"Everybody got binoculars?" scientist Sarah Stock calls out to her passengers.
There's a neck check. All binoculars here. Clipboards too.
"I got a little bit of a library," says right-hand man and fellow scientist Jason Scott, passing along some well-thumbed books on birds, butterflies and plants.
Last in is the fabled butterfly net, a tapering circle of round mesh affixed to a long pole.
With more than 40 miles to cover today on the winding coast of Big Sur, the team has to keep moving. These researchers are on a mission to count every monarch butterfly from one end of Monterey County to the other in the next two days. Last year they found fewer monarchs than any year since 1997. This is their first time out this fall, and they are hoping for a comeback.
The team — made up of three researchers from the Ventana Wilderness Society, three volunteers and one intern — is gathering data on monarch populations along California's Central Coast, where 70% of the species spends the winter. In an annual phenomenon, scientists and the public alike fall under the spell of these orange drifters and the mystery of their migration. The Ventana squad's annual monitoring is critical to the monarchs' conservation. A study published this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests global warming could drive the monarch to extinction in 50 years.
Stock and Scott hop into their 1986 natural-gas-powered Ford Aerostar minivan — the monarchmobile. Stock, 30, the ringleader, has a mane of white-blond hair, a brilliant smile, a sunburned nose and painted-green fingernails. Scott, 27, her colleague, wears a sheepish grin and his hair stuffed under a big woolly hat. His pants sag, not for fashion's sake, but with the weight of the gear stuffed in his pockets — a Kestrel to measure wind and moisture, a compass to measure direction, a calculator.
The backdoor of the van is broken, so everyone has to scramble over the passenger seat to get in. The crew is a cross between surfers, snowboarders and Gen-X scientists. They are equally at ease handling high-tech instruments, sounding like characters from MTV's Real World and running through poison oak. These are serious scientists, but the minivan has the feel of a troupe on its way to a Phish concert.
First stop is a grove typical of many of the overwintering sites up and down the coast: a stand of blue gum eucalyptus close to the ocean. The team fans out, footsteps muffled by dirt and damp leaves. The air sizzles with a stew of wild fennel, dewy grass and particles of Pacific Ocean. Breaths float in cold clouds.
"That is an intense amount of butterflies," Scott says suddenly, gazing at a clump of monarchs dangling like a cluster of grapes from a eucalyptus tree.
A shaft of sunlight slices through the canopy above and strikes the cluster. The butterflies unfold in a flash of brilliant orange. A tornado of fluttering whirls, swift and furious. There are so many clustered so thick that the task seems as impossible as picking out a 1-inch square of the Milky Way and counting stars. It seems unscientific, random, a joke.
"It's tough," Scott reminds the volunteers, some out for the first time. "You have to remember they are three-dimensional."
But the numbers come in — 623, 500, 625, 620, 600 — surprisingly consistent. The guy who got 500 is told to count again — apparently, he is a notorious undercounter. They take the average, 593.
Later, they checked themselves using a smaller branch. First they count, then they do a pull-down. Scott raises the net to a branch and shakes the butterflies down. Too cold to fly, most of them tumble into the net like leaves. Scott kneels and pulls the fluttering bits of color out one by one. Their wings are thin but strong, silky membranes like the most delicate of flower petals, covered with a dusting of pollen. They are off by only five. Astonishing. The males have dots on their hind wings, and clasps at the tips of their abdomens. The females don't.
The team has its own field jargon, which everyone tosses around enthusiastically as they romp through the woods. "It's a flyer!" (a butterfly in flight, said as an exclamation); "There's a sunner!" (a butterfly basking, said with a "whoa-dude, check-it-out" inflection; "Eeewww. It's a grounder!" (a dead, or almost dead, butterfly, said with the regret of finding a fallen comrade).
Counting is tedious, neck-cramping and, in the coastal winter fog, often bone-chillingly cold. Stock says her neck once got so tired she just lay down on the ground to count. She ended up with a case of poison oak, from her neck to her ankles.
Stock and Scott are clearly rooting for the butterflies, willing them to multiply and thrive. They find one tree with so many, they turn giddy. "This is impressive, like out of control," says Scott. He whistles. She exclaims. They laugh hysterically, punch-drunk at the sight.
Winged obsession Who are these crazed butterfly stalkers? And how do they get that way? Behind the rapture is a phenomenon unique among insects, a migration covering up to 2,400 miles. It is a boggling feat for such flimsy creatures. They fly and float on wind currents, covering from 40 to 100 miles a day. The ability of these wisps to flutter so far is part of the fascination. But it's their Technicolor outfits that vault monarchs to enchantment.
"For me, it is the combination of their sheer beauty and magnificence, their astonishing adaptations, both for self-protection and migration, and what remains to be learned about them," explains ecologist Dr. Robert Pyle, author of "Chasing Monarchs." "In other words, all the grandeur of evolution wrapped up in one organism."
From November to March, monarchs from east of the Rockies converge on oyamel firs high in the mountains of Michoacán, Mexico. Meanwhile, all the monarchs west of the Rockies fly south and west to the U.S. coast, to the last stand of pine, eucalyptus or cypress before the winds they ride blow out to sea.
They descend on California each November in clouds of orange. Scientists in the 1970s and '80s documented more than 200 monarch sites along the coast of California, from Baja to Marin County. Efforts were made to protect the largest of those sites. Then the conservation front got quieter.
Now a second wave of research is underway. A tiny cadre of devoted scientists, park rangers, graduate students and citizen scientists from Monterey County to southern San Luis Obispo County has spent hundreds of hours the last two years, peering up trees, taking readings and entering results into a huge database. They are funded by small grants from Helen Johnson, an eccentric 80-year-old from Salinas in love with butterflies and bats.
Researchers Stock and Scott, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo biology professor Dennis Frey and graduate student Shawna Stevens have designed a set of protocols to collect this data, and trained teams of citizen scientists to use them. Prior to this effort, no one had done a census of the Western monarchs in such a systematic way.
"They are bringing scientific rigor to what they are doing," says Mia Monroe, site supervisor at the Muir Woods National Monument, monarch conservationist with the Xerces Society and informal coordinator for monarch activities in California.
These young scientists are the gumshoes of the monarch world, and mystery is the magnet: How many butterflies actually overwinter in California? What creates high population years versus low? Where do the monarchs that overwinter in California really come from? Where do they go when they leave?
"It is such an easy insect to develop a passion for," says Stock. "They may go as far north as the Canadian border — nobody knows. We don't know the direction of the migration pathway, or if they are just looking for milkweed without direction."
Last year the Central Coast researchers and volunteers tagged thousands of butterflies, catching them in nets, emptying them into a paper bag, and affixing tiny stickers to their right hind wings. Each tag had a special ID and a toll-free number. One monarch tagged in Monterey County turned up in Colorado, defying the conventional wisdom that Western monarchs never cross the Rockies.
Lincoln Brower, monarch guru and professor of biology at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, believes there may be more mixing of the two populations than previously thought.
"There is circumstantial evidence that the butterfly population in California may be refreshed or displaced by migrations coming up from Mexico in the spring," Brower says. In 1996 one ornithologist who studied bird migrations with radar tracked warblers coming up from Mexico at the same time the monarchs did, Brower says. Freak winds blew the warblers 800 miles to the west that year. Brower hypothesizes that those same winds blew the Eastern monarchs west, replenishing the California population that year.
The new monarch hunters are a departure from old-school lepidopterists. Most of the volunteers and researchers are ornithologists who branched out into butterflies. Their methods draw heavily from their ornithology research. But, despite their fervor, some have yet to be dazzled.
"It's cool, but I'm not really getting the butterfly bug," says Matt Brady, 20, a UC Santa Cruz student along for the first time.
"Give him time," Stock says with a knowing smile.
Jeff Frey, assistant resource ecologist for the state parks in the Big Sur area, helps manage and protect habitat. He says the monarchs are a big attraction for the general public, because they "lend themselves to a nonscientific approach. If you are a person who lives near a grove, they are always there, all winter. It is not like birds, who fly away, or mammals, who might only come out at night. Normal people can make a 'scientific' project out of the monarchs."
People are more excited about monarchs, he adds, than Smith's blue butterfly, an endangered insect that lives in the same area.
'Go butterflies!' There's a buzz of excitement in the monarchmobile. Something is happening in the butterfly groves of the Central Coast. At its first site, the team's final tally of monarchs comes to 16,013. This is more butterflies at one spot than at all seven sites combined last year: 11,000.
"To have this year jump up is soooo exciting," Stock says. "As a biologist, it just generates all these questions. Why?"
"Go butterflies!" yells Scott. "But does this 16,000 mean less in other places?"
They head down the coast in the minivan to the next site, Plaskett Creek Campground. Over the last five years monarchs here have continually declined. Two years ago this site had hundreds, last year none.
Mountains rise steep and green to the left, cliffs fall away sheer and sharp to the right. Thundering waves crash against the precipices. Meanwhile, Scott drives the winding road with one eye on the sky. At one point he drives beneath a shimmering cloud of monarchs.
"I've noticed the butterflies use roads as flyways," observes Stock.
"Eeewww. We just smacked one," Scott says.
When they began gathering their data two years ago, there was skepticism about these upstart birders and their new research methods. But that all changed in October at a three-nation monarch investigators meeting that featured data from the team's weekly visits.
"Suddenly people got really interested," Scott says. "We got a lot of support from people who were doubters before."
The team arrives at Plaskett, and all eyes scan a stand of Monterey pines. Two years ago this site had hundreds of butterflies, last year none. "Same place!" shouts Scott. "This is too cool!"
"How can they come back to the same tree?" asks Stock. "This says something. But I'm not sure what "
These monarchs are the great-great-grandchildren of those who left last spring. Each January the butterflies mate, then the females fly off to lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Four to six generations must come and go before there's a return to the coast. Most generations live only 4 to 6 weeks, but the one that migrates back for the winter lives 4 to 6 months. In the monarch mystery of them all, no one knows how the distant relatives find their way back.