Hunting for Plants at Hills Peak

Pine white sipping from the tiny tubular flowers of Ageratina occidentalis

Hunting season is one of my least favorite times of the year. I really resent being told it is unsafe for me to be up in the mountains. So I ignore that and go about my business, my only accommodation being that I wear brightly colored clothes. In many years of botanizing in last summer and fall, I’ve never run into a hunter actually hunting. Usually, I see them driving around, and I’ve had conversations with some who are camping or heading back to their cars. Well, there’s a first for everything.

I headed back up to Hills Peak yesterday (September 11), to check out the spots I’d missed on my two previous trips (click here to see previous posts) and to visit with the pikas one last time. Seeing a truck parked by the entrance to the pika slope, I started the day by parking just a bit farther up the road. From here, I walked through the woods to the wetland just south of Road 2153. I checked many of the numerous patches of the larger form of Mimulus primuloides to see if there were any stolons like there were on the small ones at the nearby wetlands and earlier in the week at Echo Basin (see Late Bloomers at Echo Basin & Ikenick Creek). I couldn’t find a single one. There were obvious runners in several patches of the small, hairy form on the south edge of the wetland. I don’t know what it means, but it is interesting, and I’ll keep paying attention to that feature in the future.

Wetland hidden in the woods below Hills Peak

After studying some unknown willows, I headed into the woods again, this time to look for the small lake and wetlands I’d seen from on top of Hills Peak. I was interrupted by a man who suddenly appeared behind me asking in an annoyed tone, “What are you doing here?” “Looking for plants”, I replied. Probably not the answer he was expecting. “You know it’s illegal to disrupt a hunt.” “I’m not disrupting a hunt, I’m walking through the woods.” If I’d had lots of friends and was carrying a boom box, that might have qualified for actively disrupting a hunt. Apparently dictating my field notes out loud into my digital recorder could be considered illegal to him. “There are 11 guys out here hunting.” Maybe he thought that would scare me away. I said “I hope they see I’m wearing orange and purple and look at what they are shooting at.” I explained that I was looking for aquatic plants in the ponds. Utricularia minor is a rare plant, and having seen it at the small lake to the east on my last trip here, I wanted to check for it here. “There are lots of other ponds around here, why don’t you go to one of those?” It wasn’t really a suggestion, more of a demand. I replied that I’d already surveyed those and drove all the way out here specifically to see the wetlands ahead, and suggested maybe he should go to one of the other ponds. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea to argue with someone carrying a weapon, but he didn’t seem threatening. He was just trying to bully me into leaving. After he told me he was going to be there for two weeks, I said he ought to be able to let me have one hour. I guess he finally realized I was not about to back down, and he let me be.

It is always interesting to see what pika’s are collecting for the winter. This one has some pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) flowers, and, oddly, some conifer twigs.

So off I went to check out the two wetlands farther into the woods. It was only 0.4 mile from the road to the wetlands, and it didn’t take long to find them. The first pond had no aquatics, but there was a lot of Kalmia and some sundew. Just across a small rise, the easternmost wetland was much more interesting. It had several pools I could see in low spots between ridges of huckleberries. There was a very intriguing small aquatic in one, but the deep muck kept me from getting close enough to study it, even with rubber boots. It had pairs of very small leaves on a stem that rose straight up to a small cluster of ovals that lay flat on the surface. From that distance, I don’t know if they were leaves or seed pods or what. In spite of my bravado, I really didn’t want to stay in the area too long with a bunch of hunters crawling the woods. I really just wanted to figure out how to get to the wetlands and find out if they were worth a return visit (a yes to that). With that accomplished, I headed back to the car and moved it a short way down the road to access the cliffs on the north side of Hills Peak.

Pika posing cutely next to Erigeron cascadensis

The confrontation had spoiled my enjoyment of the wetlands (guess that made us even), but now I could relax, knowing the steep talus and cliffs would have neither elk nor hunters. Just me, the pikas, and some chipmunks and ground squirrels. I spent an hour eating lunch near the same pika cache under an old stump that I watched before. I had brought an offering of some wetland plants with me and left them on nearby rocks. I saw my little friend a number of times, and he was on the move a lot, but I got a few good photos. I also watched a pika from the other side of the talus race up the slope quite a ways and come back with a large mouthful of Dicentra formosa.

Campanula rotundifolia growing on the north side of the cliff

Eventually I headed up to the cliffs along the edge, partly following some pieces of an old switchbacking road that must have been used when it was an active quarry. There were far more plants growing on the road than in the talus or nearby woods, so I was no longer as concerned about the pikas’ food source. There were thousands of Erigeron cascadensis, some still blooming, along with an Arnica that might have been diversifolia, but I’m not sure. Some Penstemon rupicola was growing in the rocks. It appeared they had bloomed, but all the stalks were nipped off. Another food the animals seemed to like fresh. Several other plants including a Mertensia and an elderberry were almost completely denuded. It really wasn’t too hard to get to the base of the towering cliffs, 300′ above the base of the talus. My best discovery of the day happened almost immediately—flowering Campanula rotundifolia! I had forgotten about that as being a possibility, focusing more on looking for Castilleja rupicola (which I did not find). That excitement wiped out any lingering negative mood from the morning’s unpleasantness. Although it is a widespread circumboreal plant, Campanula rotundifolia is not very common in Oregon, especially this far south (see OFP Atlas map). A little more careful poking around and many sweeps with the binoculars, and I spotted what I thought was Heuchera merriamii, well above my head. After laboriously taking zoom photos of those, I discovered one that had just finished blooming right next to me on my way back to the edge. I guess it was partly hidden on my way out. Most of the other plants I could see were Penstemon rupicola, and there was also some Micranthes (Saxifraga) rufidula, and lots of Selaginella scopulorum, something I’m not used to seeing growing vertically on a cliff.

The fresh Epilobium stem and Caltha and Senecio leaves I placed out on a rock have been very carefully placed on the pile by the pika. Perhaps they dry better when spread out. Or maybe this pika is just a neatnik!

When I reached the bottom again, I decided to rest my knees for a bit and spend a little more time with the pikas. I was delighted to find that the offerings I left on the rocks were gone. I took a peek into the cache under the stump, and there were the leaves of Caltha, Epilobium, and Senecio I had brought, all neatly laid out on top of the pile. I hope that made up in some small part for my intrusion into their privacy. And I hope they won’t mind when I return next year to see what else grows in their rocky world.

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