so?

A.The park has always done an excellent job of protecting the grove and has a wonderful collection of native-habitat plants that attract all wildlife. I believe the increase in the numbers this year may be at least in part the result of a greater awareness in south Orange County – specifically San Clemente – by the community who have added milkweed and other butterfly hosts to their gardens in the last two or more years and adopted environmentally friendly gardening methods.

Q. What is this tagging project?

A.According to David Marriott, “This study of capture, tag, mark and release at San Clemente State Beach is very important to the overall understanding of autumnal migration in the Southwest.” David has monitored wintering sites at the park, Camp Pendleton and in Orange County for 20 years and has completed research for the government. He is energized to have a substantial group of wintering monarchs here to study, along with the enthusiastic support of local monarch conservationists. The study will also be led by Santa Ana College biology professor Bob Allen, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano and has been tagging monarchs since he was 9 years old.

Q. How will you know the results?

A.The Monarch Program tags include the contact info to report back to the program if found or captured – for example, in another wintering site up the coast.

Q. If people want to see lots of butterflies, when is the best time to visit?

A.Early morning to about 9 a.m. and 3:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon, depending on the temps. If we get heat again, more will be flying throughout the park.

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