The Magnificent Monarch Migration

By Ilona Merritt, photo by Russ Merritt


In one of the world’s astounding natural animal events each fall, tens of millions of monarch butterflies migrate up to 3,000 miles from the Northeastern US and Canada down to their wintering grounds in Central Mexico to escape the frosts of winter. The migration is due to the fact that monarchs can’t survive the cold northern winters, unlike other butterflies that can survive as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some cases. As a result, the monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, similar to birds. One of the wonders of nature around this phenomenon is how millions of infant butterflies who have never been to their ancestral breeding grounds return to the very trees that their parents roosted in before they were born.  During the summer breeding season, monarchs live for only 2-6 weeks. But the monarchs that migrate to Mexico in the fall are different: They are born in late summer, stay alive all winter, and migrate north the following spring.

The monarchs are bright and colorful, with an easily recognizable orange, black and white pattern across their wings. The orange of a monarch butterfly’s wings is a warning color, identifying itself to predators that the butterfly will taste bad or may be toxic. A monarch butterfly can flap its wings up to 120 times in a minute when trying to escape a predator.  They get naturally high using air currents and thermals to travel incredible distances. In fact, the highest monarch was recorded at 11,000 ft. by a glider pilot – that’s over two miles up in the air! Just to put this into perspective, most birds fly below 500 ft.

Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz on beautiful Monterey Bay is the only State Monarch Preserve in California. In early October, these beautiful butterflies start trickling in from colder climates to enjoy the moderate coastal weather in the eucalyptus grove. The best time to go to view them is in the morning at sunrise. It is breathtaking and can also be quite mesmerizing to see hundreds of monarchs clustered together hanging like leaves on the eucalyptus trees. Then as the sun warms their wings it is a truly a magnificent sight to see them stretch their wings and watch them fly around the eucalyptus grove.


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