There was a wire service news story in the paper a couple of weeks ago about monarch butterflies.
It seems that in late October, some of the eastern monarchs, which are supposed to migrate south to Mexico each fall, were still hanging out in Canada’s Point Pelee National Park on a northern flank of Lake Erie. They should have been “on the road,” so to speak, at least six weeks earlier.
This is scary stuff for the lepidopterists who study butterflies and are already concerned about the effects of climate change on the insects.
Monarchs, they know, don’t do well when the temperature drops below 50 degrees — the muscles that make them flutter apparently stiffen in the cold.
Some consider this another reason to declare the big orange and black butterflies that are the undisputed sovereigns of the butterfly world an endangered species. Some will go further, taking this new glitch in the ecosystem as a warning that the apocalypse draws closer. The optimists say, let’s wait and see what happens next year before we panic.
I am not versed in lepidoptery or entomology. But I do know a little something about monarchs — western monarchs, that is — the ones who live west of the Rocky Mountains in both the U.S. and Canada.
Their southbound migration route hugs the Pacific Coast and can go all the way to Mexico every winter. They have a lot of choices, in California’s temperate coastal climes, as to where to spend their winters.
Bodega Bay is one of them.
As I read this story, in my cluttered mind I switched from The Firestorm Channel and went directly to Thanksgivings Past, remembering all the monarch butterflies in our family’s Thanksgivings.
For a lot of Novembers, when our children were young — and so, in fact, were we — the Monarchs were a distinct part of our family Thanksgivings.
Those were the years we had a weekend home at Bodega Bay. At the end of our lane north of the town, there was (is still) a grove of trees — mostly cypress with clumps of towering eucalyptus — that bordered the dunes stretching toward Salmon Creek.
The grove had been the family home site of my husband’s maternal great-grandfather, Andrew Johnson, in the 1800s. Among the other inherited wonders were the clumps of naked lady flowers around a sunken cornerstone where the Johnson house once stood. But the butterfly trees were the Thanksgiving attraction.
Every year they showed up, a few at a time, through early November. And by Thanksgiving, when the extended family gathered for the feast, the butterflies’ extended families were all set for a comfortable, temperate coastal winter.
There were literally thousands of them. They folded their wings when there was no sun and looked for all the world like just leaves — dried, brown leaves. But let a sunbeam in, and they opened to their full glory, left their limbs and flew in clouds of black and orange, not going anywhere, just flying around. They had no plans to leave until March.
They were without fear.
We had to walk gently and carefully through them. They fluttered around us. They landed on our shoulders, our shoes, our hats, our hair, our nose if we stood stock still. Our children considered them magical, and we adults did not disagree.
Those pre-dinner visits to our “butterfly grove” was as much a part of Thanksgiving as my mother’s raw cranberry relish and pumpkin pie.
There were always kids’ questions we couldn’t answer. One that came up annually was about how these fluttery creatures managed to make such a long journey when all they seemed to do was fly in circles.
As I recall, we entomologically challenged adults offered storybook answers. One memorable one involved getting into the tail wind of a moving van heading for Los Angeles.
Truth was, of course, I didn’t know. I just knew the butterflies were a delight.
One of the good things about a journalism career is that if you have good sources, you learn a little bit about a whole lot of things.
My go-to source for everything involving nature in this county is Peter Leveque, a retired SRJC instructor who has his finger in many ecological pies.
He sent me on to Michael Ellis, a naturalist who owns a business called Footloose Forays that takes clients on nature excursions the world over from a Sonoma County base. Ellis seemed pleased to be asked and supplied the information I sought.
“It’s not a single butterfly,” he said. “It’s generational migration.”
Thus, I learned it takes four generations for those northeastern monarchs to go off to warmer climates and get back to their summer homes in the northeast.
Pacific monarchs might make it in three generations, depending on where they stop to winter.
When they head south, according to Ellis, the first and northernmost point that some may choose to stop is around Rockport on the Mendocino Coast. Some get — or their children and grandchildren do — to Baja California.
After that, hitting the high points, it’s Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Bolinas, Pacific Grove and points south.
General interest in this migration seems to center around Pacific Grove, which not only welcomes these wonderful creatures, but exploits them. Decades ago, the eucalyptus near Monterey County’s famous 17-Mile-Drive became a well-advertised tourist attraction. And Pacific Grove became the “Butterfly City.”
Too much, some of us say, of a good thing.
The butterfly experts Michael spoke with assured — and he has assured me — that they can still be found in Bodega Bay, somewhere near the Bodega Dunes State Park campground.
I don’t know exactly where. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you. Bodega Bay is doing just fine without being a “Butterfly City.”
I’m pretty sure that wherever they are hanging out — literally — it isn’t “our” old butterfly trees. I’m pretty sure of that.
We sold that grove and those dunes to the state park system long ago — not a lot of choice in that decision.
Our Thanksgivings moved to town. Our children grew up and moved on. We don’t “weekend” in Bodega Bay anymore.
But we certainly have happy memories. And many of them involve clouds of monarch butterflies.
While it is definitely worrisome to hear about the dangers in the eastern migration, it is comforting to learn from Ellis that the monarchs are alive and well, sailing on limber wings, in Bodega Bay.
Like the whales that parade past Bodega Head in observance of February’s presidential birthdays, the November butterflies are among the many things we have to be thankful for.