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A Really Big Bear

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

It was the biggest black bear I'd ever seen in Oregon... But I'll get to that in a minute. First, let's talk butterflies! I made a rocket-run down to Jackson County this past weekend in hopes of getting lucky with an early season Gold-hunter's Hairstreak (Satyirum auretorum). This has been one of my "nemesis" species, meaning I've done the 3-hour drive to Jackson County 3 years in a row to see and photography this species, and so far I've seen exactly 0 of them. So when Rob Santry posted some pictures he'd taken of S. auretorum in late May, I got all worked up, and wondered if there would still be some around in mid-June.

I'd been searching for this bug in late June, slightly higher and near the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. Rob was kind enough to send me details of where he'd seen Gold-hunter's, and I took that info and high-tailed it down to the Applegate Valley. Where I had a wonderful day of butterflying, tallying a total of 22 species, including one I'd not photographed yet. No, it wasn't Gold-hunter's Hairstreak. I didn't see any of those. What I did see was the Chalcedona Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona), a species that was recently split from the Variable Checkerspot. The Chalcedona tends to be larger and have larger pale ivory spots in the spotband near the trailing edge of the upper side hindwing, compared to the Snowberry Checkerspot (Euphydryas colon) from which it was split.

Chalcedona Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona). Palmer Creek Road, Jackson County.

At Kinney Creek I didn't have much luck getting a decent photo of the Chalcedona, they weren't letting me get close enough for long enough to get a good shot. It felt like one of those "so close and yet so far" moments. As the afternoon wore on, I was tiring out, and I packed up and drove down the hill to find a spot to camp for the night. As I was heading north, on a whim, I turned up Palmer Creek Road, just north of Kinney Creek Road. I thought of my father, who always loved to explore a new spot and I got a burst of late afternoon energy from the thought of his love of exploring.

Chalcedona Checkerspot, Palmer Creek Rd, Jackson County

Almost 6 miles up I came upon a moist seep in the road, with just enough sun and just enought moisture that a group of butterflies was mud puddling there, sucking mineral-laden moisture from the sandy roadbed. I pulled over to take a closer look. There were Northern Checkerspots, California Tortoiseshells, a Western Pine Elfin, and a few Chalcedona Checkerspots. This was a lucky find! Butterflies are generally much less startle-prone when they are mud-puddling, so we photographers can often get a lot closer. And these Checkerspots were no exception.

Western Pine Elfin (Callophrys eryphon). Palmer Creek Road, Jackson County

I love it when I whiff on a target species, only to stumble onto another that I hadn't anticipated seeing!

Now about that bear... I ended up finding a nice campsite up Palmer Creek Road, where some kind soul had created a well-made fire ring and left a nice pile of dry firewood. I enjoyed a nice dinner listening to the Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks singing on all sides of my camp. After I cleaned up the dinner dishes, I decided to take a walk up the road just to "scout around." I had walked about a quarter mile up the road, when I heard a shuffling sound in the woods uphill to my right. I stopped for a moment to look and listen, and then I saw what looked like a black steer lumbering down the slope. I thought it was weird that I hadn't seen any signs of cows up there, but I've seen cattle in stranger places than this. Suddenly the "steer" heard or smelled me and raised its head to look in my direction. That's no cow! It partially stood up on its hind legs to get a look in my direction, and it was truly the largest black bear I've seen in Oregon. It would have been large for a steer! I did not want to disturb the bear (or be "disturbed" by it), so I quietly backed up and silently told the bear she could go on with whatever she was doing. It was one of those moments I didn't have my camera, but wish I had. In her honor, I named my campsite Big Bear Camp. I found it interesting that a huge bear wandering around a quarter mile from my camp site didn't interrupt the peacefulness of the evening or disturb my sleep in the least.


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