Robert Coffan of Monarch Advocates of Southern Oregon prepares to release a monarch butterfly at his Medford home in September. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]
Monarch G6797, released at Ruch on September 28, was photographed in Trinidad, California on October 6 after the first 100-mile leg of its migration journey. [Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates]
A second tagged monarch released in southern Oregon on September 28 was seen feeding in San Rafael, California on October 14. [Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates Facebook page]
Monarch butterflies that were raised and released by humans in Southern Oregon last month are migrating south and using tags attached to their wings to communicate the mysteries surrounding these endangered insects.
As the butterflies migrate from the Pacific Northwest to their wintering grounds in California, people often see them resting or feeding on flowers and trees.
Some focus on the sticker affixed to the butterfly wing – complete with ID number and email address. Robert Coffan, president of Western Monarch Advocates and co-founder of Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates, says some of these people take photos and report the butterflies’ whereabouts to a Washington State University-backed tagging program.
“They surprise us. Someone from Ruch released a butterfly and someone found it on the beach in the fog in Trinidad, California,” he said.
A few anecdotal stories aside, researchers previously believed it was too cold for the butterflies to migrate along the coast.
David James, assistant professor of entomology at Washington State University, has so far taken photos of about 2,000 tagged and released five butterflies in Southern Oregon.
“The number of monarchs we’re tagging is a drop in the bucket of the population in this region, probably 1% to 5%,” James said. “And for every 200 people we tag, we can expect only one or two to recover, a recovery rate of about 0.5% to 1%.”
Koffan says that usually at this time of year, almost all the butterflies have gone to their wintering grounds. But as many Southern Oregonians point out, some monarchs still roam local gardens.
According to the researchers, the anomaly is related to the bright, warm October of this year.
“They are intelligent creatures. “Life is still good here, it’s still warm, there’s still nectar,” he said. “But every year, eventually, there are those who leave in November.”
Joffa still has a few monarchs in the chrysalis stage that she can release before Halloween. One looked like it would be ready soon, he said, and he planned to enlist the help of local third-graders to break free.
“But when the bugs decide to emerge, we’re at their mercy,” he said. “What always amazes me – I like to tell the children – this insect has never flown in its life, and flies in a second; they left.”
Unlike its fellow monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains, the western monarch population hovers just above being classified as critical — not yet endangered, Coffan said.
“If you look at a map of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains, anyone who sees a monarch is our western monarch population,” he said. “Right now everyone is fascinated by the revival of our western monarch.”
The number of recent populations of insects has been mysterious. In 2018, the western monarch population was estimated to be less than 2,000, he explained.
But the 2021 count found 246,000 monarchs.
Researchers still do not fully understand how butterflies disappear and reappear in such large numbers.
This year’s tagging program hopes to shed light on some of what Joffan describes as a great mystery that we humans still have to learn.
Unlike their eastern relatives, western monarchs typically migrate to areas such as Southern California, Monterey Bay, or Santa Cruz, rather than Mexico. Their wintering grounds are not threatened by deforestation, as in Mexico, but by land-use changes and the use of pesticides.
“We are kind of competing with the monarchs for that land; this is where the Beach Boys sang,” Koffan said.
There, he said, the butterflies have been found in places like eucalyptus trees in parking lots. Creating habitat to support monarchs does not require monoculture; they need weighing stations of milkweed and plants that bloom and bloom with nectar for a long time.
“Milkweed is the only host plant that supports these plump caterpillars. That’s all they can eat. It’s the only place monarchs will lay their eggs,” he said.
It is important to ensure that crops are grown without pesticides, he said. Long-blooming plants can provide nectar for butterflies throughout their breeding season in summer, some helping to feed them on their long journeys of up to 400 miles in a matter of weeks.
To track monarchs in flight across the country, check out the Xerxes Society’s Western Monarch Mapping page at monarchmilkweedmapper.org/ , which is filled with sightings of monarchs throughout their migrations.
To learn more about local monarch efforts and see photos of monarchs during their migrations, visit somonarchs.org and facebook.com/somonarchs.
Contact Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4487. Follow him on Twitter @MRothborne.