Updated: Aug 2, 2021
Andy Warren describes the habitat of the Nevada Skipper (Hesperia nevada) as dry, windblown summits of peaks and ridges, usually above 4,500' elevation, dominated by Artemisia tridentata (great basin sagebrush) plants stunted by the constant winds. This description is in his immensely helpful Butterflies of Oregon, Their Taxonomy, Distribution and Biology, a 2005 book without which I would be fairly lost in understanding Oregon's butterflies.
Andy generously shared details with me about a site where he had found a colony of Nevada Skippers along the Grant-Baker county line back in 2001, and last week I went to see if that colony was still there. What I found was a habitat that exactly matched his description: a treeless, windswept ridge, with stunted sagebrush, with a healthy supply of gusty winds. The question was, were the Nevada Skippers still there 19 years later?
These grassy, rolling ridges sat beneath a huge sky with constantly evolving cloud formations, the hills still showing shades of green of late spring and early summer. Many of the grass species had already gone to seed, and as I made my way up the northernmost end of the connected set of ridges, I wished I had brought my "seed gaiters." As I walked, I was gathering a sizable collection of pokey little grass seeds in my socks. It felt like I had acupuncture needles all over my ankles.
I had searched for Nevada Skippers previously at King Mountain (Harney County, 2004 and 2018), Millican Flats (Deschutes County, 2006 and 2018), and Ironside Mountain (Malheur County, 2004). In those five trips I had not seen even one individual Nevada Skipper. Every time I seemed to have arrived too late in the season. I hoped to avoid that outcome this time by going within a few days of the date on which Andy Warren had found his large population in 2001.
He had written that the males would often perch on a common yellow composite flower, and as soon as I started walking up the ridge, I knew which flower that was. I figured that my best shot at a photo would be to find one happily nectaring on that flower. I searched for more than an hour along the ridgeline without seeing any Hesperia skippers, but I kept telling myself "it only takes one!" Eventually I found three flight-worn and tattered individuals, two of which were so worn they were barely recognizable. My self-imposed standards for butterfly photos say that the butterfly should be whole, and fresh enough that all the wing markings are clearly and easily seen. The individual pictured below was intact enough to clearly see the characteristic strongly displaced check at the bottom of the submarginal white band on the ventral hindwing, so I was glad to at least have that image.
I continued searching, hoping there was at least one last fresh and whole individual up on that ridge enjoying some nectar from those unidentified yellow flowers. I was just about to call it a day, as the sky clouded over, and the wind picked up. The Western Whites that were flying along the ridgeline were being blown about by frequent gusts, and the grasses and flowers were dancing wildly in the wind. Just then, in my peripheral vision, the search image of a dark triangle atop a yellow flower grabbed my attention. I swung my binos up and there was a dark and fresh looking Nevada Skipper! "My prayers have been answered," I thought to myself. I very slowly went for my telephoto camera, keeping my movements slow so as to avoid spooking the skipper. Just as I had my camera lined up for the shot, a wind-thrown Western White rammed right into that one flower with that one Nevada Skipper, and bumped it off and into the wind. I cursed that Western White loudly to no one in particular, even though I knew it wasn't personal. I was so close to the shot I wanted! Frustrated but not finished, I searched the area for a good 20 minutes hoping that skipper was still nearby, but I could not relocate it. The wind could have easily taken it a quarter mile away. As I slowly made my way back to my car, it started to rain. Now I had to laugh! Okey dokey--I guess I'll be coming back next year.
Clearly I was too late in the Nevada Skipper flight season to find fresh individuals this year. I still didn't know whether the large population Andy found in 2001 was still there, but I knew there was a population, and that I'd arrived at least 5-7 days too late to find them in fresh condition.
As I walked down off the ridge, having let go of my single-minded focus on the Nevada Skipper (which is only found on the top of the ridge here), I started to note the other species that were braving the cloudy, rain-sprinkled conditions. Even with the iffy weather conditions, Euphilotes blues were going about their business on a white-flowered buckwheat. I can imagine having a bumper sticker on my car that says "I brake for Euphilotes." That's because I always try to photograph Euphilotes blues whenever I see them and I try to locate and photograph their buckwheat hostplants. Of course 99% of the people reading that bumper sticker would be baffled--which might be the point.
I got photos of the blues and the buckwheat, and when I consulted some online resources back home, I concluded that the buckwheat was parnsipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides), which likely meant this blue was the as-yet-undescribed taxon Cascadia Blue (Ephilotes "battoides"). I had seen this same blue/buckwheat association the previous day in Grant County, and the occurrence data from Andy Warren's book confirmed that this taxon is present in both Grant and Baker counties.
Another species I can't resist photographing, even though I have a growing collection of photos of them, is the Coronis Fritillary (Speyeria coronis). They are just so big and flashy with those super-charged silver spots on the hindwing disk! Eventually, I hope to photograph all the Oregon sub-species of Speyeria in Oregon, and my obsession with these beauties will help with that. This one, just over the border in Baker County, looked most like Speyeria coronis snyderi. I also saw several smaller Speyeria, but never got close enough get a sense of the species (smaller Coronis vs Zerene vs Callippe).
For the day, I had 14 species, 6 of which were singletons. Not a banner day for butterfly diversity, but a great learning experience in a gorgeous, windswept high desert habitat. Thank you Andy Warren for your book, your knowledge of this site, and everything else you've done for butterflies in the Americas!