Followup Milkweed Count at Coal Creek Bluff

One of the beautiful madrones (Arbutus menziesii) that grace the bluff. Coal Creek can be seen cutting through the forest down below.

From lower down the slope, I got a peek-a-boo glimpse of the small waterfalls upstream along Coal Creek. Unfortunately, a closer look would require climbing down some very steep banks.

Saturday, May 9, was a beautiful day but around 80°—much hotter than I’m used to this time of year. I had hoped to get up to a high enough elevation to be a little more comfortable, and I was really hoping to see the very early mountain flowers. My plan was to try to get up to “Heavenly Bluff” to see the Siskiyou fritillary (Fritillaria glauca), a very early bloomer. I hadn’t been there for 6 years. If I couldn’t get that far, I would go to Bearbones Mountain, which I would pass on Road 5850. It’s another site for the fritillary, though much less floriferous. Unfortunately, right after I turned onto Road 5850, I came upon a number of fallen trees. It was another 3 miles or so to get to Bearbones, so I was not going to add over 6 miles of road to my hike. A little snow in the ditch also made me wonder if there might still be some snow blocking the road farther ahead even without downed trees. The shady section of road on the north side of Spring Butte seems to hold snow longer than the rest of the road.

I came across a checkerspot caterpillar sampling the leaf of snow queen (Synthyris reniformis).

Knowing road obstructions are common this time of year, I had yet another backup plan. I missed out on going back to Coal Creek Bluff last year, so it was on my to-do list and at low elevation. I still ended up having to walk down most of the access road due to some downed trees, but it is more or less level and reasonably shady, so it wasn’t bad, and I managed to find a way across some rocks in the creek that flows through where the road used to go without going in the water. When I reached the bluff, I started out working on my main goal: recounting the purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) to see if the population was expanding. Sheila Klest and I made the first count on May 29, 2018, the first spring after I discovered it in fall of 2017. Although the population doesn’t cover a very large area, it took me a while because I had to keep taking breaks to cool off in the shade. I also attempted to eat my lunch under the conifers, but no matter where I sat, I quickly became a highway for ants. After eating half my sandwich standing up, I gave up and went back to counting. Before heading back out into the sun, I did spot a budding candystick (Allotropa virgata), an excellent and unexpected addition to my plant list.

The milkweed population follows this little ridge from the large plant near the bottom left to the conifers just behind the madrones at the top. The bright green tufts of leaves are indian dream fern (Aspidotis densa).

The good news is that there were 40 blooming plants with 133 stalks, compared to 2018 when we counted 31 blooming plants with a total of 108 stalks. And the largest plant had 16 stalks this time compared to 11 last time. However, I only found 30 small, non-blooming plants (including 4 seedlings still with their cotyledons), whereas in 2018 we counted 55.

Two mature purple milkweeds just beginning to flower along with a couple of Tolmie’s’ cat’s ears (Calochortus tolmiei). Can you spot the baby milkweed at the bottom center of the photo? You can see how they would be more difficult to count.

It could be that while the older plants matured nicely, there aren’t as many young ones coming along. We’ve had some dry springs of late that may have killed the emerging seedlings. But then again, it may have been that I didn’t do as thorough a job of counting as the first time. We had 2 pairs of eyes then, and we used flagging to be sure we didn’t count any twice. I was hot and didn’t spend nearly as much time looking for the teeny plants that can be purplish and hard to spot against the brown soil. So while I can’t claim this count was up to scientific standards (I’m a naturalist—NOT a scientist!), I’m confident there are more blooming plants and stalks for the pollinators who find the abundant nectar so valuable. With any luck, the monarchs will return and find this a worthwhile stop on their migration. From what I’ve heard, the wintering monarch population in California did not drop from the previous year—good news—but it is still painfully low, so I have no expectations of seeing any out our way this year.

Naked broomrape sometimes parasitizes California mistmaiden. It also frequently uses saxifrages, which were abundant nearby, but I didn’t see any in the saxifrages.

I relocated the small population of the endemic spring phacelia (Phacelia verna), which appears to grow on the north end of the bluff just near one madrone.

Done with my “work,” I headed downhill. In the drier upper reaches of the slope there were some pretty frosted paintbrush (Castilleja pruinosa) and Tolmie’s’ cat’s ears (Calochortus tolmiei). I also passed quite a few of the tiny but brightly colored common bluecup (Githopsis specularioides), another welcome addition to my plant list I hadn’t noticed on previous trips. Where it was moister in the partial shade of the trees above Coal Creek, it was much more floriferous with seep monkeyflowers (Erythranthe microphylla), Menzies’ larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), and lots of popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus). Some of the early-flowering gold stars (Crocidium multicaule) were still blooming in this area, while others were going to seed—luckily I had some seed packets ready and collected seed for much of the rest of my walk.

The lovely creek that washed out part of the access road.

Marshall’s saxifrage, seep monkeyflower, and Hall’s lomatium (Lomatium hallii) in bloom along the banks of Coal Creek.

The sound of the rushing creek below called me down to the waterside. The accessible open area by Coal Creek was as beautiful as ever. In addition to many monkeyflowers, there were lots of sprays of white flowers: Marshall’s saxifrage (Micranthes marshallii) and Mertens’ saxifrage (Saxifraga mertensiana) in some places and California mistmaiden (Romanzoffia californica) in others. Among one section of mistmaiden, the little purple periscopes of naked broomrape (Aphyllon [Orobanche] uniflora) were abundant. I went to find a shady spot to sit and finish my sandwich. I was relieved there were no ants here, but, just as I finished, I spotted a tick walking up my pant leg—not a great trade-off! That prompted me to peel off some clothes for a thorough tick-check, and while I was at it, some splashing in the creek! That cooled me off a bit, but on my way back to the car, I took off my shoes and deliberately walked through the frigid creek crossing along the old road and sat on a rock and enjoyed the cool breeze and shade. Summer is coming before we know it!

3 Responses to “Followup Milkweed Count at Coal Creek Bluff”

  • Stu:

    Great photos and a fun story!

  • Blanche Douma:

    Oh for Pete’s sake, Tanya – your pictures of the hillsides, flowers, scenery, just make my butt itch for the chance to get out there and smell the fresh air. Thank you SO much for the chance to experience it vicariously, through your photos and descriptions – what a wonderful gift you are, to us all.

    Cheer and Blessings to you. :)

  • You are so kind, Blanche! I’m glad you enjoy “coming with me” on my outings.

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