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Small is Beautiful

Updated: Feb 22

That is the title of a 1973 book by E.F. Schumacher that was very influential for me when I was in my early 20's. It gave me the opportunity to look at American culture and the economic system in the US from a new point of view, and consider what was and was not working well in those systems. It had great value for me and gave me the opportunity to change the way I had been thinking. I invoke the title here with respect and appreciation for that little book.

Likewise, I have respect and appreciation for a little butterfly to which that title phrase also applies, a member of the skipper family called the Common Sootywing. This species is widespread in eastern Oregon, and it is often found in weedy, disturbed habitats, where it's primarily weedy host plants grow. It is indeed small. I have found it to be moderately easy to find, but quite difficult to photograph. It is very dark, and this, together with it's diminutive size, makes it challenging to visually follow it during its rapid, zig-zag flight. What makes it even more challenging compared to some other small, fast-flying butterflies in Oregon, is that when it is disturbed it flies so far that it is exceedingly easy to lose track of it altogether. This flight pattern had prevented me from getting a decent photo of this butterfly for about 15 years. I have several records of seeing the Common Sootywing since I first saw it along the middle Deschutes River in 2005. Over those 15 years, I've seen it in Morrow, Wallowa, Jefferson, Baker and Sherman counties. Each time I would try diligently to get a photo, and each time I would eventually give up after many attempts to catch up to where it just landed, unable to get close enough for a shot before it flew off again.

That changed last week when I visited Jones Canyon, in Sherman County. Jones Canyon is a side canyon off the lower Deschutes River, an are primarily visited by fly-fishermen. Jones Canyon burned a few years back, and immediately after, the fire left the canyon floor barren in places. Over the years, small seedlings of Sagebrush have come into bare spots along with a few native wildflowers and a lot of weedy species. The fire, destructive though it was, made it a lot easier to photograph this challenging species.

Common Sootywing (Pholisora catullus) in Jones Canyon

The fire not only supported a flush of growth in the weedy species that the Sootywing prefers, but it also cleared out a lot of the tall sagebrush that used to make moving about on the canyon floor more difficult. When I initially arrived at the mouth of the canyon and spotted some sootywings, I was having the same old challenge getting close enough for a photo until I found an area further up the canyon that was flat, open and sparsely vegetated. There were just enough native and weedy flowers in bloom that the sootywings would occasionally stop for some nectar.

Jones Canyon, Lower Deschutes River Drainage

Because this flat, open area was fairly long, I had long sight lines allowing me to track the Sootywing's tiny black form zipping from one perch to the next without losing them visually. For two hours, I tracked one after another, and again and again, they flew just before I could get a photo. Finally, though, I got lucky.

A fresh Sootywing landed not far from me on the far side of a fiddlehead (Amsinckia sp.) plant, so that the foliage blocked its view of my approach. I crept in, staying low, so that its compound eyes, beautifully designed for detecting any movement, would not detect mine. Luck was on my side this day, as it slowly worked its way from one yellow blossom to the next, moving laterally around the plant towards me. I waited patiently until it came into view, and then took a rapid-fire series of photos. Fortunately, one of the photos was clear and sharp (see above). Bingo! Oregon butterfly species #159!

Over time I have come to find the brown, tan and occasionally green shades and patterns on Oregon's skipper butterflies more and more beautiful, showing a subtle yet exquisite beauty, driven by the biological need to be recognizable to potential mates while blending with the color scheme of their environment. No flashy colors here, just the simple beauty of utility. The Common Sootywing is one such subtly beautiful skipper. The rich, dark almost-black brown, with a subtle iridescence of green, punctuated by pure white spots together with it's devilishly effective evasive flight skills have earned it my appreciation and respect. Small is beautiful.

And then there were 9.

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