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Searching for Spring

Updated: 3 days ago

Early this spring, just when we seemed to be heading for the most severe drought in Oregon history, winter seemed to suddenly wake from its slumber and say "oh, wait a minute, I guess I'm not done yet." Clouds gathered, rain fell, and then snow. The parched ground soaked it up like a sponge. Everywhere I went it seemed people were saying, "I really miss that sunny weather, but we really need this rain."

The Illinois River Valley, from Road 4103, looking west
The Illinois River Valley, from Road 4103, looking west

Nowhere was that more true than in Josephine County, which had been designated as an extreme drought area by those scientists who do that sort of thing. Due to this cold, rainy spell, I'd had to cancel two earlier planned visits to Josephine County and its riverine jewel, the Illinois, to search for the elusive Spring White (Pontia sisymbrii). This would be my 7th try over a 20-year span. I have seen the Spring White (well enough to identify it) only three times: in May 2003 in the Warner Mountains, in June of 2003 on Soda Mountain, and in May 2006 on the Illinois. I managed one somewhat blurry and out of focus photo out of those three sightings (see below). Whites are notoriously hard to photograph, unless you are lucky enough to find them puddling on wet sand or mud or nectaring on a cool morning. Which is why I was targeting this river's edge habitat in early spring, when there is more puddling habitat around. Oh, and it's called the Spring White.

Photo of Spring White butterfly
Spring White, Warner Mountains, May 2003

As the rainy days of April crawled along like chilled salamanders, I kept watching the weather forecasts for southern Oregon. I was hoping, longing, to see some of those happy little sun icons. Nope. Just depressing little rain cloud icons strung across every day of the week. Then, about ten days ago, I saw that there might be a window of sun down in the Illinois Valley over the following weekend, and I started to press my foot on the hope pedal. I knew it would be iffy to set out a-hunting for butterflies after all that cold and rain, but I just could't contain my desire to start my butterfly season another week! I packed up my "lep trek"gear in my typical not-really-quite-ready, first-trip-of-the-year kind of way and jumped on I-5 heading south, early on Saturday morning. I had estimated my arrival in the Illinois Valley at about 11 am, and that turned out to be pretty good timing, given that it was sunny, but still quite cool when I arrived.

I started out walking on the Jeffrey Pine loop trail, near the beginning of Eight Dollar Road, where I soon encountered several Sara's Orangetips (after the taxonomic split, these are only found in Oregon along the border with California), a few tattered California Tortoiseshells and numerous Propertius Duskywings. It was pretty clear that cool weather-tolerant species would win this day. After about 30 minutes of walking, I saw a white flying about 50 feet in front of me. My first instinct was to reach for my butterfly net. However, in my first-trip-of-the-year packing frenzy, I had forgotten to pack my net (yeah, I know, I know). So, I would be at the mercy of this bug. Will it stop and nectar? Will it stop to sip some mineral water at a sand bar? Will it come land on my outstretched hand? To my chagrin, it didn't see or smell anything it considered vaguely attractive about (or anywhere near) me, and it flew on down the hill as if I didn't exist, standing there staring at it, churning with desire to know what species it was. "Why isn't that damn net in the car?" I said (carefully phrasing the comment to avoid any responsibility).

I was headed for some sandy spots along the riverbank there, and hoped to get lucky with a Spring White or even two, happily sipping moisture from the riverside sand. As I traipsed along the river's edge, I spied two more of these whites, whatever they were. The second one stopped for about a millisecond to nectar on a white native mustard. Miraculously, I got one poor photo, but it was just clear enough to tell that this was a spring form of the Margined White, lovely with its bold black ventral vein bars, but, alas, not the object of my search.

Photo of purple flowered native mustard
Waldo rockcress (Arabis aculeolata) is a mustard family wildflower that prefers rocky serpentine soils found in the Siskiyou Mountains

As I walked, I stopped to scan mustard family wildflowers wherever I saw them, as they are often visited by whites, orangetips and marbles. They are both preferred nectar sources, as well as larval host plants. In this area, I knew that I might see Sara's Orangetip, California Marble, Large Marble, Gray Marble, Spring White, Margined White or Western White. So when I began to see patches of Waldo rockcress, a purple mustard-family native flower in bloom, I let my hopes grow a bit. As it turned out, over the course of my two days along the Illinois, I would not see any whites at Waldo rockcress. Go figure.

After a lovely walk around the Jeffrey Pine Loop, I headed back to my car for some lunch, and then headed east. I made a quick stop at what I call Butterfly Gulch, where two small unnamed streams flow down to and under Rd 4103. There I found several Sara's Orangetips, one California Marble, one Greenish Blue, one Gray Marble, a few Mylitta Crescents and a number of Common Checkered Skippers. No Spring White joy here either, but a nice variety of other early season species.

Photo of a mating pair of Common Checkered Skippers
A mating pair of Common Checkered Skippers at Butterfly Gulch

My next site visit would be Sixmile Creek, a beautiful stretch of the Illinois with a dramatic rocky shore with many pools and seeps in the spring. Within a minute of exiting my car, I saw my first Pale Swallowtail of the trip, a couple of California Tortoiseshells and some Echo Azure blues on the sand below. A promising start. Gear on!

Photo of Illinois River at Sixmile Creek
The Illinois River at the confluence with Sixmile Creek

As I made my way down the rocky access to the rock bed along the river, I noticed a stirring of a number of blues on a shaded rock, so I headed down there. I found a puddle club of many Echo Azures packed in cheek-to-jowl (just go with me here, I can't imagine jowls on a butterfly either) in a moist mossy spot that was partly shaded. I slowly moved in for a closer look, curious to see if there were any interlopers in the group. I counted them and got roughly 100, and at first I thought they were all Azures.

Photo of puddling Echo Azure Blue butterflies
This puddle club contained more than 100 Echo Azures, and just one Western Tailed Blue

I scanned them one more time... "gotcha!" One Western Tailed Blue was there, blending in nicely with its cousins, but slightly smaller, slightly more gray underneath, with its orange hindwing spot and tiny tail.

Photo of an adult Western Tailed Blue butterfly
One little Western Tailed Blue was tucked in at the edge of a puddle club of 100 Echo Azures

Crawling all over and around the rocks at Sixmile Creek, I found several Mylitta Crescents, a few Common Ringlets (the really pale southern Oregon form), one Common Checkered Skipper, several Propertius Duskywings and a California Marble. I was satisfied that I had covered the site well, and I saw none of the larger white species so at least there was no question of whether a saw a Spring White. It was almost 5 pm by that point, and so I called it a day and headed to my Air BnB on the Rogue River for dinner and a night's rest.

Next morning it was up early, a quick bird walk along the Rogue, and then a return drive down to the Illinois Valley. I started the day by walking down Road 011 off the Illinois River

Photo of pitcher plant  (Darlingtonia californica)
California Pitcher Plant (Darlingtonia californica)

Road, which heads down to Star Flat and the Star Flat Fen (a bog with the strangely lovely Darlingtonia pitcher plant). The road continues past the fen, along Deer Creek until it reaches its confluence with the Illinois. There it meets the Kerby Flat Trail, which I had never walked. I decided to walk that all the way to Kerby Flat to maximize my time in the river corridor, and hopefully increase my odds of encountering a Spring White. I didn't know if it was a good plan, but it was a plan.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable walk. From all the recent rain, there were puddles and seeps everywhere. In fact, there were so many wet spots, that I surmised that the relatively few butterflies must be spread out. In contrast, a good seep in summertime, when water is more scarce, will often attract a high density and diversity of butterflies to a small area by its relative rarity.

It was cool again on this morning, and there were many more birds in evidence than butterflies. On the way down, I met a group of Forest Ecology students from Linfield College who had been down to see the Darlingtonia Fen. They were excited to be in the great classroom of the outdoors. They said they were studying for their finals by practicing their field skills, in the field. I commended them on their choice of places to study, and gave them my pitch. They seemed enthusiastic about visiting. I also met several Propertius Duskywings, a Persius Duskywing, a couple Mylitta Crescents, some California Tortoiseshells, a few Sara's Orangetips, and a couple Anise Swallowtails. They were a bit light on conversation, but I enjoyed their company.

Photo of the Illinois River near Deer Creek
A sandbar on the Illinois River, just below the confluence with Deer Creek

When I arrived at the confluence of Deer Creek with the Illinois I was greeted by a large sandbar which looked like fabulous puddling habitat, along its moist edge at the river. In one sheltered spot there, I found the only Indra Swallowtail of the weekend, with a couple of Anise Swallowtails, always a lovely sight.

Just above that sand bar, I found the Kerby Flat trail and headed west on the rocky path. There were many patches of Waldo rockcress, a few Echo Azures, several more Sara's Orangetips, and more Anise Swallowtails. Eventually, I passed through a shady woodland and emerged into sunny Kerby Flat, the most obvious feature of which was the presence of several big, bright patches of Rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta). Each flower has a lovely pink ball of color at the end of a green stem. Within a few minutes I saw several whites, actually nectaring (!) on the plectritis blooms. Now we're talking (I said silently)!

Close-up photo of a Margined White butterfly
The spring form of the Margined White (AKA, Mustard White) on Rosy Plectritis (Plectritis congesta)

I slowly crept closer to each one to get a good view through my binos, and identified one Margined White after another--five in all. Lovely, and distinct in their spring form, but decidedly not Spring Whites.

I was starting to feel pangs of hunger, so I about-faced, and began the 3 mile walk back to the car. Again a pleasant walk, but again with relatively few butterflies.

Back at my car after eating lunch, I began to strategize about where to go next. Back to Sixmile? Try Jeffrey Pine again? Or to the area around Eight Dollar Bridge? The bridge area felt right to me. I knew there was good puddling habitat there so I drove back out Illinois River Road to Highway 199 and down to Eight Dollar Road. I had scouted the area the day before, so I knew the key spots to check. In the primo sandy puddling spot, I found a bright, fresh group of swallowtails all packed in tightly. They literally kept pushing into one another as though they couldn't get close enough. They reminded me of little boys snuggling up to their Dad.

On that same beach I also found a couple of Persius Duskywings, a male and female, like smaller versions of the Propertius Duskywing, with slightly less bold markings.

Close-up photo of an adult Persius Duskywing butterfly
A fresh male Persius Duskywing, a common early season flyer
Photo of Persius Duskywing sipping mineral laden moisture from wet charcoal and ash
A female Persius Duskywing sipping mineral laden moisture from wet charcoal, note the more patterned forewing

These little duskwings, whose larva feed on legumes, weren't on the wet sand, but on wet gravel and wet charcoal.

Those sightings rounded out the excitement for this spot so I headed back to the car, and decided to go back yet again to the Illinois River Road, and check a couple spots there. When I arrived at "Butterfly Gulch," I found it so empty of butterflies that I was a bit shocked. I had never seen it that way before. The previous day, it had a lot more action. So that ended up being a very quick stop.

It was getting late in the day, and I wanted to stop at a roadside seep near Snailback Creek, which I knew from previous visits could be a good late afternoon spot. It was a fun, though white-free stop, but I did pick up a few new species there, including Silvery Blue, Northern checkerspot and Brown Elfin.

Photo of a fresh Silvery Blue sipping at a seep
A fresh Silvery Blue sipping at a seep along Road 4103 in the late afternoon

By this point, it was feeling like I would be counting this as a warm-up trip and as a scouting trip, and that I would be making the drive down to the Illinois Valley again soon, to continue my search for the Spring White. Hopefully in a week or two, there were be more signs of Spring, and perhaps a white or two to bring the joy!

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog on my planned first search for the newly described Asher Blue, which was identified as a new species last year, and formally described this past winter by Caitlin Labar, Jon Pelham, and Norbert Kondla. This new blue is closely related to the Echo Azure. The story of the Asher Blue and its namesake is really lovely, so please come back for that one!

Below is the complete species list (21 species) from my two days on the Illinois, with counts for each.

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