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The Tao of Skipperlings

The Taoist Masters of old speak of the principle of Wu wei, or non-doing, as being central to their way of understanding how the world is and how it works. As my western mind interprets this principle, it has to do in part with an approach of yielding to and following the natural unfolding of things in their own time. The Taoist masters invite us to "be like water, which is ‘submissive and weak’ and ‘yet which can’t be surpassed for attacking what is hard and strong’." This seems to go counter to the western concept of always pressing forward, working hard to accomplish things of value and thereby making oneself valuable. Perhaps the American stand-up comic known as "Larry the Cable Guy" summed this philosophy up best with his signature phrase: "git 'er done!"

Chasing rare or scarce butterflies has been teaching me to be a bit less of a git-'er-done kind of guy, and more of a let-it-unfold-in-its-own-time kind of guy. The Taoist Masters of old learned that they could achieve better results with less effort and stress by acting in accord with the processes and cycles of nature. It makes perfect sense, then, if one's goal has to do directly with finding a critter in nature with its own process and cycle, that non-doing might be a suitable frame of mind for approaching that goal. Obviously, I can neither cause a butterfly to show up in a given place and time through force of will nor move the flight period of that butterfly to more conveniently fit my schedule. Yet, I have often let a western cultural habit of "pushing the river," or being driven by a motivation towards more success now, to affect my planning for butterfly searches. I have seen this manifest as planning a trip to find several species with slightly different but overlapping flight periods, and counting on finding them all even though the goal of finding them all is motivating me to aim for the fringes of the flight periods for some of them, increasing my odds of missing them (which has occurred often). Note to self: the I-want-it-all-now approach has not been particularly successful.

All of this musing led me to employ a calmer, simpler approach to this year's search for Garita Skipperling (Oarisma garita), a small, but kind of classy-looking grass skipper that flies in late June and early July. The diminutive ending "ling" on the end of "skipper" is our clue that they are small, even for a skipper. The Garita is widespread and locally common throughout the Rocky Mountain states, and is found in wild grassy mountain habitats as well as disturbed and weedy ones. A butterflier from central Montana might bust a gut if I told her I had repeatedly driven several hours across Oregon trying to find even a single garita. But it would be true. I have tried repeatedly to photograph this little skipper, ever since I saw one in the lawn of a seemingly abandoned motel in Minam, Oregon in 2004.

In recent years, Oregon lepidopterists have documented that garita has spread further into Oregon from its former range to the east of us. Dana Ross and Dennis Deck both found it several years ago in wet meadows around Bear Valley, in the southern Blue Mountains near the town of Seneca. Last year I scouted this area, and after finding no garita, concluded that I had arrived before garita began flying. This year, I planned a trip to find just this one species, and to drop right into the middle of its flight season, in those wet meadows around Bear Valley. The combination of being both more relaxed and having a simpler goal yielded a plan of spending 2-3 days searching for this one species, and a feeling that it would be fine if I didn't find it.

Dutifully following the navigational guidance of Captain Google, I approached Bear Valley from the south. As I turned north onto Highway 395 from Highway 20 just east of Burns, I had my eye on a large thunderhead to the northeast. I was hoping it was not heading towards Bear Valley, as it looked dark enough to dump a good bit of rain on me and the butterflies.

Photo of wet meadow near Seneca, Oregon.
A thunderhead rolls in above a wet meadow near Seneca, Oregon.

As I was driving north, it seemed more and more like that thunderhead was heading for Bear Valley. I then decided perhaps I could outrun it in order to get some time in the meadows before the storm hit, so I notched up my speed on the cruise control. However, the storm seemed to guess my strategy, and as I sped up, it seemed to do the same. We arrived within minutes of each other. So, it was with the sound of thunder rolling over the hills and meadows that I began my search in some meadows along Forest Service Road 3925, north of Seneca.

A female Field Crescent exposing every square millimeter of its wings to the cloud-obscured sun

As I stepped into the drier fringe of the meadow, winding my way through the shrubby cinquefoil, I began to see Northern Crescents (Phyciodes cocyta), both males and females. As I moved out into a slightly more moist zone, I saw the speeding blurs of Field Crescents (Phyciodes pulchella). And soon, a small orange-ish skipper, too fast for me to ID in flight. Though the thunder head was now beginning to shade the meadow, the butterflies were still fairly active. I watched the skipper zig-zag rapidly just above the grasses and wildflowers until it landed. Ah, Sonora Skipper (Polites sonora). That's good, because they often like the same habitat as Garita Skipperlings.

Close-up photo of adult Sonora Skipper butterfly
Sonora Skipper (Polites sonora) visiting cinquefoil flowers for nectar.

Within a few minutes, I spotted a Garita Skipperling. It's slower, slightly more relaxed flight pattern, together with the silver flashing of its wing edges and torso made it possible to distinguish it in flight from the Sonora. Very helpful. At this point, the thunderhead was fully overhead, and the light grew quite a bit dimmer. What I had earlier seen as bad news (dark skies, no direct sunlight and possible rain) now worked in my favor. As the sunlight faded to gray, the butterflies slowed down, and they began to bask to warm up their flight muscles, and the skipperlings were no exception!

Close-up photo of adult Garita Skipperling butterfly
Garita Skipperling spreading its wings for maximum solar input under cloudy skies

With the booming of thunder in my ears and a dark cloud hung directly over me, I got my first clear photo of a Garita Skipperling, basking on a blade of grass. That wasn't so hard. Being in the right place at the right time, and leaving behind the desire to hurry in order to get on to the next species, made it all feel so easy.

There were other species basking in the cool shadow of the thunderhead, such as Western White, Greenish Blue, and in the drier sections of the meadow, Edith's Copper. As I zig-zagged in a general northerly movement through the meadow I saw a wetter section of the meadow with sedges and cattails at the northeast end, so I headed over that way. I saw a several Western Whites (Pontia occidentalis) and a few more Garitas as I walked, but none perched long enough for a photo. Even with the clouds, they were still quite sensitive to my approach.

As I got close to the wet swale at the north end, I caught a glimpse of a grass skipper down in the vegetation, and it looked distinctly larger and lighter than the Sonoras and Garitas, even from a distance. I walked very slowly to where I had seen it flutter, and peered down among the sedges, grasses and cinquefoil. Now this is a surprise--its a Peck's Skipper! I hadn't expected to see that in southern Grant County, but here it is. What a nice surprise. The dark heart of the thunderhead was now overhead, and it was sprinkling lightly while thunder rumbled around. All of which made that Peck's Skipper want to just stay parked where it was, posing patiently while I immortalized it in digital imagery.

Close-up photo of adult Peck's Skipper butterfly
A surprise appearance by Peck's Skipper (Polites peckii) tucked into the grass and cinquefoil.

In this un-named meadow (which I dubbed "Sugarloaf Meadow" after a nearby butte), I found 14 species under those ominous skies, and got a nice dorsal photo of Garita Skipper. I call that a good day's work! I had planned on camping that night and visiting another meadow about 12 miles to the south the following day, so I packed up and headed down Izee-Paulina Lane.

The forecast was for clear skies in the morning and I was excited for that. I wanted to get out in the meadow by 8 am, to find the butterflies basking in the cool morning air, soaking up the sunlight. I made an early night of it, and after a tasty oatmeal breakfast and a morning bird walk, I headed down the hill to the meadow. The light was lovely, and I imagined what I could do with that light and a cooperative Garita...

As I spiraled through the meadow, many butterflies were waking up and I saw my first Garita at about 9 am, unfortunately not the cooperative type. Greenish Blues (Icaricia saepiolus) and Sonora Skippers were abundant, and Field Crescents and Northern Crescents also made a good showing. It was already getting quite warm and the butterflies were getting more active. The Garitas I saw wouldn't let me get closer than about 10 feet before flying. These conditions I can deal--I've got strategies. I opened up my tactical "toolbox" and pulled out a strategy that had recently worked well for both Gray Marbles and Mountain Parnassians--the Stakeout. I watched the meadow to see which plant species the Garitas went to most often, and then picked one of those plants that had been visited several times over a span of a few minutes.

I sat down a few feet from a small golden-yellow groundsel flower, and plucked a couple blades of grass so I had a clear shot of the flowers. Then I waited for them to come to me. After about 5 minutes I wondered if I had picked the wrong flower, but I decided they just needed more time to get used to me being there. That was the right conclusion. A few minutes later, a couple Garitas made very quick visits to "my" flower. Okay, now we're getting somewhere. I held my camera at the ready. And sure enough, a few minutes later a bright fresh Garita came to my flower for nectar and hung around long enough for me to get a series of shots. Bingo!

The prize of the day! Garita Skipperling nectaring on a groundsel flower.

I checked the images on my camera, and zoomed all the way in--they looked good: well-focused, well-lit, with plenty of depth-of-field. Mission accomplished! I had a couple more hours before I needed to move on, so I just played in the meadow after that. Several very fresh Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele leto) showed up and perched on the shrubby cinquefoil at the upper end of the meadow.

Close-up photo of adult Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly
Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele leto) basking on shrubby cinquefoil

A few minutes later, a lovely Hydaspe Fritillary (Speyeria hydaspe) came in for nectar at the same groundsel species that had drawn my prized Garita. A couple of Small Woodnymphs (Cercyonis oetus) darted around, and I spotted several Mormon Fritillaries (Speyeria mormonia), and a couple of Common Ringlets (Coenonympha tullia) as I walked.

Close-up photo of adult Hydaspe Fritillary butterfly
Hydaspe Fritillary (Speyeria hydaspe) nectaring on groundsel

This "mission" had felt so relaxed and so pleasant, compared to many other trips. I concluded that my mental framework was a big factor in that, along with the fine weather, and finally being aligned with the timing of my quarry. I found I was liking this "non-doing" influence on my butterflying. I might just want to not-do more of that.

By my count, there are 165 species-level taxa of butterflies documented to regularly breed in Oregon, including three as yet undescribed blue species and 162 officially described species. The Garita Skipperling was the 160th of those 165 that I'd photographed in Oregon, leaving just 5 to go. I know that four of those remaining five might be really challenging to find, let alone photograph. Compton's Tortoiseshell (Nymphalis l-album) and American Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) haven't been recorded in Oregon in many years, and no one seems certain whether they still breed in Oregon. The Checkered White (Pontia protodice) is challenging because it looks so similar to Western White, and because there is no reliable site or group of sites for it--its hit and miss out in the Great Basin. It also may not breed in Oregon every year. And the Gillett's Checkerspot (Euphydryas gillettii) hadn't been recorded in Oregon for 17 years, until a single individual was found earlier this summer. Stay tuned for my next post as I go after Gillett's Checkerspot. The fifth species, Spring White (Pontia sisymbrii) might be a bit easier to find. I just need to get the timing right and some good weather in early April down in Josephine County next spring. I've been at this for 17 years, so there's no hurry. All in good time, and all in their time--the timing of the butterflies themselves.

I found 21 species over two days in the Bear Valley area, but those Garita Skipperling photos -17 years after that abandoned motel affair - were a special treat. Perhaps most of all, however, I enjoyed the ease and flow of this trip. I could get used to that.

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