A Sea of Blue at Maple Creek Meadow

This photo of the view east was taken from about the same spot as the ones I used in my previous two reports about Maple Creek Meadow—why break tradition? The little opening on the nearest ridge is Rabbitbrush Ridge where I went the previous week (see More Exploration Near Grassy Glade) and which also has purple milkweed, rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), northern buckwheat, and bluefield gilia, all seen here.

With the forecast predicting warm summer weather on the way, I figured it might be my last chance to get out to see the peak bloom of purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) at lower elevation meadows without roasting. I had been wanting to return to what I named “Maple Creek Meadow” as I’d only been there twice before: first on a hot day in July (see Another New Milkweed and Monarch Site!) when most things were finished and the following year on a cloudy day in May (see Surveying Milkweed at “Maple Creek Meadow”) when many plants were just starting. So I was due for a sunny but cool day in the middle of the season and headed out to the Rigdon area of southeastern Lane County on June 17.

Two caterpillars eating flower stalks of rose checkermallow. Apparently, their color depends partly on what they are eating. I think both are gray hairstreaks (but correct me if you think otherwise!).

When the pods of lupines dry up, they usually twist, helping to vault the seeds away from the plant. After quite a bit of recent rain, a lot of the pods were still moist and opening without much of a twist, and many seeds weren’t even dropping out of the pods.

Since the clouds still hadn’t broken much when I arrived at Hills Creek Reservoir, I headed again to the east side of the dam to see if I could get a few more silvery lupine (Lupinus albifrons) seeds. While there, I was checking to see if any of the rose checkermallow (Sidalcea malviflora ssp. virgata) seeds were ripe yet. I was excited to spot a little pink caterpillar on the flower stalk! I searched my brain for what species of butterfly it might be. The slug-like shape meant it was definitely one of the gossamer wings (blues, coppers, and hairstreaks), but who eats Sidalcea? I decided it was most likely a gray hairstreak (Strymon melinus), and later checking my copy of Life Histories of Cascadia Butterflies (a must-have book if you are interested in butterflies), I believe that is indeed the most likely species. They eat a wide variety of different plants (that’s called being polyphagous) including those in Malvaceae; most other lycaenids tend to be pickier. After walking around some more, I discovered another pink one and also a green one. All of them were up on the flower stalks, even though there weren’t many flowers left. Eating flowers is also a well-documented characteristic of gray hairstreaks. So while the sun wasn’t out yet, my day was off to a great start.

The biggest milkweeds seemed to be along the lower edge of the meadow. The gilia were also especially dense in that area. Maybe it was the masses of gilia that were distracting the pollinators, but I only saw a couple of insects on the milkweed all day.

This dotted blue stopped on the budding head of naked buckwheat. It’s one of their host food plants as well as a good nectar plant.

By the time I drove the 2.5 miles up Coal Creek Road 2133 and parked at the bermed off Road 217, the sun had started to come out, and the rest of the day was clear and sunny but cool as I’d hoped. Upon arriving at the meadow, I was greeted with the beautiful sight of thousands of bluefield gilia (Gilia capitata). There still weren’t tons of butterflies, but the dozen or two that I saw were making the most of this pollinator favorite. The northern and naked buckwheats (Eriogonum compositum and E. nudum) were coming into bloom, both with unusually bright pink buds, although the flowers still opened up more or less white. Perhaps they were trying to compete with the purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia), which was about at peak with a few still in bud and some others starting to form their gorgeous purple pods. I spent several very pleasant hours poking about the area, adding new plant species to my list, relocating old ones, collecting a few seeds, and watching butterflies and bees.

I found it quite amusing watching this large pale swallowtail nectaring on Gilia. Each time it landed on a new flower head, its weight caused the inflorescence to bob down, forcing the butterfly to climb up higher on the flower. Drinking from the sturdier buckwheats would have been easier, but I guess they weren’t as tasty.

Nothing exciting happened except that I could have sworn I saw a monarch whiz by me after leaving a patch of milkweed. But it is unlikely as very few have made it to Oregon yet, and the wintering population was still frighteningly low, even if it didn’t drop any further. I only saw it for an instant, and I probably would have seen it again in the meadow had it really been there. Wishful thinking I guess. But there’s always the chance….

With backlighting, the flowers of purple milkweed are the color of grape juice—quite stunning!

2 Responses to “A Sea of Blue at Maple Creek Meadow”

  • I definitely recognize the hairstreak caterpillars. Last summer there was one nectaring on our African basil. I didn’t recognize it at first, but Google did! Each day I went out to check on him/her until she was no more. We have a lot of birds but I’d like to think it found a cozy spot to make its chrysalis. The milkweed flower photo is beautiful.

  • Val Rogers:

    Your beautiful posts make me so nostalgic for the Rigdon district (now part of Middle Fork district). I spent 4 happy years cruising all over the place, mostly in riparian areas. Also spent one wonderful summer at mostly higher elevation on a native seed-collecting contract. Hope to get back there for some camping soon.

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