Robert Coffan stood next to a patch of milkweed at Coyote Trails Nature Center in Medford last September feeling a little choked up about all that had transpired to bring him and monarch butterfly No. A2045 to this point.
The milkweed where Coffan found two caterpillars three weeks earlier had just been planted earlier that year, and it lured a female monarch that produced those caterpillars, which Coffan and his wife, Simone, raised at home until they became butterflies.
Now, this royal monarch sporting a little white tag with its official number on it — A2045 — was about to go to work, flying away toward a winter colony in who-knows-where.
"It was kind of touchy-feely," Coffan says. "All of these things came together, and it was me that had it for release."
For monarch A2045, who-knows-where turned out to be Bolinas, Calif., in Marin County just north of San Francisco.
That's where he and his distinctive tag were spotted not once but twice this winter, providing an important cog in a new citizen-science experiment that is trying to shed light on when and where Pacific Northwest monarchs migrate during their fascinating life cycle.
"When I heard it was discovered, instead of feeling all emotional, I was proud," says Coffan, a member of Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates. "When you think he made it 312 miles, and that sticker I put on him was still on."
Coffan's monarch was one of eight released last fall in Southern Oregon that turned up this winter in California roost trees, providing the lion's share of raw data collected this year on monarch migration by Washington State University professor David James.
The Southern Oregon monarchs were among 20 tagged butterflies that were identified in winter roosts this year, and were among 40 tagged monarchs identified after release since James began the study in 2012.
"Having eight recaptures is extremely high," James says. "It's remarkable. This year's been an extremely productive year for citizen-scientists in Southern Oregon."
While eastern monarchs are famous for their long migrations, much less is known about Pacific Northwest monarchs, whose populations, locations and life cycles are tied to milkweed.
Adult females lay their eggs in milkweed, and the ensuing caterpillars dine solely on milkweed before forming a chrysalis, from which they emerge as the royal-looking orange- and black-winged butterfly.
Monarchs produce four generations annually, each one making a portion of the migration between Washington and Idaho through Oregon and down to California and even Mexico.
At least, that's the conventional wisdom, James says.
"Up until now, it's all been theory and assumptions," James says. "It's all anecdotal."
James launched his unfunded study in 2012, relying on monarch fans and Washington State Penitentiary inmates in Walla Walla, Wash., to tend milkweed plots and rear the monarchs to adulthood.
James supplies the small, white, adhesive stickers that sport a specific number and a website address that volunteers put on a wing before release.
"Butterflies are not as fragile as people think," he says. "You just hold the butterfly and stick it on."
Buoyed largely by the inmate butterflies, James' group tagged and released 2,000 monarchs in 2012, 1,000 in 2013 and 2,000 in 2014.
Wintering monarchs are viewed regularly throughout California. Those who spy them, catch them or look at them through a camera lens can see the bright stickers, record the data and report when and where they are "recaptured."
Since 2001, Linda Kappen has been growing milkweed for monarchs at the Applegate School, where she is an education assistant. She long wanted to get into monarch tagging and hooked up with James in 2014.
She now leads a cadre of monarch-taggers who sent 966 of almost 3,000 tagged monarchs that flew into the skies of the Pacific Northwest in 2015.
Of the eight recaptures, one included a monarch tagged at Applegate School that ended up at a middle school in Boonville, Calif., 227 miles away, records show.
Coffan's A2045 was seen in Bolinas on New Year's Day and again last week.
"Without Linda Kappen and those volunteers down there, all this recovery wouldn't have happened," James says.
James is starting to get enough data to draw some patterns, and the research likely will prove most of what scientists have assumed about monarch migration into and out of the Pacific Northwest.
"It's great to get the definitive evidence," he says.
Coffan and the rest of the Southern Oregon Monarch Advocates are more than willing to help, one patch of milkweed and one monarch sticker at a time.
"We're just completely amazed that what we're doing here is making a stir and making a difference," Coffan says. "We're affecting things. It's amazing."
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.