Biologist Emma Pelton of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation broke down the process for a recent edition of the LA Times' Essential California newsletter. Pelton studies our Western Monarchs and participated in the most recent Thanksgiving Count in 2022, which tallied more than 350,000 monarchs -- a promising jump from about 250,000 butterflies counted in their Pacific Grove wintering area in 2021.
“Typically folks are using binoculars and looking up into the trees, going out with a buddy... You’re learning to really have that eye and estimate how many butterflies you’re seeing," she explained. "And if there’s just a few, it’s usually not that difficult to count them really precisely. If there are thousands, that’s where having those skills to really estimate well and have a buddy to check your work make sure you found them all [is key].”
This gets tricky when the butterflies start flying around, as they do once temperatures hit 55 degrees Fahrenheit and their flight muscles warm up enough to flap away from the cluster. That’s why monarch counters like to get an early start.
“If it’s sunny and warm, you’re gonna have a really hard time counting them,” Pelton said. “We’re not birders — you don’t get up at 5. but you’d probably have to get up at 7 to go get an accurate count.”
Counting butterflies isn’t a picnic, though — especially for first-timers. “Your arm muscles start to shake if you hold your binoculars up at an angle for an hour,” Pelton said.
For her, there’s magic in the fact that “there are a whole bunch of folks that get out early in the day and go count bugs.” She also loves helping make Californians more aware of the “miraculous, smaller migration” on display all over the state. “I’m always amazed how people can be right under a cluster and not see it. One of our coordinators use the great analogy [that] they’re little drab Doritos. If you don’t really have the vision for it, they’re drab Doritos up in a tree. But if it’s warm, and they’re flying around, it becomes really magical... Then people really see it and appreciate it and get it.”
While Central California hosts the largest monarch clusters, some do fly down to Southern California. Thousands visited Hermosa Beach last year, which Pelton said was a first in their reporting. “We don’t always know why they show up where they show up,” she said. “Sometimes they surprise us.”
Source: Essential California, Los Angeles Times