The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Checkerspot
Updated: Jul 17, 2021
I was packing for a trip to the southern Blue Mountains to (hopefully) photograph Garita Skipperlings for the first time, when I got the email. My friend Stefan Schlick had been leading a birding tour in Wallowa County, and had seen, netted, and photographed a fresh Gillett's Checkerspot (Euphydryas gillettii) on Hat Point Road on June 26. He had posted the photo on iNaturalist.org, and sent me a link. I was astounded! As far as I knew, no one had reported Gillett's Checkerspots in Oregon since Andy Warren and Vern Covlin last found them in June and July 2004.
In June of 2004, I also ventured out to look for the Gillett's Checkerspot, based on a conversation the previous fall with Harold Rice, the long-time Oregon lepidopterist who had discovered the Oregon population in 2003. My visit came about two weeks before Vern Covlin found them well below Summit Ridge. More than likely, my visit had been too early that year. In recent years, I had been wondering whether Oregon's outlier population of this northern Rocky Mountain species was still hanging on. Stefan had just answered that question! I immediately began strategizing to add a visit to Hat Point Road to my Blue Mountains trip. The confirmation that Gillett's Checkerspot had been seen just a few days before was plenty of motivation to rearrange my schedule to make the long trip extension possible.
After two days enjoying the warm glow of success with Gartia Skipperling in Bear Valley, I headed north on Highway 395, aimed for Wallowa County. The trip from Bear Valley to Stefan's gillettii spot was about 6 hours, so I broke up the drive by camping along Bear Creek in the western Wallowa Mountains. I breakfasted on blueberry pancakes and broke camp early the next morning, hoping to reach the lower part of Hat Point Road by 8:30 am. I wanted to take advantage of the cool morning air and the more sluggish butterfly movement that often occurs when the sun is low. The weather seemed perfect, and my hopes were high.
Driving in the early morning was a breeze--traffic was almost non-existent, and the golden light on the Wallowa Mountains was inspiring. I reached the town of Imnaha at about 8:30 am, dropped by the Imnaha Store and Tavern to pick up some ice for my coolers, and began the slow climb up Hat Point Road. It had been 17 years since I drove this road, and rather than memories of that last trip, I recalled my first time up that road as a 9-year-old. My childhood memories of those rocky, winding first 5 miles of the road are vivid and visceral. I was in the back seat of our low-slung 1964 Buick Special with my brother and sister, and I was on the passenger side. From that vantage point I felt way too close to the steep drop-off down the ridge slope from the edge of the rough, narrow road. To me, it looked like a vertical cliff dropping into a bottomless chasm, and I had to look away. It felt to me that we were in immediate danger of falling off that cliff. Those first 5 miles seemed to take a nerve-wracking, nail-biting eternity. Miraculously, it seemed to me, we made it through unharmed.
This time around, the road seemed mild and manageable in my trusty Subaru Forester. When I arrived at the first viewpoint at Milepost 5, I got out to stretch my legs and get my bearings. Within a few minutes, a Forest Service rig pulled into the parking area, and two women climbed out, Immediately they opened the hood and began looking under the front of the truck. I could see that some kind of fluid was leaking heavily from the engine compartment. I said "hello" and asked if they were having trouble. An admitted beginner in auto mechanics, I knew that a ride was about all the help I could offer.
It turned out the radiator was surcharging water from overheating during that steep 5 mile climb. We chatted while they waited for the engine to cool, and I soon discovered that they were biologists, one a botanist and the other an ornithologist. When they inquired about what brought me up Hat Point Road, I said I had come in search of a scarce butterfly that is found no where else in Oregon. Being curious naturalists, they wanted to know what it was called. When I said "Gillett's Checkerspot" they both looked at each other with an OMG! kind of expression. For a quick second, I thought that they had seen it, and were going to fill me in on the exciting details. Instead, the younger woman laughed and pointed to her name tag, where I saw that her last name was Gillett! It was even spelled the same. She was thrilled to know that a butterfly carried her family name and that it was found here, in her forest! We wondered aloud whether the Gillett whose name was given to this butterfly was related to her. When I showed her my website on my phone with a photo of Gillett's Checkerspot, she took a photo of my phone screen and texted it to her family. I loved that moment of techno-connection.
I waited until they felt confident that their truck was going to get them home, just in case I need to ferry them down the mountain. They assured me they would be fine, and, amazingly, the cell reception up there was outstanding, so they had backup from town if they needed it. I was ready to head up the road before their truck was cooled enough to head up again, so we said "see you up the hill" rather than "good-bye" since this was the only road up and we were both headed the same direction.
In the next few miles there were many flowery meadows along the road, dominated by large patches of Horsemint (Agastache urticifolia) and punctuated by splashes of golden-yellow native sunflowers. These meadows attracted many Pale Swallowtails (Papilio eurymedon), Western Tiger Swallowtails (Papilio rutulus) and smaller numbers of Two-tailed Swallowtails (Papilio multicaudata), along with many Mountain Parnassians (Parnassius smintheus) and
Callippe Fritillaries (Speyeria callippe semivirda), and a handful of Hydaspe (Speyeria hydaspe) and Zerene (Speyeria zerene picta) Fritillaries. The butterflies were so focused on those Horsemint blossoms that they hardly noticed me snuggling in with my camera.
Eventually I made my way up to the forested area where Stefan had found his gillettii. It was an odd place to search for a butterfly, with forest on both sides of the road, and few flowers or butterflies. That checkerspot must have been on the move, but going where? After searching enough there to be satisfied that his gillettii was not still hanging around, I headed up toward the Granny View area, where Vern Covlin had found one of his gillettii back in 2004. This area looked very promising, featuring small forest patches with a lush understory (possible host plant habitat), interspersed with wet and dry meadows, a spring, and lots of sun. It was a large and diverse area to search, and I settled in for an in-depth exploration.
At the Granny View wayside, I saw my new biologist friends again. I was glad to hear that their truck was fine once the engine cooled. Linda, the botanist, and I discussed the larval host plants for gillettii--members of the genus Lonicera, or honeysuckles. The suspected species in this area were Black Twinberry (Lonicera involucrata) and Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). She had seen a twinberry in the area, but she couldn't recall which species or exactly where, but clearly snowberry was widespread in the area, as evidenced by a large thicket of it right in front of us. She suggested I take the loop trail to the viewpoint that winds through some very nice meadows just below us, and I vowed to do so. The meadows were dotted with large patches of Parsnip-flowered Buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides) and smaller clumps of Sulfur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) and
attracted many Cascadia Blues (Euphilotes heracleoides), Lupine Blues (Icaricia lupini), Callippe Fritillaries (Speyeria callippe) and several Western Green Hairstreaks (Callophrys affinis). Let me highlight here that the Cascadia Blue has now been formally described by Kohler and Warren, and I'm glad to welcome this lovely blue to Butterflies of Oregon website species pages.
All the frenetic butterfly action kept me busy, counting, identifying and photographing, but perhaps distracting me from my intended search for the elusive Gillett's Checkerspot. I saw a moderate number of Snowberry Checkerspots (Euphydryas colon), a few Northern Checkerspots (Chlosyne palla) and one Edith's Checkerspot (Euphydryas editha), but so far no Gillett's.
By the end of day one, I was spent, both from the heat and from the effort to keep up with, identify and photograph all those butterflies! Thirty-two species was the day one count, and I had likely missed a few due to the sheer numbers of individuals. I got quality photos of 12 species that day.
On day two, I decided to start at Granny Spring, because the habitat was so diverse there, and because I knew there had been a past sighting there. From there, the plan was to head up to Summit Ridge, north of the Hat Point observation tower. I spent about 90 minutes in the meadows around Granny View, and found 18 species. Still no gillettii to be seen. Where were those lovely creatures hiding?
One of my theories (based on thin air and wild-ass-guessing) was that there is a source population of Gillett's Checkerspots somewhere higher up, like Summit Ridge, and that Stefan's individual and those recorded by Vern Covlin were wandering down the mountain from that source population. In the absence of any actual data, or anyone to disagree, I convinced myself that it sounded pretty solid. If nothing else, it gave me a glimmer of hope and a sliver of determination after a day and a half of not finding a single gillettii. I decided to go directly up to the canyon rim and search there next.
The section of the road beyond Hat Point Lookout up past Warnock Corral and up to the ridge was much rougher than anything so far, but not as bad as the warning sign implied, and not nearly as bad as it was back in 2004. The sign called it a 4x4 track, not maintained for passenger vehicles, proceed at your own risk, your car will be forever ruined, etc., etc. Ironically the warning sign followed a much worse section of road than it preceded. And back in 2004, there were small trees down all across the road above Warnock Corral, and the only way to proceed to the rim was to drive right over them. Don't even talk to me about washboard--it was like putting my car in a paint mixer. By comparison, the conditions on this day felt like a walk in the park. The weather was still cooperating quite nicely, and I arrived at the southernmost part of the ridge with a grumbling belly calling loudly for food. After fueling my body and resting a bit, I decided to walk a trail that followed the rim of the canyon and poke around in all the nooks and crannies along the meadows just at the rim. If this bug was hiding in little hidden glades off the main trail, I was going to find them!
The butterfly activity in these rim meadows was much lower than in the more lush meadows lower down, and after a couple of hours of searching, I had only one new species, a lone Half-moon Hairstreak. The dimmer switch on my glimmer of hope was in a downward trend. I recalled the text I'd received a couple days before from fellow butterflier Greg Sigrist, who had guided me to find my first Oregon Swallowtail. He had come up to Hat Point Road a few days ahead of me to find Gillett's Checkerspot, and in a long day of searching, he hadn't found it.
As I circled through the opposite edges of the rim-top meadows towards to the car, I considered the time of day, now 3 pm, and the drive to my evening destination of The Dalles. The drive would take over 6 hours, and I didn't want to drive through the Gorge in the dark. With no small amount of reluctance, I called off the search at about 2:30 pm. As I packed my gear back in the car, I kept glancing north toward the further reaches of the canyon rim where I hadn't searched...
I had so many questions. Was there a continuing source population of Gillett's Checkerspot up on Summit Ridge? Had I not looked far enough north? Was early July too late to find them? How many were there during their peak flight period? Had they been there this day, right beneath my nose, but in such small numbers that I just missed them? If Stefan's individual was so fresh, why weren't there others still flying 7 days later? And if they were still flying, where had they gone? Did Stefan know how lucky he'd been? (Ed. note: he does now.) Mystery after mystery. There was no getting around it--if I was going to find and photograph Gillett's Checkerspot, I was going to have to aim my search right into the middle of all these unknowns.
I decided to call this trip a scouting trip, always a good approach when other ways of thinking are more discouraging. Through this trip I got familiar again with the territory and the route to it. I learned that the high species diversity could be a distraction from the more focused goal of finding Gillett's Checkerspot, and that, in order to find it, I might have to actually focus in more closely on this one butterfly. Which of course would be contrary to all my learning about the boons and benefits of "looking" versus "looking for." Most importantly, I learned that there is a lot that I didn't know about this butterfly and this population on the far edge of its range.
With both birds and butterflies, I have a strategic approach that I call "getting in my reps." It's a reference more commonly applied to practicing a new sport or art or other skill, in which you just have to get in repetitions of practice in order to develop. Without the repetitions, you don't learn the skill. With bird and butterfly searches, "getting in reps" translates to getting in a critical mass of days in the field in the area where the critter lives, and based on the best available information, doing that within the typical flight period. The more reps I get in at the right time in the right place, the higher the odds that I will be in a place when the target species is also there. As you might imagine, this strategy has a research component, in which I continue to research the species and learn as much as I can about when and where it is likely to occur--right up until the day I leave.
All of which is to say, I'll be back on Hat Point Road again next summer. It will probably be an earlier and longer visit, and hopefully I will be armed with more site details from past sightings.
And it may involve working with a team. Maybe we'll start a new NABA 4th of July Butterly Count up there. To me, this one of our most beautiful butterflies--it just doesn't feel right that we seem to have lost track of it.
As Stefan Schlick commented after his gillettii sighting "this looks like a great area for butterflies!" He got that right. I saw a total of 32 species the first day (from Milepost 5 up to Granny View), and 33 species the second day (from Granny View up to the south end of Summit Ridge), for a grand total of 39 species over two days. The numbers of each species below are decidedly under-representative of the actual numbers. Had I taken time to actually count them all, I would not have made it more than a couple miles up the road! Think of these numbers as indicators of the relative abundance of each species.
*Gillett's Checkerspot photo by Dana Ross, from the Oregon State Arthropod Collection