Halloween was a lot of fun, and we are still munching on the leftover candies – but we are starting to check recipes for Thanksgiving, buy gifts for Christmas and think about what to do for New Year’s Eve.
Our life is carefully regulated by those different holidays as well as the birthday celebrations throughout the year.
Animals also follow a calendar of events, and right now we are in the migration season.
I used to have a turkey vulture roost in my backyard, and when it was migration time I counted up to 47 of the large birds in the huge eucalyptus tree. Some birds would join the flock just to make the trip together.
Each year on Sept. 22 or 23, they would fly away, returning exactly between Jan. 2 and 3. I would anxiously look around at dusk if it was the day they normally came back, and I would make note of the date, time and number of birds. The number of birds on the trip back was always much less, and it would increase progressively through the year.
Because I sent the data to the Turkey Vulture Society, which had requested it, I became acutely aware of different migration patterns around me.
We still do not have all the answers about how the animals manage those migrations. Many animals, such as monarch butterflies, make the trip for the first time without parents showing them the way.
I was recently in Moss Landing, a fantastic place to observe animals of all kinds – sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals, white and brown pelicans, and many other types of sea birds.
I was surprised not to see any ducks. The captain naturalist directing the boat on the estuary told me, “Ah, the ducks are coming in two weeks.” Migration is so precise, you can expect certain events to happen on an exact date.
For example, each year, the return of the swallows to Mission San Juan Capistrano is expected on March 19 (which is also St. Joseph Day). The mission was founded in 1776, and the arched belfry was always a good spot for the birds to protect their nests. The swallows travel 6,000 miles (10,000 km) south to their wintering range of Goya, Argentina, before making the long trip back to the San Diego area.
In late October, I was in Ventura and noticed the fluttering flights of many monarch butterflies. The butterflies that started their long journey from as far away as British Columbia were here to spend the winter.
How the species manages to return to the same overwintering spot and even the same tree over the gap of several generations is still a puzzle. They seem to use a combination of the position of the sun in the sky and the Earth’s magnetic field for orientation.
Butterflies that are born in the early summer live for two months, but those born in the late summer are part of a group that will enter a special phase called diapause, where they won’t reproduce for seven months. During that time, they make the long flight south, where they will spend the winter.
This overwintering generation does not reproduce until it leaves the overwintering site sometime in March. No individual makes the round trip.
In California, the monarchs keep close to the coast. Some wintering spots are Pacific Grove, Santa Cruz and Grover Beach. I just visited the site in Santa Cruz, and it is always an exciting place to see this wonderful event.
In Santa Clarita, our nights are just too cold for the monarchs to spend their winter with us. But the coast is not too far, and there is an excellent wintering spot in Goleta (just north of UC Santa Barbara). Do not go there too early in the morning; wait until mid-day when the temperature goes up a little and the butterflies have had time to warm their wings in the sun.
It is a special and interesting experience to see so many monarchs in one spot. If it is a cold day, take your binoculars with you and start to check on those suspicious clusters of what look like seeds stuck together on the eucalyptus. They are monarch butterflies piled close together, keeping each other warm during the night. I could give you the information to drive there, but check the website, goletabutterflygrove.com – it will be faster and might be more accurate.
Go there on a nice day and know that in March, they will be gone. Take a break from your Christmas shopping and enjoy a day at the beach. On top of the bluff, there is a nice trail with a beautiful view, so take your lunch and enjoy.
You can also stop in Santa Barbara on the way back; that is always pleasant.
We have five major migrations happening right now in California. I mentioned the monarch butterflies and a little bit about the Pacific Flyway.
Every year, millions of birds, more than 350 species, traverse the Pacific Flyaway. It is one of the four major migratory bird routes in the Americas. Most of the migration is coming from the north and going to the south. If you go to the tropics in the winter, you will see some of the birds that were in your backyard at some time of the year, but which are spending the winter in a warmer climate.
Some birds do an up-and-down type of migration. They spend the summer at higher elevations and come down for the winter. The junco is one of those birds that we are going to see soon. The fall has been warm, so it is a bit uncertain exactly when they will decide to show up.
Another migration that we definitely won’t see in Santa Clarita, but which is happening along the coast, is the grey whale migration. There again, you can board ships in San Pedro or Ventura to see the migration close by, but I think you might have better luck seeing the mother and the babies on their way back in March.
Each October, as the northern ice starts to form, the whales start the long trip south. They travel day and night and they cover 75 miles per day. The trip is the longest migration done by any mammal. In December, many can be seen between Monterey and San Diego, but in late December and January, they arrive in the calving lagoons of Baja.
The pregnant mothers will give birth to the calves, and from mid-February to mid-March, the lagoon is full of nursing mothers, calves and mating grey whales.
Another spectacular migration is made by Chinook salmon. Sadly, the population is declining, and the fall run has not been good. However, there are still some good spots for viewing: on Butte Creek, Deer Creek and Mill Creek, all tributaries of the Sacramento River – Butte Creek being the best spot to see those glittering fish wriggling their way back to their birthplace so they can spawn.
The fifth migration in California is the one made by Sandhill cranes. It is one of the oldest living species of birds; fossils of this bird date back 10 million years. They return to California from Alaska, traveling 350 miles per day.
They are a large bird with a strange call. I once had the rare opportunity to find myself too close to one in a field in France (a very different migratory route), and we made about the same frightened noise – although the bird’s was louder than mine. They can be found in the Carrizo Plain in the Central Valley, as well as the Sacramento River delta. The town of Lodi just had a Sandhill crane festival earlier this month.
Migration is such complex and fascinating concept. The trip is dangerous, long and difficult, but the survival of the species is always the motivation for the animal, and there really is no other choice. In the south, the climate will be more clement, the food is plentiful, and for some species, it is the only place where they will give birth to their young. So fall is time for them to pack up and leave.
We have the choice to turn up the thermostat and go to the supermarket to fill the fridge, so it can be difficult to comprehend those life-and-death decisions that surround us come fall. But it is certainly interesting to read and observe theirs, and to dream about those long journeys.
Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.