Butterflying in the Calapooyas

A serene image of yellow pond lilies (Nuphar polysepala) at Bradley Lake

A female Sierra Nevada blue nectaring on sticky tofieldia. This common wetland plant turns out to be very interesting. Scientists have recently discovered that the tiny insects that get stuck in the sticky glands on the stems are actually absorbed by the plant—it’s partly carnivorous! Thankfully, it’s incapable of catching large insects like butterflies. I wish I’d read this before I was up there so I could have looked for insects on the plants.

I was so happy to have gotten back to the Calapooyas (see Return to Loletta Peak) that when Alison Center contacted me to see if I could tell her where to find Sierra Nevada blues or join her for a trip up to where I’ve seen them, I jumped at the chance to go with her. Alison is not only the president of our local North American Butterfly Association chapter, she’s now the wildlife biologist for the Middle Fork District of the Forest Service. And she’d never been up Coal Creek Road to Loletta Lakes or Bradley Lake, so this was actually “work” for her!

So on July 8, we headed up Coal Creek Road 2133 to the wetland east of Loletta Lakes where Molly and I had just seen the Sierra Nevada blues. As it was only five days later, I was pretty sure they’d still be there—and indeed they were, still flitting about and drinking from sticky tofieldia (Triantha occidentalis). There were other butterflies and bees, so we enjoyed watching all the insects.

While at the wetland east of Loletta Lakes, this snowberry checkerspot spent at least 10 minutes on my hand, making it a bit awkward as I tried to photograph other butterflies. Guess this guy preferred salty sweat to sweet nectar!

The snow had only recently melted when the heat dome came through a couple of weeks earlier. My guess is it must have dried the moss from the seepy areas near Loletta Lakes really quickly, causing it to crack.

Most people wouldn’t notice anything interesting about this stretch of road, but when the spreading dogbane is in full bloom, it draws in an amazing number of butterflies as well as moths, bees, and some other insects. And it smells heavenly!

After showing Alison around the interesting plateau, we returned to the vehicle and continued west. One of my favorite butterfly spots is just a tenth of a mile to the southwest at the four-way intersection on the crest of the ridge. We decided to head over there first to have lunch and watch the myriad butterflies that are drawn to a long stretch of fragrant spreading dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium) that lines the road. While I wanted to take a lunch break, it was hard for me to stop trying to photograph all the butterflies. There were lots of different checkerspots, clodius parnassians, pale swallowtail, coppers, a few blues, and probably some more I’ve forgotten. It’s always hard to tear myself away from them.

From there we returned to the intersection and headed to the northwest to Bradley Lake. While it was still plenty moist, the gorgeous show of camas seemed to have passed. I was hoping we would see even more Sierra Nevada blues, as this is the area that has seemed to have the largest population, but we didn’t spot more than a handful before we left. But there were enough other insects to keep us happy, and it really is one of the prettiest lakes I know, so I’m always happy to be there. And I was really happy to be able to share it with Alison. Having to get the Forest Service Rig back at a reasonable hour, we couldn’t stop everywhere I’d like to have shown her—there’s never enough time even on a long day—but it was a great introduction to this wonderful butterfly area.

This elegant clodius parnassian was enjoying the plentiful nectar of spreading dogbane. Its clusters of small flowers are just perfect for butterflies.

Heading over to Bradley Lake, we could see smoke that had drifted overhead from the Jack Fire to the south (we’re looking north here). Thankfully it wasn’t too bad at ground level. We didn’t know how much smoke there would be in the area the rest of the summer, but we figured it was going to be a tough season, so we wanted to get out before it got any worse. I’m so glad we did since as of August, there are a number of other fires burning not too far away, and much of the western end of the Calapooyas is now restricted. So far my favorite spots are thankfully still safe.

A thick-headed fly (Physocephala burgessi) on barestem buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum). Interestingly, this is the same species it was on in the photo I took last year at Groundhog Mountain (see Hidden Bog on Warner Mountain).

Coming back, I got out to help guide Alison driving the large Forest Service rig through the gap Chad Sageser had made in the giant fallen tree on Coal Creek Road. This time I remembered to take a photograph of it. Thanks again Chad for making it possible to get up there this year!

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