A Week of Monarchs and Milkweed: Day 3

A variable checkerspot straddling the individual small flowers of spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) to sip the sweet nectar. Milkweed species were recently moved into the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. They both share the trait of milky sap in their stems and are both beloved by butterflies as well as other insects.

For the second day of our camping trip, Nancy and I went up to Twin Lakes and what I call the BVD Meadow, both accessed from the same parking spot at the end of Twin Lakes Road 4770. I’d never seen (or felt) the road in such poor condition with many miles of washboard and areas starting to wash out a bit. My van survived without flatting another tire, but on returning to the campground, I discovered I’d lost a hubcap. The flowers were good, though farther along than I expected at the meadow, and we went for a nice swim at Twin Lakes, but both places were buggier than I ever remember. So far, it has been a particularly bad year for mosquitoes in the Western Cascades.

Nancy at the BVD Meadow enjoying the view southeast toward the Rogue-Umpqua Divide. Late flowering buckwheats (Eriogonum compositum and C. umbellatum) provided the main color. 

To get to the point, for our third and last day, Friday, June 30, I really didn’t feel like driving many miles of gravel road and walking through long areas of buggy forest, so I nixed our plan to go to Hemlock Lake. What I really wanted was a relaxing day and to go back and look at butterflies. Thankfully Nancy was fine with not going somewhere new. After hanging out watching birds on the river at the campground (dippers, spotted sandpipers, and a whole family of common mergansers!), we headed back to Medicine Creek Road. On Wednesday, we had located Road 400, a smaller road that led to a large meadow east of Medicine Creek Road. Nancy was a real trooper and, despite the heat, walked down the 1.25 miles of road with me to reach the meadow, enjoying all the butterflies we saw, especially in a seepy area along the road. After lunch in the shade, however, she headed back up the road at her own slower pace.

Sticky birdbeak is an odd-looking, rather airy plant. The diminutive flowers weren’t out yet here, but you’d barely notice anything different if they were!

I started out exploring the narrow strip of open area above the much larger lower meadow. While most everything was dried out, and there did not seem to be any milkweed, I did spot several interesting species. Ground rose (Rosa spithamea) is a very low-growing rose that is a shy bloomer in the shade and easily overlooked because of its low stature. It is found in southwestern Oregon as far north as southeastern Lane County down through much of California. It is recognizable when in flower by its hips and sepals, which are covered with pink glands. Up our way, it has very few prickles. About the only place I see it is in southeastern Lane County, but I have been spotting it more in Douglas County. There were also patches of the silver-leaved field pussytoes (Antennaria howellii). Coincidentally (or not!), I had just seen it the day before at the BVD Meadow, the first place I’d ever seen this species, and at the complex of milkweed meadows I was at on Monday. That’s three of only four sites I’ve ever seen it at. The third species I spotted that I rarely see is sticky birdbeak (Cordylanthus tenuis), a very late-blooming, tiny-flowered relative of the much showier paintbrushes (Castilleja spp.). This plant is found mainly in the Siskiyou area with just a few records in Douglas County, including one on Medicine Creek Road, but there is a lot of it in southeastern Lane County in the area near the Lane County purple milkweed sites.

From what I’m calling Medicine Creek Meadow, for lack of a better name, I could see south to Twin Lakes Mountain, the highest bump on the far ridge, where we’d been the day before.

While looking at the plants in this area, I did see several butterflies go by, including a California tortoiseshell and one that was a much brighter and redder orange, but it disappeared downhill and out of sight so quickly, I just couldn’t be sure it was a monarch. Along the base of this south-facing meadow area, there was a wall of rock. It didn’t look like climbing down to the lower meadow was an option, so I headed west along the ridge until it sloped down and joined the lower meadow. Still no sign of milkweed, but there was a great view south across the valley and over to Twin Lakes Mountain. The day before I had seen this very meadow from the Twin Lakes trail, one of the reasons I had been anxious to check it out. I still hadn’t eaten my lunch, so I went east across the meadow a short ways to sit in the shade of a ponderosa pine. I passed another unusual plant, one I’d seen at Monarch Meadow and had finally identified as western rayless fleabane (Erigeron inornatus). This is certainly not a showy plant with small, rayless yellow flowers and very narrow, linear leaves, and was not even in bloom yet, but its still very green foliage was quite conspicuous among the otherwise mostly dried out vegetation.

After visiting the first few purple milkweed sites, I had a theory that maybe it didn’t like really steep slopes. These ones growing on “Medicine Creek Meadow” disproved that!

The meadow is quite steep, and I didn’t have time to explore it, so I took out the binoculars. Scanning the lower reaches of the meadow, I spotted what I was looking for—purple milkweed! Its plants are so much taller than the majority of those in the meadow that they can be seen at quite a distance. No way was I going all the way down that steep hill, especially with Nancy waiting for me, so I was relieved to find the population spread up the middle of the meadow most of the way to the top. It was slow-going, but I managed to make my way over to the topmost plants without slipping on the steep slope. I was only able to look carefully at the few plants within reach, but I was rewarded with signs that the monarchs had visited this meadow as well: an egg, a tiny caterpillar, and a single monarch wing lying on the ground.

A very sad sight but certainly definitive evidence that a monarch had been in the Medicine Creek Meadow

Figuring that was all the proof I needed, I headed back up the road to rejoin Nancy. Then we spent a bit more time along Medicine Creek Road watching butterflies and adding to the plant list. We saw a monarch nectaring on the last of the milkweed flowers, and, as on Wednesday, enjoying the mountain thistle (Cirsium remotifolium). I don’t know why it didn’t find the rarer cobwebby thistle (C. occidentale) as delicious. I eventually felt ready to tear myself away from this wonderful spot, but I will surely be back next year to explore the area much further.

One Response to “A Week of Monarchs and Milkweed: Day 3”

  • Leigh Blake:

    Thanks for the great update!!! We are not seeing any Monarchs here in Trail, so far. I’m growing a couple of species of asclepiads (A. tuberosa, and a. fascicularis) here..hoping..

    It’s getting warmer..we’re working as fast as we can towards finishing a “new” alpine garden, with running stream and ponds..

    I’m really enjoying your blog!!

    Thanks!!

    Leigh Blake Trail Oregon

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