A Grand Day Exploring Bristow Prairie’s Varied Habitats

On Friday, June 28, John Koenig, Gail Baker, Clay Gautier, and I went up to into the Calapooya Mountains to explore Bristow Prairie. It was a great day with all kinds of interesting discoveries. We had to stop a number of times on the road on the way up. Our first was at a large sweep of beautiful Geranium oreganum alive with butterflies—to be honest, the butterflies were more interested in the weedy daisies, but at least the numerous bees appreciated the natives. We also checked out Jim’s Oak Patch, but the uncommon species that came in after the prescribed burn seem to have disappeared, at least until the next fire. I also had to share with my friends the awesome Mosaic Rock. We decided not to climb up to the base since we would need the time at our main destination, but with binoculars I could see some of the Heuchera merriamii was in full bloom. Oh well, you can’t do everything.

The late afternoon signs illuminates the cliffs of Staley Ridge to the east and Diamond Peak beyond.

The late afternoon sun illuminates the cliffs of Staley Ridge to the east and Diamond Peak beyond.

As we drove along the ridge on Road 5850, my companions spotted what I had looked for but missed on all my previous trips: the trailhead for the north end of the official trail. I’m so glad it really exists and will have to check it out sometime. But it is still much closer to what I find most interesting to start from the middle where the meadows reach the road. Right away, we saw many of the wonderful tiny annuals I wrote about last year (see Lure of the Little). We were going to stop in the first shade to eat lunch as soon as possible, but with all the pretty flowers in the meadow, it took quite a while. Among the many things in bloom in this area of meadow was Delphinium menziesii, Hackelia micrantha, Polemonium carneum, Valeriana sitchensis, and lots of Calochortus. As we continued on toward my first destination, the south-facing bald on the Lane County side, there were fewer plants in bloom, but there were a number of Lilium columbianum in bud and lots of false hellebore (all three of our species of Veratrum can be seen here, but damned if I know how to distinguish them out of bloom).

John, Clay, and Gail on the floriferous, steep, rocky bald.

John, Clay, and Gail on the floriferous, steep, rocky bald.

Eriogonum compositum

A very unusual, pink-flowered Eriogonum compositum

The rocky bald was in its prime. The soil was still moist from the recent rains, and all the annuals looked really fresh. Many of these tiny beauties are uncommon and were new to my companions, including candelabrum monkeyflower (Mimulus pulsiferae), mountain blue curls (Trichostemma oblongum), and whisker brush (Leptosiphon [Linanthus] ciliatus). There were also many beautiful perennials. The buckwheats were picture perfect, both sulphur (Eriogonum umbellatum) and northern buckwheat (E. compositum). Gail found a unusual and very attractive pink-flowered one. I’ve seen them looking pinkish in bud, and many turn reddish as they fade, but these were quite fresh. There were many pretty hotrock penstemons (Penstemon deustus) that were more compact than I’m used to. Many farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) were in bloom, but they were so much smaller than those on Tire Mountain and elsewhere in the county that there was some question as to their species until we looked carefully at their upright, glabrous buds.

Calochortus elegans

Calochortus elegans has very small flowers, so this is most likely at least a hybrid of it.

There are lots of odd things happening in this area, perhaps because this is the transition zone between the California and Northern Floristic Zones, but oddest of these is the variation in the cat’s ears. Elegant cat’s ear (Calochortus elegans) is a very small-flowered species common in Douglas County but not recorded for Lane County and rarely farther north, west of the Cascade Crest. From Lane County north, mountain cat’s ear (C. subalpinus) is the common species, but it peters out around here with very few records in Douglas County. Tolmie’s cat’s ear (C. tolmiei) is found in both directions, but it tends to be at lower elevations. I have studied this population before, and I’m no expert, but I would call it a hybrid swarm. The flowers cover the gamut of the three species, from small thumbnail-sized blossoms to ones twice the size. There are ones with purple markings, yellow markings, even reddish ones, and some are solid white. Some have strongly pointed petals, while others are much more rounded. The amount of fringe and hairs also varies greatly. The trouble is that the individual flowers seem to have characteristics of more than one species at a time. I looked carefully at several, and the nectaries seem to resemble those of C. elegans, so along with the small size of many, I’m pretty sure that we at least have some genes of C. elegans in Lane County, even if we can’t say for sure if there are any pure ones. Whatever is going on here, it is really fun to see so many variations. And there seemed to be thousands of them in bloom in both the bald and drier parts of the meadows. I’ve posted more photos of them at Unusual Variability of Cat’s Ears at Bristow Prairie.

From the bald, we headed down the main meadow past some unexpected patches of wetland flowers. Then came a short bushwhack into the woods to find the hidden lakes. Thankfully, we found them with no problem. I’m calling them North and South Secret Lakes for the obvious reason that you can’t see them from anywhere. We had a fun time exploring them, mainly the south one on the Douglas County side of the county line, which coincidentally appears to run between them. John and I ended up bushwhacking through a brushy area of willows and blooming creek dogwood (Cornus sericea) at the far end of the lake. There was some shrubless wetland on the far side that was filled with gorgeous tall bluebells (Mertensia paniculata). Elk had made a maze of paths through here, leading to a small creek.

South Secret Lake

There were some blooming pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) in South Secret Lake. The smaller leaves are arumleaf arrowhead (Sagitarria cuneata). These will bloom later.

We decided to leave our boots on for the short trek up to the meadow and through a brief boundary of forest around the main lake. The north side we popped out on was very wet, and there was no getting near some pretty cottongrass, so we headed to the other side where there were lots of elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica). On the way, we passed a small patch of sundews (Drosera rotundifolia) that I had never noticed before. Heading back up from the lake, I spotted a much more unusual addition to the list, a very small annual called false-mermaid (Floerkea prosperinacoides) that I’d only seen a few times before, much farther south. It seemed awfully close to the county line, so, since it would be a new county record, I double-checked the maps, but I believe it is just over on the Douglas County side—darn! It was getting quite late, so I did not spend any time trying to find it farther north in the meadow. That will have to wait for another trip.

Some of these tiny grapeferns were under an inch tall.

Some of these tiny grapeferns were under an inch tall. The fertile part is what looks like a cluster of grapes. The small pinnate leaves are near the base of the plant.

With all the cool things we’d seen, we thought we had done pretty well and were ready to head home when we reached the car. It was much later than any of us had realized. But the excitement was not over yet. While snacking and milling around the car, I went to check out the damp ditch on the other side of the road. I noticed some of the little orange-yellow blossoms of bog St. John’s wort (Hypericum anagalloides). Clay had asked about it earlier in the day when we saw the little leaves creeping about the wetland, so I called him over to see the flowers. While bending down to show him, I spotted some very tiny clusters of yellow-green balls, rather grape-like—a grapefern or moonwort (Botrychium)! It was least moonwort (B. simplex), the same species that grows at Waterdog Lake (see Awesome Day at Groundhog). This is only the second place I’ve ever seen it. I was thrilled, to say the least. Late though it was, we couldn’t just leave without looking at these more carefully. We counted several dozen, but there could well have been more. They seemed to disappear as soon as I stood up. I also marked what appeared to be the ends of the narrow strip they were growing in, so Molly Juillerat, the Forest Service botanist, could find them.

This Pacific chorus frog seemed out of place on the hot, rocky slope.

This Pacific chorus frog seemed out of place on the hot, rocky slope.

So it really was a grand day of botanizing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we also saw a great variety of interesting small wildlife. There were lots of butterflies out, including clodius parnassians; meadow fritillaries and a pair of greater fritillaries (possibly hydaspe); checkerspots, greenish blues near the lake where two probable host plants, Howell’s clover (Trifolium howellii) and long-stalked clover (Trifolium longipes) were abundant; Sara orangetips; a duskywing; anglewings; and on our drive up we saw Lorquin’s admirals, swallowtails, and a California sister. We also saw several different species of day-flying moths. Other insects abounded, including hoardes of small grasshoppers loudly munching on the meadow plants, lots of bees, pretty damselflies at the lakes, and thankfully mostly just later in the day, there were mosquitoes and deer flies. The most amazing insects were the phantom craneflies Clay and Gail found while John and I were exploring the brushy thickets at the outlet of South Secret Lake. These bizarre black and white insects seem to float upright among the sedges. I posted a photo the first time I saw one in Wonderful Wildlife and More at Warfield Bog. John and Clay were paying more attention to the birds than I was, but we were all very pleased to see and hear a lovely blue lazuli bunting singing from the top of an elderberry. Several types of amphibians were also out and about. The rough-skinned newts were where you’d expect them, floating about in the Secret Lakes; there was a Cascades frog in the woods but not too far from those lakes, where there were also large tadpoles, probably of the same species. But the surprising one was a bright green Pacific chorus frog out on the hot, rocky slope of the bald, in full sun. He wasn’t that far from a small draw that still had a tiny trickle of water in it, so maybe that’s why he wasn’t too hot.

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