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Where to See the Monarch Butterflies Wintering in California Before They Leave

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Getty Images

In a eucalyptus grove within earshot of the pounding Pacific surf, the monarchs at Pismo Beach State Park flutter like golden leaves set aloft by a gentle wind. But a closer look reveals something magical: thousands of the orange and black butterflies clustering together in the tall trees for warmth and protection.

Pismo is one of about 200 sites where western monarchs overwinter along the California coast. A three-day drive up the iconic Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Barbara to the Monterey Peninsula offers the chance to see some of the greatest concentrations of overwintering monarchs in the United States.  

These are not the eastern monarchs that migrate by the millions to the mountains of central Mexico. Western monarchs, which today number less than 1 million, originate west of the Rockies. Unable to survive freezing northern winters, they travel hundreds or thousands of miles to mild coastal microclimates. They roost in Monterey cypress and pine and non-native eucalyptus, which provide protection from wind, rainstorms, and predators.

The butterflies that make the journey to these coastal groves are very special. While the lifespan of spring and summer monarchs is 10 weeks or less, this generation born in early fall has adapted to survive between six and nine months—long enough to make the great migration and overwinter on the coast. As they migrate, these monarchs suck up as much flower nectar as they can to build fat reserves that will sustain them on their journey. They’ll need it, too, because they travel up to 100 miles a day and fly as high as 10,000 feet.

This generation spends months in a state of reproductive diapause, when a hormone necessary to trigger development of their reproductive organs is absent or nearly absent until conditions are favorable for offspring. Those conditions become favorable right around now, when days become longer and warmer and monarch mating season gets underway. The butterflies will be gone by March at the latest, so don't wait too long to see them. 

So grab your binoculars and get ready for a classic California road trip with an amazing twist. Bonus: all of these butterfly groves have free entry.

DAY 1: SANTA BARBARA COUNTY 

Jim Ellwanger, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Monarchs aren’t able to fly until the temperature rises above 57°F, so early afternoon is the best time to witness the butterflies bursting from their clusters and flying around the Goleta Butterfly Grove. That leaves your morning free to visit some other scenic sites and learn about local flora and fauna at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden

At noon, head for the Goleta grove on the Ellwood Mesa. This is an especially dense eucalyptus grove, so the butterflies will be most active when the Sun is directly overhead. Until then, they might appear at first to be nothing more than masses of dead brown leaves, but get closer and they’ll take your breath away. This grove also links with trails to the beach and another monarch site, the Coronado Butterfly Preserve.

DAY 2: PISMO BEACH  

Teri Vogel, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Enjoy a morning drive along the Gaviota Coast, the longest remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline in Southern California. You’ll be treated to stunning views of the Santa Ynez mountains, secluded beaches, and coastal bluffs. If the day is clear, you’ll also be able to see the Santa Barbara Channel Islands and maybe even spot a whale—another migrator on an epic journey. 

Follow Highway 1 north another 1.5 hours through the small farming towns of Lompoc and Guadalupe. The Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove is right off the highway, and by noon, the monarchs should be taking flight. You can observe thousands more clustered in the trees through one of several telescopes provided for visitors. 

A short trail will take you through the sand dunes to the beach, but return to the grove in time for the fascinating docent talk at 2 p.m. Spend the night under the stars in the adjacent campground (reservations required), or continue on up the coast to Cambria, a charming seaside town that’ll put you within striking distance of Big Sur. 

DAY 3: BIG SUR AND PACIFIC GROVE  

I Bird 2, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Get an early start to allow plenty of time for stops along the magnificent Big Sur coastline. It’s a 2.5-hour drive straight through to Pacific Grove, but it would be a shame not get out and walk to the beach and nearby redwood forests. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is a great place to do both.

Pacific Grove, dubbed “Butterfly Town,” is located on the Monterey Peninsula and just a short drive away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The butterfly sanctuary is in a grove of pine and eucalyptus in the center of town. Docents are on hand daily to answer questions and wow you with astounding monarch facts. 

One thing the dedicated volunteers at each of these sites will stress is that monarchs are in peril. They’re currently under consideration for endangered species status, and western monarch numbers have plummeted nearly 40 percent below the long-term average (monarch populations are down 90 percent overall). Development, agriculture, and climate change are destroying monarch habitat and the milkweed plant that is essential to the species’ survival. The caterpillars only eat milkweed, and the butterflies lay their eggs on the plant. 

Whether or not you have the chance to visit the monarchs’ winter homes, you can support monarch survival by planting milkweed around your own home. Just be sure to ask your local nursery which milkweed species are native to your area, because planting the wrong kind can actually interfere with the monarchs’ migration. 

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Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health
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iStock

It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter
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What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]

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