A massive citizen science project is currently underway to count California’s monarch butterflies. | Monterey County NOW Intro

Pam Marino here, writing after taking a brisk morning walk to see the overwintering monarchs at the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Mornings are the best time to see the clusters of butterflies in the trees, huddled together against the cold.

There were many clusters of the insects in multiple pine and eucalyptus trees this morning, with about 30 people of all ages up and down the sanctuary’s pathway, every one of them looking up. Occasionally we’d see a monarch or two gliding in and out of the trees of the small forest against a clear blue sky.

If you’ve never seen a cluster of monarchs before, you might be disappointed at first. Their closed wings are more gray than their well-known bright orange, appearing more like dead leaves. Still, there’s something wondrous about seeing them, these iconic and beloved insects who currently face extinction. (The status of the Western monarchs is not officially recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency as “endangered,” although it does recognize them as threatened. The International Union for Conservation of Nature earlier this year declared them endangered.)

The best pathway toward protecting the monarchs is through data collection, which is taking place right now by citizen scientists from Nov. 12 to Dec. 4, up and down the California coast for the annual Thanksgiving Monarch Count overseen by the Xerces Society. The nonprofit collects counts of monarchs at overwintering sites both around Thanksgiving and then again around New Year’s Day. (The season runs approximately October through February.)

In Monterey County, the official counts are conducted on behalf of the Xerces Society by the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Each year the museum trains volunteers to fan out to each of the county’s 20 overwintering sites located from Moss Landing to Big Sur, according to Liese Murphree, the museum’s director of education and outreach. 

Currently there are about 16 volunteers who go out in pairs to the sites “at the crack of dawn,” says Murphree, twice during each count period. They use a scientific protocol to count the insects, developed by the Xerces Society to give researchers an accurate count within the range of what’s needed for scientific reporting. Murphree calls it a “sophisticated estimation.” The highest count of the two visits is used as the official count for the period.

In 2020, the official Thanksgiving count in the sanctuary was zero. That was the disastrous year that saw only around 2,000 butterflies in the entire state and everyone thought for sure the species was about to go extinct. Hopes were buoyed last year when the count was 13,608 in the sanctuary and over 247,000 for the entire coastline. 

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The counts are important for the future of the butterflies, Murphree says. “We do this in hopes of protecting the species,” she says. The more scientists know, the better we can develop policies to prevent their extinction.

Outside of the Xerces counts, the museum has a dedicated team of volunteers who go to the sanctuary every Friday morning to count. The number is then updated on the museum’s website. The count as of last Friday was 12,328, so not far behind last year’s Thanksgiving count number.

If you want to see the monarchs for yourself this holiday weekend, try to go early like the citizen scientists, although you should be ok at other times, especially later in the day as the butterflies settle in for the night ahead. The P.G. Sanctuary is located at 250 Ridge Rd., Pacific Grove. It’s open from 8am-5pm every day. (Leave dogs at home since they are not allowed in the sanctuary.)

There are two other locations in P.G. where you might catch a glimpse: the P.G. Municipal Golf Course and Washington Park. Other overwintering sites in the county include Moss Landing Middle School, Point Lobos and Andrew Molera State Park. Or keep an eye out if you’re anywhere near the coast. We see them every now and again flitting around the Weekly’s office in Seaside.

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