Monarch butterflies return in greater numbers to California's Central Coast

Upwards of 2,500 monarch butterflies are resting and bracing for winter along a protected area of California's Central Coast in Santa Cruz

Grouped together in the cool gray of the coast, a type of nature’s royalty has set up its winter crash pad in Natural Bridges State Beach Park.

"It’s pretty incredible. Actually it makes me feel nostalgic," said Anika Green, an East Bay resident who drove west to see the phenomenon.

A clump hanging high in the trees looks more like leaves to the naked eye. But using a spotter scope’s brings the stars of this natural attraction into focus.

"Especially on a day like today. You can really see the detail on the butterflies," said Santa Cruz resident Tim Fitzgerald.

To behold the sight can be breathtaking. 

"As they hang out, they’re trying to just hold their energy, and not move as much as they have to. Because they’re just trying to survive the winter," said Martha Nitzberg, a California State Parks interpretive ranger.

The annual monarch migration from as far as Canada and the U.S. Rocky Mountain range, to the California coast, is traced back to the 19th century. The butterflies move to warmer climates for winter, and leave as spring approaches.

Their annual arrival in Santa Cruz draws crowds. As many as 2,000 people per day come to look up and see, when the sun’s out. There are fewer people when it’s chilly and gray.

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"We know they come this time of year. We haven’t been down in like five years. So wanted to come check them out this year," said Fremont resident Christina Hoskinson.

This year marks the end of a slow decline in the numbers for the migratory monarch. The count is up about 1,500 over last. Experts say development, the use of pesticides and herbicides, and hotter than normal temperatures have all played a role in reducing their numbers.

"This year with our early rains and cooler temperatures in the fall, it was much better for the butterflies," said Nitzberg.

An added benefit of seeking shelter from winter’s elements within this grove of trees –  two protective owls.

The pair scares off predators, allowing the butterflies several days and nights of good sleep.

"I think that it’s a great sign, and one of the benefits from the pandemic, that we’re experiencing environmental improvements," said Tinina Parker, an East Bay resident and visitor to the park.

The kings and queens of the butterfly world will be here until February. Then, their migration away from this restful retreat will begin.