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  • Butterflies of Oregon | Photos • Biology • Indentification

    Butterflies of Oregon Welcome to Butterflies of Oregon, a resource for Oregon butterfly enthusiasts, including photos and species information to help you find and identify all of Oregon's regularly occurring, formally described butterfly species. ​ Butterflies of Oregon also shares stories of the author's attempt to photograph all of Oregon's butterfly species in the wilds of Oregon. ​ Thanks for visiting! www.butterfliesoforegon.com Subscribe to Blog Thanks for submitting! Email Us

  • Mariposa Copper | ButterfliesofOregon

    Gallery Prev Next Scott Lake, Lane Co, August 10 Mariposa Copper Lycaena mariposa Size: 1 - 1.25 inches wingspan ​ Key ID features: Male above brown with purple iridescence when fresh. Female above bright orange with black spots and borders. HW below silver-gray like weathered wood with black chevrons. FW below orange-brown with black spots, gray-brown border, submarginal row of black chevrons bordered in white. ​ Similar species: Silver-gray HW below is distinctive, lacking spots or orange. Host plant: Huckleberries (Vaccinium ). ​ Habitat: Mountain meadows, sunny roadsides, lake edges . ​ Range: Cascade Range, Ochoco Mtns, Blue Mtns, Wallowas Mtns. ​ Season: Late May to late September ​ Abundance: Common Conservation Status: Secure

  • Common Wood Nymph | ButterfliesofOregon

    Gallery Prev Next Box Canyon Meadows, Lane Co, July 16 Common Woodnymph Cercyonis pegala Size: Up to 2 inch wingspan ​ Key ID features: Highly variable. Above, shades of brown and gray-brown with two large eye spots on FW, nearly equal in size or lower eye larger, otherwise plain. Below, striated brown with one to several small eyespots on HW, two large eyespots on FW (as above). Some eastern Oregon populations can have large, bright halos around FW eyespots, and six bold eyespots on HW below (see photo). ​ Similar species: Great Basin Woodnymph is smaller, shorter winged and has more prominent bands below. Small Woodnymph is smaller, darker, and usually more gray and grizzled looking below. ​ Host plant: Undetermined grass species . ​ Habitat: Prairies, meadows, marshes, pastures, roadsides. ​ Range: All of Oregon except northern coast and flat basin lands between Riley and Brothers (SE of Bend). ​ Season: Mid-may to late September ​ Abundance: Very common Conservation Status: Secure

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Blog Posts (32)

  • The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Checkerspot

    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

  • 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. 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. 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. 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! 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. 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! 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. 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. 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.

  • Heat Zombie and the Bakeoven Butterflies

    Recently I went through my 20 years of butterfly records to find out how many times I had gone out trying for photographs of our official state insect, the Oregon Swallowtail (Papilio machaon oregonia). The first time was back in 2004, long before the crazy idea of photographing all of Oregon's breeding butterflies within the state got into my head. It turns out that, as of spring of this year (2021), I had made 27 site visits, searching at ten different sites in three counties. In those 27 tries, I had seen the Oregon Swallowtail only twice, once in Philippi Canyon in the Columbia Gorge, and once at Jones Canyon, on the lower Deschutes River. Neither occasion afforded me an opportunity for a photo. As a second generation native Oregonian, I have felt some kind of "civic" duty to photograph this swallowtail. Other than the Monarch, it is probably our most "famous" butterfly. After all, it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp in 1977, and that was even before the Oregon Legislature voted to make it the state insect in 1979 (beating out the Oregon Rain Beetle, Pleocoma oregonensis). I'll admit that I have actually been a little embarrassed that I hadn't photographed it yet, and that's probably why I have tried so many times. Over my 20 years of chasing butterflies, I've learned (and relearned) that a lot of other folks know more than I do about butterflies and when and where they live. That's why I now talk to lots of other butterfliers as part of my trip planning, and why I use my blog to share the gaps in my knowledge about Oregon butterflies. Asking for help and information from others may go against the All-American Ethic of Individualism (especially for men), of doing it ourselves, proving our bootstrapping independent spirit, but I've reached a stage in life where I can just call that a heap of horse pucky. It's more fun to learn from others and to involve others in my work and play, and, also, it's more effective. Over the past year, two Oregon butterfliers generously provided me with detailed information about the second brood of the Oregon Swallowtail in Oregon--none of which I had heard or read before. In the past, everyone had always told me to go after the first brood flight in early May. And most of the photos I'd seen from others were from that first brood in spring, including Fred Ramsey's picture-perfect photo on the Butterflies of America website, of which I have been envious all these years! Last year, Matthew Campbell from Pendleton, Oregon shared his knowledge of the size and timing of the second brood flight along the Columbia Gorge. He shared his observations that the second brood is larger, that it flies from late June through early July when the thistles are in bloom, and that only about 20% of the second brood's eggs hatch the same summer to create the third brood. The other 80% go into diapause and complete their egg-to-larva-to-pupa-to-adult cycle the following spring. This past winter I also heard from Greg Sigrist from Salem, Oregon who had made repeated trips to the lower Deschutes River canyon and kept track of when and where he had found the Oregon Swallowtail, including four trips he'd made this past spring. His multiple trips allowed him to pinpoint when oregonia began to fly, which, at least in 2021, turned out to be just after my visit there. If I could have made a custom order for information on the Oregon Swallowtail, it would have been exactly what Greg shared with me. Like Matt, Greg's conclusion was that the second brood was a larger flight, and that they tended to fly in late June through early July, but that the freshest individuals were in June. He had found fresh individuals from June 22-25, on the sandy river margins of boat launches and natural beaches, from just south of Maupin to a few miles past Sherar's Bridge on the Deschutes. Okay! I now had my plan for a second try in 2021 on the lower Deschutes River. I blocked out the dates on my calendar, and then tacked on several more days to go after Garita Skipperlings (Oarisma garita) in the Blue Mountains a few days later. I always monitor the weather forecasts so I can make trip adjustments if the weather looks like its going south. A week before the trip, after I'd started to assemble food and camping gear, the forecasts began to show a hot spell looming at the end of the month just when I planned to go. For me, 80's are great, 90's are doable, and going out in 100's is just plain unwise. I hoped for 90's at the worst. A few days before "Go Day" the forecasts began to predict a major heat wave, with record temperatures in both Western and Eastern Oregon, getting well over 100°F smack in the middle of my planned trip. Oh, and let's not forget the high winds and possible lightning storms that were predicted in central Oregon, leading to a Red Flag Fire Warning. After a very brief bit of pondering, I scratched Part B of the trip, and decided to just go after the Oregon Swallowtail. I moved the trip ahead a few days to avoid the worst of the heat. Or so I hoped. If you haven't been to the lower Deschutes River canyon or the town of Maupin, you may not know that the road along the river at the bottom of the canyon is called Bakeoven Road. That is not poetically-licensed hyperbole, its a pragmatic description and a fair warning. Even in May, when much of Oregon is moist and moderately warm, the lower Deschutes is often very hot and dry. Heat exhaustion and dehydration are real concerns for a good part of the year. This is the bakeoven into which I was going to descend, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding into the valley of the shadow of death (or something like that). I got the car packed the night before, and got up at zero-dark-thirty (only being late June it had been light for hours), which allowed me to sneak out of Eugene about 6:30 am. My goal was to get to the first site by 10:30 am, which, in many parts of Oregon, would be plenty early for butterfly activity. I arrived at the Sandy Beach Boat Takeout north of Maupin at about 10:45 am. It was already 90°F, and I wasn't looking forward to the real heat of the afternoon. My goal was to find swallowtails puddling in the moist sand next to the river, which is the easiest time/place to photograph them. They really want those dissolved mineral salts and they will tolerate a higher degree of activity near them if the movement is slow. I geared up with my cameras and binoculars and lots of water, and walked down to the beach area. Within a few minutes I was in a full sweat. I spent the next hour searching at the boat launch and the beach area nearby, to no avail. In fact, all I saw was one tattered Acmon Blue (Icaricia acmon) and 4 or 5 Cabbage Whites (Pieris rapae). I was pretty sure that, with this intense heat, it already was too late in the day to find puddling swallowtails, and that I'd have to wait until the following morning. In order to get an early start the next day, I decided to camp in the canyon, and just do my best to survive the heat. As I headed north down the canyon, I made quick scouting stops at a couple of other sites along the way, but nothing was flying. The butterflies were as cooked as I was. I decided to camp at Jones Canyon Campground and hoped for a site with shade and close access to the river. I lucked out and got both. Thank goodness, too! I stopped checking the temperature at 2 pm when it was 100°F. The heat just plain sucked the life out of me, and if it weren't for my shady spot next to the river, I would have had to evacuate to higher, cooler environs to wait out that bakeoven sun. Once I landed in my camp chair, I literally sat there for about 4 hours, because I didn't have energy to do anything else but sit and read and guzzle liter after liter of water. I didn't even have the energy to change into shorts or get in the water. I was a heat zombie, and it seemed that my life force had been baked out of me. Fortunately, it was a beautiful view, which I fully enjoyed. It stayed warm throughout the night, and I didn't need a sleeping bag, just a sheet over me. I woke early and took a walk around the small campground listening to the Yellow-breasted Chats, Lazuli Buntings, and Song Sparrows serenading me and the river. They were all in nesting mode, hiding, but singing constantly. My plan was to go first to Sandy Beach Boat Take-out, so as to beat the boater and swimmer traffic that was sure to come later, and to allow time for one or two other sites before life as we know it got baked to a crackly crunch. I arrived there at 8:30 am, and it was already in the 80's. The whole place was empty except for some trucks with raft-hauling trailers, parked there for the boaters who would arrive later in the day. This take-out is the all-boats-out, last stop before Sherar's Falls, a treacherous, frothing whirpool-chute of a waterfall. I walked down to the beach area first and all was quiet. Then over to the boat launch--nothing there either. Patience, patience. In the back of my mind, hope was melting in the heat. I came back to the beach area, and lo! There was a swallowtail on the edge of the wet sand. Its wings were folded up, and from a distance I could see its yellow body with a narrow horizontal black stripe. Could it be? "That's my bug!" came out of my mouth involuntarily. A yellow body with a thin black horizontal stripe is one of the field marks of the Oregon swallowtail! As I walked closer and got a good view through my binos, I saw the forewing pattern of a Western Tiger Swallowtail. Hope was nudging the back of my mind. I snapped a few photos of the Tiger, and went back to check the boat launch area again. Still nothing there, so I slowly walked back to the beach area. In a marshy spot next to the boat launch, I saw a small, fast flier--a Purplish Copper that finally landed long enough for an ID. A couple minutes later, I saw a woodnymph in the brush, and waited for it to land, a Common Woodnymph. Back at the beach area, a Becker's White (Pontia beckeri) had come in for some mineral-laden moisture. I noted that the butterflies were not going to the wet sand, but rather to the drying sand, about half-way between the fully wet and fully dry sand. I've noticed that before, but haven't found any explanation in the literature. I assume that location is ideal for wicking up moisture with mineral salts. Give me a shout if you actually know why! As I was photographing the Becker's, a slightly flight-worn Two-Tailed Swallowtail sailed in for some mineral salts--hard to come by for a creature that otherwise imbibes only the liquid sugars from flowers. In the 90 minutes or so I spent hoping for an Oregon Swallowtail to show up, I also saw a large, fresh Queen Alexandra's Sulphur (Colias alexandra), several more Cabbage Whites, and a couple of Common (Ochre) Ringlets (Coenonympha tullia) in the grass. It was now almost 10:15 and I needed to make a choice: either I stay here and keep hoping fro my quarry to come to me, or go to one of the other sites. I decided to try another site. Two hours earlier, on my way to Sandy Beach, I had passed another of Greg Sigrist's recommended sites, the Oakbrook Day Use area, but at 8:15 am, it was in the shade of the canyon walls. I wanted to check there, and also visit the large patch of blooming thistle in the lower part of Jones Canyon. I packed up and headed north, enjoying a few minutes of air conditioning to cool off. When I pulled up to the Oakbrook site, there was a big black pickup truck parked there, and signs and sounds of people and dogs. When I'd scouted the site the previous day, I'd found a small sandy beach with shady trees on both sides, and it didn't surprise me that a dog owner would want to hang out in that shade next to the little beach, while the dogs played in the water. The problem was that it had appeared to be the only possible puddling spot at this site, so unless I wanted to kick out the dog people, it seemed pointless to stop. I turned around and started to head north towards Jones Canyon. 30 seconds later, with no forethought, I just pulled over--for some reason it suddenly occurred to me to look over the rim of the road. I got out of the car, and looked over the edge, and there was a second beach, and it was bigger and sunnier than the one that was now shading and entertaining people and dogs! I jumped back in, turned around and pulled back into the parking area. As I got out of my car two thoroughly drenched dogs came bounding up to say hello, the big one barking joyfully and the little one barking nervously. Their owner was not as friendly, but called off her dogs and led them back to their little cove. After I strapped on all my gear (including my indispensible hydration pack!), I walked down the short, sandy path to the little beach. There to my great excitement I immediately saw a tightly-packed puddling group of seven or eight swallowtails. These puddling groups are almost always males, and they often favor spots that already have puddling swallowtails (or other butterfly species), perhaps because when they see a puddling butterfly it indicates a good source of mineral salts. This group really stuck together, making it hard at first to tell which species were there. As I got closer, and got a better angle on the small wall of moist sand they were clustered on, I saw... not one, not two, not three, but FOUR Oregon Swallowtails! Cue the hyper-ventilated excitation! This is always the moment when I have to consciously remind myself to both keep my eye on the butterflies, and keep my movements really smooth and slow so as not to spook the butterflies from their mineral salt obsession. An increasingly fast fluttering of their wings is a sign of agitation, and I use that clue to guide how fast or slow to move. If they flutter, I stop and wait for them to calm down again. In this case, they instructed me to go very slow. As I came closer I saw that the best angle for photos was from the direction of the river, only a couple feet from them. I looked at my hiking boots and long pants, looked at the water, looked at my pants and boots, and then plowed right into the Deschutes River. Fortunately, it was't very deep, and the bottom was sandy and relatively smooth. I had to make a slow arc through the water to get around them and then inch closer from a position close to 90° to where their wings were facing. If I stumbled on a hidden rock or branch or made any other jerky movement, I'd spook them, and that might close this precious window of opportunity. For really good images, I'd need to get within 2-4 feet of them. After 27 tries and 17 years, I finally had my first real chance... Thankfully, I managed the maneuver like Brian Boitano (American figure skater) pulling off a triple axel at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Smooth as silk, no butterfly spooking, and photos aplenty. Cue the national anthem. As I take the stand to receive this gold medal, I want to thank... Greg Sigrist! Without Greg spending the time to learn about these beautiful butterflies in this beautiful place, and taking the time and effort to write to me and share what he knew, I wouldn't have ended my Oregon Swallowtail drought this week. Three cheers to you, Greg. I had finally fulfilled my sacred duty as a native Oregon butterfly photographer, and captured our state insect in photos. Within the next 30 minutes, two of the Two-Tailed and all of the Oregon Swallowtails had left the beach. I waited a bit, and they didn't come back. I was given just that one short window, just this one location. How fortunate! With the Oregon Swallowtails gone, and with my shoes, socks and pants getting a good start on drying out, I was ready to move on, in spite of the heat, which I had completely forgotten about while photographing those swallowtails! I decided to break for lunch in the shade of my Subaru's back hatch and then make one more stop before my escape from the bakeoven. Out of curiosity and also to get in some walking before the 4 hour drive home, I wanted to check that thistle patch in the lower Jones Canyon. I knew it was too much to expect a photo of an Oregon Swallowtail on a lovely purple thistle flower, but it couldn't hurt to take a look. The thistle patch was about an acre in size, in a flat area that had burned a few years back, and most of the scattered thistles had fresh blooms. I stood and scanned the flats, dripping sweat and salt, to see what was taking advantage of all that nectar. First, a smallish woodnymph. The ventral markings had large upper eyespots like a Great Basin Woodnymph (Cercyonis sthenele), but the size and other markings pointed to Small (AKA Dark) Woodnymph (Cercyonis oetus). In this part of the state, C. oetus has a lighter ventral ground color, and the lack of a distinct zig-zagging median line in the hindwing combined with the small size all looked good for Small Woodnymph. The only other visitors braving the heat to visit the purple pincushion thistle blooms were several fresh Becker's Whites. In the spring, I always like to end my visit to the lower Deschutes River canyon with a walk up Gert Canyon, a small side-canyon just to the north of Jones Canyon. I spent about two seconds imagining what that uphill hike would feel like in this heat, and wisely opted out. I then began to imagine the lush green forests up on Hwy 26 on my route over the Cascades, and thought that might be a nice place to take a sleep off some of the heat fatigue. Which it was. On the drive out of the bakeoven, I thought of the many people over the years who have shared with me their experiences of finding Oregon Swallowtails in Oregon. That group includes Paul Severns, Andy Warren, Fred Ramsey, Bob Pyle, Gary Pearson, Dana Ross, Rob Santry, Matthew Campbell, and the hero of the day, Greg Sigrist. I value all their input and stories, and am thankful for all the fun and educational experiences I had on those 27 site visits to the places they told me about. Each of them is woven into this story. Compared to most of my trips, the species list is short on diversity, but let me tell you, for me, it is not lacking in quality! I would have been happy in that bakeoven canyon to find just one species, as long as it was our state insect, and as long as I got photos. And now, there are just 6 species left to find: Garita Skipperling, Spring White, Checkered White, American Copper, Compton's Tortoiseshell and Gillett's Checkerspot. As the list gets shorter, I suspect they will get much harder to find. Will you be the one that helps me find and photograph one of the remaining six? PS - How about "Heat Zombie and the Bakeoven Butterflies" as a band name? What kind of music would they play? Lower Deschutes River Canyon Species List:

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