The Bigfoot of Butterflies
We humans tend to love stories about mysterious critters that may or may not exist or persist out in the wild places. The Northwest's on-going love-affair with Bigfoot and the continuing controversy as to whether the Ivory-billed Woodpecker yet survives in some remote southern swamp are lively examples. I'm not immune to the appeal of that narrative of chasing something wild and elusive. It is, in part, what drew me out to Wallowa County again this year, hoping to finally see and photograph the elusive Gillett's Checkerspot (Euphydryas gillettii).
Two people, one of whom is a friend of mine, saw and photographed Gillett's Checkerspot in late June last year, along the Hat Point Road in Wallowa County, Oregon. I saw their photos. They were clearly Gillett's. Those were the first sightings that I know of in Oregon in 16 years.
Gillett's Checkerspot is a species that I started looking for in 2004, the year after the late Harold Rice first found them on Summit Ridge, the rim of Hell's Canyon. Gillett's is a Rocky Mountain species that spills over into several mountain ranges across Idaho, and at least in some years, into northeastern Oregon.
This year, based on those photo-documented records from last year, I planned a longer, more thorough search, focusing in the area where they were found last year. I surmised that in my previous searches, I had spent too little time there altogether, and tried to cover too large an area. So I planned to search before, during and after the dates of last years records, and really look hard in a more confined search area.
I arrived on June 25, a day before the date of last year's sightings. The weather was beautiful and plenty warm, but as I noted the plants that were blooming and not yet blooming, it appeared that summer had not arrived yet. There were large mud puddles, indicating recent rains, and in terms of plant phenology (timing of growth and flowering), it was still spring.
Luckily, I found an open campsite very close to my search area, and as I pulled into the site in the late afternoon, several species of butterflies were active there. The one that got my attention first was a checkerspot, but clearly not Gillett's Checkerspot with its broad red bands along the outer wing edge above and below. They looked a bit like Edith's Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha), but different from those in the western Cascades. I watched these checkerspots quite a bit, since some were right in my camp site, and eventually got some nice photos of them.
After studying the photos and considering the possible species in this area, I initially leaned towards calling them Anicia Checkerspot (Euphydryas anicia). They differed from most Edith's Checkerspot in having less red above, pure white spots above rather than the cream or off-white spots of Edith's and the forewing shape was longer and more pointed than are typical of Edith's. Dorsally, they resembled the Anicia Checkerspots I'd seen in Deschutes and Harney counties more than they resembled any Edith's I'd seen. However, several of them did show a black "editha" line (see above) with a narrow indistinct reddish band on the basal side of that line. The NE Oregon segregate of Edith's Checkerspot tends to have these indistinct red bands on the basal side of the "editha" line, and that pushed me over to the Edith's side. Although they were greatly outnumbered by the Snowberry Checkerspots (Euphydryas colon), they got a lot more of my attention, due to the enjoyable ID challenge.
I decided to consider it a hopeful sign that I was seeing good numbers of Euphydryas checkerspots even if they weren't Gillett's. I planned to start the search in earnest the following morning, and would spend the evening thinking through my strategy.
That night I awoke to a dark sky ablaze with stars, accompanied by the low, slow-paced hoots of a Flammulated Owl. I fell back asleep with a smile on my face. In the morning that smile quickly emerged again as I took in the beauty of the dawning of day. Perched on top of a high ridge, first light came early, around 5:30 am.
My plan was to get to know this area in depth, to explore every nook and cranny. I had allowed myself four days to do this. I wanted to understand the habitat, the plant communities, and all the little niche habitats that attract butterflies, as well as the times of day that butterflies use them. And of course I wanted to see and identify as many species of butterflies as I could, hopefully including Gillett's Checkerspot.
Early on in my exploration, I noticed that the gravel Hat Point Road itself was a key habitat feature that attracted various butterfly species, especially Pale and Anise Swallowtails, Margined Whites, Echo Azures and Hydaspe and Callippe Fritillaries. It was a flight corridor through the patch of forest there, and it provided a sunny opening in that patch of forest. It also offered warm gravelly spots for basking and a modest offering of nectar plants along the road margins. It was the only location where I saw Lupine Blue or Mourning Cloak.
Below the road was a large bowl-shaped area that had been partially logged, opening up the understory, which created a unique set of habitat characteristics. Shrub species that normally were tucked into the understory of the forest were out in the open here, visible, and in the sun at least part of the day. The bowl concentrated moisture at its lower end, and this supported moisture-loving plants that didn't occur in its higher, drier areas. This area supported many Julia's Orangetips, and several Green Commas.
As I zig-zagged through the bowl and through the forest understory across the road, I began to realize that here was a huge population of Utah Honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis) scattered throughout the bowl and across the road. Knowing that Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) had been documented as a host plant for Gillett's Checkerspot, I wondered if Gillett's could be using this locally abundant Lonicera as a host plant. It wasn't too far-fetched an idea, since Gillett's had been recorded using several other shrub species as hosts, including Western Valerian (Valeriana occidentalis), in addition to Twinberry.
The part of the Hat Point Road I was exploring followed Grizzly Ridge for several miles, and in some spots lay right on its narrow summit. On both sides of the ridge was an interconnected series of mostly steep, rocky meadows with a variety of native flowers and shrubs providing both host plants and nectar sources. These meadows were favored by the Anicia Checkerspots, as well as Persius Duskywing (Erynnis persius), Dreamy Duskywing (Erynnis icelus), Western White (Pontia occidentalis), Western Green Hairstreak (Callophrys affinis), Greenish Blue (Plebejus saepiolus) and Callippe Fritillary (Speyeria callippe).
I was getting to know well the lay of the land on Grizzly Ridge. No Gillett's yet. I knew that it was a distinct possibility that the late spring could be driving the emergence of Gillett's Checkerspot as much as 7-10 days later, as I had seen with some other species. This would mean that even if they showed up this year on Grizzly Ridge, I might miss them. But, I was here, and the drive out here was very long, so it felt like the only thing to do was just keep looking, and enjoy whatever I saw.
After a couple of days, I spread my search a bit wider, driving both further down and further up the ridge. Going up the ridge to the Granny Springs area, it was clear that summer was going to come even later up there. The temperature was noticeably lower, fewer wildflowers were in bloom, and fewer butterflies were flying. Based on those factors, I decided not to search any higher than that.
I went down the road and scouted for good habitat niches. Under the right conditions, old fire pits can attract butterflies as a source of mineral salts, so I pulled off to check an empty campsite just off the road. Right away I saw several Snowberry Checkerspots puddling in the moist sandy soil at the entrance to the sight. Then I saw a spectacular green flash -- a fresh Western Green Hairstreak in full sun. Breathtaking.
After getting lucky with some photos of the Western Green, I noticed what appeared to be a dark hairstreak land down by the road on the moist soil. When I got my bins on it, I gasped! My fourth super-fresh Thicket Hairstreak of the summer! So richly colored and fresh! Wow. Apparently this is the year of the Thicket Hairstreak!
By the end of day four on Grizzly Ridge, I had been out on for a total of 9 days. I was tired, dirty, smelly, and sore. Bushwhacking through that rough terrain was making my legs cramp at night. My store of prepared-ahead-of-time food was almost gone. The reasonable thing to do was probably to pack it in and head home.
Then I started in on a little "what if?" thought process. What if the gillettii emerge in the next couple of days--right after I leave? What if someone else were to find them just after I left? What if there's an even more confounding weather pattern next year? What would it take to stay and spend a couple more days searching?
I worked it out that I could drive into Enterprise and replenish my food supply, take a shower somewhere, do laundry and get more stove fuel. It would just be one afternoon and not that long a drive to get there and back. I could leave my camp set up where it was. The weather had been great except for an early morning squall that that morning, which had only dribbled rain on me. The forecast looked good. Why not?
It was something I hadn't done before on one of my butterfly search camping trips, so I decided I had to try it--just to see how it would go. I found a shower at an RV Campground, and got fuel at the hardware store. I did my best to provision my non-mainstream food preferences at the Safeway in Enterprise, and did my laundry at a clean and quiet laundromat in Joseph. That was easy! I headed back up to my campsite in time for dinner, cleaned up and refreshed, to resume my search.
I spent two more enjoyable days searching on Grizzly Ridge, not knowing what would happen next, just enjoying the breezes, bird songs, sunsets, wildflowers, smells of forest and meadow, and of course the butterflies. No Gillett's Checkerspots made an appearance close enough for me to see them. Perhaps, like Bigfoot would, they were staying just out of site nearby?
For me, Gillett's Checkerspot remains elusive elusive, out of reach, and mysterious as an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. And that made it all the more alluring to me. The harder they are to find, the more thrilling the finding is. I find Gillett's Checkerspot to be one of our most beautiful butterflies, and you can rest assured that I will search again next year. It has grown into a tradition!
This trip was a glorious experience of being surrounded by nature's beauty for days on end, no roof overhead, grand vistas, clear light, open air, and I felt a strong connection to this place I called home for 7 days. I have begun a habit of thanking and saying goodbye to my campsites, and this time, to my surprise, I was spontaneously moved to tears. I'd never had that happen before, but then all of this had never happened to me before. I felt gratitude for this experience of feeling love and connection for a place--its something we need more of in this world.
Over my 6 days of searching for Gillett's Checkerspot, I found these 40 other species: