Finding Flutterers in Ventura, SoCalWild, November 2013

Counting Monarchs in the Rain

The rain was fierce, pouring down in steady sheets on this cold morning in Ventura. What kind of day is this to count butterflies, I wondered as I pulled into a small neighborhood park to meet Donna Grubisic, a volunteer with the Vista-based Monarch Program. Fat drops fell on our heads as we shook hands underneath our umbrellas and walked passed playground equipment to a fence overlooking a grove of eucalyptus trees.

“Do you see ‘em?” she asked pointing to a low hanging branch.


“Right there.”

OOOOHhhh…that low hanging branch was not covered with leaves…but rather was filled with butterflies, monarchs with dull under-sided folded wings.  Huddled together motionless, the clump of monarchs were finding strength, protection and warmth in numbers.

Soggy butterflies. Photo by Brenda Rees

An average monarch weighs about 500 milligrams and large raindrops have a mass of 70 milligrams or more. Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland compares raindrops splashing on monarchs to humans “being pelted by water balloons with twice the mass of bowling balls.” Ouch.

Grubisic demonstrated how she counts this particular butterfly grouping – she uses both 2D and 3D estimates then adds for those hidden flappers that are inside of the monarch mass. “It’s about 750-800 butterflies,” she says about this particular clump. “Give or take.”

This location is one of seven that Grubisic has overseen for this year’s annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count which has been around since 1997. Taking its cue from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and the North American Butterfly Association’s Fourth of July Butterfly Count, the monarch tally is a way for citizen scientists to measure the health of the country’s most beloved winged insect that overwinters in the (usually) warm climates of SoCal and Baja. (Not today!)

The count starts in late November since that’s traditionally when most monarchs in the West convene along Pacific coastlines in individual trees or in huge groves. There are about 200 sites in California but only 100 are counted (not enough volunteers. Contact the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Countto learn how you can help). Monarchs typically hang out in our turf until early spring when they mate, lay eggs and then…die. Only 3 percent of the monarchs eggs will make it to butterfly-hood and they will carry on the age-old migration pattern.

Only 3 percent of all butterfly eggs reach maturity. Photo by Megan McCarty.

Grubisic counts at locations in Ventura, Carpentaria and Summerland and her numbers will be added to the ongoing tally sponsored by the Xerces Society in Oregon. (The official numbers from this count will be released in early spring.) She’ll not only count, but make notes about roosting trees, eroding habitats, any new development in the area and other new butterfly behavior.

In addition to counting butterflies, Grubisic is a docent at Ellwood Butterfly Grove in Goleta, where, among the sprawling eucalyptus trees, she welcomes visitors, answers questions and learn about butterflies in the ecosystem.

So far, the count at Ellwood has been down, she says. “It was 17,000 last year and as of about [mid-November] only 2,000” she explains. Monarch Program intern Charis van der Heide at Ellwood concurs in an email saying that “this year is shaping up to be very intriguing.” While the monarch numbers are indeed low for Ellwood (last year there was a peak of 40,000 in December), up further north folks are seeing record numbers at Pismo Beach Monarch Grove. More than 34,000 were counted very early in the season.

“The butterflies seem to be shaking things up this year,” van der Heide concludes. “It will be really interesting to see what the numbers look like throughout California.” Climate change theories anyone?

Overall, should California count its blessings when it comes to the western monarchs? A recent article by Jim Robbins in The New York Times “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear” describes the incredibly low numbers of monarchs that made it to Michoacan, Mexico this year. As of mid-November, only 3 million had arrived at their wintering home – last year it was 60 million and even that was a pretty low historical number.

Donna Grubisic keeps track of where the monarchs roost. Photo by Brenda Rees

Grubisic notes that her counting areas have either yielded more, less or the same numbers of flutters. “Maybe they are roosting in other areas we just don’t know about,” she offers as we tour another one of her locations. The rain is letting up and it’s easier to see the hanging clumps of butterflies high above. They look so vulnerable, clinging to one another, braving the wet and cold, waiting for the sun and spring flowers.

Every year, more of their habitat is destroyed along with their beloved milkweed, the only plant they will lay their eggs on. According to the Loose Leaf blog of the American Forest Association, “the world’s monarch butterflies now fit into an area smaller than four football fields.” It’s the smallest space in 20 years.

With a background in ornamental horticulture, Grubisic became interested in butterflies when her kids were little. As a family, they raised caterpillars, watching the transformation and later tagging the flappers to see how far they would travel. Slowly, Grubisic added nectar flowers into her garden which today, she says, is overflowing with ceanothus, lantana, star dusters and of course, dozens of varieties of milkweed.

When you plant milkweed for the butterflies, she says, expect to find sticks in the spring from all those hungry caterpillars. “People who want pretty gardens need to know that if they plant milkweed,” she says. “But the plant comes back.” (See where to purchase milkweed in SoCal.)

After touring Grubisic’s sites, we are back at the first location. As if on cue, the sun comes out and the butterflies start moving, stretching and even leaving their clusters. A man and his dog come to the playground and he stops to watch the monarchs. He tells us that as a kid his class would visit this spot regularly during the migration and he remembers one year the trees “were orange. So many butterflies. You couldn’t even see the trees.”

Sunshine on the monarchs in Ventura. Photo by Brenda Rees

Bold Birds, SoCalWild, November, 2013

Captured with serious, bold and unflinching poses, the new exhibit “Nature LA: Birds of Prey” running into Jan. 5, 2014 at the G2 Gallery in Venice showcases Southland feathered flappers from the lens of Culver City-based photographer Jennifer MaHarry. These are the not the happy chirpers helping Cinderella that you’d see in a typical Disney movie; no these are raptors, serious and unflinching, thoughtful and daunting, birds that make you instantly realize how close genetically they are to their dinosaur ancestors.

Red Tailed Hawk - Jennifer MaHarry

Red tailed hawk eyeing the scenery – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

MaHarry is best known for her poignant and intimate images of wild horses; she’s a long-time advocate against the government sanctioned roundups of wild mustangs and burros, events which, she says, allows for many organizations to buy these magnificent creatures and profit from their slaughter.

MaHarry’s current exhibition, however, features the beauty and power of local birds of prey; and it all came together by missed opportunities, an afternoon of 100+ temperatures, and perched turkey vultures eyeing her in the Arizona wilderness.

Earlier in the year, MaHarry had made arrangements to photograph a wild horse and burro roundup in Nevada; but unlike other times where she was allowed in to snap and capture images, BLM officials there denied all photographers from the event. “Everyone was hopping mad,” she recalls wondering how she could salvage this trip with some images. (MaHarry’s day job is a graphic designer working in the motion picture marketing arena.) She knew of a natural horse habitat in Arizona and thought, ‘Maybe I can find some,’” and booked a quick flight there.

So MaHarry was in the starkness of Arizona on an incredible hot afternoon. She didn’t find as many horses as she had hoped; but she was the object of interest from a group of turkey vultures that watched her from high above a rocky perch. “I watched them for a long time,” she says. “I saw how curious and social there were with each other and when I came back and read up on vultures. I was fascinated with them.”

MaHarry took that fascination to a broader scope and decided that if she couldn’t photograph horses, maybe another critter was calling to her camera. She contacted officials at local wildlife rescues – theOjai Raptor Center and the California Wildlife Center – to see if she could photograph any birds of prey there. For months, she visited the centers to snap rehabilitated birds, many that would soon be released back to the wild.

Setting up a simple giant scrim as a backdrop, MaHarry found personalities of each of the birds of prey she photographed. The kestrel was skittish, the great horned owl was intimidating (“I read his talons, when clenched, exhibits 4,000 pounds per square inch of bone-crushing power”) and the screech owls were overwhelming adorable (“I had to keep hands in the photo so you could see how small they really are.”)

MaHarry's golden eagle -- Photograph by Martha Benedict

MaHarry’s golden eagle — Photograph by Martha Benedict

Cute-factor aside, these birds of prey impressed MaHarry with their wild and powerful nature. “I wanted to capture a soulful look from them, something that expressed who they are, these beings completely covered with the most beautiful feathers. No fighter pilot can achieve the natural agility and speed these birds possess without blacking out from the extreme G forces that the birds are able to endure.”

Among the portraits of local raptors – red tailed hawk, merlin, barn owl, short eared owl and more – at the exhibit, MaHarry’s image of the Arizona turkey vulture hangs as a testimony to her photographic journey.

MaHarry and the vulture that started her avian quest - photo by Martha Benedict

MaHarry and the vulture that started her avian quest – photograph by Martha Benedict

Also, a raven is present, and while not necessarily a bird of prey, a bird that MaHarry wanted to include because of its intense intelligence.

Raven - Photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

What is this raven thinking? – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

MaHarry says she will continue to photograph wild horses and be a voice against their destruction, but this side road down the path of local raptors was a welcomed diversion. “I’d love people to realize that not all birds are cute little songbirds,” she says. “The world these birds live in is fierce. They are fighting every day for their survival. They are amazing creatures, worthy of our awe.”

– Brenda Rees, editor

Great Horned Owl - photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

Great Horned Owl in a pensive moment – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry