Monarch butterflies raise spirits along the California coast

There was the characteristic sound of something falling.


Flop. Flop.

It was the sound of pairs of monarch butterflies hitting the ground.

The mating season, when sometimes the male monarch throws the female from the canopy to the ground, had come early. It was raining butterflies in a small eucalyptus grove at the end of a housing estate.

A pair landed next to a black Lab stretched out in the dappled sun. The dog wobbled at her feet.

A male captures a female to mate at the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve.

A male captures a female to mate at the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“Beware Shilo! Don’t step on the butterflies,” called out owner Nate Everitt, who lives nearby and volunteers at the Monarch Butterfly Preserve Coastal Access in Los Osos.

Kingston Leong, an entomologist who watches over this and other little-known monarch oases on the Central Coast — and who was the first to document the mating behavior that sped from the treetops — kept an eye on the butterflies missed by Shilo’s paws.

“You will turn into a spiral,” he said.

They did. Two intertwined butterflies slithered upward, a tumbling bright orange against a brilliant blue sky, and landed on top of a Monterey pine.

Leong pointed out that the sunlight shining through her patterned, orange-and-gold wings made her glow like stained glass in a cathedral.

Overwintering monarch butterflies on the California coast is a phenomenon every year. But this one comes after two years when the butterflies were all but gone.

Kingston Leong, 81, wants to capture monarch butterflies to study at the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve

Kingston Leong, 81, captures monarchs for study at the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve. As a butterfly expert, he wants to make sure “the show goes on after I’m gone”.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation announced in late January that community scientists had reported 247,000 overwintering butterflies in the 2021 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count. The year before it had been fewer than 2,000. The data made clear what many have been realizing since October: monarchs are back, even if they are a far cry from the millions who arrived in the 1980s.

Leong thinks this is an important development – for both humans and butterflies. He has observed that the sight of wintering monarchs tends to make people optimistic.

“I think we need optimism to survive,” he said. “We need hope, don’t you think?”


Kingston Leong, left, with enthusiast Cliff Stiffler examines a monarch butterfly

Leong, left, with enthusiast Cliff Stiffler, examines a monarch.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

As a professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Leong once specialized in insect pests. But after his department head suggested that he study butterflies, he was quickly converted.

“Who doesn’t like butterflies?” he asked.

In the grove, the 81-year-old was easily identified as an expert, betrayed by his skill with a 15-foot butterfly net. Visitors — including two Oregon cyclists, neighbors who walked here every day, and a man from Los Angeles who had never seen so many butterflies before — showered him with questions.

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He asked everyone to tell him first what they already knew.

The give and take outlined the basics of the migration of monarchs.

The Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve in Los Osos.

Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains migrate south into the oyamelt forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. Monarchs west of the Rockies winter on California’s central coast, often on nonnative gum trees that have been planted in large numbers as railroad ties but proved unsuitable.

The two groups of butterflies were once thought to be different species, but it has now been proven that the Mexican and California butterflies are the same.

The butterflies migrate upwards of 3,000 miles on wings that weigh the tiniest fraction of an ounce.

The California population usually arrives in October and stays until February or sometimes even March. When it gets warmer, the butterflies leave their roost and lay eggs on milkweed plants. The eggs become milkweed-eating caterpillars that turn into butterflies that flit among flowers and live for about a month as they migrate north.

It is believed to take four or five skipping generations for the monarchs to return north to the Canadian border. Then another generation is born with longer lifespans, greater vigour, and the instinct to move to a place these special butterflies have never been before.

Arguably the most famous place to winter in California is a grove on Pismo Beach, a town that’s all about butterfly tourism, from t-shirts to lollipops to docents-in-waiting.

The entrance to the reserve.

The entrance to the reserve.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

But monarchs have taken up winter residences in at least 300 locations along the California coast, and that’s where Leong comes in. He is the focal point for the creation and management of the region’s monarch groves.

Los Osos Reserve was carved out of a housing development. Leong convinced the developer to donate public open space for a butterfly sanctuary and asked for $50,000 to modify and manage the grove well into the future.

The pine tree adorned with monarchs was one planted under his direction to block the wind. He had asked district teams to remove other trees to let in more sun.

Now, in this moment and in this place, it was monarchical perfection. The right temperature and humidity. The right game of sun and shadow. A suitably gentle breeze. The monarchs crouched, soared, and spun in spirals.

Kingston Leong, left, helps Teddy and his twin sister Clara Crutchfield, 2, release a monarch butterfly

Leong, left, helps Teddy Crutchfield, 2, and twin sister Clara release a monarch at Coastal Access’s Monarch Butterfly Preserve.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Clara and Teddy Crutchfield, two-year-old twins, sat on a bench and watched. Leong caught two butterflies in his net and had the children hold their hands, each closing their fingers over a butterfly and then slowly opening their hands to watch it fly.


According to Leong, in this phase of his life he is primarily concerned with passing on his knowledge. One of his favorite protégés is Josh Heptig, a golf course manager.

For decades, monarchs have rested at Morro Bay Golf Course, owned by San Luis Obispo Parks and Recreation. Heptig, alarmed by dwindling numbers, is doing what he can to keep the golf course in the interests of the monarchs.

In consultation with Leong, he planted a tree shelter to keep out the wind.

Golfers stroll past a mix of eucalyptus and pine trees at Morro Bay Golf Course, a habitat for monarch butterflies

Golfers stroll past eucalyptus and pine trees at Morro Bay Golf Course, a habitat for monarchs.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

A homeowner protested. He told Heptig he doesn’t care about butterflies — he cares about his ocean view and home value. That man has since moved, and Heptig went door to door, explaining the goal and gaining the support of the neighbors.

During a walk with Leong past the driving range to the monarch’s grove, Heptig pointed out his plans for the future. He envisions a covered walkway so people can visit the monarchs without getting hit by golf balls.

“He’s so quick and resourceful,” Leong said. “I like the way Josh thinks. He is the hope.”

They had reached a clump of trees that children of the community had planted at Heptig’s invitation.

“No,” Heptig said. “Here is the hope.”

Leong examines a monarch.

Leong examines a monarch.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Leong’s hypothesis is that the wildfires in California over the past two years have contributed to the dramatic decline in monarch numbers, based on a small study he conducted that showed the insects are sensitive to smoke.

This year’s comeback is far larger than last year’s tiny population could have produced. Leong thinks some of the butterflies that wintered in Mexico may have made their way west.

The long-term decline in numbers is believed to be related to habitat loss – fewer fields of milkweed, the butterflies’ host plant along their migration route, and fewer wintering sites.

A view of Morro Rock from the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve.

A view of Morro Rock from the Coastal Access Monarch Butterfly Preserve.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, a community-protected open space stretching along a mile of Cambria shoreline, is one of the most recently discovered monarch sites. Five years ago, a roost was found in native pines.

Recently, ranch manager Kitty Connolly laughed as a monarch landed in front of the sign marking the grove: “Look. Miracle. Miracle. Please be kind to the monarchs.”

The return of butterflies in Fiscalini was particularly surprising given that a severe storm had uprooted trees that winter.

“Your return means so much,” said Connolly. “People are desperate for good news.”

A man entered the nature reserve. Connolly said good morning and asked if he had noticed the butterflies.

Monarchs cluster on a blue gum tree as they wait for the sun and warmer temperatures to warm their wings.

Monarchs group on a blue eucalyptus.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

“No,” he said, looking panicked. “I just received the news that my mother has passed away. I did not notice anything.”

She wished him a good walk. On the way, Connolly said that grieving people often come to this place.

The man later sat on a bench on a hilltop with a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean.

He spoke of his mother, who married at 19, raised seven children in Chicago, loved books, and started a library. He wished he could have visited her more often during the pandemic.

A monarch slithered past, a dazzling splash of orange against the backdrop of the blue sea.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “But this butterfly means so much to me right now.”


Watch LA Times Today at 7:00 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or stream live on the Spectrum News app. Viewers from Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99. Monarch butterflies raise spirits along the California coast

Tom Vazquez

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