The atmosphere was almost like being in church. There was a reverence in the people present and a palpable sense of awe. Together we craned our necks and looked toward the sky and there, suspended in a eucalyptus grove, were thousands of monarch butterflies. Maybe tens of thousands.
The annual migration of monarch butterflies along California’s Central Coast is not a new phenomenon, but it is a new experience every time I witness it. In past years, I’ve seen the butterflies at Camino Real Park and on Vista del Mar Drive in Ventura. But this year, I took a trip to Santa Barbara and was richly rewarded for my efforts.
I credit my success to Mike Caterino, the curator of entomology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I had written him back in October wondering if he could recommend a place to see the butterflies in large numbers. He responded the same day, and sent along a Google map pointing me toward Ellwood Grove, just north of the Santa Barbara Airport. He also told me to wait.
“In January there are generally 10-15,000 butterflies there,” he wrote. So I waited, somewhat impatiently.
A couple of weeks ago the weather was perfect, so my wife and I made the drive. It was a perfect day, about 80 degrees and nothing but blue sky overhead. Everything was green and early signs of spring were everywhere.
We parked the car on Coronado Drive and entered the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, operated by the Santa Barbara Land Trust. According to the Trust, “The Coronado Butterfly Preserve is a beautiful natural space open to the public every day of the year from sunrise to sunset It’s difficult to predict wildlife behavior Even so, we expect to see the first butterflies arrive in late October with almost all butterflies gone by the middle of March.”
The numbers peak in December and January and, according to Caterino, it’s not too late to see them this year. “I would expect the butterflies to be there at least another month,” he wrote, “but if the warm weather continues more and more of them will wander off.”
We passed every kind of person on the way to the butterflies — young, old and everyone in between. The walk was easy, quiet and peaceful. We crossed a small creek and climbed a little hill and walked into a cathedral of monarch butterflies. They were everywhere: on the ground, on every branch, flying around us and hanging in huge clusters from the tops of the trees, too many to count.
It was the airborne version of a field of wildflowers. What really struck me was that in the midst of all these beautiful creatures, there wasn’t a sound. The butterflies came and went silently with the only noise coming from their worshippers on the ground below, wielding cameras and binoculars in an attempt to capture the beauty.
The monarchs don’t have the magnificent majesty of the whales or the comedy of the bellowing, surly, sunbathing sea lions that also migrate along our coast, but for grace and beauty, they are matchless. They brought smiles to everyone who saw them and created a sense of wonder in young and old alike.
Soon, they’ll be gone. Fortunately, one of the beauties of nature is that they’ll return. And I’ll be there to greet them. Seeing thousands of butterflies may not change your life, but it will absolutely make your day.