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Wave the Checkered Flag!

I first started looking for the enigmatic Checkered White (Pontia protodice) back in 2004, at Picture Rock Pass, in Lake County. It was, of course, Andy Warren who suggested that I search there, as he had found them there the previous year. It was hot, dry, beautiful high desert landscape--just what Checkered Whites usually prefer.


In the past five or six years, more and more online resources have been developed by which people can report butterflies they've seen and photos they've taken of them. In the late summer and fall, I enjoy perusing people's photos and sightings and offering some help with identification of Oregon species that folks are struggling with.


Last summer, while poking around on the "Butterflies and Moths of North America" website (www.butterfliesandmoths.org, I was surprised to come upon a photo taken by my friend and former colleague Cary Kerst. I knew he was a real dragonfly enthusiast, but I didn't recall that he was into photographing butterflies. What was more surprising was that the photo was of a Checkered White, taken in Linn County, Oregon! I had known that there were scattered records of Checkered Whites in the northern half of Oregon over the years, but I hadn't realized that there was a documented sighting within 90 minutes drive of Eugene!


As you might imagine, when August rolled around, I was duty-bound to make the trip over to Lost Lake to learn check out the area, where Cary had taken that photo, and perhaps find Checkered White. I had been there in early spring for birding once or twice, but never in late summer. I went on the exact date that Cary had found his, thinking that might put me in good timing for the flight period. What I found were many Western Whites (Pontia occidentalis), zipping hither and yon, inviting me to chase them all over the meadow with Hooper, my trusty butterfly net. They were landing infrequently, and it was a gusty afternoon, making them even faster fliers than normal. So when I say that I found many Western Whites, what I actually mean is that out of the many whites flying that afternoon, the only ones I could see well, photograph and identify with certainty were Western Whites, and I assumed they all were. But a couple of them looked iffy to me.


Just to be sure, I shared some of my photos with Ken Davenport, one of California's preeminent lepidopterists, who is very familiar with Checkered Whites, as he encounters them frequently down where he lives. "All Westerns," Ken replied. I decided I needed more preparation and study to be able to find and identify Checkered White, so I deferred further searching to 2022.


Photo of Lost Lake in Linn County, Oregon
Lost Lake, looking toward the east, with wet and dry meadows on the north side

I had studied many photos of Checkered Whites, and picked Ken's brain for identification tips. He noted that the gray markings at the forewing tips of males are generally smaller, lighter, and have more white space between them compared to the very similar Western Whites. I also learned that the veins on the ventral hindwing are more yellow on Checkered, and more greenish on Westerns. And I learned that the dorsal markings on many female Checkered Whites are more brownish-gray than bluish-gray, as you would see on a Western White. I found a little chart graphic that highlighted these field marks and saved it to my phone for reference. I felt more prepared this year.


I again planned my visit around the date on which Cary had photographed his Checkered White, but delayed it a week to take into account the late, wet spring. That put my arrival date on August 10. In spite of heavy wildfire smoke in the central Western Cascades, Lost Lake had crystal-clear, blue skies. It was surprisingly cool that day, however, only 70°F, and I saw only one Western White and one Cabbage White (Pieris rapae). I did see 15 other species altogether, including a surprising "clump" of Sylvan Hairstreaks (10 in one small patch of Pearly Everlasting). I concluded that I was a bit early for Checkered White this year, and planned a second visit.


I returned to Lost Lake 10 days later, on August 20. Again, I was blessed with clear blue skies, and it made it into the upper 70's in the afternoon. Still very few whites flying. I spotted six whites out in the meadow, and try as I might, I wasn't able to turn any of them into Checkered Whites. Hydaspe Fritillaries (Speyeria hydaspe) and Golden Hairstreaks (Habrodais grunus) were the most numerous species among the 16 that I saw that day.


Close-up photo of Golden Hairstreak
Golden Hairstreaks were abundant around Golden Chinquapin in late August

I decided that I would just keep returning to Lost Lake until I felt satisfied that I had adequately experienced the flight period of the whites there or until I found Checkered White, whichever came first. My next visit was six days later, on August 26. Another glorious day and again smoke-free, with temps in the upper 70's, and breezy with some gusts in the afternoon. I wasn't thrilled about the wind, as it can really wreak havoc with butterfly photography. Imagine a small broad-winged insect that weighs virtually nothing, is easily carried off by the wind, perched on a bendy little plant that swings and sways with every breeze. Now throw in an occasional gust of real wind. Not helpful! All that wind-induced flopping around can make it devilishly difficult to get a sharp image! All part of the challenge and the fun. Riiiiight!


This trip, I was accompanied by two friends, John and Rich, who are excellent birders, and quite good with butterflies also. The more eyes, the better! We walked out into the meadow adjacent to the lake, and I noticed a few whites flying, but still not the numbers I had seen here last year. Still, I hoped that our timing was better this visit, and that there would be at least one Checkered White somewhere out in that meadow.


We noticed that the whites were heavily favoring purple-flowered asters growing in the higher drier parts of the meadow, away from both the water and the woods. The Orange Sulphurs were also going for them. John and I hung out in those dry areas near the asters, trying to photograph every white we could get in our sights.

Photo of dry meadow adjacent to Lost Lake
The whites seemed to prefer being out in these driest parts of the meadow

That's when I saw it: a white that was fresh, but with much lighter markings on the dorsal forewing margin. It landed on an aster near me and I snapped a few photos of it. John got on it right away and also got some photos of it. When I zoomed in to view the photo on my camera's LCD screen, I clearly saw those sparse gray forewing markings, and the yellow veins below. It looked good for Checkered White! Could this be it? Did I just photograph Oregon species number 170?

Close-up photo of Checkered White butterfly
A male Checkered White nectaring on its favored aster

I spent the next hour following that White around the dry meadow, getting as many photos of it as I could. I wanted to make sure that, if I was right that it was a Checkered White, I was not going to miss the opportunity to get a decent photo of it! I easily took 100 photos of that butterfly!


Note the yellow veins below, and the light markings at the forewing tip with white gaps between them

Luckily, several of my photos came out clear and showed the needed field marks. When I sent them to Ken Davenport, he said "yes, that is Checkered White." Bingo! Shazam! Cue the "Rocky" theme! I was particularly happy to find this butterfly so close to home, saving a lot of gas, greenhouse gas pollution, time, and effort compared to driving all over southern Oregon on numerous search excursions.


It has been both pleasing and surprising to finally find several of my "nemesis" butterfly species relatively easily this year after many years of trying in vain. The experience seems to underscore one of my favorite phrases: "you just have to get your reps in." It works for photographing butterflies, and finding birds, and meditating, and a lot of other things. If the goal is to get reps in, that feels very doable. Focusing on getting to the finish line, on the other hand, means you're constantly looking ahead to see where that finish line is, and that makes it seem farther away, and harder to get to. Its almost like you don't notice that you got to the finish line because you were just focused on getting in your reps--so it almost comes as a surprise.


Close-up photo of Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly
Great Spangled Fritillaries were drawn to the late blooming thistles.

On that third trip to Lost Lake we found 21 species, my highest number for that site. Golden Hairstreaks were still numerous, and Great Spangled Fritillaries (Speyeria cybele) were flying. I went back to Lost Lake a fourth time, just two days later. I was hoping to get even luckier, and find a female Checkered White.


Close-up photo of adult Checkered White butterfly
A bird-struck possible female Checkered White

On August 28, I did find a worn, bird-struck female white that appeared to have the characteristic brown-gray markings, but its hard to tell what it looked like fresh. Possibly a Western White with flight wear making the markings appear brown?


Close-up photo of adult Mourning Cloak butterfly
A fresh Mourning Cloak puddling in wet sand near the lake

That fourth visit was fun, because it felt like the pressure was off. I found 20 species, including 9 fresh Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) and many fresh Hoary Commas (Polygonia gracilis) and Green Commas (Polygonia faunus), and a variety of ladies, fritillaries, and tortoiseshells. It was like a nymphalid festival! What a fun series of visits to Lost Lake!


So--now we're down to it: just three Oregon species yet to go (American Copper, Compton Tortoiseshell, and Gillett's Checkerspot). The three hardest for sure, and all three in Wallowa County. Maybe they still breed in Oregon. Maybe some years they don't. All of the recent sightings of Gillett's Checkerspot were smack in the middle of where the Double Creek fire just burned virtually all of Grizzly Ridge in Wallowa County. Perhaps there were some enclaves higher up on Summit Ridge that didn't burn. I don't know. We'll see. I guess I'll be putting some visits to Wallowa County on my calendar for next year!


In my four visits to Lost Lake in August, I found these 29 species:


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