Insects and Flowers at Saddleblanket and Elk Camp Wetlands

It had been 4 weeks since I had been to the wetlands at the base of Saddleblanket Mountain and in the area near Elk Camp, so since I am trying to track the whole season of bloom there, it was time for a return visit. John Koenig had never been to the wetlands, so he accompanied me on Thursday, July 11. With John along, I took advantage of his knowledge of graminoids to try and learn a bit more about the many sedges, grasses, rushes, and woodrushes that are found in wetlands. While I can’t remember everything he showed me, I was happy to make some progress and learn to at least recognize some of the species, even if I can’t remember all their names yet.

Platanthera dilatata

We couldn’t have timed it any better for the white bog orchids, which were at peak bloom and in perfect shape.

We started the day at the wetland nestled in the cirque-like valley beneath the curved ridge of Saddleblanket Mountain. The display of white bog orchids (Platanthera dilatata) was outstanding. There were also masses of arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis). A checkermallow, most likely Cusick’s (Sidalcea cusickii) was also abundant, but its big show won’t come until later, and we could only find a few starting to flower at the north end of the meadow—a good reason for another return trip. We checked out the unusual willows along the creek that Molly and I had seen on my previous trip (see Back to Elk Camp Shelter—Not Once But Twice). John carefully ran through a key to Salix and arrived at the same conclusion I had, arroyo willow (Salix lasiolepis). It’s always reassuring to have someone else back up your ID. We followed the creek back to a clump of Alaska yellowcedar (Callitropsis [Chamaecyparis] nootkatensis) and discovered an interesting addition to the plant list I’ve been creating, trillium-leaved wood sorrel (Oxalis trilliifolia). Its leaves look like its more common relative redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), but it blooms later with drooping flowers, and it likes its feet wet, often turning up on streambanks or even in the creekbed itself.

What a comical face this dragonfly has! I haven't learned much about dragonflies yet, but his widely set eyes would seem to put him in the clubtail family, Gomphidae. If you know his name, please let me know.

What a comical face this dragonfly has! Thanks to Bruce Newhouse for the correct ID. This is a black petaltail (Tanypteryx hageni), which is actually the only species in Oregon in the Petaluridae. Check out the Northwest Dragonflier info on this cool species by clicking here.

Our next stop was just up the road a little farther to satisfy my curiosity about a cliff I had seen through the woods, just off the roadside. We managed to bushwhack our way through a tangle of vine maples—at least avoiding the nearby devil’s club—to reach the open rocks of the talus slope. You really know who you friends are if they are willing to go out with you again after being dragged through such difficult spots! As we made our way up the rocks, a chorus of pikas peeped at us from underground. They clearly weren’t used to people invading their space. We looked around at the perimeter of vine maples surrounding the rocks. There were a few other shrubs, including some budding mock orange (Philadelphus lewisii), but very little in the way of herbaceous food sources. About the only thing in the talus was wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) and a few ferns, none of which looked nibbled on. What were they eating? We couldn’t find any drying hay piles either. Through the binoculars, I could see some paintbrush, sedum, and Douglas’ catchfly (Silene douglasii) up on the rocks, most likely out of reach to both me and the pikas. Unable to stop myself, I wound up going all the way up to the base of the cliff to get a better look at the plants. While there was nothing unusual up there, at least I felt somewhat relieved to find a number of plants at the top of the talus where the rocks were smaller and there was more soil. I even spotted a bleeding heart that had been nipped off—so that’s what they were eating.

Water montia (Montia chamissoi) has distinctive paired fleshy leaves and pretty white flowers, but they can be hard to see hiding beneath much taller wetland species.

Water montia (Montia chamissoi) has distinctive paired fleshy leaves and pretty white flowers, but they can be hard to see hiding beneath much taller wetland species.

After that, we headed to over to Elk Camp. The beautiful display of shooting stars and marsh marigold that had filled the meadow a month ago were finished, but the common camas (Camassia quamash) that had been starting then was still blooming well along the southwest corner, and from the amount of seed capsules evident, the whole meadow must have been a sea a blue a couple of weeks ago. Four weeks was too long to wait to return here. While not as colorful as it was before, there was still plenty in bloom in a predominantly yellow and white scheme, including both white and green bog orchids (Platanthera stricta), arrowleaf groundsel, bracted lousewort (Pedicularis bracteosa), lovage (Ligusticum grayi most likely), and bistort (Bistorta bistortoides). We walked along the edge of the thickets of willows, both to study them again and so I could relocate the patch of water montia (Montia chamissoi) I had discovered on my last visit. I found it easily enough, but it looked like I’d missed the bloom. Charlene Simpson, keeper of the Lane County Checklist database (and looking for a replacement!) told me there was no vouchered record of it yet in Lane County, so I should try to collect some. Luckily I eventually found another area on the other side of the willows where there were still a number in bloom, so I collected a few to press for the OSU Herbarium. It turned out they were growing in a number of places scattered about the meadow and along the edges. It’s such a small plant, it is easily escapes detection unless you are searching for it specifically. We also went into the back corner of the meadow to look for the rare Umpqua frasera in bloom but found only one in bud. The mosquitoes were coming out in the afternoon shade, and after swallowing one, I didn’t feel like hanging out there too long.

The caterpillars of mourning cloak butterflies are gregarious.

The caterpillars of mourning cloak butterflies are gregarious, with their eggs being laid over 100 at a time on a single branch. Fortunately, they feed mainly on willows and other shrubs and trees that can support such an onslaught of hungry mouths.

Caterpillars need to shed their skins as they grow. With gregarious species like the mourning cloak, the discarded skins make for a rather gruesome sight.

Caterpillars need to shed their skins as they grow. With gregarious species like the mourning cloak, the discarded skins make for a rather gruesome sight.

While wandering along the edge of the thicket of Booth’s willows in the center of the wetland, I noticed a few branches that were totally stripped of leaves. As my gaze lowered, the culprits appeared and were in such numbers that I reflexively let out a shriek of surprise. They were mourning cloak caterpillars—many dozens of them. I’ve loved butterflies my whole life and frequently raised them in my youth, so I’m not at all scared of caterpillars. But still, seeing this many creepy, crawling creatures all at once was a little offputting at first. We watched them for quite a while. When disturbed, by us banging into branches no doubt, they all jerked their heads, almost in unison. This must be some defensive behavior to scare off predators, not that their spiny little bodies looked like they would be pleasant to swallow either. They crawled all over each other, looking for leaves to munch. Where they’d already stripped the branches, we watched them wandering back and forth, looking for more to eat. I tried to encourage one out on the end of a stripped branch to crawl onto another branch that hadn’t been eaten yet, but he would have none of it. I’m sure he eventually figured it out without my help. There were a couple of other large conglomerations of caterpillars elsewhere in the willows. In one, we finally noticed a few independent individuals who had ventured out onto unoccupied branches. I’d seen some mourning cloaks on my first trip to the area in May. Perhaps some of those were their parents. Good luck to them all. I hope this means there will be lots of handsome mourning cloaks on the wing again next spring!

Lilium columbianum

Tiger lilies and Alice’s fleabane catching the last rays of sun.

yellow jacket

The pollen of tiger lilies is attractive to wasps, like this yellow jacket, and many other insects.

As late as it was, we did stop one more time to look at Nevergo Meadow just a short ways back down the hill. After a quick look at the wetland, we explored the dry meadow on the other side of the small spur road 226. The sun was dipping quite low, but this meadow was still catching the light, illuminating numerous bright orange tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum). Playing a supporting role to these scene stealers were pale pink Alice’s fleabane (Erigeron aliceae). We marveled at how night-blooming morning glory (Calystegia atriplicifolia) seemed to be crawling around the entire meadow, sometimes wrapping its tendrils around other plants. It seemed like the flowers in the shade were closed while those still in the sun were open, but it was hard to tell if they were closing for the night or not. While they weren’t as beautiful as those I saw on Coffin Mountain the other day, this must be the largest population I’ve ever seen. There was a lot of last-minute activity before the sun set. Patches of western columbine (Aquilegia formosa) were being fought over by several greedy hummingbirds. Other birds were singing from the tops of the trees. What a lovely spot. It sure made it hard to head home!



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