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Fire Line

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

On Sunday, I drove down Interstate 5 to the Ashland area, in hopes of photographing the elusive Sooty Hairstreak and Sternitsky's Parnassian in the mountains nearby. As I pulled closer to Ashland, I saw a large plume of smoke arising from what looked to be the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument. Not good. This monument is a treasure trove of biodiversity, a mixing zone of the habitats and creatures of the Cascade Range, the Klamath Mountains and the Siskiyou Mountains. I didn't even want to think about what a wildfire there could destroy. Even though the smoke was getting increasingly thick as I got closer, I decided to drive up Baldy Creek Road, to see what conditions were really like. I've learned to not always trust first impressions...

Photo of Baldy Creek Rd Closed sign
Baldy Creek Rd Closed due to Wildfire

When I saw this sign, a little debate started up in my head. One side was the law-abiding, safety-protocol-following part of me (I could die in the fire and that's not how I want to go, it would be embarrassing to be arrested for trying to photograph butterflies, etc.), and the other was the I-want-to-get-this-done-now side (maybe its not as bad as it looks, maybe they're being overly cautious, I drove three hours to get here-I'm not turning around!, etc.). It was an interesting debate. The law-abiding side won after a few rounds.

I didn't have a cell signal up there to get more information, so I drove back down to Ashland, and stopped in shady Lithia Park to ponder my next move. From the look of things the smoke was engulfing both places I wanted to visit: Boccard Point (via Baldy Creek Rd) and Mt. Ashland. Boccard Point was the spot for Sternitsky's Parnassian, a really stunning silvery white butterfly with black marks and bright red spots. Mt. Ashland was the spot for the Sooty Hairstreak, a dark and dusky little butterfly that was hard to spot due to its fast flight and cryptic coloration.

I ate lunch in the park, and tried to contact my AirBnB host to see if she would refund my rental fee, since it appeared that I wouldn't be able to do what I came for. I hung around in the park for a bit waiting for her reply. After a while it occurred to me that there may be some handy webcams that could give me a view of what was going on up on Mt. Ashland. Sure enough there was one, and danged if it wasn't showing a perfectly blue sky and crystal clear air! This was just a few miles as the hawk flies from what I now knew was the deadly Klamathon Fire. The last I heard, two people have been killed in that fire, and almost 2,000 firefighters are doing their best to protect surrounding structures and habitats. Thank you firefighters!

Now that I knew Mt. Ashland was clear, I skeedaddled up there to catch the last couple of hours of good sun, since it was already after 2 pm. Here's what I saw when I got up there:

Photo of smoke from Klamathon Fire near Mt. Shasta
A hawk soaring near the Klamathon fire, with Mt. Shasta peeking over the haze of smoke from fire.

The most productive part of the Mt. Ashland Road for butterflies is the first few miles after it turns to gravel, west of the ski area. As I was driving, I remembered seeing more than 15 years ago what was probably a Sooty Hairstreak in a mixed sage/wildflower meadow a couple miles down, so I headed straight there. I hopped out of the car, binoculars and camera strapped on. I wandered through this meadow, favoring the rocky areas, since I knew this butterfly tended to be found near rocky outcrops. After about 40 minutes I spotted a small dark thing zipping around--could it be? I followed it visually as best I could, but the dang thing was moving fast and was really darkly colored--when it would pass something dark, I would lose it completely. Then I had to wait for it to move again and then start over. Then another dark zip-zip. Crap! Lost it again. Then another zip-zip. This time, I spotted where it landed! So I walked in my molasses-in-wintertime as-slow-as-possible walk to where I saw it land. Binoculars up slowly, and that's him! Now the hard part: getting close enough for a decent picture, without scaring him off on another eye-straining zippity-doo-dah escape path. Lucky for me, he clung to his perch, in part to avoid being blown off of it by the wind that was now starting to gust a bit. That's now a new challenge: macro photography of objects being blown around in the wind is not easy. Not only did I have to approach so slowly so as to not trigger his alarm system and send him flying, I also had to stand there in photo-taking posture until there was a break in the wind.

Fortunately his perch was high enough that I wasn't all bent over and contorted, since I wouldn't have lasted long (in spite of all my yoga practice) if he was lower. Somebody watching me might of thought "Maybe that dude fell asleep while he was taking a picture-- he hasn't moved in quite a while!"

My patience paid off. The wind paused, he didn't fly, and I snapped the first of several images of the Sooty Hairstreak.

Photo of Sooty Hairstreak
In Oregon, the Sooty Hairstreak is only found along the border with California. The similar species Half-Moon Hairstreak is more widely distributed in Oregon.

In the galleries, you'll see also see images I took there of the Arrowhead Blue, and the Sierra Nevada Blue, the latter of which is hard to find anywhere else in Oregon. Altogether, I saw 28 species of butterflies, mostly close to the wet areas near the road. A good day, that would not have happened if I hadn't checked that webcam to challenge my assumption about the extent of the smoke. Oh and I didn't cancel my AirBnB, and got to enjoy a nice stay in the Ashland area. Gratitude!

Not that I'm counting or anything, but this is now officially number 148. 12 more to go!

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