Painted Lady Butterflies

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Perhaps you’ve seen a few of these butterflies recently, flitting about in your garden. Or perhaps you’ve seen hundreds, coursing along coastlines or crossing highways in steady streams, with many sadly meeting their ends splattered on car windshields and grills.

Measuring two inches from wingtip to wingtip, with black and white markings against an orange backdrop, these scale-winged insects are a familiar sight to people around the world. The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is one of the most widespread butterfly species on the planet, found on every continent except South America and Antarctica.

In years of abundant winter rainfall, painted lady numbers can skyrocket, as early-blooming wildflowers provide nectar for butterflies and food sources for their larvae.

Like the famous monarch butterfly, painted ladies are migratory, following favorable conditions with the seasons. In the American West, these butterflies generally move in a north-northwest direction, leaving the Southwest and Mexico at winter’s end and traveling toward the Pacific Northwest with the onset of spring.

Painted ladies aren’t picky in their choice of plants to nectar on. Adults will use almost any plant in flower but they show preference for those in the Asteraceae family, including thistles. These plants are the butterfly’s hosts—their larvae eat leaves of asters and spin silken webs to protect themselves from predators.

Interestingly, painted ladies are known to breed and lay eggs in all seasons. A single year’s migration can involve several successive generations of painted ladies, each born and raised along the migration route.

It’s estimated that millions of these butterflies are migrating across North America this spring. Enjoy this natural spectacle while it lasts!

Malheur Refuge Loves Its Volunteers!

Written by Carey Goss, Refuge Specialist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge/Photo by Carey Goss

“There is nothing stronger than a heart of a volunteer.” I learned this when I began managing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Program in 2001. I realized that I could not manage the Visitor Services Program alone. With more than 28,000 visitors visiting the Refuge annually, it was a challenge to provide visitors a genuine welcoming and a true orientation to the Refuge and complete other duties assigned to my position.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Carey Goss and I have been working at the Refuge for 21 years. I began as a trainee in 1998 under the management series and then graduated from Humboldt State University. I was fortunate enough to be hired full time at Malheur Refuge to manage the Visitor Services Program, which included the Volunteer Program. I am now the Wildlife Refuge Specialist, but I still have the wonderful opportunity to work with volunteers.

Things have changed over the years in the Volunteer Program at the Refuge, but not the gentle presence of volunteers and how much I appreciate them. Today, I work with volunteers to help me welcome and orient visitors in the Visitor Center, provide birding expertise to visitors from beginners to skilled birders, assist visitors as docents at the historic Sod House Ranch, and accomplish various tasks with maintenance.

Last year, Refuge volunteers provided more than 4,000 hours of service and I am grateful for what they have achieved. This year already, five Refuge volunteers have helped me with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, staffed the Visitor Center, provided excellent birding advice to visitors, and completed various maintenance tasks.

I am excited to see the changes with the recent hire of FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks, the new Friend’s Nature Store and their expanded volunteer program. Together with the help of volunteers, we will make positive strides for the benefit of our visitors.

FOMR Sponsored County-wide Arts Education Program

Written by Carey Goss, Refuge Specialist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge/Photo courtesy of USFWS

This February, students all around Harney County had the opportunity to learn about shorebirds, gulls and terns and created unique pieces of art during this year’s Art Residency Program developed by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Bend Art Center for the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.

This program would have not been possible without Friends of Malheur Refuge, who was the main sponsor bringing this program to Harney County.

Refuge Specialist Carey Goss, of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and artist Liz Foster, of Bend Art Center, traveled to schools across the area sharing their knowledge with local students. This year’s program served over 600 students in grades K – 8.

Students they visited each chose a bird image to study and re-create using watercolor paint. Every class learned about a variety of species of shorebirds, gulls and terns, as well as their habitats, calls, and how far they can migrate. They also learned some tips for drawing what they see, and multiple watercolor painting techniques. The integration of art and science made this program especially notable. Participating in this program was fun for the students and the instructors alike.

Each student worked hard on his or her piece of art and was proud to show it off. The paintings from this Art Residency Program were displayed around Burns and Hines at local businesses for visitors to see during the week of the festival.

Additionally, at least one student’s painting from each grade is featured in specially-designed nature note cards. The note cards are available for purchase at the Friends Nature Store, with all proceeds supporting FOMR’s local arts education program. In addition, five students’ pieces were selected to be printed on canvas and auctioned to support FOMR’s Art Residency Program in Harney County next year.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Bend Art Center thanks Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and all Harney County schools for participating in the Art Residency Program. Helping our youth through art programs may be one of the most important steps we can take together. Investing in youth art programs not only expose students to the benefit of the arts, but also help youth success in all school subjects and in life.

White Geese in the Harney Basin

Written by FOMR President Gary Ivey/Photo by Gary Ivey

In addition to serving as President of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I work on Sandhill Crane conservation and research throughout the Pacific Flyway as a Research Associate for the International Crane Foundation. I help with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, almost every year, by giving talks and tours, mostly about cranes and waterfowl.

During my two days at the Festival this year, I noted that there were at least 150,000 Ross’ Geese, and perhaps 500 Snow Geese, in just the flocks on the private lands around Burns. I know this sounds like a lot, and it is.

I served as a Malheur Refuge wildlife biologist from 1983 through 1998 and one important survey we conducted was to fly all wetland and meadow areas in the Harney Basin in spring and fall, to count numbers of migrating waterfowl.  I personally tallied peaks of over 300,000 “white geese” using the Harney Basin during some spring aerial survey flights in the late 1990s (during aerial surveys, Ross’ and Snow Geese are lumped into this white goose category because they are difficult to distinguish from the air).

These geese use the Silvies Floodplain, Malheur Lake and the Double-O Ranch areas extensively during spring migration. More recently, numbers of wintering white geese have dramatically increased in the Pacific Flyway and recent estimates of Ross’ Geese total about 450,000 and estimates of Snow Geese total about 750,000; a total of about 1.2 million white geese!

From my past experience, a very high percentage of these Pacific Flyway white geese (up to 90%) stop in the Harney Basin for a few weeks each spring on their way back to their arctic nesting areas. Most of the Ross’ geese, the smaller of the two species, are on their way to nesting grounds in the central Canadian arctic.  The snow geese migrate to northern Canada as well, but also return to nesting areas in northern Alaska and Siberia.

On one of my festival tours this year, we had the pleasure of getting really close to a flock of about 50,000 Ross’ Geese in the flooded hay meadows of the Silvies Floodplain near Burns. The flock included at least eight blue-phased birds, which was a highlight of that tour.  I first observed this rare color of this species in the spring of 1984 and back then they were rare and hard to find. My impression is that the blue-phase of the Ross’ Goose has significantly increased since the 1980s in the flocks that use our Pacific Flyway.

This blue-phase of the Ross’ Goose was described in a research paper by Dr. Robert McLandress in 1979, and he theorized that it was so rare because this blue-phase gene likely recently entered the Ross’ Goose species, either through mutation or through hybridization with Snow Geese where the blue-phase is much more common. This latter theory is more likely, as he also documented hybrids between Snow and Ross’ Geese. If you haven’t seen these beauties, you should plan on attending the Festival next year!

The Ingenious Rust Fungus

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

A walk through the sage-steppe this time of year usually turns up some of the first high-desert wildflowers blooming between the dormant shrubs and still-brown grasses. Sagebrush buttercup, Beckwith’s violet, yellow bells and several biscuitroot species are among the earlier species to flower. But there is another springtime plant, superficially flower-like in appearance, that bears a closer look.

This rosette of yellow “blossoms” is in fact a rust fungus (Puccinia monoica) infecting a native mustard species. The fungus commandeers its host, altering its natural growth habit to produce yellow rosettes of “pseudo-flowers” which offer no real nectar or pollen but instead serve the reproductive purposes of the fungus.

By forcing its host’s pseudoflowers to manufacture floral scents and sticky, sweet “pseudo-nectar”, Puccinia deceives insects into landing on the infected plant. The fake flowers even mimic the lines and patterns known as nectar guides, visible under ultraviolet light, that many real blossoms sport to visually attract pollinators.

Once the insects alight, they inadvertently collect fungal gametes from the hundreds of “spermatogonia” that cover each pseudoflower. These insects then fly off to visit other pseudoflowers, bringing the hitchhiking gametes along to effectively “pollinate” the fungus.

But this is just one phase of Puccinia‘s life cycle. Once a Puccinia pesudoflower receives the right gametes to undergo sexual reproduction, it loses its bright color, attractive odor and sticky exudate and starts producing spores. These spores, carried by the wind, eventually land on certain grass species, which are the fungus’s secondary hosts. Once the spores germinate and infect the grass, a new, special set of spores is produced–these drift on the wind and eventually attach to mustard plants, starting the cycle anew.