A Big Day + A Big Miss
Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Those last 13 species... some of them are not going to come easily. Over the years, I've spent seven days searching for the Gold-hunters Hairstreak in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Gold-hunters Hairstreak is a small drab, brown, modestly marked butterfly with tiny little tails on it's hindwings. Its mostly a California bug, but its range just barely crosses over into southern Oregon in a couple of spots, and this spot is the one with the most recent sightings.
Knowing this species had eluded me several times already, I went to my go-to butterfly info-man Andy Warren, who has done amazing studies of the distribution of butterflies in Oregon. His book, Butterflies of Oregon: Their Taxonomy, Distribution and Biology, is my constant companion. Last year I went to the places Andy had gone, at the times he'd found the Gold-hunters Hairstreak--when I arrived at the first spot, I found the flowers dried up and only a few weather-worn Lindseys skippers. At the other site, I found a lot of wonderful butterflies, but no Gold-hunters.
The very name "Gold-hunters" is echoing in my ears as I type, and bringing to mind images of wealth-seeking gold-miners in the 1800's chasing every rumor of a gold strike, in hopes of a big pay-off. A few of them got lucky, some not. Some died in the chase. Am I chasing rumors of gold, I wondered?
This past week, I made another attempt, planning ahead to go down there a bit earlier, to avoid the chance that the Goldhunters' favorite nectar source, Spreading Dogbane, would be dried and done for the season. I was pumped up and ready for success! I packed the cooler, packed the car, made the three hour drive, got out my camera and binoculars, got out of my car, and walked the 150 feet from my parking spot down to the Dogbane patch, and... it had recently been cut: the tops (with the flowers) were all gone, likely trimmed by some kind of mowing machine. How could they?! This is the spot where about ten years ago, just a bit later in the year, Andy Warren had seen "dozens" of them. And they mowed the plants? Really? Ouch.
Big sigh. Back to the car, and on to site number two. Up on Baldy Creek Road in the National Monument there are some good Dogbane patches at the side of the road. I drove up there, with threads of hope still intact. I stopped at the first patch, and my mood was elevated at the site of the Dogbane in full bloom with 75-100 butterflies of several species bopping about. Okay, we're on!
Within 10 minutes, I spotted a small, brown, drab hairstreak that didn't immediately look familiar to me! Elated, I moved in with Tai Chi fluidity, a live version of slo-mo in action. Within a few minutes, I had a series of what seemed like good images. Wow! Could it really be that easy? I emailed a couple friends that'd I'd dined with the previous evening, who I'd told of my quest for the day, and shared my elation. I was so exited to get one of the hard ones! No more more three hour drives to Ashland! Knocked one off the list of 13! Woo-hoo!
That evening, in my rented cabin, I studied the images from the day to make sure that they were sharp enough to meet my high standards. If they weren't up to snuff, I'd go back for more tomorrow. As I studied the Gold-hunter's photos, I found a series of sharp, clear well-composed images, but something was eating at me. Something wasn't quite right about them. So I went to my books and to the web to make sure that I had the right species. It didn't take long to figure out that what I had excellent photos of was a pale and relatively unmarked Hedgerow Hairstreak. Damn the luck! Hedgerow Hairstreak is a really fetching little butterfly, but its common near Eugene where I live. Not one of the hard ones.
This made me think of something I've said a number of times when out birdwatching. For example "I tried really hard to make that WesternKingbird into and Ash-throated Flycatcher." When we really want to see a particular bird, especially one we haven't seen before, our mind will sometimes make us overlook the actual facts, and temporarily believe we are seeing something we aren't. And I really wanted that brown hairstreak to be a Gold-hunters Hairstreak.
Discouraged, but still undaunted, I decided to spend another day in the Monument looking for Gold-hunters, instead of heading east to Bly Mountain as originally planned. I spent the morning poking around Jenny Creek on the east side of the Monument, and then headed up to Baldy Creek Road. The headline above probably clued you in to the ultimate outcome: a big fat swing-and-a-miss. There was a silver lining, or should I say a pearly lining?
I'd previously made nine visits altogether down to Baldy Creek Road and four times I had days with more than 30 species of butterflies. But I'd never seen a day like this one! At the key sites where nectar sources were blooming or water was flowing, I just kept logging one new species after another! Seven species of blues. Ten species of skippers. I identified 44 species in all, a record day for me for a single Oregon site!
As the afternoon stretched towards evening, I came back to the best Dogbane patch one last time. I found all the same species I'd found earlier, including that dastardly little Hedgerow Hairstreak that gave me the rollercoaster ride (thrill of victory, agony of defeat). As I was scanning across all these butterflies, this big white thing flies into the patch, right in front of me. I look at it and I'm thinking "what?!?" Its a Northern White Skipper, and I don't think its normally found here! Northern White Skipper is a big pearly-white spread-wing skipper that I've looked for many times to no avail. Here it was, two feet in front of me, happily nectaring away on the sweet nectar of Spreading Dogbane. So I snapped few pictures and then suddenly a little Lindsey's Skipper made a run at the big guy, and he flew off down the road at about 30 mph. Bye-bye!