A Rainbow of Colors at Tire Mountain

A riot of colorful annuals brighten up the meadows after a wet spring.

Yesterday (July 2), I went to Tire Mountain with fellow photographers, Greg Lief and Cheryl Hill, for what turned out to be my 30th trip. I just can’t help myself. It is so beautiful especially after a cool, damp spring like this. And indeed, I think it was as stunning as I’ve ever seen it. The continued cool weather has kept the extraordinary masses of rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta) going at full steam even as the bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata) is coming into bloom. On drier years, the gilia usually takes over as the plectritis is disappearing. The seep monkeyflower, blue-eyed mary (Collinsia grandiflora), and rosy plectritis are washing the meadows in yellow, blue, and especially pink. Plenty of deep blue larkspur (Delphinium menziesii) and bright red paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) add to the colorful display.

Like a stage actor in the spotlight, this striped coralroot was lit up by a beam of sunlight.

We headed to the main meadow fairly quickly so we could get good light for the classic Tire Mountain photo of stunning balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea) along the trail. It did not disappoint. Just as we entered the meadow, we found some perfectly blooming striped coralroot (Corallorhiza striata). I doubled checked my plant list, and it turned out this was a new plant on this trail for me. Hard to believe I could have missed something as showy as that growing right along the trail after so many visits. It just goes to show, you’ve never seen it all. Many bicyclists were out on the trail as well. Not only is this a holiday weekend, and the best weather we’ve had all year, but next week is the big Cascade Creampuff, the main mountain bike race held in the Oakridge area, now a mecca for bikers. No doubt many of them were getting ready for the race while enjoying the fabulous flowers.

We decided to get off the trail and away from the crowds and lunch on the north-facing rocky area hidden behind the ridge at the top of the meadow. It is much cooler up here and home to several species not seen in the south-facing meadows including Claytonia lanceolata, now shriveling up, and Saxifraga bronchialis, just coming into bloom. While seated on the mossy rocks, Cheryl noticed something white sparkling in the sky. I looked up but couldn’t see anything at first. Then, suddenly, there they were, then they were gone again. These had to be large white birds riding the thermals. As they turned around and around, they kept disappearing, only to reappear when the sun hit the uppersides of their wings. Finally they moved into formation and headed toward us. They were pelicans! I was completely surprised. I’ve never seen pelicans flying over the Cascades. And what were they doing travelling south this time of year? According to a reply post on the Oregon Birders Online List, it takes these large birds surprisingly little energy to soar long distances looking for bodies of water to feed in, so maybe they were just out enjoying the day, looking for a new spot to dine.

A checkerspot caterpillar feeding on harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)

The next wildlife experience was on a much smaller scale: two checkerspot caterpillars munching on Castilleja blossoms quickly followed by two more eating Penstemon deustus. I’d never seen them on that penstemon before, but checkerspot caterpillars dine on a variety of plants that have iridoid glycosides in them. These make them poisonous to their would-be predators and, along with a good set of spines, allow them to blithely carry on in the open while most caterpillars are rarely seen. Although it still wasn’t what I would normally call a great butterfly day, there were more of them than I’ve seen yet this spring. Several meadow fritillaries were out in the seepiest meadow, where I always see them. There were occasional blues including a silvery and an acmon. I also saw quite a few orangetips, one Moss’s elfin, and an orange sulphur. Hopefully the happy caterpillars are a sign that more butterflies will be on the wing soon.

Cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola) in full bloom on the dike in the largest meadow

If you’ve never been to Tire Mountain, and you think Iron Mountain is the only floriferous spot worth going to in the Western Cascades, this is the time to try something new. You may find it is your favorite place, too! And if you can’t go in the next week or so (avoid July 10th, the day of the bike race), there is still another whole wave of colors to come. After the soil dries out and the grasses die back, farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena), Oregon yampah (Perideridia oregana), and Oregon sunshine (Eriophyllum lanatum) will form new drifts of pink, white, and yellow in the meadows. And three species of buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.) that are only in bud now will be provide nectar for more butterflies.

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