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The Gold-Hunters

Updated: Feb 22

When I packed up my Subaru and headed down to Jackson County to visit Kinney Creek this past week, I'd forgotten about the mining claims that existed all along its length. Every few hundred feet is an official yellow and black sign posted on a tree that says "No Mining - Federal Mining Claim." I had to ponder that for a couple seconds before it dawned on me that the sign was in effect saying, "if this isn't your mining claim, you can't mine here." I recalled that many streams throughout the southern Siskiyou Mountains have registered mining claims, which reserve the right of certain individuals to search for gold bits among the gravel in the designated stretch of the stream's bed.

While I was there, I watched several shiny, new and very large pick-up trucks rumble up the gravel road, eventually pulling to the side of the road. The occupants of the trucks headed down to the stream, subsequently running some kind of pump system that helped them sift through the gravel, in hopes of spotting a glint of gold in the bright May sun. Then I thought of my own hunt along Kinney Creek and the irony that I was searching for a butterfly called the Gold-hunter's Hairstreak.

The Gold-hunter's Hairstreak is by many accounts, "a hard bug to find in Oregon." You won't hear any argument from me on that point. One of the people who told me that was Rob Santry, an excellent butterfly photographer now living nearby in Grants Pass. It was Rob who first found the Gold-hunter's Hairstreak colony in this canyon, and to him I owe a debt of gratitude for sharing his knowledge of the site with me. This species, also known by its latin name Satyrium auretorum, is primarily a creature of dry oak habitats in California, whose range just creeps over the Oregon state line in Jackson and Klamath Counties. Dennis Deck's stunning discovery of this species in central eastern Washington two years ago throws a bit of a wrench into any neat and tidy concept of its range, but I'll save that topic for another day, and skirt that potential black hole for now!

This trip in May of 2020 would be my sixth attempt over several years to find and photograph this butterfly, the only Oregon hairstreak that I hadn't found and photographed yet. Just before I left for the trip, a friend said to me, "Neil, just let the hairstreak come to you." I took her meaning to be, in part, to focus more on imagining the experience of having found it, rather than the experience of being disappointed at not having found it, again. As in: start enjoying your success now, instead of waiting until after its happened. That's a powerful form of confidence.

I arrived at Kinney Creek about 10:30 am, after the three-hour drive from Eugene. I pulled into a shady spot along the road, loaded up with my cameras, binoculars, and water, and started walking up the road as Rob had suggested. Butterflies were quite active along the road by this time of morning. Within 20 minutes, I came upon a Pacific Ninebark patch bursting with white pompom-like blooms. There were several butterflies circling around the largest of the shrubs, including Western Tiger Swallowtail, Callippe Fritillary, Clodius Parnassian, and California Sister. I stood and just watched the show for a few minutes. After a bit, my attention was called to a familiar shape on one of the lower flower clusters. From decades of experience, my eyes and mind are trained to search out the pattern of a small dark triangle atop a flower in bloom. That is what a nectaring hairstreak looks like from a distance.

Color photo of Gold-hunter's Hairstreak butterfly
Gold-hunter's Hairstreak (Satyrium auretorum) on Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)

When my eyes landed on that small triangle I exclaimed (to the no one that was around) "that's him!" It was in fact a gorgeous Gold-hunter's Hairstreak, contentedly sipping nectar from the little white Ninebark flowers. It continued about its nectar-sipping business while I snapped several photos. Then I had the thought "oh good they're here, I'll have lots of chances to get good photos." Frustratingly, the hairstreak kept moving, continuously turning as it sipped nectar, making it hard to get a good angle and a sharp image. Then I imagined what Rob had told me earlier, that he had found them sitting on the road, and I thought, "oh, that will a lot be easier because they won't be constantly moving like this." So, thinking there would definitely be more of them around, I started to leave. I took about two steps, and then something in my mind said, "wait--you don't actually know if there are more. After years of searching, you are in front of one now--stay here, stick with this guy and get your photo." That voice in my head ended up looking very wise ("a bird in the hand is worth...").

I slowly moved back to where he was still sipping nectar and resumed trying to get a good image. After about 5 more photos, he abruptly flew off for no particular reason I could detect. Then I checked the photos on my camera, and it appeared that just one of them was a clear and sharp image. That was quite good fortune, as I never saw another one in three days of searching. That photo is the one above. If I had left at my first impulse, I would have gone home without any good images at all!

After spending the night camped along nearby Palmer Creek, I returned to Kinney Creek a bit earlier the following morning. I was still hoping to find more Gold-hunter's Hairstreaks, and curious to see what else would turn up. Within 50 feet of my car, I came upon a roadside patch of a lovely pale pink clover. Something very small was zipping around there, so I stopped to see if it was a fly, a bee or perhaps a small butterfly.

When it landed on a clover bloom, I was delighted to see that it was a fresh Columbian Skipper, a species I had not seen since 2003! This skipper, similar to the Gold-hunter's Hairstreak, is found in Oregon only in the far southwest part of the state. It is quite small, and a very fast flyer, so much so that once in flight it is very difficult to follow its path to the next perch. So I was quite happy that I got some decent images that first time I saw it stop to sip nectar.

Color photo of Columbian Skipper butterfly
Columbian Skipper (Hesperia columbiae)

As I walked further along the road I heard and saw many other butterfly species, about 30 in all (see list below). Birds were abundant also, prominently represented by singing Black-headed Grosbeaks, Pacific Slope Flycatchers, Cassin's Vireos, and Western Tanagers. That evening a beautiful teen-aged black bear wandered down the slope above my campsite headed my way. I was tempted to let it come closer for a photo, but instead I made some noise so that it would know I was there before it got too close to make a comfortable retreat. It looked at me once, and then veered wide around my campsite and disappeared. The next day there were two beautiful Gopher Snakes sunning on the road, and even one sleeping Western Rattlesnake. I could tell by the swell in it's mid-body that it was digesting its latest meal. When it finally heard (or smelled) me there taking photos, it backed away from me. I was glad it was a bit sluggish from sleep and digestion.

Color photo of western rattlesnake
Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus)

One of the numerous butterflies along the road was the Northern Checkerspot (Chlosyne palla). This species was well represented by males perched on the road bed, chasing off any and every other critter that came near. I didn't see any females until the last day, when I was lucky enough to spot a mating pair, beautifully illustrating the sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males and females look different) of this species.

Color photo of mating Northern Checkerspot butterflies
Mating pair of Northern Checkerspots (Chlosyne palla) - female on the left

The area along the road was very dry and I hoped to find at least one wet puddling spot where butterflies would gather to sip mineral-laden moisture. I knew if I did find a wet spot somewhere, that I would likely find additional species there. Finally, on the third day, I found a short side road that led down to the creek where I found California Hairstreak, Purplish Copper, Juba Skipper, and Lindsey's Skipper, another southwest Oregon specialty, among several others.

Color photo of Lindsey's Skipper butterfly
Lindsey's Skipper (Hesperia lindseyi)

Recently, the insect-studying scientists that work on classifying butterflies drew the conclusion that what we used to call the Variable Checkerspot, was probably actually two species, now tentatively called Snowberry Checkerspot (Euphydryas colon) and Chalcedona Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona). The former is found throughout Oregon, and the latter only along the border with California. When I inquired among the experts about how to distinguish these two taxa in the field and where their ranges end in southwest Oregon, I found that more research and study is needed on those questions. They may be separate species or they may be separate subspecies. So whereas previous to my inquiry I would have called the butterfly below a Chalcedon Checkerspot, now I'm really not sure, so I called them Snowberry/Chalcedon Checkerspots.

Color photograph of Euphydryas Checkerspot butterfly
Euphydryas Checkerspot species

With the temperature hovering in the mid- to upper 90's during the afternoon, I was sweating heavily as I walked up and down the road. This made me very attractive to the many California Sister's and Silver-Spotted Skippers, and they greatly amused me by landing every which way on my feet, legs and arms for a taste of my salty sweat.

Color photograph of Kinney Creek Road
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on my shoe

Color photo of Kinney Creek Road
Kinney Creek Road, with Pacific Ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)

I greatly enjoyed my three days walking along Kinney Creek, and am thankful for Rob Santry's tips on finding the small colony of Gold-hunter's Hairstreaks there, and for my good fortune in finding and photographing one! Since my goal was to photograph one in Oregon, I kept looking in Oregon, even though they are much easier to find a little further south. I would encourage collectors looking for this species to head to one of the sites in northern California where they are more numerous, since this colony appears to be very small and perhaps vulnerable to even a small amount of collecting pressure.

Here's a list of which species and how many I found over the three days:

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Wonderful photographs. As a resident of Jackson county, would you mind telling me how you accessed this canyon?

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