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A Double Scoop of Rocky Road

Updated: Feb 19

Back in May I visited a few of the sites where Andy Warren had studied azure blues back in the early 2000's. At several sites, mostly in northeastern Oregon, he found what later was designated as the new species, Asher's Blue (Celastrina asheri). On my visit this past May, I had found an apparently small population of Asher's Blue along the Metolius River, but didn't find any asheri at historical sites in the Ochoco Mountains (in May) or on the Clackamas River (early June). Considering the unusual spring weather this year, I didn't make any conclusions about whether asheri still exists at those two sites.

My curiosity about Asher's Blues in Oregon was not quenched by those site visits in May and early June, so I decided to visit another one of Andy's asheri sites as part of my big eastern Oregon trek in late June 2022. Andy had seen Asher's Blues along Rock Creek in the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City on June 21, 2001. Almost 21 years to the day after his visit there, I would go up to see what I could see.

I had followed in Andy's footsteps many times trying to find butterfly species where he had already found them. Along the way, there were many dusty, poorly-maintained roads, and my trusty Subaru Forester navigated them all with relative ease, albeit with a few flat tires along the way. So as I headed north from Baker City, I was expecting that a run-of-the-mill forest road would take me up to Rock Creek Canyon.

Once I got off the paved rural roads north of Baker City, the road was a well-maintained, smooth gravel road, and I continued to assume a quick trip up the canyon. My plan was to find a campsite first, and then continue up the next day to the part of the canyon where Andy had found the asheri. That well-maintained gravel road did not last long-- the road suddenly changed from smooth and well graded, to rocky, rough and gnarly. Not what I was expecting!

I didn't know if this was just a rough stretch of an otherwise good road, or the beginning of a long, rough ride, but it seemed like it would be passable with my Forester. I often had to slow to a creeping crawl as I navigated large rocks, washouts, gullies and general roadbed mayhem. I didn't know how far up I'd have to go to find a suitable campsite, and I was slightly apprehensive about the condition of the road, knowing that the only spare tire I had was one of those "baby tires" that is only meant to get you across town to a tire shop--on paved roads. My tires were only a year old and they were the same type that I'd been driving on forest roads for years without trouble. But if I got a flat up here, would that baby tire get me out?

It was getting late in the afternoon and the sun was getting lower in the western sky when I came to a wide spot in the road with a patch of sun. I saw a couple butterflies flying there, so I pulled over for a stretch stop. One was some kind of comma, and the other appeared to be a hairstreak, which created a little adrenalin surge. In this habitat which hairstreak might that be?

I saw it fly again, and luckily it landed on the moist roadbed not far from me. A Thicket Hairstreak (Callophrys spinetorum)! I hadn't seen one in years! I went back to the car for my camera, but by the time I got back with it in hand, the Thicket was gone. The comma turned out to be a Green Comma (Polygonia faunus), fresh and dark.

Close-up photo of Green Comma butterfly
The butterfly commonly called Green Comma (Polygonia faunus) was the most common comma

I dearly coveted a better photo of a fresh Thicket Hairstreak for my website, so this near miss was both disappointing and hope-inspiring. Surely I wouldn't see another Thicket here, after not seeing any for a few years... would I?

A couple miles further up the road, I was relieved to see a Toyota Rav 4 coming down the road. That told me that the road would be passable for me and my Forester, at least to wherever they had been, which was likely a trailhead I'd seen on the map a bit further up than where I was headed. That was the only other passenger car I saw on that rocky beast of a road.

I was happy to find a very nice hunter's campsite down a side road before long, only a couple miles from the asheri site. So far so good! I set up my tent and "kitchen," heated up a delicious bowl of soup that I had made at home ahead of time and settled in for the evening.

That night, at about 3 am, I was awakened by an odd sound--a sound I didn't recall having heard in the woods before. It was a scritchy-scratchy sound and it seemed almost as though it was coming from my own head, or perhaps from my pillow. In my barely awakened state, my clearest thought was "what the heck?" It was louder when I laid my head back down on my pillow, so maybe that the sound was coming from under me--something was tunneling under my tent! I didn't want some dang critter to chew a hole in my tent, so I slapped the floor of the tent several times where the sound seemed to be coming from. Keep moving you little digger!

Eventually the sound ebbed, then died out, and I assumed it had tunneled deeper or away from my tent. In the morning when I got up, I saw the confirming evidence--a tunnel-track that went directly under my tent, right under where my head had been. It had been scrabbling through the topsoil inches from my head looking for food. Later I concluded that it was probably a Pacific Mole (Scapanus orarius), since that looked to be the only native mole commonly found in Baker County.

Photo of mole tunnel under a tent
Telltale signs that a mole was digging a feeding tunnel directly under my head while I slept

The weather forecast had predicted immaculate skies for the period of my trip, and glorious blue skies were again above me. It was chilly in the morning, in the upper 40's. The asheri site was at about 5500 feet elevation, so I must have been in the upper 4,000's. I hoped the midday sun would yield enough warmth to get the butterflies active!

Photo of Rock Creek Meadows in the Elkhorn Mountains
Rock Creek Meadows in the Elkhorn Mountains northwest of Baker City

The target meadows along Rock Creek were surprisingly close, and it didn't take long, even at my snail-crawl pace as the road continued it's rough and tumble ways. I arrived in mid-morning, and it was still cool. I had met the worst of the road, and my trusty Forester got me through once again. Here the rough and rocky road gave way to smooth roads of dirt, and I set out to explore the area by walking these roads, since that seemed to be where there was more sun and a bit more butterfly activity. The road bed was quite moist from recent rains.

Close-up photo of Milbert's Tortoiseshell butterfly
Milbert's Tortoiseshell basking in the morning sun on the wet road.

Early season, cold-temperature-tolerant Green Commas, Milbert's Tortoiseshells (Aglais milberti) and Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) were the first to appear. I had to remind myself that I was looking for Asher's Blue here, because I could easily get distracted taking photos of the beautiful, fresh nymphalids. The asheri search would involve both searching out its host plants (Red-osier dogwood and possibly Oceanspray), and checking puddling spots close to the creek. As I walked along, my eyes were glued to the road, checking for puddlers. Wait--what's that hairstreak? That's another Thicket Hairstreak! Two of them in two days--what are the odds? This one was very engrossed in its mineral mining from the wet road bed and did not fly when I approached. Woo-hoo! I'd been wanting this photo opportunity for years! And here it was!

Close up photo of an adult Thicket Hairstreak butterfly
A very fresh Thicket Hairstreak sat for a portrait.

As I continued to scout the area, I saw more commas and tortoiseshells, and then some Margined Whites (Pieris marginalis), and one Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus) and several Western Pine Elfins (Callophrys eryphon). Later on, I saw a surprising third Thicket Hairstreak. As the morning warmed, I also began to see Celastrina blues here and there, but to me they all looked like Echo Azure (Celastrina echo): white ventral ground color, and small and consistent gray/black ventral markings.

Close-up photo of Brown Elfin butterfly
Brown Elfin, showing the iridescence of a freshly eclosed individual

I searched the area as best I could following the roads and the stream corridor, looking for Red-sier Dogwood, willows, Snowbrush and Ocean spray. I found none of these, which was puzzling. At this site, Warren had written, he'd seen these duskier and more variable asheri associated with Snowbrush (Ceanothus velutinus).

Only one of the 18 azures I saw looked like a good candidate for C. asheri, and it was on the lighter end of the asheri spectrum in terms of ventral markings (see photo below). It appeared slightly worn, but was more dusky below than a typical Echo azure, with ventral markings that were more gray-brown than gray-black. I did not see any of the irregular, bold black, brown or gray patches on the ventral hindwing that I'd seen on the Metolius asheri.

Photo of Azure sp. butterfly
Celastrina sp. -- is it a worn C. echo or a worn C. asheri? I called it C. asheri.

In Warren's description of his 2001 visit, he said he saw no Celastrina whose ventral markings resembled the clean, consistently marked pattern typical of Celastrina echo west of the Cascades. What I saw appeared to be almost the opposite. Without knowing where my visit landed relative to the timing of this year's weather-altered butterfly emergence, I couldn't make any firm conclusions based on what I found and didn't find. There may have been a more notable flight of asheri either before or after my one-day visit. As you can see from the list of species I saw, they were primarily cold-tolerant, early season flyers--basically, it was still spring up there. In a more typical year, I'd likely see a different suite of species on this date. Which makes me very glad that I tasted that rocky road during this particular late spring, and got those fabulous looks at Thicket Hairstreaks.

Now that I know that the Rock Creek road is rough and nasty but doable, I will know what I'm in for if I decide to go back. And now I carry a full-sized spare tire.

Here are the 19 species I saw in Rock Creek Canyon:

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