Heat Zombie and the Bakeoven Butterflies
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Recently I went through my 20 years of butterfly records to find out how many times I had gone out trying for photographs of our official state insect, the Oregon Swallowtail (Papilio machaon oregonia). The first time was back in 2004, long before the crazy idea of photographing all of Oregon's breeding butterflies within the state got into my head. It turns out that, as of spring of this year (2021), I had made 27 site visits, searching at ten different sites in three counties. In those 27 tries, I had seen the Oregon Swallowtail only twice, once in Philippi Canyon in the Columbia Gorge, and once at Jones Canyon, on the lower Deschutes River. Neither occasion afforded me an opportunity for a photo.
As a second generation native Oregonian, I have felt some kind of "civic" duty to photograph this swallowtail. Other than the Monarch, it is probably our most "famous" butterfly. After all, it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1977, and that was even before the Oregon Legislature voted to make it the state insect in 1979 (beating out the Oregon Rain Beetle, Pleocoma oregonensis). I'll admit that I have actually been a little embarrassed that I hadn't photographed it yet, and that's probably why I have tried so many times.
Over my 20 years of chasing butterflies, I've learned (and relearned) that a lot of other folks know more than I do about butterflies and when and where they live. That's why I now talk to lots of other butterfliers as part of my trip planning, and why I use my blog to share the gaps in my knowledge about Oregon butterflies. Asking for help and information from others may go against the All-American Ethic of Individualism (especially for men), of doing it ourselves, proving our bootstrapping independent spirit, but I've reached a stage in life where I can just call that a heap of horse pucky. It's more fun to learn from others and to involve others in my work and play, and, also, it's more effective.
Over the past year, two Oregon butterfliers generously provided me with detailed information about the second brood of the Oregon Swallowtail in Oregon--none of which I had heard or read before. In the past, everyone had always told me to go after the first brood flight in early May. And most of the photos I'd seen from others were from that first brood in spring, including Fred Ramsey's picture-perfect photo on the Butterflies of America website, of which I have been envious all these years! Last year, Matthew Campbell from Pendleton, Oregon shared his knowledge of the size and timing of the second brood flight along the Columbia Gorge. He shared his observations that the second brood is larger, that it flies from late June through early July when the thistles are in bloom, and that only about 20% of the second brood's eggs hatch the same summer to create the third brood. The other 80% go into diapause and complete their egg-to-larva-to-pupa-to-adult cycle the following spring.
This past winter I also heard from Greg Sigrist from Salem, Oregon who had made repeated trips to the lower Deschutes River canyon and kept track of when and where he had found the Oregon Swallowtail, including four trips he'd made this past spring. His multiple trips allowed him to pinpoint when oregonia began to fly, which, at least in 2021, turned out to be just after my visit there. If I could have made a custom order for information on the Oregon Swallowtail, it would have been exactly what Greg shared with me. Like Matt, Greg's conclusion was that the second brood was a larger flight, and that they tended to fly in late June through early July, but that the freshest individuals were in June. He had found fresh individuals from June 22-25, on the sandy river margins of boat launches and natural beaches, from just south of Maupin to a few miles past Sherar's Bridge on the Deschutes.
Okay! I now had my plan for a second try in 2021 on the lower Deschutes River. I blocked out the dates on my calendar, and then tacked on several more days to go after Garita Skipperlings (Oarisma garita) in the Blue Mountains a few days later. I always monitor the weather forecasts so I can make trip adjustments if the weather looks like its going south. A week before the trip, after I'd started to assemble food and camping gear, the forecasts began to show a hot spell looming at the end of the month just when I planned to go. For me, 80's are great, 90's are doable, and going out in 100's is just plain unwise. I hoped for 90's at the worst.
A few days before "Go Day" the forecasts began to predict a major heat wave, with record temperatures in both Western and Eastern Oregon, getting well over 100°F smack in the middle of my planned trip. Oh, and let's not forget the high winds and possible lightning storms that were predicted in central Oregon, leading to a Red Flag Fire Warning. After a very brief bit of pondering, I scratched Part B of the trip, and decided to just go after the Oregon Swallowtail. I moved the trip ahead a few days to avoid the worst of the heat. Or so I hoped.
If you haven't been to the lower Deschutes River canyon or the town of Maupin, you may not know that the road along the river at the bottom of the canyon is called Bakeoven Road. That is not poetically-licensed hyperbole, its a pragmatic description and a fair warning. Even in May, when much of Oregon is moist and moderately warm, the lower Deschutes is often very hot and dry. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are real concerns for a good part of the year. This is the bakeoven into which I was going to descend, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding into the valley of the shadow of death (or something like that).
I got the car packed the night before, and got up at zero-dark-thirty (only being late June it had been light for hours), which allowed me to sneak out of Eugene about 6:30 am. My goal was to get to the first site by 10:30 am, which, in many parts of Oregon, would be plenty early for butterfly activity. I arrived at the Sandy Beach Boat Takeout north of Maupin at about 10:45 am. It was already 90°F, and I wasn't looking forward to the real heat of the afternoon.
My goal was to find swallowtails puddling in the moist sand next to the river, which is the easiest time/place to photograph them. They really want those dissolved mineral salts and they will tolerate a higher degree of activity near them if the movement is slow. I geared up with my cameras and binoculars and lots of water, and walked down to the beach area. Within a few minutes I was in a full sweat. I spent the next hour searching at the boat launch and the beach area nearby, to no avail. In fact, all I saw was one tattered Acmon Blue (Icaricia acmon) and 4 or 5 Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae). I was pretty sure that, with this intense heat, it already was too late in the day to find puddling swallowtails, and that I'd have to wait until the following morning.
In order to get an early start the next day, I decided to camp in the canyon, and just do my best to survive the heat. As I headed north down the canyon, I made quick scouting stops at a couple of other sites along the way, but nothing was flying. The butterflies were as cooked as I was.
I decided to camp at Jones Canyon Campground and hoped for a site with shade and close access to the river. I lucked out and got both. Thank goodness, too! I stopped checking the temperature at 2 pm when it was 100°F. The heat just plain sucked the life out of me, and if it weren't for my shady spot next to the river, I would have had to evacuate to higher, cooler environs to wait out that bakeoven sun. Once I landed in my camp chair, I literally sat there for about 4 hours, because I didn't have energy to do anything else but sit and read and guzzle liter after liter of water. I didn't even have the energy to change into shorts or get in the water. I was a heat zombie, and it seemed that my life force had been baked out of me. Fortunately, it was a beautiful view, which I fully enjoyed.
It stayed warm throughout the night, and I didn't need a sleeping bag, just a sheet over me. I woke early and took a walk around the small campground listening to the Yellow-breasted Chats, Lazuli Buntings, and Song Sparrows serenading me and the river. They were all in nesting mode, hiding, but singing constantly.
My plan was to go first to Sandy Beach Boat Take-out, so as to beat the boater and swimmer traffic that was sure to come later, and to allow time for one or two other sites before life as we know it got baked to a crackly crunch. I arrived there at 8:30 am, and it was already in the 80's. The whole place was empty except for some trucks with raft-hauling trailers, parked there for the boaters who would arrive later in the day. This take-out is the all-boats-out, last stop before Sherar's Falls, a treacherous, frothing whirpool-chute of a waterfall.
I walked down to the beach area first and all was quiet. Then over to the boat launch--nothing there either. Patience, patience. In the back of my mind, hope was melting in the heat. I came back to the beach area, and lo! There was a swallowtail on the edge of the wet sand. Its wings were folded up, and from a distance I could see its yellow body with a narrow horizontal black stripe. Could it be? "That's my bug!" came out of my mouth involuntarily. A yellow body with a thin black horizontal stripe is one of the field marks of the Oregon swallowtail! As I walked closer and got a good view through my binos, I saw the forewing pattern of a Western Tiger Swallowtail.
Hope was nudging the back of my mind. I snapped a few photos of the Tiger, and went back to check the boat launch area again. Still nothing there, so I slowly walked back to the beach area. In a marshy spot next to the boat launch, I saw a small, fast flier--a Purplish Copper that finally landed long enough for an ID. A couple minutes later, I saw a woodnymph in the brush, and waited for it to land, a Common Woodnymph. Back at the beach area, a Becker's White (Pontia beckeri) had come in for some mineral-laden moisture.
I noted that the butterflies were not going to the wet sand, but rather to the drying sand, about half-way between the fully wet and fully dry sand. I've noticed that before, but haven't found any explanation in the literature. I assume that location is ideal for wicking up moisture with mineral salts. Give me a shout if you actually know why!
As I was photographing the Becker's, a slightly flight-worn Two-Tailed Swallowtail sailed in for some mineral salts--hard to come by for a creature that otherwise imbibes only the liquid sugars from flowers.
In the 90 minutes or so I spent hoping for an Oregon Swallowtail to show up, I also saw a large, fresh Queen Alexandra's Sulphur (Colias alexandra), several more Cabbage Whites, and a couple of Common (Ochre) Ringlets (Coenonympha tullia) in the grass. It was now almost 10:15 and I needed to make a choice: either I stay here and keep hoping fro my quarry to come to me, or go to one of the other sites. I decided to try another site. Two hours earlier, on my way to Sandy Beach, I had passed another of Greg Sigrist's recommended sites, the Oakbrook Day Use area, but at 8:15 am, it was in the shade of the canyon walls. I wanted to check there, and also visit the large patch of blooming thistle in the lower part of Jones Canyon.
I packed up and headed north, enjoying a few minutes of air conditioning to cool off. When I pulled up to the Oakbrook site, there was a big black pickup truck parked there, and signs and sounds of people and dogs. When I'd scouted the site the previous day, I'd found a small sandy beach with shady trees on both sides, and it didn't surprise me that a dog owner would want to hang out in that shade next to the little beach, while the dogs played in the water. The problem was that it had appeared to be the only possible puddling spot at this site, so unless I wanted to kick out the dog people, it seemed pointless to stop. I turned around and started to head north towards Jones Canyon. 30 seconds later, with no forethought, I just pulled over--for some reason it suddenly occurred to me to look over the rim of the road. I got out of the car, and looked over the edge, and there was a second beach, and it was bigger and sunnier than the one that was now shading and entertaining people and dogs! I jumped back in, turned around and pulled back into the parking area. As I got out of my car two thoroughly drenched dogs came bounding up to say hello, the big one barking joyfully and the little one barking nervously. Their owner was not as friendly, but called off her dogs and led them back to their little cove.
After I strapped on all my gear (including my indispensible hydration pack!), I walked down the short, sandy path to the little beach. There to my great excitement I immediately saw a tightly-packed puddling group of seven or eight swallowtails. These puddling groups are almost always males, and they often favor spots that already have puddling swallowtails (or other butterfly species), perhaps because when they see a puddling butterfly it indicates a good source of mineral salts. This group really stuck together, making it hard at first to tell which species were there.
As I got closer, and got a better angle on the small wall of moist sand they were clustered on, I saw... not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Oregon Swallowtails! Cue the hyper-ventilated excitation! This is always the moment when I have to consciously remind myself to both keep my eye on the butterflies, and keep my movements really smooth and slow so as not to spook the butterflies from their mineral salt obsession. An increasingly fast fluttering of their wings is a sign of agitation, and I use that clue to guide how fast or slow to move. If they flutter, I stop and wait for them to calm down again. In this case, they instructed me to go very slow.
As I came closer I saw that the best angle for photos was from the direction of the river, only a couple feet from them. I looked at my hiking boots and long pants, looked at the water, looked at my pants and boots, and then plowed right into the Deschutes River. Fortunately, it was't very deep, and the bottom was sandy and relatively smooth. I had to make a slow arc through the water to get around them and then inch closer from a position close to 90° to where their wings were facing. If I stumbled on a hidden rock or branch or made any other jerky movement, I'd spook them, and that might close this precious window of opportunity. For really good images, I'd need to get within 2-4 feet of them. After 27 tries and 17 years, I finally had my first real chance...
Thankfully, I managed the maneuver like Brian Boitano (American figure skater) pulling off a triple axel at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Smooth as silk, no butterfly spooking, and photos aplenty. Cue the national anthem. As I take the stand to receive this gold medal, I want to thank... Greg Sigrist! Without Greg spending the time to learn about these beautiful butterflies in this beautiful place, and taking the time and effort to write to me and share what he knew, I wouldn't have ended my Oregon Swallowtail drought this week. Three cheers to you, Greg.
I had finally fulfilled my sacred duty as a native Oregon butterfly photographer, and captured our state insect in photos. Within the next 30 minutes, two of the Two-Tailed and all of the Oregon Swallowtails had left the beach. I waited a bit, and they didn't come back. I was given just that one short window, just this one location. How fortunate!
With the Oregon Swallowtails gone, and with my shoes, socks and pants getting a good start on drying out, I was ready to move on, in spite of the heat, which I had completely forgotten about while photographing those swallowtails! I decided to break for lunch in the shade of my Subaru's back hatch and then make one more stop before my escape from the bakeoven. Out of curiosity and also to get in some walking before the 4 hour drive home, I wanted to check that thistle patch in the lower Jones Canyon. I knew it was too much to expect a photo of an Oregon Swallowtail on a lovely purple thistle flower, but it couldn't hurt to take a look.
The thistle patch was about an acre in size, in a flat area that had burned a few years back, and most of the scattered thistles had fresh blooms. I stood and scanned the flats, dripping sweat and salt, to see what was taking advantage of all that nectar. First, a smallish woodnymph. The ventral markings had large upper eyespots like a Great Basin Woodnymph (Cercyonis sthenele), but the size and other markings pointed to Small (AKA Dark) Woodnymph (Cercyonis oetus). In this part of the state, C. oetus has a lighter ventral ground color, and the lack of a distinct zig-zagging median line in the hindwing combined with the small size all looked good for Small Woodnymph. The only other visitors braving the heat to visit the purple pincushion thistle blooms were several fresh Becker's Whites.
In the spring, I always like to end my visit to the lower Deschutes River canyon with a walk up Gert Canyon, a small side-canyon just to the north of Jones Canyon. I spent about two seconds imagining what that uphill hike would feel like in this heat, and wisely opted out. I then began to imagine the lush green forests up on Hwy 26 on my route over the Cascades, and thought that might be a nice place to take a sleep off some of the heat fatigue. Which it was.
On the drive out of the bakeoven, I thought of the many people over the years who have shared with me their experiences of finding Oregon Swallowtails in Oregon. That group includes Paul Severns, Andy Warren, Fred Ramsey, Bob Pyle, Gary Pearson, Dana Ross, Rob Santry, Matthew Campbell, and the hero of the day, Greg Sigrist. I value all their input and stories, and am thankful for all the fun and educational experiences I had on those 27 site visits to the places they told me about. Each of them is woven into this story.
Compared to most of my trips, the species list is short on diversity, but let me tell you, for me, it is not lacking in quality! I would have been happy in that bakeoven canyon to find just one species, as long as it was our state insect, and as long as I got photos.
And now, there are just 6 species left to find: Garita Skipperling, Spring White, Checkered White, American Copper, Compton's Tortoiseshell and Gillett's Checkerspot. As the list gets shorter, I suspect they will get much harder to find. Will you be the one that helps me find and photograph one of the remaining six?
PS - How about "Heat Zombie and the Bakeoven Butterflies" as a band name? What kind of music would they play?
Lower Deschutes River Canyon Species List: