Ogling Monarch Butterflies at Ellwood Mesa

The best chance of seeing the sleepy dance of thousands of butterflies is between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.

On a recent jaunt into the heart of the eucalyptus trees at Ellwood Mesa, we were not only treated to the sight of a few thousand monarchs enjoying their southern home for the winter. We were mesmerized by the knowledge and dedication of volunteer Craig Wakamiya.

A nearby resident and docent for the City of Goleta, Craig shares his wealth of knowledge (and binoculars) as visitors come and go, repeating information as if he hasn’t been asked the same questions a dozen times already that day. His zest for the protection of the species, and for sharing all of his monarch wisdom, is compelling.

At their most numerous on a Dec. 16 count, estimates came in at 26,000 for five sites in the area. By late January, the butterflies were only at the main grove, where the peak had been about 18,000. These migrating butterflies, which live about nine months, overwinter here from areas west of the Rocky Mountains. Craig says, “When the butterflies leave the overwintering site, they are fanning out perhaps a hundred miles seeking to find their host plant milkweed, where they lay the eggs of the next generation.”

In Ellwood, many of the butterflies were hanging in clusters on eucalyptus leaves, resting for the season with slowed metabolisms, as others flew around. Craig explains, “Monarchs are primarily living on the fat/lipid reserves they accumulated during the fall.” While they don’t eat much in this winter hideaway, they do hydrate from puddles and dew. Their homebase eucalyptus trees, though not native, also act as windbreaks to prevent the area from getting too cold and provide a dappled light that keeps the area from getting too hot. 

Despite higher butterfly counts at Ellwood Mesa this year, the western monarch count is down. According to the Xerces Society, “Primary threats to western monarchs include: loss or destruction of overwintering and breeding habitat, pesticide contamination of their habitat, and extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change.”

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How can you help monarchs?

  • When visiting the Ellwood grove, stay on trails, watch out for monarchs on the ground, keep dogs on leash (and clean up after them), and carry out any trash.
  • At home, plant native milkweed and nectar plants, and avoid using herbicides and insecticides. Consider creating a Monarch Waystation.
  • Get involved in conservation efforts and contribute to organizations working to protect monarchs.
  • Like volunteer Craig Wakamiya, learn about the western monarch and share with others.

Before visiting the butterflies, check out the Goleta Butterfly Grove website for updates. The area was closed after our recent storm.

Monarch butterflies hang onto eucalyptus trees as they rest during the winter. – Video by Nicki Miller

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Nicki Miller
Nicki Miller
Nicki Miller, co-editor of Bluedot San Diego and Bluedot Santa Barbara, has been creating content and editing for more than 20 years, working at The Washington Post, Martha's Vineyard Magazine, Women's Running Magazine, and San Diego Humane Society. Nicki wants to contribute to a more eco-friendly world and has a particular interest in articles about taking care of people and animals, and how that leads to a healthier planet.
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