Welcome Back Monarchs Day 2015

The monarch butterflies are back once again to overwinter at Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz, and their loyal fans have planned a party.

by Samantha Chavez

Oct. 8, 2015—In Santa Cruz there’s an autumn tradition, along with pumpkin carving and spiced lattés, that comes around each year—only this one goes back well before the advent of sweet flavored coffee drinks. It’s the return of the monarch butterflies from their summer home in the Rocky Mountains. The monarchs’ 1,500-mile journey ends at the West Coast, and Santa Cruz is lucky enough to have a comfy grove of eucalyptus at Natural Bridges State Beach where monarchs like to roost. This weekend’s Welcome Back Monarchs Festival (Sunday, Oct. 11, 11am-4pm) celebrates the end of the amazing journey these little insects—which are actually fairly massive by most butterfly standards—make every year.

A young visitor to Natural Bridges gets some tips from a volunteer docent. Photo by Alpha Geek on Flickr.

The monarch’s favorite local eucalyptus stand is easily accessible to the public (including wheelchairs and strollers) via a boardwalk that leads down a slight decline to the grove. At the festival, volunteers will have binoculars and spotting scopes to help visitors peek at the monarch clusters dangling from the trees like the world’s strangest fruit. The festival promises to be a day of good energy as monarch butterflies flit through the air to the sounds of live music. This year, it’s especially fortunate that Santa Cruz Open Streets happens the same day as the Welcome Back Monarchs Festival. This will make it easy for families to safely walk or bike down a car-free beautiful West Cliff Drive and right into Natural Bridges to continue their scenic tour. While there are monarch tours throughout the season, the festivities on Sunday make it a great time to watch the butterflies.

The festival theme this year, “Linked,” asks visitors to ponder how their lives are connected to monarchs, a timely issue given the declining numbers of the butterflies. The population of monarchs overwintering at Natural Bridges—estimated at 120,000 in 1997—has declined steadily, bottoming out in the dismal 2012 season with only 500-2000 butterflies. In 2013, the population rebounded to 7,500, slipping a bit last year to 5,000. This year the volunteers at Natural Bridges are hoping for more.

Read about a monarch butterfly tour at Natural Bridges.

So the day’s activities will focus on ways to help the butterflies. At 3pm, a skit about the link between humans and butterflies will couple perfectly with the arts and crafts for kids centered on this year’s theme. As in previous years, delicious hand-cranked “monarch” ice cream (actually pumpkin) will be served, and there will even be “monarch” cake to go with it.

Several booths and tables will be open throughout, one of them belonging to the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks, which funds education and interpretation in the park (and replaced the old boardwalk with the current ADA-accessible one). Friends will even have a pop-up store in the park, and this year they’ll be selling beautiful chrysalis necklaces, a perfect festival souvenir.

Handmade gold-and-porcelain chrysalis pendants by Tupper's Perch will be available at the Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks pop-up store this Sunday.

Other informational tables open during the festival will teach visitors all about the butterflies they’re seeing and will give great gardening tips to attract monarchs and other lepidoptera to local backyards (spoiler alert: plant milkweed). The festival winds down at 4pm—which this weekend happily coincides with low tide. This means docents will switch gears and lead visitors to the rocky intertidal zone to see the Santa Cruz natives that live part-time under the sea. It’s a two-for-one at Natural Bridges this Sunday!

As Lead Interpreter Martha Nitzberg says about the festival, “[If you] love the butterflies, then you’ll want to take care of them, and the festival is a great day for that.”

By February, the monarchs will have left Santa Cruz, and Natural Bridges will host its annual Migration Festival, saying “so long” to the butterflies and “hello” to the whales. So, bring butterfly and nature lovers alike this Sunday, because next year these monarchs won’t be here; it’ll be the great-grandchildren of these butterflies that will be welcomed to the winter home of their ancestors.

WELCOME BACK MONARCHS FESTIVAL: Natural Bridges State Beach, 2531 West Cliff Dr, Santa Cruz. 11am-4pm. Free, but parking is $10. View the map to Natural Bridges State Beach.