Nope, I'm not talking about coffee--I'm talking about the peak in southern Oregon. You know, Dutchman Peak, in the Siskiyous. It was apparently named after a German miner who got stuck up there in a snowstorm and perished in the 1870's. I think its weird that people name places after people who died there tragically, but who am I to judge? Although it was cool for a summer day when I went in early July to the site of that miner's demise, snow was not an issue I was concerned about.
Initially, all I was concerned about was not missing the opportunity that my friends Rob Santry and Stefan Schlick had alerted me to: Spring Whites (Pontia sysimbrii) were flying on Dutchman Peak. Lots of them! Why was that a big deal? Only because I had tried and failed to photograph Spring Whites for years! I had never heard the word "lots" and Spring White in the same sentence before, so I was stoked!
Stefan emailed me, relaying info from Rob, who knew that Spring White had been a "nemesis butterfly" for me for several years now. Rob and Stefan had seen several of them near the summit of Dutchman's Peak as part of the Mt. Ashland 4th of July Butterfly Count, and Rob knew I'd want to know. He got that right! I started preparing immediately to drive down to Josephine County the next morning.
I emailed both Rob and Stefan to get more information about the best route to get there, and exactly where they'd seen them. When I didn't hear back that evening, I decided I just had to go anyway. After years of unsuccessfully trying to photograph Spring Whites, I decided that I couldn't let some little details get in my way. I hoped to catch up on the details in the morning, one way or the other.
I prepared food the night before, gathered my gear, and set the alarm for early o'clock. Everything went smoothly in the morning and I was on the road by 8 am, headed south on I-5. Traffic was light, and the weather looked great. Stefan called me back as I was nearing Roseburg, and gave me the 411. They'd seen the whites near the summit, and then he described the route to get there. He suggested I pull over to take notes on the route, since there were some important nuances. "No" I said, "this I will remember!" I also didn't want to take the time.
Ninety minutes later when it came time to recall the details from my "steel-trap" memory those salient details about where to turn... my recall was a bit hazier than I'd hoped. I knew there was a Y junction where I needed to stay left, and a 5-way junction where I needed to take the the second road on my left. The only problem was I couldn't recall exactly how to get to those locations. Where exactly was that first turn off Hwy 238? I made a guess, and, let's just say there were some consequences. Some rocky, washed-out, gnarly, worried-about-the-tires-and-undercarriage-of-my-car consequences. I had turned up Little Applegate Road, when I was supposed to continue on Upper Applegate Road. It was so unfair--that they would name those two very different roads so similarly!
From the photo of the peak above, you already know that I made it to the top, but rather than the smooth, gravel highway that Rob later described to me, it was more of a 4WD Jeep track that I chose. By the time I hit the really bad part of the road, I was half way up the ridge. I wasn't 100% sure the road would go all the way through, but my maps made it look like it did. It would take a lot of extra time and delay to go back down and find the correct route, so I white-knuckled my way up that nasty excuse for a Forest Road, and stayed the course.
When I came to the top, I realized that I had bypassed the Y junction and the 5-way junction altogether, so I didn't even get to use the measly scraps of the route that I did recall. But I was really relieved that my gamble of not retracing my route to avoid that bone-cruncher had paid off! I was almost to the peak, where I would get my best chance yet at photographing the elusive Spring White!
The gate was closed on the road up to the Fire Lookout at the summit, so I would walk up. Stefan had shared that they saw the Spring Whites along this road and at the summit itself. I strapped on my cameras and binos, and started to walk the road. I don't always carry or use Hooper, my beloved butterfly net, but when we're talking about whites near the top of a mountain, they can be hyper-active, madly chasing each other around and wicked hard to identify, let alone photograph. Many species of whites are "hilltoppers," meaning they patrol the area around the summit and engage in aerial battles and chases with others of their kind as well as other species, and sometimes other classes of insects. One theory is that this "king of the hill" game is about earning and defending the most advantageous spot for meeting up with the opposite sex, and ultimately mating therewith. I always thought that theory a bit weak.
As I walked along the road, I saw several whites, but could not ID most of them on the wing, nor could I net them as the whizzed past me just out of reach. They would be either Western Whites or Spring Whites, and likely some of both.
When I got up to the Lookout, sure enough, there were several species hill-topping: whites, swallowtails, and greater fritillaries. I consciously tried to ignore all but the whites. Occasionally I did see a white land ever so briefly, and was able to confirm that there were indeed both Western Whites and Spring Whites frenetically flying about at the summit.
I sat down to watch their flight to see if any patterns emerged, and soon noticed that there was indeed a pattern. Many of the whites seemed to repeat a rough figure 8 along the ridge of the summit, usually passing fairly close to the south side of the Lookout structure. I strategically stationed myself there, intending to net a few of them and see what the numbers were for each species. After netting several, they seemed to be skewed towards Spring Whites, which was a good sign!
I pondered how I would get a photo, with the crazy mayhem of hill-topping going on. I reflected on how many years I'd been trying for this photo, the miles driven, the fuel burned, the time spent, the frustration experienced. I decided to consider break from my tradition of only photographing butterflies where they decide to land. I concluded that the only dependable way to get a clear photo was to use what I like to call the "chill and thrill" method: net the butterfly, put it in a cooler with ice for a few minutes, and release the butterfly from the viewing jar in a suitable spot for a photo. To that end, I scouted around for good photo locations: easy access, good light, and a good background for a photo. Nearby I found a couple of beautiful flat-topped stones that were easy to get to. Photo location: check!
Then I resumed my station next to the Lookout building. The first couple Whites I netted were Westerns, and I immediately released them. Then a few minutes later, a lucky swing netted a darting Spring White. I carefully maneuvered the butterfly into the viewing jar, put the jar in my insulated lunch box, which had a couple small blocks of blue ice. I set a timer on my phone for 5 minutes. After the 5 minutes, I brought out the butterfly, and released it onto my flat rock, leaning over it to keep it in shade until I was ready for the shot. Okay, ready, set... gone! Spring whites, being early season flyers, and fairly tolerant of cool temperatures, recovered from the brief chill very quickly--within a minute and a half to two minutes. So I realized I had to work very quickly! The first two flew off before I even got a shot.
I repeated my oft-used butterfly photography mantra to myself ("it only takes one"), and went back to my strategic post next to the Lookout with Hooper in hand. The third time was indeed a charm. I verified that I had a Spring White in the net, and again set it in my lunch cooler. I got set up and was poised for photos as I released the butterfly to my chosen rock, and got the following series of shots as the butterfly warmed, spread its wings, and then flew off at breakneck speed. There it is. Finally. After all these years. Spring White! Woo-hoo!
This was the first time in about 30 years of photographing butterflies that I concluded that I likely wouldn't get the photo using my tried and true practice of letting the butterfly control where and how I photographed it. I was thrilled and relieved to get such good images of a butterfly that had eluded me for so long. No more long drives to Jackson County in early April to try yet again for Spring White. Now if I go, it will be without pressure, just to enjoy it all.
Spring White is the 169th Oregon butterfly species that I've photographed in Oregon. Now there are four left to find: Checkered White, American Copper, Compton Tortoiseshell and Gillett's Checkerspot. I've been searching for all four of them for years, and some or all of them may not breed in Oregon every year. Walking back down the hill, I thought about how lucky I will need to be just to see one of these species, and realized this might not be the last time I need to use the Chill and Thrill technique!
I want to give a shout out to Rob Santry and Stefan Schlick again for their key role in helping me finally photograph this species. Thanks so much guys--I literally could not have done it without your help!
I feel bad for that German miner who had such bad luck up there--my luck had been decidedly good! This was my first trip to Dutchman Peak, and it was most memorable! Without a doubt I plan to go back again with a broader focus. While I was intentionally excessively focused on finding and photographing Spring Whites, I did happen to notice a few other species. My narrowed attention surely caused me to miss some species, as well as to forego tracking down the Speyeria sp. and Euphilotes sp. to identify them to species. Next time!
Here are the 14 species I identified: