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Facing the Monster, #149

Updated: Feb 22

Close-up photo of femail Mojave Sootywing, upper side
Female Mojave Sootywing

The Senoi people of the Malaysian peninsula teach their children that, when the child encounters a dangerous animal or monster in their dreams, the child should turn and face the monster or animal the next time it appears in their dreams. In general, the children are taught to confront and conquer all forms of danger in their dreams. This fascinating cultural practice comes to mind when I think of my experience of the last few days.

Most of the time, when I go out in search of butterflies, it is a supremely enjoyable experience. I'm in a beautiful natural landscape with birds singing, wildflowers, lovely blue sky, and fresh air imbued with the smells of the wild. The conditions are comfortable, and I'm drawn to do this just because it is a source of pleasure. Most of the time.

However, not all butterflies evolve ecological niches that are so accommodating of humans and their needs and likes (at least those of this human). Some butterflies live out their lives in the bleakest of landscapes, in the harshest of conditions, at the peak of sweltering, withering summer heat. The Mojave Sootywing is one of these. It's a small dark brown skipper with small white spots on the forewings. As its name implies, it is primarily a bug of wickedly hot deserts in Mexico and California, and its range just edges over the state line into SE Oregon's great basin country.

I'd been looking for the Mojave Sootywing for several years in the area around Summer Lake in late July and early August. In that grand-scale landscape, late July and August offer up temperatures from 95 - 100 degrees F, exceedingly dry air, and skin shriveling winds. This harsh ecoregion supports only plants that can handle its extreme conditions, such as saltbush, rabbitbrush, tumbleweed, and sagebrush. Many of these denizens of the alkali flats and salt scrubs of the great basin have thorns to discourage the deer and antelope from eating them. Rattlesnakes are very common in this area. And because the managed wetlands of Summer Lake are nearby, the silence is broken by the whine of hoards of mosquitos. I don't know about you, but for me it's just not a particularly pleasant place to spend a day or two in late July.

In spite of these prospects of discomfort, I'd resolved to spend up to three days searching for the Mojave Sootywing near Ana Reservoir, around Summer Lake, and if necessary, at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. These three locations are known for past sightings of Mojave Sootywing, so focusing there would theoretically increase my odds of finding it. Corvallis lepidopterist Dana Ross had found the Mojave Sootywing at Ana Reservoir, so I made that site number one. I'd previously made the trek down to the Summer Lake area to look for the Mojave Sootywing in 2004, 2006, and 2014 and came up empty all three times. This time, however, I was better educated, better prepared and planned to arrive earlier in the flight period of the sootywing.

On July 26, I left Eugene early, trying to reach Ana Reservoir by midday. As I came over Picture Rock Pass, my heart sank as I saw a thick cloud of smoke in the south end of the valley, coming from the Garner Complex fire near Roseburg. About 1:30 pm, after a brief stop up in Picture Rock Pass, just a few miles from the reservoir, I arrived at Ana Reservoir County Park. It was about 97 degrees. Everyone else in the area was either fishing or swimming in the reservoir. I headed off into the scrub with my wide-brimmed hat, camera, binos, field notebook and water. Below the reservoir, is a round, bowl-shaped drainage that I've come to call "the bowl," which slopes down to the Ana River below the dam. The bowl is where Dana Ross and several others have seen the Mojave Sootywing. It is also where there are a lot of mosquitoes and rattlesnakes.

I spent about two hours spiraling and criss-crossing through the bowl and the surrounding scrub, through the thorny saltbush, thistles, teasel, working up a pretty good sweat, slapping away at the mosquitos buzzing my ears. I saw very few butterflies in total and only four species: Mourning cloak, Lorquin's admiral, Woodland skipper, and Yuma Skipper (another specialty of this site, which I'd seen on several occasions). At about 3:30 pm, I was overheated and spent, so I headed to my lodgings for the night at the Summer Lake Hot Springs Resort.

Close-up photo of Mojave Sootywing, lower side
Female Mojave Sootywing

That night I reviewed my overall search plan, and concluded that since I had never looked for the Mojave Sootywing at the Hart Mountain Refuge, I should get up early and make the 3-hour drive down there the following morning. Bob Pyle's wonderful new butterfly guide "Butterflies of the Pacific Northwest" noted Hart Mountain as a good site for the sootywing. I wrote to Bob and asked if he knew any details of where in the large refuge it had been found and he apologized and said he didn't. So I called the refuge office and described my search with a request for any advice from the refuge biologist. Zack, the affable and helpful maintenance guy for the refuge, made a few inquiries on my behalf, and reported back that I might try looking around Flook Lake. My own analysis told me that searching along the edge of the refuge adjacent to the Warner Lakes would be another likely area, so I planned to visit both.

The drive to Hart Mountain was lovely in the early morning light, with almost no other traffic on the road. The route took me through Paisley, Valley Falls, Plush and a lot of wide open sage scrub. As I drove along in the wide open spaces alone, I listened to a fascinating audio book on social neurobiology--all about how our brains are designed to help us navigate the complexities of our relationships with other people. I guessed that those functions in my brain wouldn't be needed much today. Flook Lake is on the east side of the refuge, and I decided to check it out first. The route to the lake took me steeply up the west side of Hart Mountain, and then across the relatively flat and very dry central plateau. At this time of year Flook Lake is not a lake but a shallow depression where a lake might be seen during the wet part of the year. Within 5 minutes of my arrival there, I circled right around and headed back the way I'd come. The Flook Lake area was indeed very dry and salty, but there was no plant there taller than six inches, making it obvious that the host plant of the Mojave Sootywing, Fourwing Saltbush (4-6 feet tall) wasn't anywhere in the area. So I headed down to the Warner Lakes area to continue the search.

Photo of Ruddy Coppers on Rabbitbrush, Flagstaff Lake
Ruddy Coppers on Rabbitbrush, Flagstaff Lake

The Warner Lakes area is quite beautiful, especially looking down from Hart Mountain. It's a complex mosaic of blue lakes, dark green wetlands and white alkali flats. When I got down to the edge of the refuge, I decided to try the road along Flagstaff Lake which seemed to have the best access to the salt scrub habitat I was looking for. This was a really interesting area, with scattered huge mounds of rabbitbrush covered with golden-yellow flowers and on some of them, hundreds of butterflies. I had never seen so many Ruddy Coppers--in fact that day I saw ten times more of them than I'd seen altogether in my previous 10 years of butterflying all over Oregon. One particular gigantic rabbitbrush shrub about 200 feet from the lake was like the motherlode of butterflies. There were probably a couple hundred Ruddy Coppers, dozens of Purplish Coppers, and a smattering of Western Whites, Queen Alexandra Sulphurs, Western Branded Skippers, Mylitta Crescents, Coronis Fritillaries, Great Basin Wood-nymphs, and a small Euphilotes blue that I haven't identified yet--all on one shrub! Really fun to see, though not what I drove all the way out there for. So I packed it in and started the 3-hour drive back to my cozy cabin at the Hot Springs.

That night I debated with myself about whether to keep searching for the sootwing, and be uncomfortable and possibly get further frustrated and discouraged, or to abandon the quest and go somewhere more pleasant in the Warner Mountains with greater butterfly diversity. This debate (in my mind) between the possibly disappointing and certainly uncomfortable unknown and the predictable and pleasant known went on all through my dinner. I watched myself leaning toward the more pleasant and dependable experience I would have in the Warners, and giving up on the Sootywing search--because the latter would be harder, more unpleasant, and if I wasn't successful, disappointing. As I was washing the dinner dishes, I rallied. No, I said to myself, I need to keep looking. If I give up now I am guaranteeing that I won't find it yet again this year. I'm going back to Ana Reservoir tomorrow, and I'm starting early and will look all day if I need to. That is how I'm going give myself a chance to find it.

Next morning, I woke up uncharacteristically early for me, around 6:30 am, with the morning sun pouring in the cabin windows. I made a breakfast of chicken sausage and pancakes with blueberries, strawberries and yogurt. I packed up all my gear and checked out of my cabin. It was 8:30 am. The drive to Ana Reservoir took about a half hour, and I pulled into the park a little after 9 am. It was already hot, but nothing like my afternoon visit a couple days ago.

As I got out of the car, I felt optimistic, not in the "I'm going to be lucky" kind of way, but in the "I'm really going to give this a full effort today" kind of way. I mentally handed over the possibility of finding the Sootywing to a higher power and resolved to enjoy the search, regardless of the outcome. That surrender seemed to take the pressure off in my mind, and I felt more light-hearted about the search. It helped also that thanks to a shift in the wind, the sky was now pure bright blue, instead of smoke-haze tan.

Over the first hour, I was heartened by the fact that I was seeing a lot more butterflies and more diversity than I ever had before at Ana Reservoir. I had seen four species in each of my previous visits, but I had more than that in the first hour. As the day went on, I continued to see more and more species ( total of 17 species for the day), but no Sootywing. I took a break from the heat and sun and refilled my water bottle at about 11:30 am. I had a small snack, and cranked myself back up for another round of spirals and zigzags through the bowl and surrounding scrub. It was getting really hot now, and I pondered how long I should keep trudging through the thorny scrub in this heat. I'd been searching for 2 1/2 hours, and I said to myself "okay, this will be the last circuit through the site." I'd covered the area of the bowl very thoroughly, multiple times, and it seemed that if the Sootywing was here, I would have found it by now. As I headed back down into the bowl, a quiet wave of confidence washed over me for a moment.

Photo of Ana River, near Summer Lake
Ana River, and "the bowl" in the background

I started up at the rim of the bowl, and zigzagged down and across, skirting the blooming rabbitbrush shrubs, and the patches of blooming thistle. At the bottom of the bowl is a grassy wetland area that was mostly dry, but thick with mosquitos. This morning I had put on bug repellent, so I headed right into the middle of the mosquito zone. I circled around the wetland area, and crossed the little creek a couple of times, and saw many Sylvan Hairstreaks, Cabbage whites, and western branded skippers. I told myself, "this is the last circuit, then I'll go." I crossed the little creek again, and immediately saw something fly fast and low to my right, something that appeared different from what I'd been seeing. Time for "Tai Chi mode," the very slow walking and moving that hopefully won't scare away whatever it is. I came around a clump of grass, and there, nectaring happily on a 12" tall thistle was a fresh female Mojave Sootywing. Bingo! Shazam! Woot-woot! That's half the battle--now if I can just get some decent photos! I started snapping photos as I very slowly moved closer. After 6 or 8 photos, she took wing and zipped off, never to be seen again.

Now my attitude completely changed. I knew it was here, now. I decided to break for lunch and keep looking, since ideally I wanted photos of both the male and female, and of both the upper and underside of the butterfly. Standing on a rise, I scanned the area east of the bowl to see if there was more of the lush and low wetland habitat, and there were a couple patches along the river. I circled back up and out of the bowl and crossed over to the other side of the Ana River. Along that far bank, I saw a couple of males, but got only one blurry and out-of-focus photo. A few minutes later, I spotted another fresh female, and got lucky as it stayed perched while I slowly moved in for a shot of the creamy and lights-spotted underside.

As I was leaving the site a half-hour later, I pondered how my decision to make the uncomfortable choice paid off. As I drove the three hours back to Eugene, I thought about other areas of life in which I sometimes chose the stay-comfortable route, when the willingness to be uncomfortable might well have yielded a more satisfying outcome. Like the Senoi parents coaching their children for the next nights dreams, I took home an appreciation for facing the monster, and a memory of an experience that would help motivate me to make that choice again.

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