The number of monarch butterflies wintering on Albany Hill this winter is disappointingly small, after last year’s unexpectedly good turnout.
Only 41 of the orange-and-black butterflies were reported by volunteer counter Bill Shepard this month, compared to more than 2,200 last year. See last year's spectacular photos here and here.
Albany Hill is one of 80 or more sites along coastal California where monarch butterflies from all over the western United States spend their winters, roosting in colonies, of anywhere from a few dozen to thousands. (Monarchs east of the Rockies migrate to Mexico.) Monarchs are one of only two insects in the world known to migrate long-distance.
Every Thanksgiving week, trained volunteers count monarchs in their roosting locations throughout the state. The counts have not yet been tallied, but early indications this fall were that numbers were low in many places, continuing a 15-year trend.
Despite the low turnout, a trip to Albany Hill Park can still offer some pleasant monarch viewing this winter. On a sunny day, you are likely to spot at least five or six monarchs floating around, and may see a cluster.
On Sunday, the cluster of 41 was easy to observe, on a branch hanging right over the main fire trail at the hillcrest. To get there, start at the circle at the top of Taft Avenue, and walk south on the fire trail. When you reach the first bench on the right (where there used to be a rope swing) you will have just walked under them, if they’re still there. Turn around, and look up at the branch across the trail. Bring binoculars for a close-up view.
If they’ve moved (and they do), look for fliers and follow them to where they land. They may lead you to a small cluster.
If you spot a cluster elsewhere on the hill, you can report it to Shepard at firstname.lastname@example.org. Estimate the number and explain their location. You can also post that here.
Two Bay Area wintering sites that have traditionally had larger populations offer guided tours. Ardenwood Farm in Fremont has about 1,700 butterflies this year, and tours are twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays in December and January, plus some weekdays in January.
San Leandro’s Monarch Bay Golf Club has a colony of about 5,000 butterflies this year. Tours there ended Dec. 9, but the naturalist said if there’s enough interest, she will add a tour in January ($6-$12), Contact her at email@example.com.
The monarchs can be expected to leave their winter roosts in late-January or February. They will head inland and north, seeking milkweed to lay their eggs. To learn more about Monarch butterflies see the Monarch Watch and Xerces Society websites.