Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Back in 2004, I saw one Garita Skipperling (Oarisma garita) in what was then an unkempt lawn in front of an abandoned motel in Minam, Oregon. In case you don't know this species, the Garita Skipperling is a small, weak-flying skipper that is orange-brown above, and light orange below with light vein lines and a neat white marginal band below. It is found in a wide swath from central Canada down to southern Arizona, mostly on the east side of the Rocky Mountains.
It turned out that motel in Minam was not entirely abandoned that day in 2004. As I was trying to photograph this moth-like little orange-brown skipper, a man came out assertively from one of the motel rooms and gruffly told me I was on private property, and that I should leave immediately. Which I did. I managed one slightly blurry and somewhat out of focus photo before he shooed me away.
In a delicious case of irony, one of the meanings of the Spanish word garita is "sentry box," one of those little structures that shelters a standing guard at the entrance to a protected place.
For many years, the only records of Garita Skipperling in Oregon were from Baker and Wallowa counties, but Dennis Deck and Dana Ross have recently found it in Grant County also. These sightings add to a growing body of evidence that it is rapidly expanding its range in both Oregon and Washington. It is a generalist species in terms of its choice of host plants, using a range of grass and sedge species, and it isn't picky about the type of grassy habitat it occupies either, feeling equally at home in wet and dry native prairies as well as weedy fields and lawns.
I went back to Minam in 2017 and I stopped again at the motel, since it was the only place I'd seen a Garita Skipperling, as well the only specific place that I'd heard of anyone else seeing one in Oregon at that point. This time I found the motel completely remodeled and re-opened, and the old abandoned lawn looking more like a golf course fairway, lush and green and closely mown. Nevertheless, I casually strolled along the edge of the lawn to take a look, just in case. There were no weeds in the lawn, and no skipperlings. I suspected that these two absences were related.
I was back in Wallowa County in July 2019, and I spent an afternoon searching the grassy fields in the Minam State Recreation area, along the west bank of the Minam River. I found Western Branded and Woodland skippers, along with a smattering of other butterfly species, but no Garita Skipperlings.
That fall, at the Northwest Lepidopterists Workshop in Corvallis, Oregon, I gathered intel on this species from several butterfly watchers, photographers and collectors, with hopes of finding it in 2020. Recent sightings supported the conclusion that the Garita Skipperling had expanded into the Bear Valley area near Seneca, Oregon, so I made plans to make the 6 hour drive out there this past week.
With good information from reliable sources, I was hopeful about finally getting some decent photos of this little butterfly. I arrived in Bear Valley on a sunny, calm and warm day, and after a bit of stretching and walking around, I loaded up with cameras, binos, kneepads and my iPhone (which I now use to list what I see). The first site was a several acre mixed wet and dry meadow site, and I first took a reconnoitering loop to get a feel for the site. There were a number of species flying at 11 am, including Persius Duskywings, Sonora Skippers, Greenish Blues, Field Crescents and Common Ringlets. After writing off the "Field Crescents" as relatively unimportant, one of them caught my eye, and my brain said "not a Field Crescent!" So I about-faced and started to follow it. When I caught up to it I was delighted to find a very fresh male Northern Crescent. I had not thought to look for that species here, so that was a nice surprise!
That first day I saw only a couple of Northern Crescents, and both were extremely fresh. It appeared that I had hit the first day of their emergence, which was a nice stroke of luck. This thought inspired me to return to Bear Valley a couple days later in hopes of getting some nice images of this beautiful little Crescent after more had eclosed. My supposition turned out to be correct, and two days later I saw more than 20 of them, both males and females, and all very fresh.
In the afternoon of the first day, I was a bit discouraged that I had not found any Garita Skipperlings. I broadened my search to include the drier edges of the meadow, and began to see some additional species that preferred the plants of this drier habitat. Many of the drier habitat plants were still in bud on the first day, but there were a few patches blooming, which attracted Gray Hairstreak, Boisduval's Blue, and some Western Whites. As I continued to search this area, I noticed a very small blue hanging around some patches of buckwheat. I knew right away that they were Euphilotes blues, but which species? When I looked up the buckwheat species I was seeing there, it looked to be parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides), which is the hostplant for the undescribed taxon "Cascadia Blue" (Euphilotes "battoides"). I set about getting photos of this diminutive blue, knowing that before long it would likely be described and I could get ahead of the game by photographing it now!
Its alway fun to puzzle over Greater Fritillaries (Speyeria sp.) in eastern Oregon, and since I hadn't been in Grant County for many years, I had to work a little extra hard on those. I was seeing a medium to large Speyeria in the upper, drier part of the site, and I suspected Coronis Fritillary, based on the huge silver spots in the disk that I could see flashing in the bright June sun, even at distance. In this part of Oregon, the most likely subspecies of Coronis Fritillary is snyderi, which is found in throughout northeast Oregon.
When I got my photos home and checked the Butterflies of America website, I concluded that this is most likely Speyeria coronis snyderi. Paul Hammond at OSU may correct me on that, and I will welcome it if he does!
After continuing on eastward into Baker County to search for Nevada Skippers, I came back for a second day of searching for Garita Skipperling in Bear Valley. Sadly, I came up empty. There was one moment when I thought I had glimpsed one perched for a microsecond, but on reflection I decided it was a Sonora Skipper, based on how fast it zipped away. I also searched two additional mixed wet/dry meadows in the Bear Valley area, one of which had Garita sightings in recent years. Still no luck.
Other notable species in these Bear Valley meadows included many Sonora Skippers (Polites sonora), a lone West Coast Lady (Vanessa annabella, my first of 2020), my first Lilac-bordered Coppers (Lycaena nivalis) of the year (we usually don't see them in Lane County until July), and my first Milbert's Tortoiseshell (Aglais milberti) of the year.
As I reflected on my trip to Grant County, I concluded that I hadn't spent enough time in this beautiful part of Oregon. I'd only made 5 previous site visits there in 18 years of butterflying! I also reflected on how difficult it may be to find and photograph some of these last 7 or 8 species, given the vagaries of weather, changes in flight periods from year to year, global warming impacts, wildfire impacts, and the constraints of scheduling long car-camping adventures with everything else in life. I guess after 19 years, I can say I'm in this game for the long haul. So, I will return.
If you live or go adventuring in NE Oregon, and you have or know of recent Garita Skipperling sightings or collections, please do let me know! The more information I have, the more efficient I can be with time, gas, and other resources. If they have spread to Bear Valley, then they may have spread in other directions from the Minam valley as well. Keep an eye out for La Garita Escondida (the hidden Garita)!
For these many years, it's been as though there is a sentry barring me from entering the realm of the Garita Skipperling. I look forward to the day when that sentry lets me in.
Here are the species and numbers of butterflies I saw over two days on three mixed wet/dry prairie sites in Bear Valley: