More Discoveries along the Calapooya Crest

Cascade gras-of-Parnassus (Parnassia cirrata var. intermedia) is one of my favorite wildflowers and a wonderful bonus this late in the season.

Cascade grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia cirrata var. intermedia) is one of my favorite wildflowers and a wonderful bonus this late in the season.

Ever since our early June trip to the meadow along Road 3810 on the south side of Loletta Peak (see Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas: The Sequel), John Koenig and I had been planning to return to see the later blooming plants, especially the Cascade fringed grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia cirrata) that we found there. Just before we had planned to go, Ed Alverson e-mailed me about the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) we had discovered there. He’s been studying the scattered populations on the west side of the Cascades in Oregon and Washington. The timing was perfect, as we were able to take Ed along on August 12 to see the population in what we were now calling “Aspen Meadow.” We had been somewhat concerned with all the fires down in Douglas County, especially the Potter Mountain complex burning just east of Balm Mountain (thankfully not actually on Potter Mountain). But other than some drifting smoke above, we had no problems reaching our destination and enjoying what was an otherwise lovely day.

A mountain quail

A mountain quail blocking Coal Creek Road while she kept an eye on her chicks.

As always, we had to make a few short stops along Coal Creek Road on the way up. The uncommon yellow willowherb (Epilobium luteum) was just finishing up. This was a new species for Ed, the first of several. He’d never been up in the Calapooyas before, and John and I enjoyed sharing one of our favorite places with him. There was still moisture in the area, and I was relieved to see plants popping up in the ditch which had been cleared out earlier by the road crew. As we drove slowly past the long seepy area, I was surprised to see a flock of band-tailed pigeons. While I have them at home every summer, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen them up in the Cascades. One bird seemed unperturbed by the car and just sat in the middle of the road. It turned out to be a mountain quail not a pigeon. Although I see them occasionally, I’ve never been able to photograph one. This seemed like the perfect opportunity, especially as we weren’t going anywhere until it moved. I snapped a few photos with my arm out the window. Since it still wouldn’t move, I opened the door. Suddenly, there was an explosion of little quails from the vegetation on the sides of the road. No wonder mama was standing her ground! Once they were on the move, she zipped off as well. The first time I’d ever seen baby mountain quails was just last month at Groundhog Mountain. What a thrill to see them again so soon.

John and Ed among the Parnassia cirrata in the wet area of Aspen Meadow

John and Ed among the Parnassia cirrata in the wet area of Aspen Meadow

My first female great spangled fritillary of the year. And drinking from a mountain thistle (Cirsium remotifolium), where I always see them.

My first female great spangled fritillary of the year. As always when I see them, she nectared only on a mountain thistle (Cirsium remotifolium).

We soon arrived at “Aspen Meadow,” where we spent a couple of hours enjoying the late summer flowers. We were surprised at how moist everything still was. It didn’t seem drought-stricken at all. I was very pleased that we’d hit the blooming of the grass-of-Parnassus just right. They were abundant along the creek flowing from the wetland and surrounding wet spots. There were also lots of the moisture-loving great northern aster (Canadanthus modestus) and some lingering Bolander’s tarweed (Kyhosia bolanderi) and monkshood (Aconitum columbianum). The oxypolis (Oxypolis occidentalis) we’d discovered on our earlier trip was also still blooming in the wetland. This is an uncommon species found only in the southern half of the Cascades. While the majority of the 30 or so recorded populations are in the Crater Lake/Rogue-Umpqua Divide area, there is a disjunct area in Jackson County and several other locations in northeastern Lane County, including Quaking Aspen Swamp where I just saw it a few days ago. There are wide gaps in between these areas. I’d first discovered it in the Calapooyas several years ago—bridging one of those gaps—but I hadn’t collected a specimen, so I decided it would be worth officially recording it for posterity. Pulling a plant out of the wet mud intact wasn’t as easy as I thought.

Small colonies of Nostoc parmelloides cyanobacteria growing on rock in the creek. You can see the little black “ears” better in the inset photo of a rock taken out of the water.

While working on this by the creek, I noticed some odd black things growing underwater on small rocks. They kind of looked like miniature shelf fungi, but they had a smooth surface. Perhaps these were algae—something I know next to nothing about. I had no luck looking through algae photos online, so I e-mailed photos to Dave Wagner, an expert on mosses, liverworts, and other non-vascular plants and such. He quickly responded that these were colonies of a cyanobacterium (often called blue-green alga) known as Nostoc parmelioides. The really unusual thing about this species is that it has a close relationship with a tiny midge in the genus Cricotopus. When a midge egg is laid in the normally spherical colony, it enlarges and flattens out into these ear-like shapes while the larva develops. John had brought home a small rock with several colonies attached and found the larva inside. How cool is that?! Apparently Nostoc is common in Western Cascade streams, but I’d never noticed it before. I’ll be on the look out for it next summer, for sure.

Did these bugs cause all this damage to the aspen bark? No wonder many of the trees didn't look so healthy.

Did these bugs cause all this damage to the aspen bark? No wonder many of the trees didn’t look so healthy.

Since Ed’s main interest was the aspens, we spent a while in the willow thicket where they grew. There must have been at least 50 small to medium plants. Many of them seemed to be growing along the ground. Perhaps they got pushed down by snow. John and I noticed lots of gouges in the bark on some of them. We pondered what could have made them. It looked somewhat like woodpeckers, maybe sapsuckers, but in many cases it was only the bark that was removed. Could it be from insects, or maybe insects were taking advantage of the bark exposed by someone else? Then we spotted numerous very small black bugs with red markings. They look like true bugs in the seed bug family, but that’s just a guess. It’ll be interesting to see what the aspen look like next year.

The last of the stunningly beautiful explorer's gentians (Gentiana calycosa), growing on the north side of a small cliff above the road.

The last of the stunningly beautiful explorer’s gentians (Gentiana calycosa), growing on the north side of a small cliff above the road.

After leaving Aspen Meadow, we drove back to the north side of the crest to the rocky area above Bradley Lake. I wanted to show John and Ed the explorer’s gentians I’d found there a few years back. We climbed up to the base of the small cliff, but, unfortunately, with things as far along as they are this year, most had finished. Still, even a few of those bright blue beauties is worth tackling some rock climbing for. We also saw western boneset (Ageratina occidentalis) and a few parsley fern (Cryptogramma acrostichoides) among the boulders and holly fern (Polystichum lonchitis) growing under the huckleberries. Ed is a fern expert and was the one who first showed me the holly fern on Tidbits years ago. He  taught me how to distinguish it from sword fern (P. munitum) by the way its fronds narrow down to triangular pinnae at the base.

An adorable young golden-mantled ground squirrel was as curious about us as we were about it.

An adorable young golden-mantled ground squirrel was as curious about us as we were about it.

We opted not to bushwhack down to Bradley Lake but to drive farther down the road to another rocky area with a more easily accessible wetland below it. This is the site of the only recorded population of tasselflower brickellbush (Brickellia grandiflora) on the west side of the Cascades. It was mostly finished, but we were able to find a few of its modest yellow discoid flower heads still fairly fresh. It was once lumped with Ageratina under the genus Eupatorium, and here where they grew together it was easy to see why. The main difference between them is flower color, with Ageratina being pink. Having a fern expert with us turned out to be a big boon. Ed quickly spotted some parsley fern growing among the boulders in the talus. But rather than the common species we saw earlier, this was the high elevation Cascade parsley fern (Cryptogramma cascadensis). Since it was Ed who first described this species, we got a lesson in how to identify it from THE expert! I’ve seen what I believed was this species a few times at high elevation, but I was never quite sure, so this was really exciting for me. Before heading home, we stopped back at the gentian cliff to collect some fronds of the other species to compare. By Jove, I think I’ve got it now! I’ve posted a separate entry on how to tell the difference at Distinguishing Parsley Ferns.

There weren’t many other herbaceous plants growing in the talus, but there were a great many mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii) and low-growing cascara (Rhamnus purshiana). The latter were covered with deep purple ripe fruit. Why weren’t they getting eaten, I wondered. Then we noticed quite a few piles of bear scat along the road and down into the wetland below. I opened the fruit to find large yellow seeds. Yup, they matched what was in the scat. So the bears were feasting on them. There were probably just many more fruits than they needed. We also spotted chipmunks climbing into the shrubs to enjoy the fruit. I sure would like to have seen the bear as well!

A young southern alligator lizard tryihng to hide in a patch of cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola).

A young southern alligator lizard trying to hide in a patch of cliff penstemon (Penstemon rupicola).

Farther down the road at a small wetland, I tried to show Ed the other gentian species in the area, one-flowered gentian (Gentianopsis simplex). While I expected it to be finished, I still hoped to be able to find some but came up empty. I described the slender 3″-tall plants to Ed, who’d never seen them before, and damned if he didn’t spot quite a few—I was impressed! They’re hard enough to find when they are in bloom, but without the blue flowers, they are damn near impossible if you don’t know exactly where they grow. We explored a little downhill on the other side of the road and found a juvenile southern alligator lizard, something I hadn’t expected to see up there. It looked like there would be more to see in this spot earlier in the season, but we had to run back up the road when the one car we’d seen on the road came back, and my van was blocking the road. I never see anyone in the area until hunting season, but I was doubly shocked when we heard them coming up the road earlier in the day—and they were driving a Prius! Even with almost no clearance, they had negotiated the really wavy part of the road before Bradley Lake. They admitted they were crazy taking their car up there, but they were vacationing from California, so they didn’t know what they were getting into.

Anderson's sword fern (Polystichum andersonii) looks like a frillier version of the ubiquitous western sword fern (P. munitum). It can further be identified by the single bulbil near the tip of the underside of the frond.

Anderson’s sword fern (Polystichum andersonii) looks like a frillier version of the ubiquitous western sword fern (P. munitum) because of its divided pinnae. It can further be identified by the single bulbil near the tip of the underside of the frond. This will take root and form a new plant after the frond is pressed to the ground from winter snow.

Time for us to head back as well, but when we passed the gentian cliffs again, we stopped to see if Ed could find some of the regular parsley fern he’d seen earlier. After borrowing my binoculars to search the rocks, he spotted “a strange sword fern.” I scrambled up the rocks to get a good look at. I could tell by the extra divisions in the pinnae that it was Anderson’s sword fern (Polystichum andersonii). Ed didn’t think that was recorded for Douglas County. Once we started looking, we found numerous plants, many growing half hidden under other plants all the way down to the road. Guess I didn’t have to climb up the rocks again after all! It turns out that there are no records of this species this far south, so this was an important discovery. Once again, the best find of the day turned out to be after we headed home. I guess I could have titled this post “Yet Another Exciting Day in the Calapooyas!”

 

 

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