Very Early Visit to Monarch Meadow

A view of Dome Rock from the top of Monarch Meadow

With the continued spring-like weather, Sabine Dutoit and I wanted to head out to Road 21 and Hills Creek Reservoir for our annual ritual to see the gold stars (Crocidium multicaule) in bloom. Seeing the first show of floral color really starts the year off right. The fact that it is so much earlier than usual worries me, but for now, I’m trying to just enjoy being able to start botanizing in February. They were much farther along than last week when John Koenig and I stopped to check, but they still have a long way to go before they are at peak bloom. Hopefully, we’ll get some rain soon to keep them going.

The leaves of rein orchid (Platanthera [formerly Piperia] spp.) come up very early in spite of their late flowering. I saw 3 different species in the forest last summer, so at this stage, I don’t know which species this is.

Usually, we make numerous stops along 21 to see the earliest blooms, but I wanted to get started monitoring Monarch Meadow, so we went straight there. I plan to go there at least once a month, if I can, so I can really track the whole blooming season this year. It’s such an interesting spot, and it’s relatively easy to get to (no gravel roads!), so it should be possible for me to get there frequently enough to not miss any species. We parked as usual in the pull-off along 21 between Campers Flat and Big Pine Opening. I wanted to see if there’s an easier route to the meadow, so we headed off to the left until the road bank was low enough to reach the woods with only a few steps. We headed up through the woods and reached the meadow just where I expected. I had flagged a few spots on the way up to try to follow the same route back down. I want to make it easy for others to find the meadow for butterfly surveys later in the season. To jump ahead to our trip back, I couldn’t find any of my flagging, and we somehow went down a more difficult route, neither of us could recognize exactly how we’d come before. I can only guess that the different light in the afternoon made everything look unfamiliar. Luckily you can’t actually get lost as anywhere downhill will get you to the road, but it still appears I need to do a better job of flagging next time.

There are scattered old growth trees in the woods around the meadow. Sabine’s demonstrating that this one is over 5′ wide. It had signs that it had survived a fire, which might explain why most of the trees were much younger.

We wandered about the meadow, looking for early blooms and seedlings of later annuals. As I had expected, we found quite a bit of meadow nemophila (Nemophila pedunculata) in bloom. It likes seeps, and there were plenty of moist spots, although overall the meadow was nowhere near as damp as you’d expect in February. Lots of seedlings were coming up, including rosy plectritis (Plectritis congesta) and monkeyflowers (Erythranthe spp.), some yampah (Perideridia sp.) was emerging, and there were lots of lomatiums (Lomatium hallii and L. utriculatum), both of which emerge with fall rains. While little else was in bloom yet, we were able to add a few species to the plant list. We spotted some of the remains of the abundant purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia), but I don’t expect the new foliage to emerge for quite some time.

We headed into the woods above the meadow to do some exploring. I’d found a small damp opening up there last summer I wanted to recheck. From there Sabine suggested we look off to the west side of the ridge. The sun was illuminating another small opening I hadn’t seen last year. It appeared to have some rock outcrop. Sabine wasn’t up to going down the steep slope, so she waited in the woods while I explored this intriguing spot. It had several oaks and madrones. The outcrop was quite mossy, and at the bottom of it was a really neat pillar rock, maybe 20–30′ tall. The slope on the south side of it was quite damp.

My binoculars rolled all the way down this steep, mossy slope from the trees above this photo to the base of the cool pillar rock.

I pulled out my binoculars to get a look at what plants were growing in the moss. I placed my binoculars on top of my camera bag around my waist while I broke a dead branch out of my way. A momentary warning signal went off in my brain that this was not a bright idea, but it was too late. My binoculars hit the ground and went rolling down the steep slope. They kept rolling and rolling—right out of view—while I shrieked. Poor Sabine, she was out of sight of all of this above me at the top of the wooded ridge. She thought I was falling. I managed to scream up to her that I was fine and it was just my binoculars. I hadn’t planned to go very far down the slope since she was waiting, but I had to try to find my binoculars. While the slope was quite steep, there were lots of stable rocky footholds, so it was much easier to traverse than I expected. And thankfully, my binoculars were stopped from what could have been a much farther descent by a small level spot, having gone about 50′ downhill. Miraculously, the moss must have protected them because they appear unscathed. While climbing back up the slope, I was at least able to get a much closer look at the rock and the plants, and with the wealth of California mistmaiden (Romanzoffia californica), larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), and rosy plectritis leaves, it should be quite stunning this spring. Some gold stars had already begun to flower. Next time I’ll plan to revisit this rocky spot and spend more time looking around—but I’ll make sure everything is safely zipped up before I do!

At the end of the day, we made a quick stop at Campers Flat. I saw my first 2 butterflies of the year in the opening across the road. While I was photographing the green comma (left), the mourning cloak landed nearby.

3 Responses to “Very Early Visit to Monarch Meadow”

  • Leigh Blake:

    Wonderful hike!! This looks so much like our property in Trail…and WOW!! the Synthyris are going crazy this year!!! Butterflies everywhere…watching for emerging trillium…I know it’s too early…

    Thank you!!! Glad you got your binoculars back!!! Happy hiking!!

  • Blanche Douma:

    So glad for your updates, Tanya. I did some exploring in that area last Fall and hope to see the Heart-Leaved Milkweed at one of the meadows this year – some butterflies would be icing on the cake. Many thanks for your work, as well as informative and fascinating articles. :)

  • Hi Tanya,

    I’m really enjoying your adventures. Last fall, I was able to buy 3 Asclepias cordifolia plants from Scott at Seven Oaks Nursery in Corvallis. I live on a hill (about 450 feet) in North Albany and although I’m already growing several Asclepias species in my small garden, I was really psyched to get the purple milkweed after seeing your photos last year. I’ll let you know if I see any monarchs this summer. Fingers crossed. Keep exploring and writing!

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