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The Great Butterfly Scrounge

Updated: Feb 19

Maybe I could blame it on iNaturalist. Well, maybe a little on my friend John, too. Although John and I are probably about even, since I helped get him hooked on butterflies, and he helped me get hooked on iNaturalist. If you've been wondering why I haven't been posting blogs for the past 5 months, its basically because I haven't been home enough to write them! You see, posting my butterfly photos to iNaturalist allowed me to easily see all the species of butterflies that I'd photographed in Lane County. And from there, one thing led to another, and pretty soon I was realizing which ones I hadn't photographed.

I've been busy the last several springs and summers, trying to photograph the species I'd never seen or photographed anywhere in Oregon, and since those species have primarily been in the NE, SE, and SW corners of the "Big Gameboard" (AKA, Oregon), I hadn't spent that much time in my home county of Lane. So there I was, on a dull and dreary February day, sitting at home and dreaming butterfly dreams, longing for the sunny days of spring and summer. With nothing else to salve the pain of prolonged cabin fever, I sat down and made a list of all those Lane County butterfly species I hadn't photographed in the county, and started researching and mapping out the places I thought I had a decent chance of finding them.

My list included 14 species that I felt I had a reasonable chance of finding in Lane County, and another 9 species that I am pretty sure don't occur regularly in the county. My goal was to photograph as many of those 14 regular species as I could in 2023. I get to make up the rules of the game, and that seemed like a fun challenge, with at least some chance of succeeding.

Soon after I'd made the list, it seemed to take on a life of its own, as though it was quietly whispering to me, inside my own brain. List: "Typical human. You always think its all about you." Me: "Huh? Is my list actually talking to me? List: "Yes, I am talking to you, and you better get in gear. If you're going to get photos of all 14 of my species this year, you're going to have to focus." Me: "Oh my, I really have spent way too many days indoors this month. I've got to get out of this house." List: "uhhh-huhhh." Me: "You're going to let me be in charge of this, right?" List: "Oh, no. No-no-no. Don't be silly." Me: "Uh-oh. Have I created a monster?" List: (pregnant silence).

On March 19, just a couple weeks after the birth of Mr. List, on the first day I'd seen any part of the sun for a while, I packed up my butterfly gear and headed out towards Lowell, Oregon to look for butterflies. It was barely 65°F, and there were thin clouds dialing down the strength of the sun. The level of pent up desire in my body and mind to be galavanting through summer fields of butterflies, was way out of proportion to the actual conditions out there in the physical world. The desire was winning, and Mr. List was taking full advantage of that.

You might think it a bit ironic that Mr. List didn't actually contain any species that would be flying in March. In fact, he didn't even have any species that one could expect to be flying in April. Yet there I was, in mid-March, all cranked up to get going on this. Perhaps I fooled myself into going out with the idea that I would be honing my craft of butterfly photography, and preparing for the spring season to come. I don't know, that day is a little hazy to me now. My first day of butterflying, on that cool, almost sunny March day, yielded a whopping 2 species: California Tortoiseshell and Mourning Cloak. This would be the start of what I came to call the Great Butterfly Scrounge.

A California Tortoiseshell parked in the middle of School Creek Road, Lane County

March and April were exemplary in their scrounginess. At the beginning finding butterflies was like trying to wring precious drops of water out of a sweaty t-shirt when you're really thirsty and have no other water source. But then something unexpected happened, and those dark clouds of scroungiosity seemed about to part... On April 26, I went birding up on Skinner Butte, a good spring migrant bird spot. There had been a sighting of a locally rare Red-naped Sapsucker, and the news brought many birders out. We were all standing out in the summit meadow, peering up into the top of a California Black Oak tree where the sapsucker had been seen, when somebody finally looked down, and blurted out, "oh look, a swallowtail!" How could I be so lucky? It was an Anise Swallowtail -- a target species for Mr. List! Not only was it there, in April, but it actually landed close enough to me that I could get a photo! This is what I call a "bird bonus butterfly." How you like me now Mr. List?!

A basking Anise Swallowtail, on Skinner Butte, Lane County

With that serendipitous success, next up on Mr. List was Common Roadside Skipper, normally an early May flyer, and a tough one to find because its so dang small and fast. With the cold wet spring we'd had, I didn't really know when they would start flying this year. Some butterfly folk were saying that butterfly emergence in the NW seemed to be delayed by up to three weeks. Crack-a-doodle! What to do? My best guess was that I'd have to start looking at the typical first flight date, and just keep scrounging until I found it, going out about every 7-10 days, and that hope my timing and its timing would coincide at some point. The Great Scrounge continued through a couple of unsuccessful skipper searches.

Then, on May 12, my friend Forest and I undertook our second annual Willamette Valley Little Big Day, where we try to find 100 species of birds on the Willamette Valley floor in one day (we've made it both years). We were just finishing up our tour through the lovely and birdy Fern Ridge Natural Area, when I noticed a white butterfly flying in the meadow near us. I got my bins on it and I excitedly exclaimed "Cabbage White!" And promptly walked briskly over to it. Forest just stared at me with this quizzical look on his face--isn't that about the most common buttterfly ever, he asked? I admitted it was, but it was one of Mr. List's target species, and it was perched picturesquely on a Camas Lily! Who would ever think of trying to find a Cabbage White and photograph it? Obviously, I never had before. Bird bonus butterfly #2!

A Cabbage White boldly venturing out into native habitat near Fern Ridge Reservoir

Okay, that was fun, but now it was back to the "dastardly darter," the Common Roadside Skipper. After a couple more scandalously scroungy skipper whiffs, I decided to take a break from that species and go after another May species, the Western Pine Elfin. I'd seen them before in May among the coastal pines in and around the dunes, so I made my way out there on a sunny and gorgeous May 20.

Upon arrival in late morning, I expectantly stepped out of my car, grabbed my camera, walked all of 20 feet, and boom!, I had the photo within 10 minutes. Mr. List was giddy. I was momentarily at a loss for what to do next--that was too easy! Thankfully hunger showed up with a pretty clear plan, so I ate lunch and took a lovely walk among the pines. As I was getting back in the car and intending to head home, I somehow let Mr. List convince me to not head home, but instead to undertake a scouting run into the coast range near Mapleton to find the site of an iNat sighting of Bramble Hairstreak (AKA Lotus Hairstreak) from the year before. The Brambles wouldn't be flying for another two to three weeks, so what exactly were we doing? The word "boondoggle" was lurking about in the back of my brain, aching to jump into action. I drove up and down those narrow, bumpy little winding gravel roads over those deeply forested ridges for seemingly EVER. There was no Bramble Hairstreak habitat up there. It was all shady forest. "BOONDOGGLE!" leapt out of that dark corner of my brain, like a cat on a toy mouse. Boon. Doggle.

A Western Pine Elfin found a warm, sheltered spot among the Salal in Honeyman State Park

Mr. List wouldn't let me ruminate on The Boondoggle. After all, there were other species to find and photograph. Chop! Chop! I got that Pine Elfin photo on my 16th butterfly outing of the spring, and it would take five more outings to finally capture an image of the cunningly evasive little Common Roadside Skipper! This stretch is where the scurrilous scrounging really got a head of steam. I repeatedly went to the same spot in the HJ Andrews Forest, where Dana Ross had found this bug years before, since I didn't have any other past sightings to follow. On these visits, I dutifully photographed many of the species I saw and posted them to iNaturalist, but Mr. List was beating on me, and iNat-ing alone just wasn't getting him off my back. I kept at it until early June with no luck, and then while looking for another species... In the least likely habitat I could imagine, at the foot of a warm, south facing seepy cliff high up on a ridge, there he was. A dark blur with a flair for landing only for a second, before shooting away again. Being a savvy butterflier, I employed my old favorite "stake-out" tactic, and sat down very still next to a perch that he seemed to favor. And waited. It took almost 10 minutes, and then, there he was, right where I'd hoped he would land. Bingo, bango, bongo!

The fast flying Common Roadside Skipper taking a short break on Lookout Ridge, Lane County

Only minutes later, and just a bit down the road, I also scored some nice photos of the species I had gone up there to find, and, yes, it was a Mr. List target, the Bramble Hairstreak. A two-fer with a freebie! Dare I declare the Great Butterfly Scrounge to be finally over?

A verdant Bramble Green Hairstreak (AKA Lotus Hairstreak), watching me watching it.

Feeling very much on a roll, the next day I went out into the West Eugene Wetlands area, where I'd spent years working on a wetland management and conservation plan, years before. I was looking for Fender's Blues (not one of Mr. List's targets), and another target that I really couldn't believe I'd never photographed in Lane County: the Common Ringlet. Common as dirt in late summer, but with a subtle beauty that their commonness often prevents us from seeing, they are not often willing posers. With Mr. List egging me on, I persistently followed one ringlet after another out in the fields near Willow Creek for a good 40 minutes. The habitat there is a grassy meadow and everytime I could get near a Ringlet, there were about 50 blades of grass in the way. Me: "Do I really need to photograph this incredibly common species?" Mr List: "Yes, keep going!" A few minutes later, I dutifully added another of Mr. List's target species.

A Common Ringlet decided to stop teasing me and actually perch where I could photograph it

Around that time, I went to Mann Creek in southern Linn County with my friend John, and was very surprised to find a Northern Cloudywing there. I'd never seen one there or anywhere else on the west side of the Cascade Crest in decades of butterflying. It wasn't even on my radar. And Mr. List didn't have it either. That changed about 1.2 seconds after seeing the Mann Creek cloudywing. "If it's here, then it's probably in Lane County, too!" New maps were studied, iNat records were scoured, and new trips were added to the schedule. Next thing I knew John and I were off on a hunch, a whim and some guesswork to find a Northern Cloudywing in Lane County. Who would've thought we'd have it at the very first site I'd identified? Are you kidding me? After never seeing one in Lane County over 30 years, I proceeded to see a total of 4 Northern Cloudywing at four different sites in Lane County this year.

Northern Cloudywing, casually hanging out next to Staley Creek, as if it was no big deal

At this point, I noticed a part of me getting a little cocky, now almost assuming I'd get my targets every time out. "Hah!" said another part of me. Pacuvius Duskywing was up next, a species I'd frequently seen in Deschutes County, but never in Lane. After four failed Pacuvius outings, I was ready to just throw in the towel. The next trip out was not for Pacuvius, so, naturally, that's when I finally find a Pacuvius Duskywing, along Rd 23 south of Hills Creek Reservoir. It was basically hanging out in the vegetation in a wet roadside ditch. There it was--nothing to do but photograph it! Cha-ching!

A sleepy Pacuvius Duskywing in a seepy roadside ditch on Rd 23, Lane County

About 10 days later, with duskywing and cloudywing successes leaving Mr. List overflowing with fervor, I invited John to go on a Monarch hunt with me, venturing deep into the western Cascades where the purple milkweed grows. Earlier in June I had already checked every milkweed patch I knew of in the Eugene-Springfield area, and had seen just one Monarch. It took one look at me and my camera and flew all the way to Canada. Okay, it actually just flew out of sight, heading north, but it was probably singing Joni Mitchell's song "A Case of You" to itself as it disappeared. John and I had a fine afternoon exploring the steep meadows of Grassy Glade, its beautiful and unusual purple milkweed and many lovely butterflies not named Monarch. Me: "We tried." Mr List: "You'll be trying again next year."

Mr List's next priority was a species that I had tried to find in Lane County several times in recent years to no avail, the Sierra Nevada Blue. My friend Lori Humphries had found it in Lane County, in an obscure wet meadow near the Douglas County line, inspired by Tanya Harvey's discovery of the same species just over the line in Douglas. If you haven't seen Tanya's website, please check it out. There's a ton of information there about many beautiful sites with interesting flowers and butterflies. Tanya is an intrepid plant explorer, and she really knows every nook and cranny of the Cascades from her many years of dedicated searching. She's also not afraid to crawl down a very steep, crumbly, rocky meadow (that made me turn back) just to see what's down there. That 's why she's found all these amazing sites and I haven't. Kudos and gratitude to Tanya! So, it was Tanya as my guide that I was able to find the hidden meadows where this lovely blue is found. [Note: These meadows are small and very fragile, so I'm not sharing the locations here to minimize human impacts.]

An elegant female Sierra Nevada Blue nectaring on Common Bistort

On the way to one of the Sierra Nevada Blue meadows, Tanya guided me on an adventurous ramble through the forest via a barely discernible path, to a large rocky meadow where we saw Glaucon Blue, Sheridan's Hairstreak and many other species. We saw a couple of whites there from a distance and I assumed they were Western Whites, but from afar something seemed a little off about their flight pattern. Later in the afternoon Tanya led me to another lovely spot she calls Lewisia Point, named after the wildflower Lewisia triphylla. As we were on the way there, we saw a couple of whites whiz by, and again I thought they were probably Western Whites, although again something about them seemed a little off. When we finally got close to one, I essentially yelled "oh my god, those are Spring Whites!" This is a species that I went all the way to Josephine County to find last year, and here it was right in my back yard! Mr. List was levitating with joy. I joined him there.

Spring White nectaring on Blue Gilia near Lewisia Point

After photographing 11 species over 37 site visits in Lane County that I hadn't photographed in the county before, Mr. List was pretty pumped up. So he had me out again in late July and early August looking for Small Woodnymph, which is easy to find in Linn County, but not so much in Lane. I got skunked in two tries and I already knew what Mr. List was going to say: "You'll be trying again next year."

He really wanted to keep this going, but there weren't going to be any of his targets flying for another 5 - 6 weeks. Luckily, there were other enticing butterfly chases and activities in other counties that helped him survive the drought in late July and August. You'll be seeing some of those stories soon.

Fast forward now to early August, when the endangered Oregon Silverspot flies out on the Oregon coast in a few isolated sites, including a couple in Lane County. Recently I'd been talking with Dr. Cheryl Schulz, Professor in Conservation Biology at WSU, about various butterfly species and conversation efforts, and she mentioned that she is working with a team of researchers and restoration specialists to support the Oregon Silverspots. When I told her I was planning to go out there to photograph them this summer, she said something like, "oh, good luck with that--those Lane County populations are really small!" I didn't mention that Mr. List was not giving me the option of not trying.

So on August 11, on my 55th Lane County site visit of the year, I went out in search of some Silverspots. I searched the entirety of two sites, and found exactly 1 Silverspot, and thankfully, it landed near me to get out of the unceasing strong north wind, giving me Mr. List's target species #12.

One lone female Oregon Silverspot, tyring hard not to get blown all the way to California

Me: "Phew! Can we take a break now?" Mr. List: "Okay, but there's one more for September and I'll be coming for you!"

For all the frustrating early season scrounging, and gnashing of teeth with misses, in the end, I've made peace with Mr. List. I can even honestly thank Mr. List--for pushing me out the door again and again, getting me out into many canyons and corners of Lane County that I hadn't been in, or at times of year I hadn't been in them. I got to know Lane County's butterflies and their sites better than ever. It was a big push, but without Mr. List poking me in the butt over and over, I probably wouldn't done all of it. So to Mr. List and his benevolent overlord,, I am thankful for you, and what you've helped me learn.

Note to self: think hard before making future butterfly target lists.

Over those 55 site visits in Lane County, I saw a total of 81 species and photographed 78 of them. Here's that list of species seen:

You can see many of my Lane County butterfly photos from this year on by following this link.

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I "tripped" over your site from looking at one of my Purplish Copper on iNat that you confirmed it's ID. I truly love the butterflies and strive to learn more about them. I enjoyed this blog post and your chase around your county. I wish I had started this journey earlier in my life. Over the next few days I want to take the time to enjoy your other blog posts. Best, Beth Polvino, SE PA


Brian McGurgan
Brian McGurgan
Aug 19, 2023

I was glad for a new post, Neil, and read it shortly after you put it up. I was wondering if you’d been too busy in the field to write posts. It’s always nice but somewhat disorienting when you plan out a search for a species you haven’t seen before at a given location and on arriving there find it with ease almost immediately. Often it takes more effort. I hiked up into the mountains just north of Anchorage last weekend at the tail end of our butterfly season (overwintering adult Nymphalidae aside) in search of Phoebus Parnassians on a mostly overcast, chilly day so poor butterflying conditions. The forecast had been more promising than actuality… I figured I’d be…

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