A Minor Thrill at Hills Peak

On Thursday (August 23), John Koenig and I spent a lovely day in the area by Hills Peak. I had been looking forward to showing John one of my favorite areas in the Calapooyas, a part of the Western Cascades that is special to him as well. He “adopted” the Dome Rock wilderness area for Oregon Wild (then ONRC) back in the late ’90s when they were trying to assess all the small unprotected wilderness areas in the state. The day was absolutely gorgeous with none of the heat of the previous week or so and no sign of smoke from any of the small fires in the area.

The shallow lake has many pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) and is surrounded by bog-loving sedges.

We started out the day by walking down the old road to the shallow lake to the east of Hills Peak. I didn’t have time to check it out on my earlier trip this year (see Hills Creek to Hills Peak). Although the majority of flowers were finished, there was still plenty to see. Poking around a small wet meadow beside this old road, we found dozens of one-flowered gentians (Gentianopsis simplex), including a few plants whose petals were twice the normal length. There were also a great many starry ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes stellata). I’ve seen these both here before, but one of these days I’ll come back earlier enough to see what must be a lovely display of mountain shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi).

Mud sedge (Carex limosa) has drooping female flower heads and a male spike above.

We cut through what was clearly a forest once but was mostly open now with stumps, small trees, and numerous fruiting grouseberry (Vaccinium scoparium). This is a common understory shrub in the High Cascades, just a stone’s throw away from here. While most had the typical bright red berries, we noticed some were a darker purple. I’d seen this once before and wondered if that was unusual or not. When we arrived at the edge of the lake, we noticed the pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) were finished, as were the pond weeds (Potamogeton epihydrus). Later we discovered some much fresher leaves of what looked like the other common pondweed (P. natans) in the drying east edge of the lake. There were many sedges and other graminoids in the wetland and lake, and John knows so much more about these than I do that I had to take advantage of his expertise. Of the few sedges I know, one of my favorites is mud sedge (Carex limosa). It loves this kind of habitat and was growing all around the wet edges of the lake. Another interesting one here is brown bog sedge (Carex buxbaumii). It has glaucous leaves and inflorescenses with pale perigynia. It is not very common, limited to boggy areas like this near the crest of the Cascades.

The unusual flowers of lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor) are flatter than the other species. It’s quite surprising to see a flower like this attached to the tiny underwater stems of this odd plant.

Another uncommon bog plant is the smallest of our bladderworts (Utricularia minor). Bladderworts are carnivorous aquatic species that get their nourishment from microscopic creatures they collect in small bladders. I had found this species here before as well as at several other bogs in the Western Cascades. While we were looking at them, I told John how frustrated I was that I’d never seen it in bloom. Recently, I’d been in e-mail contact with Barry Rice, whose website Sarracenia.com has lots of great photos of carnivorous plants, including bladderworts, from all over. He showed me photos of the little flowers, so I had a search image in my head. We looked at them in one side channel of water, then in another. Then, unexpectedly, there they were! Once I spotted the first flower, they appeared as if by magic all through this shallow pool of water. We went back to the first spot, and there were lots of them in there as well. The search image was like some potion that allowed us to see what was invisible to us before. What a thrill! At least for a botanist. We couldn’t help chuckling about how little this would excite 99.9% of the population.

Lesser bladderwort (Utricularia minor) grows in shallow water in the bog and on the edges of the lake. Here it is growing under Carex buxbaumii. The cute frog on the left was quite small. The strange well-branched stems in the water are those of the bladderwort. The tiny dark spots are the bladders. Be sure to click on the photo to see a larger version.

The flowers are very small, much smaller than the other species I’d seen (minor indeed!). They are about 1/4″ long and only 1/8″ wide. No wonder they were so hard to spot. It made me wonder if other populations I’d visited had been in bloom, but I was just too blind to spot them. As Barry had said, they are somewhat transparent, appearing rather pale yellow. The other species I’ve seen (U. intermedia and macrorhiza) have very bright yellow flowers, reminiscent of a monkeyflower (Mimulus sp.). The red stems stick up out of the water above the delicate bladder-covered stems. These must have a number of flowers on a stem, but most of them had finished.

The small lake west of Hills Peak

After taking a look at the smaller west lake and bog where we saw many of the same plants (no bladderworts in the water, but there some interesting Ranunculus aquatilis blooming below the surface), we headed over to the talus slope at the base of the north side of Hills Peak itself. We climbed up the side of the slope on what was most likely the remains of a road used when this was quarried. Now it was covered with plants. More Cascade fleabane (Erigeron cascadensis) grows here than anywhere I’ve ever been. While most were in seed, closer to the cliff base was a section that must have melted out last. Here they were in bloom along with a large population of some kind of Arnica. I had decided they might be A.diversifolia some time ago, but I am never sure with arnicas. John took a piece home to ID, saying it ought to be easy to figure out—I laughed. After working on it at home, I think he now sees how difficult this genus is. Some species may have formed from hybrids and are quite variable. We also saw some blooming Scotch harebell (Campanula rotundifolia). This was a plant I wanted to look at on the cliff, but seeing plants lower down absolved me from any guilt about being too tired to climb the rest of the way up the rocky slope.

A young golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) picks ripe red elderberries (Sambucus racemosa).

A yawning pika shows his front teeth.

And what we really came here to see were the pikas. We heard some under the rocks, but it wasn’t until after we settled down near the base of the talus that one brave soul came up to check us out. He went under a couple of times, but eventually he stayed out in the open and let me get fairly close. He was even relaxed enough to clean, scratch himself, and yawn before disappearing. He (or she?) was not the only wildlife out and about. For hours we had been hearing and seeing an unidentified hawk above us. Now we saw and heard two flying right in front of the cliff, one clearly a redtailed hawk. John eventually realized the other must be a juvenile. With the large cliff on this north end of the mountain, we thought it might be a good place for peregrines to nest. While watching the pika, we also had the pleasure of watching an adorable young golden-mantled ground squirrel picking off red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) fruit not too far away. And the oddest sound was coming apparently from under the rocks—the squawking of a frog! Could he have been the pet of a pika?!

Pikas don’t hibernate, so they have to collect enough food for the long winter, which they dry out during the summer.

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