Awesome Day at Groundhog

The area around Groundhog and Little Groundhog Mountains (really two ends of the same formation) is one of my very favorite places. I discovered it 9 years ago and have returned over 20 times. Although it is highly impacted, with many roads and a great deal of the forest logged in the recent past, this is an amazing spot for roadside botanizing and watching butterflies. When Molly Juillerat, the botanist for the Middle Fork district of the Willamette National Forest, asked me to help her lead a field trip to see plants and butterflies, I immediately suggested Groundhog Mountain as the destination.

A multitude of tadpoles filled the water beneath the bur-reed (Sparganium natans?)

Yesterday, (August 9), Molly and I headed up to Groundhog to “prehike” for Friday’s field trip. There are no trails, so we were mainly checking the road conditions and deciding which of the many great sites would be most interesting at this time of year. There are numerous wetlands, several good seeps, excellent rocky roadcut spots, and several small lakes to choose from. Our first stop was Waterdog Lake. This shallow body of water is usually drying out in August, creating mud flats along the edges where specialized plants such as Rorippa curvisiliqua and Gnaphalium palustre appear. I was surprised to see how much water was still there. The Rorippa had barely started as what mud there was had not really dried out yet. The unusual spherical flowers of Sparganium were sticking up above the water. I’m still not sure of the species as they had characteristics of both S. angustifolium and the far less common S. natans.

Young toads trying out their new legs.

The real show here was not the flowers, however. Squirming and hopping around in the mud were thousands of small frogs [correction: these are actually Western or Boreal toads (Anaxyrus boreas)], most of which still had tails. It was a primeval sight, making me feel like I was watching the first animals leaving the oceans to walk on land. In many places, the shallow water in the lake appeared black. We quickly realized this was because the water was teeming with tens of thousands of tadpoles. I’ve never seen so many in my life. There was a soft squishing sound from the movement of so many slippery amphibians. It was truly amazing to witness this extraordinary sight.

Moonworts (Botrychium spp.) are uncommon primitive non-flowering plants.

Our major plant find of the day happened almost as soon as we arrived at Waterdog Lake. Just north of the lake are some shallow depressions that hold water for a short time in the spring. This is where hooded ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) grows. I was leaning over looking for some sign of them when I spotted some odd little stems looking like a string of beads. I quickly realized these were the fruiting stems of some very small moonwort or grapefern (Botrychium sp.) but one I’d never seen before. Molly and I spent quite a while looking for the extent of the population. We counted less than 30, all in a fairly small area. As some were only an inch high, we definitely could have missed some, and those without fruiting stems would have been almost impossible to see with such tiny leaves. I’m thinking they are probably B. simplex. A little farther north of the lake, we relocated the area where I’d seen many B. multifidum, the most common species of grapefern in western Oregon. They were there, hiding under red swaths of Castilleja miniata, their fruiting stems just starting to unfurl.

Perfect butterfly habitat along Road 452

On the east side of Groundhog Mountain, Road 452 winds around to the north. This has some great roadcut rock habitat where I’ve always found the best butterfly watching to be. This is where some coyote mint (Monardella odoratissima) grows. It’s a real butterfly magnet. It was in full bloom, and there were some butterflies but not as many as I expected. It might have been the cool weather with some cloud cover that kept their numbers down. We did see parnassians, checkerspots, blues, a few fritillaries, and several Lorquin’s admirals here. There are many other plants on this stretch that are used by caterpillars as well as adults including Eriogonum spp., Anaphalis margariticea, Castilleja spp., Ceanothus velutinus, Eucephalus (Aster) ledophyllus, and Boechera retrofracta (formerly Arabis holboellii—so many name changes!).

Checkerspot caterpillars are gregarious when young. Here they are devouring a scarlet paintbrush (Castilleja miniata).

Next we walked down an old road that comes off 452 a little beyond the Monardella area. This is a remarkable example of nature taking back the land. Many creeks pour down onto and across what is left of this road and have created a spectacular wet and mossy garden in the gravel. Bog orchids, Arnica lanceolata (formerly amplexicaulis), and the rare Epilobium luteum were blooming here. Even sundews make their home here on the steep slope and in the gravel road! We found several blooming bronze bells (Anticlea occidentalis—formerly Stenanthium occidentale), a welcome addition to my list.

Our last stop was to a couple of little temporary lakes hiding in the woods a little farther up the road. The first one never seems to have any water in it when I’ve been there. It is a little higher elevation up here, and there is quite a bit of mountain heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis), so common in the High Cascades but only found in high, cool spots in the Western Cascades. There were a few flowers remaining on them as well as on some shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi). The second lake was still filled with water but only maybe 6″ deep. Here we found many clumps of quillwort (Isoetes sp.), a rare aquatic genus that might be mistaken for a graminoid. When I brought Rob Weiss up to Groundhog a couple of years ago, he pointed this out to me at Waterdog Lake. I’d never seen it before. Molly and I had tried to locate it there earlier in the day, but the water was higher, and we didn’t see it. I donated a specimen of it to the herbarium in 2008, and they identified it as Isoetes tenella. This little lake was where I’d always seen many frogs before. A number of large frogs, probably Cascade frogs, jumped into the water as we walked by. There were also many of the little ones [more Western toads], both adults and tadpoles, but in nowhere near the masses we had seen at Waterdog Lake. By the southern end of the lake, many wetland plants gone over elsewhere were still in bloom including more shooting stars, elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica), and darling white Viola macloskeyi.

Elephant head (Pedicularis groenlandica) blooming by the edge of the unnamed lake.

We headed back down the road feeling pretty satisfied with all we’d seen and confident that those who participate in our trip on Friday won’t be disappointed. But our wonderful day wasn’t over after all. I was leaning forward looking for something in my vest when Molly started stammering. I looked up when she was finally able to spit out “bear… and a cub!” I only saw the very little cub dash off down the slope below the road. Molly started to step out of the truck to see if they’d gotten down okay when I heard a sort of a bark. I turned and saw another cub stuck on the other side of the road. Molly quickly got back in the truck and pulled forward to allow the cub to follow her mom, which thankfully he/she did quite quickly. What an exciting finale to our day!

2 Responses to “Awesome Day at Groundhog”

  • Don Lown:

    Tanya…….. Your postings are just great. Thanks. Don

  • Kim McMahan:

    One of my favorite places too, also great bear country. I have also found a Sparganium with characteristics of S. angustifolium and S. natans a few years back in a small wetland much lower in elevation, closer to Oakridge and containing a lot less open water. It puzzled me, but I forgot about it until you jogged my memory. I’m not very good with aquatic/semi aquatic plants.

Leave a Reply

Post Categories
Notification of New Posts