Mission Blue Butterfly

More than 30 federally-listed threatened or endangered species and more than 80 rare or special-status species call the Golden Gate National Recreation Area home. Notable residents of the Golden Gate National Parks include the San Francisco garter snake, northern spotted owl, California sea otter, coho salmon, mission blue butterfly, and Franciscan manzanita. Each of these species needs our help in their fight for survival. In hopes of encouraging their conservation, we are honoring a different “Species of the Year” each year beginning in 2011.

The very first Species of the Year is the mission blue butterfly. One of the first insects to be protected by the Endangered Species Act in 1976, this quarter-sized butterfly is a native of coastal grasslands from Marin to San Mateo. It is now found in small scattered populations in the Marin Headlands and Milagra Ridge in our parks, as well as on San Bruno Mountain and San Francisco Peninsula Watershed lands.

Mission blues are closely tied to their grassland habitat because their caterpillars can only eat the leaves of three species of lupines found there. As caterpillars, they spend around nine months of the year on or below these lupines before they pupate and emerge as adults in the spring.  While caterpillars have to avoid many natural predators such as birds and mice, they get some protection from an unlikely insect ally: ants. In return for warding off predators and parasites, the ants stimulate the caterpillars to secrete a sugary, nutritious “honeydew” substance that they love to eat.

Adult mission blue butterflies live for just over a week. On warm, calm, sunny days between March and June, iridescent light-blue males and brown females with touches of iridescent blue at the base of their wings can be seen flying, feeding on a variety of flowers, mating, and laying eggs. They can be distinguished from other kinds of blue butterflies by the two rows of black spots with white halos on the silvery underside of their wings. Not the strongest of fliers, mission blues spend cool, wet, or windy days hiding from the elements.

Unfortunately, mission blue butterflies have lost much of their lupine-filled grasslands to development, leaving their populations small, isolated, and vulnerable to disease, extreme weather, invasive plant species, and other threats.

The National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and many dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to monitor mission blue populations and improve their habitat. Learn more about these butterflies, upcoming Species of the Year activities, and how you can volunteer to help us protect this endangered Bay Area native at www.sfnps.gov/species

To read more about the mission blue butterfly and its host plant, the silver lupine, click here.

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Crissy Field Center Summer Camp
Get a jump start on summer fun for your kids! Here at the Crissy Field Center, Summer Camp programs fill up with lightning speed. We offer a wide array of exciting and educational outdoor sessions that engage students from grade 1-6 and a Counselor in Training program for youth entering grades 9-12, so there’s something for everyone! On February 5, come visit the Center, meet staff, learn about the different programs, enjoy some fun hands-on activities, and get a head-start on registration!

That’s right! The Crissy Field Center will be holding early-bird registration for Summer Camp at the open house. Registration officially opens online on February 28, but take advantage of this special opportunity from noon to 2 pm on February 5 to secure your spot before it’s gone.

Summer Camp staff will be there to meet and greet, walk you through registration, and answer all of your tough questions. Open house attendees will also get a chance to participate in an activity—giving them a special preview of what’s in store during the summer programs. Camp staff will be taking open house attendees down to the marsh to do a “mud grab,” which includes a brief presentation about the Crissy Field Marsh, high tide, low tide, native plants, and animals.  Attendees will also get the opportunity to examine the mud with microscopes in the Center’s science lab!


Campers conduct a full nature investigation by exploring the eucalyptus forest, discovering creatures living in the marsh, and listening for birds.

Are wings more your thing? This program is all about flying birds, daredevil pilots, buzzing insects, and navigating bats. Students will get to make their own winged costume and flying contraption to test out on the historic airfield.

Students design their own sustainable 3-D city, learn about animal architecture, and make a bridge from recycled materials.

Campers get to make smoothies, go on a parkwide scavenger hunt, create wacky videos, and conduct mad science experiments.

This is a chance to be a “park ranger in training!” This program includes visiting a park site every day, learning wilderness skills, camping overnight at Rob Hill, and getting sworn in as official Junior Rangers.

The CIT program gives young people valuable job skills so that they can lead and mentor children—and become environmental leaders.

Beyond our core Summer Camp program, this year, we will be expanding our extended-care program by adding morning sessions to our afternoons. For $15 a day, summer fun can start as early as 7:30 am with our “Early Birds” morning care option. But don’t worry parents, our usual afternoon extended-care program, “Afternoon Raccoons,” will still be running from 4 to 5:30 pm. Combine Early Bird and Afternoon Raccoon programs for $25 a day for complete extended-care coverage.  

Finally, if you’re looking to add some tax-deductible love and care, donate to our scholarship program and help an underserved San Francisco youth get the opportunity to have a fun and educational summer with their peers. Forty percent of our campers receive full or partial scholarships, so we are always looking for individuals to support our “campership” program. Summer Camp will fill up fast, be a part of the Crissy Field Center family, and enjoy the national park in your back yard.

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Jenn and Mike Armer
Jenn Cutler and Mike Armer met in the 1st grade in Menlo Park. They were good friends through 8th grade but then lost touch—only reuniting after college. Their life together began, however, when Mike started volunteering for the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.

Mike’s sister Kendra, who had been a GGRO volunteer since 1998, introduced him to the organization when he moved back to the Bay Area in 2003.  “My family has been into birds and birdwatching for many years, so I’d been a birder for 25 years at that point,” Mike says.

Mike inspired his friend Jenn to get involved as well, and she began volunteering with the GGRO in 2005.

In short order, both Jenn and Mike found themselves spending more and more time on GGRO activities. “It amazes me when I start to think of the number of hours all these long term volunteers have,” Jenn says. “For banding and hawkwatch, it’s a full day every time you go out—from six hours to more than 10.”

In addition to their volunteer duties banding hawks, they took on more responsibility with the GGRO. Mike, who works in a veterinary office, participates in conducting field evaluations of other GGRO volunteers, a process that ensures that everyone is trained correctly and that the GGRO collects accurate data for its scientific research. Jenn, a city planner for Palo Alto, helps take charge of minding and fixing the nets they use for catching the birds that they band.

Over the course of the last eight years, the two combined to contribute 2,500 hours of their time to the GGRO. Along the way, they fell in love with the organization—and each other.

Mike proposed to Jenn in September 2008—while they were banding hawks. On the fateful day, Mike arranged with Siobhan, the day leader, to arrange things so he and Jenn would be alone in a blind. He said that Siobahn guessed immediately what he was up to, but it took some finagling and chicanery on her part to make it happen.

“In the morning before we go out on the hill, the day leader assigns people to the four different blinds,” Mike explains. “She told people we’d be at Hill 88 and that someone else was going to be coming late because he had to pick his son up from soccer, so it didn’t look suspicious. Then she faked a cell phone call to herself, answered it, and said the other volunteer couldn’t make it after all because his son was sick. She called us on the radio to tell us this, but she was really telling everyone else.”

“I was totally oblivious,” Jenn says.

“I was very nervous,” Mike says. “My heart was beating very quickly!” The proposal took place at 11:30 am, with the second hawk the pair caught that day. Jenn had caught and banded the first bird.

“Mike banded the second bird, and I was looking out of the front of the blind keeping an eye on things while he was in the back doing the measurements,” Jenn recalls. “He came around and asked, ‘Jenn, can you check the size of this band for me?’ [For most people] this was not unusual—we often confirm because you want to make sure it’s not too big or small—but for Mike it’s unusual. So I turn around, and he’s sitting there with a sharp-shinned hawk on his lap, and not only did it have the normal band, but it also had a diamond ring. I kind of did a double take. And then I said ‘Yes.’”

“And then I was distracted by the sun reflecting off it for the rest of the day,” Jenn adds.

“Throughout the day, Siobhan kept making comments over the radio, like ‘What time do you want to pack up today? Five o’clock has a nice RING to it,’” Mike says. She also expressed concern about whether the pair had caught a bird small enough to fit the ring onto.

Jenn and Mike Armer Engagement Celebration at GGRO
Mike and Jenn were the last team to come down off the hill and Siobhan had convinced everyone to stay so they could take a team photo. She also had glasses of champagne for the group to toast the couple. Mike's sister Kendra was also banding that day, so she was among the first to hear about the engagement.

Their love for the GGRO—and raptors in general—was a theme up to and through their wedding day. Leading up to the big day, Jenn and Mike created a “personal fundraising page” on the Parks Conservancy website to raise money for the GGRO in lieu of wedding gifts. And on August 1, 2010, Mike and Jenn were married in a grove of redwood trees in the Santa Cruz area. Of course, raptors played a big role in their wedding ceremony as well. Siobhan, who does technical drawings for bird books, created the artistic renderings of raptors on the wedding invitations. And instead of a typical ring bearer, when the officiant said, “May I have the rings?,” a Harris’s hawk came flying over the crowd to deliver a black bag with the rings inside.

Mike and Jenn are excited to spend their married lives sharing their many interests—photography, birdwatching, and continuing to volunteer at the GGRO.

In fact, Mike took a sabbatical this past fall that allowed him even more time to volunteer—and his GGRO work became, in essence, a part-time job. He was on Hawk Hill twice a week each week during migration season—seeing and studying a great variety of raptor species at different ages. His valuable experience was a key factor in being nominated as a day leader for the GGRO.

“We both really enjoy the program,” Jenn says. “Everybody in it is a really amazing person—not just the staff but the volunteers as well. One of the things I find amazing about it is the longevity of the volunteers. We have some people who have been there for 25 years. It’s a great community.” Mike adds, “Even the days that we don’t have any luck catching hawks, we have fun because we're working with good people and a good organization.”

And a good way, it turns out, to find your mating pair.

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Xanterra Parks & Resorts

Ever wonder where your food comes from when you dine at a café or restaurant in a national park? The Institute at the Golden Gate has been working on an initiative called Food for the Parks to bring park leaders and concessioners together to offer more sustainable, organic, fair-trade, and local food and beverage options to national park visitors.

“There’s no question that Golden Gate National Parks is showing the way,” says Bill McKibben, author, educator, and founder of 350.org.

On November 7, 2010, environmental pioneer McKibben came to the Institute to speak with Acting Deputy Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks Aaron Roth and Bay Area sustainable food expert Larry Bain. They discussed how national parks can be a catalyst for propelling the sustainable food movement—highlighting some of the work that has been done in park cafes such as the Café at Muir Woods, the Warming Hut, and the Beach Hut Café along Crissy Field. “[The food system we have now] relies so much on fossil fuel that your food might as well be marinated in crude oil,” said McKibben. “We need a food system that works on different principles…closer to home, more local, more people employed on the farm.”

For more insights and highlights from the event, watch video here and learn about some of the exciting next steps for this movement. Also, stay tuned to our website, www.instituteatgoldengate.org, for the full Food for the Parks case study report coming soon.

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Silver Lupine and Mission Blue Butterfly
Like most living things, the mission blue butterfly has evolved with a very special habitat to support its needs. To begin our first annual Species of the Year campaign for the endangered mission blue butterfly, the nurseries would like to bring awareness to this pivotal part of its life-cycle: its host plant.

The habitat in which the mission blue thrives can be found in the dotted coastal grasslands of the Golden Gate National Parks. Here you’ll find the butterfly’s perfectly matched host plant: the silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons). Though there are 82 species of Lupinus in California, the mission blue can only find what it needs from the silver lupine—and maybe the summer lupine (Lupinus formosus) and varicolor lupine (Lupinus variicolor) if the silver lupine isn’t available. The silver lupine provides the perfect place for the butterfly to lay its eggs, provides tasty leaves for the larvae to munch on, and also provides a protected place for pupation (in the duff at the base of the plant).

With such a specialized niche, it’s not hard to understand why the mission blue is endangered. Its life cycle depends on the availability of silver lupine! Unfortunately, many factors presently affect the silver lupine population in the Bay Area, including: habitat loss due to urban and agricultural expansion, invasion of exotic plant species, and a recently found pathogen that causes “damping off” (a disease caused by a fungus that commonly happens because of too much moisture) of young plants—just to name a few.

Current restoration efforts in the Golden Gate National Parks are focused on removing invasive species in an effort to build up the native silver lupine population. The park nurseries also try to grow the lupine from seed for outplanting in the field. However, along with the difficulties faced in the field, the nurseries have had many challenges in trying to grow the host plant in a nursery setting.

To successfully grow Lupinus albifrons from seed, a pre-germination treatment must be applied to mimic what the seed might have naturally experienced in the wild. In their native coastal grassland habitat, the silver bush lupine seeds experience fires, wind, or interactions with native fauna that help scratch the thick seed coat to allow water in, which, in turn, triggers the germination process. The nursery staff imitates these interactions by immersing the seeds in boiling water, rubbing the seeds with sand paper, or delicately nicking the seed coat with a sharp blade.

Even if the seed receives just the right treatment and can successfully germinate, then the challenges of nurturing the seedling come into play. As young plants are prone to invasion by pathogens, nursery staff must sterilize the soil before transplanting seedlings into it and take care not to over-water (creating a perfect environment for the pathogen). Rodent predation on seedlings can also be an issue in a nursery setting, so planting containers are placed in wire cages for protection. All these difficulties, though they can be frustrating, are met with energy and know-how from the Conservancy restoration teams and nurseries staff.

So, the next time you are out for a hike in the parks or volunteering to plant at one of our restoration sites, look for the beautiful Lupinus albifrons, with its whirled palmate leaves and spike of beautiful violet flowers. And remember that it provides a specialized home for the majestic mission blue—our Species of the Year! They make a truly perfect pair.

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Park Pic of the Month

Searching for the picture-perfect spot to watch the sunset with your sweetheart this Valentine's Day? Look no further than our list of Top 5 Sunsets in the Parks!

See More Photos

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Price Sheppy, Park Stewardship Community Programs Manager

Mission Blue Butterfly

I have just come back from removing invasive scotch broom from around mission blue butterfly habitat at Milagra Ridge. I’m exhausted and wondering if I am really doing any good in the park. I express my thoughts to a co-worker, who has spent the last three months compiling and analyzing monitoring data for the mission blue butterfly which explains why I haven’t seen her. She was just finishing up her work so I sat down to warm up with a cup of hot cocoa. Our conversation quickly turned to what she had discovered.

She flipped through a pile of papers and showed me a graph that explains that across the Golden Gate National Parks there is a positive upward trend in mission blue butterfly numbers. The butterflies are recovering! It felt good to know that all of the work that volunteers and I had been doing is helping this butterfly—a butterfly that for so many represents the ephemeral nature of wildflowers and springtime in California. After a moment of elation, another question popped up in my mind. What were the butterflies recovering from?

I knew that habitat loss and invasive plants were causes for the decline in mission blue butterflies, but was that the whole story? I was told that in 1999, just four years after the beginning of the butterfly monitoring program, butterfly populations crashed. Butterfly populations are very fickle by nature and populations regularly fluctuate, but this crash was particularly devastating across most of the park. The year 1998 was a very wet one for the Bay Area, and while most native plants enjoyed the extra helping of rain, other plants that had evolved to take advantage of dry habitats and drought periods suffered.

One of these plants that suffered was the silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons)—the mission blue’s host plant. Fungal infections quickly took hold and attacked the water-soaked silver lupine. In certain areas of the park, up to 80% of silver lupine died back during that year and the years to follow. The butterfly populations crashed as a result, and many of the lupine patches lost all of the mission blue butterflies that depended on them. Over the years, silver lupines recovered and so did the butterfly. At Milagra Ridge, the butterfly populations returned to pre-1998 population levels. Unfortunately, last year was another especially wet year and silver lupine was again attacked by fungal infections and our butterfly populations again fell.

My co-worker reminded me that the park is doing something about all of this. We have concerned ecologists and restoration managers working to solve the problem of fungal infections on silver lupine. This year, park biologists sanitized their work boots after leaving infected patches of lupine so that the fungal pathogen would not spread to other patches. Already at Milagra Ridge, park employees are planting many colored lupine (Lupinus variicolor) around mission blue butterfly habitat. The summer lupine (Lupinus formosus) and many colored lupine are two mission blue host plants that are not readily affected by the fungal pathogen. Planting these two species in the park provides alternate host plants for the butterflies during very wet years. By continuing to learn more about these infections, creating quarantine methods for infected lupine patches, and diversifying lupine patches through native plantings, the park is making sure that mission blue butterfly populations will be safe for the future.

While butterfly populations will always fluctuate, I was inspired to learn that our work really does make a difference in the Golden Gate National Parks. Our efforts ensure that these endangered butterflies will continue to populate the local hillsides and add color and diversity to these public lands which we work so hard to restore.

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Mike Coffey

Name: Mike Coffey
Title:  Maintenance Worker/Zone Steward Presidio Area A
Hometown: Oakland, CA
Years you’ve worked for the NPS:  5 years (6 months with Sequoia/Kings Canyon NP, 4.5 years with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area)

What did you do before you worked for the National Park Service?

I worked in a boatyard for several years and with youth employment services. I also worked for the U.S. Forest Service when I was in college up in Washington State. I worked in the Buckhorn Wilderness on the Olympic Peninsula.

How did you get your start in trail related work?

With the U.S. Forest Service. I worked in general backcountry maintenance in the wilderness area. It included maintaining trails, campsites, resource areas.

What’s your favorite part about what you do?

Particularly in this park, the opportunity to affect and interact with so many people. We’re not just preaching to the choir here. I get to interact with hardcore, regular park users, international visitors, all kinds.

What’s your least favorite part of your work?

I don’t really have one. I like it all. I’m fully sold on working in maintenance as a zone steward. 

What characteristics make you look at a trail and say “Now this is a rockin’ trail!”?

Where people can go and have an emotional response. Where they can have an emotional and physical experience. The “wow” factor. Where a person can feel connected, emotionally and physically.

Favorite machinery or tool?

The brain. Working on backcountry trails, if you didn’t have the right tool with you, you had to work with what you could find. You had to figure it out on your own.

Best trail in the Golden Gate National Parks?

I love the Ben Johnson Trail in Muir Woods. It’s a WPA trail, built in the 1930s. My grandfather worked in the WPA, so this has real meaning for me. I like walking on the same logs the early trail workers used to build the trail. The Ben Johnson has history, and is beautiful.

Best trail you’ve ever hiked or worked on?

Muir Beach Overlook. It was my first project here. And working there in the spring brought a new experience everyday. One day it was whales going by off the coast; the next, wildflowers; the next, a wild storm blew through. I worked there for three months with a great trail crew. 

Favorite trail story?

Bears. Bears. Bears. That’s all I can say. In the Sequoia and Washington. 

What trail in the Golden Gate National Parks would you take a first date on?

The Coastal Trail from Muir Beach to Tennessee Valley.

What do you most want to tell a park visitor when they are on a trail or visiting the GGNRA?

Slow down. We don’t have big hike-through trails here. We have dramatic vistas on a bridge, for example. I encourage people to take it in, then look down. Find the smallest flower. In this park, we have fog, wind, rain. It’s a great opportunity to look down, to the small things. Just, slow down.

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Planting Volunteers at Fort Baker

Looking for a different way to celebrate Valentine’s Day this year?

Volunteer and give your Golden Gate National Parks some much needed and deserved TLC! Lend a hand sprucing up a park site by planting, weeding, mulching, restoring habitats and landscapes, collecting trash, tending a trail, nurturing young seedlings, and more. We’re more than mid-way through planting season and still have thousands of plants to get in the ground before Mother Nature’s season of therapeutic rain ends.

The park needs your care, but for all that you give, you will also receive. Volunteering is a great way to meet others, spend time with your loved ones, and experience the refreshing embrace of your outdoor spaces next door. It’s good for the parks’ health, it’s good for your health, and it’s good for the health of our community. What better way is there to share the love?

These are your national parks, so put on some work clothes, dress in some layers, roll up your sleeves, grab your friends and family, and come out for a day of volunteering at Golden Gate. There are options for everyone and we’ve got plenty of dates and times for you to connect with your parks—visit parksconservancy.org/volunteer or contact us at (415) 561-3077 or volunteer@parksconservancy.org. Hugs from the parks!

Learn more

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