Monarch Butterflies, in Berkeley?!

For years, George and I have trekked to Albany Hill to count the monarch butterflies for the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, started by the Monarch Program in 1997. The largest clusters we’ve seen at Albany Hill arrived in 2011.

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill in 2011, copyright Heidi Rand

Although numbers decreased for the past few years, early reports for 2015 from citizen spotters are markedly up. Most exciting locally is the discovery of a new clustering site in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park! The news quickly spread from hard-core monarch researchers to locals who had never seen the splendor of monarchs clustering, reported in an excellent article by Elaine Miller Bond on the Berkeleyside news site.

George and I rushed to see them yesterday. We had been told they were near the 14th basket of the disc-golf course, an easy walk from the Park’s north parking lot. Even without seeing many monarchs flying around in the clear winter sky, we couldn’t miss the spot where gawkers gathered beneath an ash tree with cameras and binoculars pointed up.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We estimated at least a thousand butterflies were clustering, and figured possibly double that many were flying around and would join the clusters for warmth and protection at sunset.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We watched for an hour as monarchs danced; leaving clusters to fly about and then return. Entranced, we marveled and shared information with people gathered there about planting milkweed, raising butterflies, and other local overwintering sites.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

A closeup shows most of the cluster with wings closed, and one female (the male has two large spots near the veins at the bottom wing) with her wings open.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

Have you seen any monarch butterflies in your garden or at an overwintering site? Do you grow milkweed or provide nectaring plants for butterflies and birds? For more information, and photos and stories about our adventures watching and raising monarch butterflies, see my prior blog posts:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch caterpillar to chrysalis

First monarch caterpillar emerges

Monarch eggs in the garden!

A Very Butterfly Day

A Butterfly Born on the 4th of July

Finally, if you’re a local, I’d like to cordially invite you to my Holiday Gift Sale and Art Show, the first two weekends of December. I have lots of monarch and other butterfly-related photos and artwork and crafts that I make from my nature photographs. Click here for all the deets.
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Monarch butterfly mating dance

This past year I selected my best photos of monarch butterflies from egg to emerged adult, to create a poster illustrating the monarch’s life cycle.

Monarch Butterfly life cycle posterI was most thrilled to get photos of the wonder of a monarch creating, and then shedding, its chrysalis. Here it’s pupating:

Monarch caterpillar pupating

After about two weeks it emerged (also called eclosing):

Monarch butterfly eclosing

In all my time photographing monarchs I never imagined I’d be able to capture one depositing an egg on milkweed; their visits to the garden are sadly rare, and the female leaves her eggs quickly and flits away. But disciplining myself to bring my camera whenever I went into the garden finally paid off. One day this summer I saw a female ovipositing, and quickly grabbed some photos before she flew off.

Moanrch butterfly laying egg

The cycle was finally complete, I thought, but of course I forgot one crucial part: mating! Yesterday George and I took a road trip to a local overwintering spot for monarchs, and were joyously watching several large clusters in the eucalyptus trees. Many lone butterflies were also flying around.

Monarch butterfly cluster

Noticing one fluttering its wings in the grass, I went to see whether it was stuck and needed help. I called George over, and with his keen naturalist eyes he spotted what I had missed; there were two.

Monarchs mating

And they were mating!

Monarchs mating

Here the male fluttered his wings over the female.

Monarch butterflies mating

And now they’re attached.

Monarch butterflies mating

Since it was almost evening, they probably stayed on the ground overnight because monarchs can’t fly if their body temperature goes below about 55 F (13 C).

And now the cycle truly is complete! Has Mother Nature thrilled you lately? If so, let us know!