Article and photos by Candy Sarikonda, Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist and Wild Ones Member.
Zero. That’s how many monarch butterflies were counted in 2020 at the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary (PGMBS), a longtime favorite overwintering site for monarchs spending the winter along the California coastline. During the 2020 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, nearly 100 volunteers surveyed 246 overwintering sites along coastal California to document the number of monarchs spending the winter at each location. Shockingly, only a total of 1,914 monarchs were counted at all sites in the state. This represented a 99.9% decline in the population since the 1980s, and sparked fears that the western monarch population may have finally reached extinction threshold.
But to everyone’s great relief, this year’s 2021 Thanksgiving Count provided welcome news. While official results are still being tallied, coordinators have reported over 200,000 monarchs overwintering in California this year. Still far from historic levels, the monarch numbers were better this year and provide renewed hope.
Friends from California contacted me, excited to report the good news: PGMBS was hosting 12,364 butterflies on November 26, 2021! Would I be visiting from Ohio, they asked? Taking every pandemic precaution I could, my family and I made the journey to Pacific Grove, and joined my friends on a monarch count.
The Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count has been done every year since 1997. It takes place during the three-week period centered around Thanksgiving and is coordinated by the Xerces Society and Mia Monroe. At PGMBS, the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History and longtime volunteers also conduct a weekly count of the monarchs in the sanctuary from October to February.
My son Daven and I joined the counting team at PGMBS on December 28th to photo-document the monarch clusters, noting which trees the monarchs were utilizing and their location in the grove. The monarchs’ preferred trees are identified with tree markers, and this year it was tree #28 in the center of the grove that proved to be their favorite with the colder weather. Like previous years, when the monarchs first arrived at the grove, they clustered on the eucalyptus trees on the southern perimeter of the grove. But just prior to the first weather event, they moved to the center of the grove, where they haven’t been in approximately 5-6 years.
The center of the grove has suffered tree loss in recent years due to disease and drought, and some of the trees that the monarchs historically roosted in have perished. California naturalist Stephanie Turcotte-Edenholm, a longtime educator, author, and docent for the museum, reported that the monarchs were now clustering in tree #28, affectionately known as the “Charlie Brown tree,” a malnourished-looking Monterey Pine with barely anything on its remaining branches but lace lichen. Turcotte-Edenholm reported, “It has been the hardest tree to count because the radial branches all have had some degree of monarch clusters on them. This is the tree that is also hazardous for them because with any kind of wind gusts, the chandeliers (of monarchs) have been breaking apart. We have found strands of lace lichen on the ground with live monarchs woven tightly in between. Last week, when we counted, we freed the ones that we found like that so that they had the opportunity to dry their wings and survive.”
I stayed in a nearby hotel for 10 days before doing the count. I noted it has been a wet winter in Pacific Grove this year. While the area only received 40% of its typical rainfall last season with just 1.4” of rain from October 1, 2020 to January 3, 2021, this year the area has already experienced three atmospheric river events and approximately nine inches of rainfall. It was indeed the coldest and rainiest visit I have ever had to the area, with rain nearly every day and temperatures in the 40s to 50s. I listened a few nights to strong winds and pounding rain, wondering how the monarchs would weather the storms.
The monarchs had been concentrated in about five Monterey pines and cypress trees this season, moving between the trees, forming and reforming clusters depending on what was happening with the weather. Strong winds and rain in the days just prior to the count led some monarchs to shift from the Charlie Brown tree to adjacent pines, forming larger clusters. But many monarchs had also chosen to stay in this struggling tree, finding the surrounding windbreak provided by other nearby Monterey pine and cypress trees to be sufficient.
We began our count on Dec 28th at sunrise, by surveying which trees had monarchs, and then counting the monarchs on each occupied tree. The largest number of monarchs were in the Charlie Brown tree, and it took the team one hour to count the 5,072 monarchs in this tree alone. Turcotte-Edenholm worked with museum staff members Liese Murphree, Director of Education & Outreach, and Shannon Conner, Education Coordinator for the Watershed Guardians Program, to conduct the count.
Turcotte-Edenholm, Murphree, and Conner worked together like a well-oiled machine, identifying which specific tree branch they would count, then sharing their individual counts with each other to agree on a final count for each branch. Their goal was to be within 10-15% of each other, or they recounted the monarchs on that particular branch. Without fail, the team was well within that margin. Natalie Johnston, the museum’s Volunteer & Community Science Coordinator, worked to record their numbers on a datasheet, again cross-checking with Turcotte-Edenholm to maintain the accuracy of data collection. My son and I took photos of the clusters, as well as some of the 22 monarchs that were on the ground after having fallen during the storms. I was surprised, and relieved, to find far fewer monarchs on the ground than I expected.
After two hours, we tallied the numbers to arrive at a final count. The official count for December 28th was 10,055 monarchs, down from 11,954 on December 17th. That drop in numbers was not unexpected, as monarch numbers often fluctuate during the overwintering season before dropping near the end of the season as monarchs leave the grove. Monarchs may shift between overwintering sites, and suffer mortality from predation, storms and low fat reserves.
But the count of 10,055 monarchs was a welcome relief. I reflected on my hopes for the western monarch population. As we counted, Johnston and I talked about the restoration work taking place in the grove. The City of Pacific Grove has planted young Monterey pines to replace drought-stressed and diseased trees lost in recent years. City volunteers have been watering these young trees, and caring for the older trees in the grove. Museum researchers have been documenting the trees the monarchs have used over the years, and studies have been done to determine the tree species native to the grove. The grove is being restored as the urban forest it is, and it gives me hope. As chair of the city’s tree commission in my hometown, I know the importance of an urban forest to both wildlife and people. In pandemic times, our urban forests are a place of refuge and peace. They give us hope that all is not yet lost, and life will go on.
For those of us who have been in monarch conservation for many years, the battle to save the monarchs has been long and challenging. It can even be demoralizing at times. I think of the stories shared with me by neighbors of PGMBS, who describe clouds of monarchs so thick they could barely drive down the street without hitting one. I can only imagine such a sight, and I long for those days when monarchs were plentiful. But the truth is, there is no end game in conservation. It is a never-ending journey. And we cannot lose hope.
In choirs, as one person needs a rest, others continue to sing and “hold the note.” So when you are tired in your conservation efforts, you have permission to rest. Others will hold the note for you. And when you are ready, you can rejoin the group, because there is much work to do.
I thought of a recent interview I heard with Dr. Jane Goodall. She talked about the importance of hope, and not falling into apathy: “…If we all lose hope, then we fall into apathy and give up, throw up our hands and say ‘Oh well. There’s nothing I can do.’ That would be the end of us. Hope isn’t a passive thing…let’s imagine we’re in a really dark tunnel. And right at the end of that tunnel is a little star, shining. That’s hope. But we don’t just sit at our end of the tunnel, and passively hope that the star will come to us. No, we have to roll up our sleeves, crawl under, climb over, work our way around the obstacles that are in our path towards that light. So for me, hope is about taking action to move towards the goal that we all want.”
I think of the hundreds of volunteers reporting to citizen science projects, participating in monarch counts, caring for monarch overwintering sites, creating habitat and educating others. Working together, not against each other. No one person can do it all. It takes collective action to make a difference. Thank you to all those who are working to preserve the western monarch migration. You have my eternal gratitude.
Are you inspired by Candy’s report from Pacific Grove and ready to take action for monarch conservation? Register now for the MJV’s upcoming online Complete Monarch Essentials Course, a seven-week exploration of monarch ecology, migration and population dynamics, conservation strategies, and community science opportunities. The course begins February 16th. Learn more and register here.
Do you live within the North American monarch’s breeding range? If so, community science needs you! The Monarch Larva Monitoring Project complements annual overwintering site counts by providing valuable data on larval monarch populations and milkweed habitat. Check out one of the upcoming online MLMP training sessions. These one-day sessions each focus on a specific geographic area, so no matter where you live you can get prepared for breeding season observations.
Candy Sarikonda's full photo portfolio from January 2022 Pacific Grove winter count trip.
NPR interview with Dr. Jane Goodall: Jane Goodall Wants You To Remain Hopeful.
Article by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on the fluctuating western monarch count: The Bounciness of Butterflies.
Monarch Joint Venture guest blog article by Candy Sarikonda, January 2016: Counting Western Monarchs.
Monarch Joint Venture guest blog article by Candy Sarikonda, January 2017: Rain, Shine or Squirrels, Pacific Grove Counts Western Monarchs.
The content in this article reflects the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the positions of the Monarch Joint Venture or its partners.