A Migration Festival for The Books

Natural Bridges State Beach celebrates monarch butterflies, gray whales, humpback whales, elephant seals and other sojourners during the Migration Festival on Feb. 8.

by Alexa Lomberg

Jan. 31, 2014—These days Martha Nitzberg, lead interpretive naturalist at Natural Bridges State Beach, is calling the park a “mini Galapagos.” There may not be 20,000 monarch butterflies at Natural Bridges, as there were in 1980, but the numbers are on the rise again. Meanwhile, due to the massive surge of anchovies along the coast, populations of whales, pelicans and sea lions have exploded.

The 28th annual Migration Festival at Natural Bridges, happening Feb. 8, has a lot to celebrate this year.

With 7,800 monarchs at the peak—up from an expected average of 5,000—the numbers are back to what they were in 2006, despite dry weather and fires in monarch habitat. The monarchs began accumulating here in large numbers in September, the usual time they begin to fill the grove. But a handful arrived early, says Nitzberg, making the summer an atypical one.

Read about low monarch butterfly numbers in 2013.

“This summer it seemed like there were more of them who laid eggs in the milkweed patch,” Nitzberg says, referring to a small garden area outside the visitor center. “We had one or two caterpillars to showcase throughout the whole summer, which is pretty unusual.”

The local monarch population is back on the rise because of wildlife organizations like the Xerces Society planting milkweed—the butterflies' favorite food—in the Central Valley. The Xerces Society works with organic grape growers to efficiently grow milkweed to preserve and boost the monarch population, Nitzberg says.

Milkweed contains a semi-poisonous sap with a bitter taste that wards off many of the animals and insects that attempt to eat its leaves. However, the monarchs are immune to the toxin, and feed off the milkweed leaves to become unpleasant to predators. With more milkweed in California, the monarchs have a stronger chance of uniting and making their loop up and down the state in a larger pack, which directly affect the number that end up at Natural Bridges.

The Whales of Monterey Bay

Another migrating animal passing through the Monterey Bay area right now is the gray whale. These bottom-feeding baleen whales have the longest migration of any known mammal, traveling more than 10,000 miles round-trip each year between their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and their mating and calving grounds off the Baja Peninsula. In mid-January the southbound stragglers are coming through, and by mid-February the northward migration will likely be starting up as males and mothers with newborn calves head for Alaska. The 20,000-whale pack passes through Santa Cruz waters traveling at 2-4 mph, creating a perfect whale-watching scenario.

A swell of anchovies was responsible for the other migrating animals that have been bringing life to Natural Bridges. Thousands of sea lions flocked up and down the California coast in the summer and fall, along with pelicans and dolphins.

Read about the anchovy bloom in Monterey Bay.

But the real showstoppers were the humpback whales, about 200 of them making an appearance in Santa Cruz waters for the food. These whales are about the length of a school bus, and were drawn closer than ever to shore since the anchovies were relatively close to land.

The Coast Guard issued many warnings in the fall to warn kayakers and surfers to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales. Most people got the memo after this photo by Giancarlo Tomae went viral—someone had to set an example. While the locals flocked to see the spectacle, the whales also garnered national attention.

Nitzberg says the fall was “phenomenal,” and the Migration Festival on Feb. 8 is the perfect way to celebrate and learn about the animals—and what people can do to help future migrations through Monterey Bay. Leaders of local organizations will be speaking every hour to help facilitate education about different plants and animals, ranging from the migration of monarchs and whales in Santa Cruz to elephant seals, bats, birds and milkweed.

“It’s fun to all get together—the people who have a passion for taking caring of animals, and the people who come to the festival, who are often passionate about animals as well,” Nitzberg says. “It makes it a really fun, joyful day.”

An Uncertain Future

A ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11am, co-sponsored by Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, will kick off the event and celebrate the completion of projects funded by Friends with help from community donors and a generous grant from Google. The gifts allowed the park to trade in its lawn for native drought-tolerant plants around the visitor’s center, to create the milkweed demonstration garden and to display new interpretive signs near the monarch grove and tide pools. A state grant for a high number of volunteer hours and education groups also contributed to the new polish on the park.

“It’s exciting to have a nice face lift,” Nitzberg says, pointing out that Natural Bridges has been a park since 1933, "and things get out-of-date.”

While the Migration Festival this winter will observe the remarkable migration season last fall, on everyone’s mind is how the current situation will affect next fall’s migration.

And the answer seems to be the same for every question on how the drought will affect a variety of things—it depends on whether California gets rain sometime this winter. Nitzberg says the scientists she works with agree.

“Now drought all over California is kind of scary,” Nitzberg says. “We just have to kind of see what happens this springtime. Most of our rain is actually January through April, and so even though we’ve been so dry this fall, the hope is that we will get some rain soon. If we get some rain now, everything will be good—the monarchs will migrate. If we don’t get rain this wintertime, if we don’t get snow in the high country… [what will happen to] the monarch population is unknown.”

Nitzberg, along with many others, is hoping for rain so her “mini Galapagos” continues to prosper.

The Migration Festival happens on Saturday, Feb. 8, 11am-4pm, at Natural Bridges State Beach, at the corner of West Cliff Drive and Swanton Road. Look for games, habitat walks, crafts, activities and music by the Mystic Troubadours, Marty O'Reilly and the 5Ms band, all celebrating the migration of butterflies, birds, whales and much more. Free, but parking inside the park is $10.