21 Aug 2014
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Monarch Count At 14-Year High on Albany Hill

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The count is in for the monarch butterflies : 2,137. That’s the most seen here since 1997, when 3,000 were reported.

The butterflies were counted by amateur lepidopterist Bill Shepard of Berkeley, with help from Heidi Rand and George McRae, of El Cerrito, as part of California’s annual Thanksgiving Count, between Nov. 20 and Dec. 4.

The count is done at a cold point in the day, Shepard said, while the butterflies are still clustered on the trees.

“With binoculars, I count individuals in the clusters, but have to estimate and add numbers if I can't see the cluster from all angles,” Shepard explained. “If possible I count from two different angles.”

He spends an hour or more counting, he said.

The counters attend training sessions, Shepard said, to practice counting and estimating, and then compare results. Counters tally up monarchs at more than 80 sites along coastal California every year.

Although not all the numbers are in yet, so far this year, the monarch populations have increased dramatically at nearly every site, after more than a decade of declining.

Theories on the increase (and experts stress that these are just theories), include more rainfall this past year, which would have meant more and healthier milkweed, the only plant on which monarchs lay their eggs.

Another theory is that lower summer temperatures this year were closer to those in decades past, when monarch numbers were higher.

To see the Albany Hill colony of monarchs start at the top of Taft Street. Follow the wide trail at the “” sign south about 100 yards to the bench and rope swing. From here, there are two ways to reach the monarchs, but neither is easy.

Route 1: From the bench and swing continue downhill on the wide path you arrived on. After you pass the large cross, look for a “trail” lined with branches on the right. (See photo.) That leads to a narrow path into the woods. It’s barely a trail, and the footing isn’t always good.

Route 2 (not recommended): From the swing and bench, follow the narrow path through the grass southward, past another tree swing. It will go down a very steep slope, with loose leaves and rocks. You’ll arrive at a grassy “landing.” Look to the left, or south.

George McRae reported Wednesday that he and Shepard found a cluster of about 1,000 butterflies in a new location, visible from the bench and swing. The cluster, he said, is due west of the bench (that’s looking a little north of the Golden Gate Bridge), about 50 to 60 yards from the bench, slightly downhill. It’s unknown whether the butterflies will stay there.

Another dozen or so were spotted Wednesday on a tree right next to the bench, so it would be worth searching the trees on the top of the hill for clusters.

It’s best to visit the butterflies on a sunny afternoon when their bodies have warmed up enough to fly (generally at least 55 degrees). Then, some will be flying and others fluttering their orange wings on the trees. On cold or cloudy days you will find only brown clusters in the trees (monarchs with wings closed), which are much harder to spot.

When you go, wear good hiking shoes, consider bringing a walking stick, and watch out for poison oak, which is bare at this time of the year, but has smooth gray-brown branches and very short side-branches. (Just avoid touching all plants! I’m still scratching…) Also, bring binoculars.

The monarchs have most likely hit their peak for this winter. Their numbers will dwindle during the rainy season. Those left can be expected to disperse in January or February, to repopulate inland areas and lay eggs on milkweed for the next generation.

For more information on the monarch migration and a list of other monarch wintering sites, .

Have you visited the monarchs this year? If so, please feel free to share your experiences and photos here.

Do you have questions about the monarchs? Ask here and we’ll try to get answers for you.

Heidi Rand and George McRae have , and other butterflies, through Dec. 28.

For information on planting milkweed, which monarchs need to survive, see www.xerces.org. Milkweed vendors can be found at www.plantnative.org/nd_ca.htm.

If there's something in this article you think , or if something else is amiss, call editor Emilie Raguso at 510-459-8325 or email her at  emilier@patch.com.

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