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Hunting for the Gold

Updated: 3 days ago

Isn't it curious how sometimes when we are looking for one thing, we can sometimes find something else that is equally (or more) satisfying? If you've been reading my blog for a while, you've seen me write about this theme before. A key, I find, is "looking," as opposed to "looking for." When we are looking for something very specific, we naturally tend to filter out other things that aren't that one thing, and we can miss a lot. This is why, when I go after one of my target butterflies, I use the target species to choose the destination and the date, but when I get there, I try to look at whatever is there, and to keep my vision broad. It seems when I do this, there are often welcome surprises.

Last year about this time, I went to Jackson County for the umpteenth time hoping to find the elusive Goldhunter's Hairstreak (Satyrium auretorum), and much to my surprise and delight, I actually found one and photographed it at Kinney Creek! I'd been looking for it for years, and over those years my annual trip to Jackson County to find it had become a spring ritual. This year, now motivated by my curiosity about the on-going status of the Goldhunter's population at Kinney Creek, I kept the ritual alive, and planned a two-day trip to go down and take a look. My friend and fellow butterfly photographer extraordinaire Rob Santry joined me for the first day.

Close-up photo of  Sara's Orangetip butterfly
In Oregon, the Sara's Orangetip is only found along the California border.

It was a lovely, warm and sunny morning and we started walking up the gravel road at about 10 am. One of the first surprises of the day for both Rob and I was seeing Sara's Orangetip (Anthocharis sara) males stopping for nectar several times. They were full-on posing for us, repeatedly nectaring on Western Verbena (Verbena lasiostachys), a southwest Oregon native, along the side of the road. If you've ever tried to get dorsal photos of this species (or its close "cousin" Julia's Orangetip), you understand why we were surprised. This does not happen often--in 25+ years of watching butterflies, I'd never seen this species nectaring so frequently before. It suddenly occurred to me after seeing this happen a couple of times that I actually didn't have any good dorsal photos of Sara's Orangetip, and that a golden opportunity was being laid in my lap! My photo above attests to my being able to make use of the opportunity.

Another butterfly species that is a southwest Oregon specialty in late May is the Columbian Skipper (Hesperia columbia), a small, golden-orange grass skipper. These are small, fast flyers and usually only linger briefly on flowers in the morning. On this morning they were also going to the Western Verbena for nectar. I'd gotten some nice ventral shots last year at Kinney Creek, but hadn't had as much luck with dorsal, spread-wing displays. There was one particularly thick and floriferous patch of verbena that had a couple Columbian Skippers hanging around it, so we paused and watched them.

Close-up photo of Columbia Skipper butterfly
Columbia Skipper nectaring on Western Verbena (Verbena lasiostachys)

They were only stopping for a few seconds each time, and then zipping away to another flower. Initially, I got a "brilliant" a series of photos of the verbena with no skipper in sight before I was finally quick enough to catch one before it flew. The one in the photo above is a very fresh male--note the long, narrow dark stigmata patch (which only the male has) on the inner wing. Sweet--another photo addition for the website, making it a productive morning already!

As we continued up the road, we noticed the half-eaten carcass of a California Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis zonata). The intact tail end of the snake still sported the bold red, black and white bands of this beautiful snake species. Rob surmised that it had been killed by a Red-tailed Hawk that we flushed when we came around the bend. A fresh Callippe Fritillary (Speyeria callippe elaine) was hanging around the carcass, and eventually landed on it. I'd seen butterflies on dead snakes before in South America, but this was the first time I'd seen this in Oregon. Like feces and urine, decaying and dead animals represent a source of minerals that butterflies can imbibe through their proboscis. The accumulated minerals are an important component of what the male passes to the female when they mate, providing nutrients that support the survival of offspring.

Photo of Callippe Fritillary on California Mountain Kingsnake
Callippe Fritillary visiting a California Mountain Kingsnake carcass.

After Rob left to attend to social commitments, I continued walking the road into the afternoon, and also came back again the next morning. In the afternoon, I encountered a butterfly that was new for me at this site, but likely one that's been there all along, and I just never saw it: the Common Roadside Skipper. It is so small, so dark and so fast that it is very easy to miss. This one just happened to land where I happened to be looking, otherwise I likely would have missed this one also.

Close-up photo of Common Roadside Skipper butterfly
The tiny, obscurely marked Common Roadside Skipper is frequently overlooked, because its hard to see.

When I saw the Common Roadside Skipper (not surprisingly, on the side of the road), I was heading up to a spot that I knew was often a good butterfly draw. Its the spot where I found the Goldhunter's Hairstreak the previous year: a patch of blooming Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus). Ninebark is a native shrub with many domes of small white flowers, and under some conditions, it attracts a lot of butterflies, especially in arid environs. I was hoping to get lucky twice and see the Goldhunter's Hairstreak there again. The trick in finding hairstreaks is often to find a habitat feature that attracts them, such as an area of mud or wet sand, or a particularly attractive source of flower nectar. Without this lure, they can be very hard to find.

When I arrived at the Ninebark patch, I was rewarded by a gorgeous Two-tailed Swallowtail (Papilio multicaudata) dancing over the patch, and then occasionally dropping in for some nectar. The afternoon light and the perfect silhouette of the Ninebark flowers' stamens through it's wings was a beautiful sight, reminding me just how thin those scale-covered wings are.

Close-up photo of Two-tailed Swallowtail butterfly
Two-tailed Swallowtail nectaring on Pacific Ninebark

After communing with the swallowtail for a few minutes, and watching Northern Checkerspots, California Sisters and Lorquin's Admirals visiting for nectar, I walked further up the road to see what I could see.

Close-up photo of Lorquin's Admiral butterfly
A cooperative Lorquin's Admiral came in to nectar on the Ninebark while I was hanging out there.

At a crossing of a tributary stream, I spotted a small, bright orange Arctic Skipper, a couple dusky-looking Boisduval's Blues, and the local and enigmatic Chalcedona/Snowberry Checkerspots. I'm honestly not sure which of the two species I saw. It's possible both species are at this site, but more study is needed to sort that out. If you know of any research in this area, please let me know!

Probable Snowberry Checkerspot, possible Chalcedona checkerspot.

Also at the same tributary crossing was a Great Arctic, the third Great Arctic of the day. This was interesting because typically, Great Arctics only fly as adult butterflies every other year, and last year was the primary flight year. So these three were flying in the off year. I'll be curious to see whether Great Arctics are flying at other sites in other parts of Oregon this year as the season progresses.

Close-up photo of Great Arctic butterfly
Great Arctic on Pacific Ninebark

When I walked back down the road, just as I was approaching the famous (to me) Ninebark patch, a small brown butterfly was startled by my arrival. It flew in a fast zigzag pattern to my left towards a Canyon Live Oak tree (Quercus chrysolepsis) on the opposite side of the road. I lost track of it as it flew into the shady area beneath the tree. What's interesting about this sighting is that Canyon Live Oak is believed to be the larval host plant for Goldhunter's Hairstreak at this location. And the Goldhunter's is a small brown butterfly that flies fast in a zigzag pattern. Hmmmm. I never found it again, so I'll never know, but I suspect it was Goldhunter's Hairstreak.

Close-up photo of Hedgerow Hairstreak butterfly
Fresh Hedgerow Hairstreak nectaring on Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum).

Rob had reminded me earlier that there is another small brown hairstreak at this site this time of year, and I saw a couple of them the next day: Hedgerow Hairstreak (Satyrium saepium). This species uses Ceanothus as its larval host plant, and there was plenty of that around to support them. The two individuals I saw had clearly just eclosed (emerged from their chrysalis), as they were absolutely pristine and velvety looking, indicating no wear on the wings at all.

There were so many fun surprises over my two days at Kinney Creek that I didn't mind missing a definitive Goldhunter's Hairstreak sighting at all. My only disappointment was that I had not learned anything about the Goldhunter's population status. Not seeing one is not an indication of its absence--its only an indication of its absence where I was looking, when I was looking. Due to its larval host plant being a tree, and the fact that many of the Canyon Live Oak trees were not close to the road I was walking on, it's very possible that there were some, or even many, individuals in the Live Oak trees up the hill.

In the end, I left the site tired, sweaty, and quite satisfied with my experience. It's always fun to get out in the field with Rob, and there were many unexpected photo opportunities. When I tallied my list for the first day, I'd seen 29 species. The second day also turned up 29 species, though not all the same ones. My tally for the two days included a very respectable 35 species and many good photos.

I think I will hang on to that strategy of looking instead of looking for.

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Bosque LaVida
Bosque LaVida
Jun 23, 2021

Loved what you were saying in the first paragraph. And especially because it happens to me so often. So many times when I was doing my Phoebe Quest, I'd be out looking for that Black Phoebe or listening for its song and I would find a Rough-legged Hawk or a Short-eared Owl. So thanks for putting that out there and reminding us to look around and appreciate what's there.


Darren Borgias
Darren Borgias
Jun 07, 2021

I'm new to identifying the butterflies I've been seeing, particularly in my native plant restoration landscape around my home, which I've been referring to as "strawberry hill, Ashland OR". Your posts and species lists are very helpful. Thanks!

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