I Got Those Low-down, High Elevation Blues
Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Andy Warren's monumental review of Oregon's butterflies (Butterflies of Oregon, Their Taxonomy, Distribution and Biology) not only has been an eminently useful book, but his field work also helped clarify the status and distribution of several blues species in Oregon. Reading the results of Andy's extensive field work with blues last month put the idea in my head of trying to find and photograph a couple of the as-yet-undescribed blues taxa he studied. Shortly thereafter, I saw Jacksonville nature photographer Peter Theimann's online posting that he'd just seen those very species in Klamath County. That was all it took. Seeing a promising weather forecast and having some free days, I packed up my camera, binos, and camping gear and headed south in search of some high elevation blues in the land of pumice.
My destination was Crater Lake National Park, where Peter had seen the Volcano Blue (an undescribed Icaricia blue associated with Eriogonum pyrolifolium var. coryphaeum), and the Pumice Blue (an undescribed Euphilotes blue associated with Eriogonum marifolium). A few weeks before my visit, he'd seen both species near remnant snowbanks on the pumice flats below Mount Scott, on the east side of Crater Lake National Park. On August 8, I headed there first, knowing at the very least, that I would get stunning views of the lake on the way and of Mount Scott at my destination (I was not disappointed!).
I parked north of the main Mount Scott trail access area, and spent a full hour criss-crossing the pumice flats west of the mountain, gingerly sidestepping the wildflowers. I saw very few butterflies there, and only three blues: one Anna's Blue, and two worn Volcano Blues that I wasn't able to get good photos of. The good news: Volcano Blue was still flying! While the butterflies were somewhat scarce in this area, the tourists were not! A constant stream of (mostly) masked hikers headed up and down the Mount Scott trail, making me glad I wasn't planning to climb the mountain that day.
On my way to Mount Scott, I had noticed numerous patches of pumice with buckwheats in bloom as I drove to the east side of the Rim Road. So I simply retraced my route, and stopped at a couple of roadside patches with buckwheats in flower. Within minutes, I saw my first fresh male Volcano Blue in a large patch of it's hostplant, Shasta Buckwheat (Eriogonum pyrolifolium var. coryphaeum). The males were bright blue above, and clear bright gray below, with a bold orange submarginal band and sparkling light blue scintillae. Searching for a few minutes more, while trying to minimize my impact on the dry and fragile pumice meadow, I saw about 15 Volcano Blues, including both bright blue males and deep brown females. They were perching very cooperatively, mostly on Shasta Buckwheat flowers, and it wasn't long before I had a nice series of photos that included both sexes. In my personal "game" of photographing all of Oregon's described butterfly species inside the state, this was like money in the bank--I already had photographed a future species that wasn't even described yet!
My next goal was to find and photograph the Pumice Blue, which might prove to be a bit trickier. There are two species of Euphilotes blues that could be flying in the Crater Lake area this time of year: the Summit Blue (Euphilotes glaucon) and the Pumice Blue. The Summit Blue usually occurs lower in the Crater Lake area, and flies a bit earlier, but there are always some outliers. Just to make things interesting, the Pumice and Summit blues not only look similar, but they are usually separated by the buckwheat species they are associated with, which are both variable and similar. In the field, I was initially confusing the two host plants, Sulphur-flower Buckwheat (Summit Blue) and Marumleaf Buckwheat (Pumice Blue). Both buckwheat species grow in rocky volcanic soils, and sport bright yellow flowers. After I refreshed my memory with some key differences from info on my phone, I saw that Marumleaf Buckwheat is sexually dimorphic, meaning it has male and female plants that look different. The male plants are shorter with bright yellow flowers, and the female plants are taller with looser flowers that are bright red and yellow.
Once I started to see the male and female plants growing together, it got easier to find the Marumleaf Buckwheat, and subsequently, the Pumice Blues. Thanks to Dave Nunnalee up in Washington state, for compiling information on the buckwheats of Washington and the butterflies that depend on them. His data correlate well with the buckwheats and their butterflies in Oregon. From Dave I learned that Pumice Blue females only lay their eggs on the female flowers, and that the caterpillars are thought to eat pollen from the flower in the early stages (instars) and then graduate to the seeds of the flower later on. Fascinating!
Altogether I saw a total of about 30 Volcano Blues and 25 Pumice Blues at a few sites on the east, north, and west sides of Crater Lake, along with 10 other species. I did not see any Euphilotes blues that I could definitely identify as Summit Blues (on Sulphur-flower Buckwheat), but then I did not look thoroughly for them since I had photographed them previously at several other sites in Oregon. My list for the day:
I came home quite satisfied that I had found and photographed both of my target species at Crater Lake, and had a wonderful time doing it. And it was not my original plan to continue seeking these high elevation blues species at other sites in Oregon. However, after a few days at home, this idea inserted itself in my head like an "earworm" song that wouldn't go away. Admittedly, I didn't fight it very hard! So I went back to Andy Warren's book and reviewed where he had found them and where else he expected to find them. Then I started to scrutinize maps and aerial photos to find a good pumice field to search on the eastern slope of the Cascades. I knew it might be getting late in the flight period, so I my second goal was to make sure that I went to a location that would be enjoyable with or without the butterflies.
My brief research and analysis led me to Wickiup Plain, a large pumice field in the Three Sisters Wilderness that lies at the foot of the west slope of South Sister. Most of the pumice plain sits just inside my own Lane County which added to the appeal. I had hiked and backpacked in the Three Sisters Wilderness many times, but I had never made it to Wickiup Plain, and I was excited to experience a new area of the wilderness. The drive would be two hours each way, and the hike in would be about 3.5 miles, so I loaded up for a robust day of driving and hiking on a perfect day for adventuring in the Cascades.
I set out from Eugene on August 10, and it took about an hour and a half to hike up to the lower end of Wickiup Plain from the Devil's Lake trailhead. I had saved a GPS point on my phone so that I would know when I crossed into Lane County, for recording purposes, just in case I found anything new. As I began to enter the pumice field, I saw to my delight that the wildflowers were simply exploding! I had timed the hike very well for the flowers!
Within minutes of entering the land of pumice, I began to see small dusky-looking blues nectaring on buckwheats and asters. These were my first sightings of Shasta Blues in Lane County, and there were lots of them!
As I continued on up the gradual slope, I knew I was getting close to a grand view, and I pushed on after capturing photos of several of the Shasta Blues. When I came out of the trees I was rewarded by a grand vista of a landscape shaped by dramatic volcanic flows, pyroclastic explosions, snow and ice. Wow.
As I followed the Le Conte Crater trail to where it meets the Pacific Crest Trail, I kept seeing more and more Shasta Blues. It started to get tedious to check each one to make sure that they weren't Pumice Blues or Volcano Blues, but I had to keep trying. As I continued on into the broad pumice flats, I noticed that there were some swales that must have held snow, and therefore moisture, longer into the early summer, with more dense patches of wildflowers. As I scanned these patches, I began to see a few other butterfly species--a Boisduval's Blue here, an Anna's Blue there. Then I came upon a nice patch of what looked to be the male and female flowers of Marumleaf Buckwheat, so I took off my pack, and settled in to really search the area carefully. First, I began to see California Tortoiseshells, speeding across the flats like there was an important meeting somewhere. Then an Edith's Checkerspot. And a Buckeye. Now we're getting somewhere!
I kept searching as the day moved into mid- and then late afternoon. Finally, I saw what looked like a Euphilotes blue without the characteristic iridescent blue spots on the trailing edge of the hindwings, which Shasta Blues have. I saw it flying among the Marumleaf Buckwheat plants, with their distinctive male and female flowers. Tying to moderate my excitement, I deliberately shifted into my slow-as-molasses-in-winter mode to sidle in close for a nice photo. Bingo! A Euphilotes blue hanging out on a female Marumleaf Buckwheat flower.
Over the next 20 minutes, I saw several more, 12 all together. As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I got lucky and found a fresh mating pair on Shasta Buckwheat flowers--a two-fer! And two new "species" for me in Lane County in one day! After 20+ years of watching and photographing butterflies in Lane County, that doesn't happen often!
I'm looking forward to another visit to Wickiup Plain next year, perhaps a little earlier to see what else is flying up there, beyond the 9 species I saw on this trip:
It seems I had caught a serious case of the high-elevation blues fever, as I no sooner got home from Wickiup Plain than I was already thinking about whether there was another beautiful hike to a pumice habitat that I should consider. Why yes, I realized right away, Tam MacArthur Rim is another such spot. This time I knew I would be going late in the flight season for these blues species, but the weather was holding, and I couldn't resist getting in another butterfly outing before the weather changed.
Tam MacArthur Rim is on the east side of Broken Top, south of the town of Sisters. I'd been there a few times already at different times in August, and this would be the latest in the season of any of my visits. However, I knew that if there weren't butterflies, I would enjoy a hike of stunning beauty anyway!
It takes about 90 minutes to climb the trail from Three Creeks Lake up to the rim. From there a couple different routes traverse the pumice flats going toward Broken Top. I'd seen Shasta Blues there a couple of times in the past, but hadn't seen the Pumice Blue, which Andy Warren had seen there in significant numbers back in 2004. Since Andy's work was done 16 years ago, I wanted to verify if the large population he found was still there. I knew I would be visiting about a week later than he had, and I knew that it had been a very dry August, so it was a crap shoot whether I would see the Pumice Blues on August 19, but I wanted to try.
As I was hiking up the ascending trail, I saw almost no butterflies. It wasn't surprising, given how dry things were up there. When I emerged from the forested slope out into the pumice flats on top, I began to see California Tortoiseshells, but not much else. A few more minutes of hiking brought me to a slope with a lot of Eriogonum, where I paused to watch for blues. Like the rest of the area, it was pretty quiet in terms of butterflies. I moved off the trail and allowed some masked hikers to pass. When they walked up the slope past me, they flushed a blue! I followed it in my binos, and walked a bit closer. A Shasta Blue--good! They're still flying. A couple minutes later I saw another blue, and it was larger and much brighter below than a Shasta Blue would be, but I could not catch up to it to verify. My guess was an Anna's Blue. I took off my pack, since this spot had more action than anywhere else, and I kept scanning across the Buckwheat flowers for blues.
After about 20 minutes, I saw a small blue that was very light on the hindwing below. I slowly moved towards it, hoping that it was a Euphilotes and that I would be lucky enough to get a photo. Well, I got half my wish: I got close enough to verify that it was indeed a Euphilotes blue, but it had no time for this photographer. I couldn't get closer than about 15 feet before it would fly. I decided to continue on up the trail after several failed attempts to photograph the little guy (the hindwing would have been darker if it was a female).
I knew there was a really amazing view from a spot just off the trail about a mile up, so I moved on and kept looking for blues. I saw several more Shasta Blues, and 3 more Euphilotes blues, but they were just as wary as the first one, and I struck out on photos of them. Fortunately, I knew the mountain view just ahead was not going to fly away from me, so I headed up there.
This viewpoint has one of the most grand views of the mountains of Three Sisters Wilderness, as you can see. That landscape of rock, pumice, lava and scattered trees is one of my favorites in Oregon. I only saw four species of butterflies on my hike, but I went home happy!
I knew that I would have a date with this beautiful area again next summer, just a bit earlier in the season. I often joke about my "misses," saying "oh, darn, I guess I have to come back to this extraordinarily beautiful place again next year." Lucky me.