Hills Peak’s Wetlands and Wildlife

This western pond turtle wasn’t happy to be “rescued” from the dangerous road.

Another great day for wildlife began before we even got to Hills Peak on Tuesday (August 23). As we drove out Road 21 around Hills Creek Reservoir, both Sabine and I took a double-take at an object on the edge of the road. I backed up when I realized it was a western pond turtle… intent on crossing the road! Picking him up wasn’t as easy as I expected. He squirmed and scratched much the way my cat does when I want to move her somewhere she doesn’t want to go. We were right near where Stony Creek meets the lake, so we brought him down to the water’s edge where he headed straight into the water. Hopefully if he gets the urge to go to the lake again, he can find a way under the road. I’ve never seen a pond turtle out that way, so it was great to see him, especially still alive and not squished on the road. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has posted a Western Pond Turtle fact sheet if you’re interested in learning more about these uncommon turtles in Oregon.

Could there be anything more adorable than a pika?!

Cascade fleabane (Erigeron cascadensis) is a lovely endemic found only in the Oregon Cascades from Marion County south.

We began with a short walk around the westernmost small lake and bog near Hills Peak. Unlike my trip there in late August last year (see Pikas, and a Coyote, and Monkeyflowers, Oh My!), there was no sign of the pretty blue flowers of Gentianopsis simplex. I looked carefully where I’d seen it before and could not even find a sign of the little plants with their pairs of sessile leaves. No sign of Spiranthes stellata either. This is another uncommon plant I found in several places in this area on my visits here last year. It sure seemed like late summer, but there are still many plants yet to flower. We spent lunch at the pika slope on the north side of Hills Peak. Thankfully, the darling pikas didn’t take too long to appear. One of them wasn’t too nervous and came up to within 7 or 8 feet of me. Unfortunately, the light was coming from behind him, but I was still thrilled to be able to photograph this little guy. The Erigeron cascadensis is abundant on their slope—one of the few things that is—and it was at peak bloom. Unlike last year, I didn’t see that they had touched a single flower. The pleasure of hanging out with my favorite wild animals was severely dampened by the piles of trash left near the rocks where someone had camped in this old quarry. They “kindly” left an empty grocery bag, so I was able to clean up some of their mess. I’ll have to remember to bring a large garbage bag next time I’m up here because I hate to think of the pikas having to look at that every day.

There was an explosion of pine whites everywhere we went. I think these were the first I’d seen this year. They were nectaring on a large variety of flowers and also fluttering around the tops of white and lodgepole pines, both abundant in the area.

I spent a little time poking around the large wetland northeast of the peak while Sabine got a little shuteye in the van. Neither of us was terribly energetic, so it is great that there is so much to see here fairly close to the road. I couldn’t find the pyrolas I thought I remembered here. I should have reread last year’s blog entry—then I would have realized they were near the first lake we’d already been to, not here! Each wetland has a slightly different mix of plants even though they are all within a mile or so. This one was filled with white bog orchids (Platanthera dilatata), noticeably absent from the first spot. There were many spruces (Picea englemannii) also missing from the small lake. Next to some of the spruces were some low-growing yews (Taxus brevifolia). I know this is a variable species, growing both as a tree in damp forests and along creeks and as a shrub on exposed rocky ridges. But I can’t remember ever seeing them growing like this in the open in a wet meadow. I also found some fading broad-lip twayblade (Listera convallarioides), a welcome addition to my Hills Peak plant list. This little orchid is less common than its close relatives, and I only find it growing where there is a lot of water. There were lots of blooming Mimulus primuloides, both large- and small-formed. That was one of my focuses last year. The mosquitoes were especially annoying here, so I didn’t hang out as long as I had in the past (when there were no bugs at all—how miserable they are in the Calapooyas this year!).

This wetland has many sphagnum-covered hummocks that support a good population of sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) and Kalmia microphylla.

The wide head of this salamander larva might indicate that it is a northwestern salamander, but I’m no expert on amphibians.

Our last stop was the large but shallow lake to the east of the peak. This was quite interesting when I checked it out last year, but, as always, I didn’t have enough time to explore it all carefully. We drove over to spur Road 016 off of 2154 and walked the easy half mile down the old road. There is a good mix of conifers coming in here, most of which were easy to see in their entirety, making it easy for me to study and photograph them. There were lots of Castilleja suksdorfii in bloom near a small wetland on the way to the lake, and, as everywhere else we’d seen, loads of Senecio triangularis, probably the favorite nectar plant for the hundreds of pine whites flying all around us. At the lake, I was thrilled to see the sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) were actually blooming. It seems hard to catch the flowers actually open. I relocated the rare lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor) in one of the side channels and remembered this time to GPS the spot, so I wouldn’t forget where it was as the Forest Service keeps track of this listed species. There were large larval salamanders here as well as at the first lake we visited. Then, while I was busy taking photographs, we heard some loud stomping. It must have been an elk. We never saw him, but we found his hoofprints in the mud. Since the mosquitoes were not bothering us here, we circumnavigated the lake. There were a number of fading blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium idahoense), some ratty looking Arnica mollis, and a number of Viola adunca, possibly reblooming or just very late. As we headed away from the lake back to the old road, I was able to relocate another interesting plant from last year, an aster I don’t recognize. It looks to me like a Symphyotrichum, but the leaves are very narrow, and it doesn’t match anything in the flora. The butterflies didn’t care about its name, though. They were just happy it seemed to be providing much delicious nectar. Sometimes I need to just follow their lead and not worry about pinning a name on them.

This aster was forming large mats around the edges of a large dried out vernal pool. If anyone recognizes it, I’m stumped.




4 Responses to “Hills Peak’s Wetlands and Wildlife”

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, could there be anything more adorable than a Pika? Hmm, let me see…..

    I’m thinking.

    Still thinking.

    How about two Pikas? :)

    That salamander is cool too, and the turtle is a beauty. I’ve never seen a Western Pond Turtle. I’m glad you moved it off of the road. I’ve moved some Painted Turtles off of roads in my time. Did that turtle pee when you picked it up? All of the Painted Turtles I’ve picked up did.

    Pine Whites are scarce in the woods that I usually explore. I saw one the other day and it won’t surprise me if it’s the only one I see this year. Have you seen any females lately?

    Maybe that aster is an unknown/un-named species?


  • Hi Kris,

    Yes two pikas or three or…

    Good point about the pine whites. None of the ones I noticed or photographed had the darker undersides of a female. Do they appear later? Lots of time for those unruly males to get out of hand without the calming influence of the ladies. Or maybe that’s when they really get out of hand!

    Dr. Ken Chambers told me the aster is most likely an odd form of western mountain aster (Symphyotrichum spathulatum). The flower looks right, it is the leaves that are really odd.

  • Kris:

    Hi Tanya, those “unruly males” are a lot like men in a bar, just waiting for a female to come by so that they can all chase after her. ;)

    Calming influence of the ladies? That’s debatable. LOL

    Seriously though, I don’t have enough experience with Pine Whites to know where the females are but I think I read once that they’re likely to be hanging out up in the trees and only drop down to either eat or mate. I just saw a report on NWLeps that says Pine Whites are super abundant in some areas right now. I’ll send you a copy of it.

    It looks like you found an oddball aster. Nature is full of surprises. :)


  • Jeffrey Caldwell:

    Appreciated the note (and photograph!) about Pine Whites being especially drawn to Senecio triangularis. It was another butterfly species record for the plant in my compilation!

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