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Where the Wild Things Are
updated: Feb 01, 2014, 3:00 PM

By Melinda Burns

Santa Barbara County's annual wildlife surveys are supposed to help scientists predict long-term trends. But even the experts are stumped by the data from this winter.

While we're in the midst of one of the driest winters on record, the experts can only speculate why the 37,357 birds counted on Jan. 4 during the annual Santa Barbara Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count was 10 percent less than a year ago, but the numbers of species counted, 222, was the second highest number of species in the nation.

"I was absolutely astonished," says Rebecca Coulter, one of several count compilers who is rechecking the numbers, prior to turning them in to the National Audubon Society in February. "My birding morning on count day was like a tomb. Across the board, it was noticeable that we were seeing fewer birds."

The bird count covers parts of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Montecito, Los Padres National Forest and coastal waters.

Monarch butterflies congregate in eucalyptus groves like this one in Elwood Main near drainages and creeks, hanging from the tree branches in dense clusters called roosts. (Alex Kacik)

The annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count was a big surprise, too. According to final tallies released on Jan. 31 by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization that coordinates the California count, there were about 55,000 migratory monarch butterflies on the coast of Santa Barbara County as of early December. This is a 65-percent increase over 2012- significantly higher than the 46-percent increase in the monarch population statewide. But even so, for the first time anyone can remember, thousands of monarchs failed to materialize at their favorite spot on Ellwood Mesa in Goleta, where a butterfly preserve was created especially for them.

Perhaps, some scientists venture, the monarchs have been responding to the balmy weather and are not seeking cover in large eucalyptus groves this year. Or, they say, several thousand migratory birds passed over the dry South Coast and kept heading south to Mexico and Central America in search of water. Nobody knows for sure.

"We can't really tie it to the drought, but we know it's different this year," says Joan Lentz, who ran the local bird count from 1994 to 2010 and is the author of a new book, A Naturalist's Guide to the Santa Barbara Region. "This is the paradox of citizen science. It's hard to know how much can be translated into trends. Next, volunteers will turn their binoculars toward the gray whales making the 5,000-mile trip from Mexico to their feeding grounds in the Arctic. The 10th annual Gray Whales Count at the Coal Oil Point Reserve (participants call it Counter Point) begins on Feb. 10 and runs eight hours daily through mid-May. In recent years, this count and others along the California coast have recorded wild swings in the number of gray whale calves; a phenomenon that scientists believe may be linked to the timing of the ice thaw in the Bering Sea.

Here's a snapshot of the most recent wildlife counts in Santa Barbara County:

The Monarch Redistribution

Beginning in October, monarch butterflies migrate to the southern California coast from as far away as Washington, Oregon and Idaho to escape the cold. They congregate in eucalyptus and cypress groves near drainages and creeks, hanging from the tree branches in dense clusters called roosts. They mate in February or March and then lay their eggs on milkweed plants as they travel north and east. Several generations of monarchs will lay eggs and die quickly, building the population along the way. The fourth or fifth generation, which lives eight or nine months, will return to the California coast in the winter.

During this season's census in Santa Barbara County, part of a statewide effort, eight volunteers kept tabs on monarchs at 44 coastal groves between Vandenberg Air Force Base and the Carpinteria Bluffs.

Uncharacteristically, the census shows, the largest congregation of monarchs this season in Santa Barbara County is not located at the end of Coronado Drive in Goleta, where signs along roped-off paths guide visitors into a large eucalyptus grove on the side of a hill. Only 2,355 monarchs are present at what is known as Ellwood Main, compared to 17,150 in 2012, says Charis van der Heide, a coordinator with the City of Goleta's docent program.

Charis van der Heide, the City of Goleta’s docent coordinator, looks for monarch butterflies at Ellwood Main. (Melinda Burns)

This season, she says, 5,700 monarchs have decamped to two damper, shadier groves off the beaten trail on Ellwood Mesa-the larger of these congregations is next to the Sandpiper Golf Course. Moreover, the largest single congregation of monarchs in the county-11,100-was not recorded at Ellwood, but at a grove on Vandenberg Air Force Base where only one monarch showed up for the count in 2012. Other large monarch congregations this season were recorded at Gaviota State Park (8,900), the Southern California Gas Co. property east of Goleta Beach near Atascadero Creek (8,700) and another grove at Vandenberg (6,700).

"I was shocked," van der Heide says. "Normally, Ellwood Main is right up there with the other big sites, such as Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove. This year, we're not even close."

Pismo Beach and Pacific Grove, in Monterey County, are currently hosting than more than 30,000 and 13,000 monarchs, respectively, according to Xerces Society.

Van der Heide believes that the dry creek at Ellwood Main may have kept monarchs away. But Francis Villablanca, a biology professor at California Polytechnic State University who specializes in monarch butterflies and trains monarch census volunteers, says that because of the mild weather this winter, there may have been less pressure for the monarchs to move into the big groves. But he adds, "The short answer is, we really don't know why."

One clear, long-term trend emerges from data collected by the Xerces Society: There has been a sharp decline in the population of monarchs wintering in California, from 1.2 million in the Thanksgiving count of 1997 to 211,000 in 2013. The underlying causes of the decline, scientists say, are drought, climate change, pesticide use and the loss of habitat and milkweed to development.

Excerpt provided by Mission & State. Read the full article at MissionAndState.org


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