Spring Again at Coal Creek Bluff

Looking north across the slope to Moon Point and Youngs Rock. I hadn’t seen such a pretty show of monkeyflower on my past visits.

On Wednesday, May 25, Nancy Bray accompanied me on a trip to the place I named “Coal Creek Bluff.” I had heard that the Forest Service would be further decommissioning the old Road 210 that I use to access the site to protect Coal Creek from further erosion. I wasn’t sure what this entailed, so I was anxious to find out if I would still be able to access this lovely spot, one of our purple milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia) sites in the Rigdon area. The last time I was there (in 2020, see Followup Milkweed Count at Coal Creek Bluff), I couldn’t make it to the last place you can park before a big washout on the old road. I managed to scratch my brand new car trying to turn around after coming upon a fallen tree. So this time, I just decided to park at the old gate where there is a large area to turn around and do the extra walking. I was surprised to find the road completely clear all the way to the final parking area. Darn! We could have shortened our walk. Next time I’ll know.

Nancy approaching one of the boulder-filled creek crossings along the old road.

After that though, the conditions got worse because they had indeed been working on the road. We had to cross numerous berms—water bars to control the flow across the road—and several new deep creek crossings. Large boulders had been placed in the creeks, presumably to slow down the flow when the creeks are overflowing with meltwater from higher elevations. While they looked quite unnatural, the extra rocks they placed in the creek I’ve waded across in the past actually made it easier to cross, and there were no longer small trees growing across the road on the other side of the creek. So now I can relax, knowing that I will still be able to visit Coal Creek Bluff in the future.

The largest purple milkweed plant had over 20 stalks, twice as many as I’d seen on any plant back in 2018, the first time I counted them. Hopefully that’s a sign of a growing population. I’ll have to do another count of the number of plants on my next visit.

This madrone (Arbutus menziesii) evidently grew in a spiral pattern. Part of it must have died at the bottom, killing only half of the rest of the tree.

I had hoped that the lovely wet spring we’ve been having would keep this steep rocky area damp longer, as it was quite dry on my last few trips. We were happy to see lots of pretty flowers, and the ground was visibly moist in places, even though the moss looked a bit dry. We started by going over to the south end to check on the milkweed. They were still in bud, probably at about the same stage they were at on my May 9, 2020 trip, confirming that we are 2 or 3 weeks behind the last couple of years. I didn’t count plants, but I did count stalks on several of the largest individuals. I was very happy to find several with around 20 stalks, the largest having 21 budding stalks, and, as they always seem to have, several more very short stalks hiding near the ground. My theory is they don’t put any energy into these unless the conditions are good enough to make it worthwhile. Since I’ve been studying our populations of purple milkweed, we’ve been having very dry springs, and these lower stalks die back before the others finish blooming. If it remains cool and wet, maybe I can test my theory and see if these will grow rather than die back.

Some of the little annuals in bloom. Left: tiny-flowered baby innocence (Tonella tenella); center: candelabrum monkeyflower; right: Rattan’s blue-eyed Mary (perhaps it should be called “purple-eyed Mary)

Since Nancy’s knee wasn’t up to the steep climb down and back up again—especially after crossing so many obstacles on the road out, we headed across the slope to the ridge that runs down the north side. We passed lots of annuals in bloom. Nancy especially liked the cute common blue cup (Githopsis specularioides). I was most excited to see some tiny yellow buds of a monkeyflower. I guessed it was candelabrum monkeyflower (Erythranthe pulsiferae), an uncommon species of bare open areas, but it took a while before I found some in bloom with radially symmetric flowers to confirm their ID. I was also really pleased to find much more spring phacelia (Phacelia verna) than I’d seen in the past, and the plants were taller and more floriferous as well. The extra rain of the last couple of months has clearly benefited these annual species.

A beautiful show larkspur on the banks of Coal Creek

I could not pass up going down to Coal Creek, so Nancy patiently waited by a lovely display of Menzies’ larkspurs (Delphinium menziesii) and several budding chocolate lilies (Fritillaria affinis), while I made my way down the rocky slope. I passed lots of beautiful large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora). We’d seen both other local species, small-flowered (C. parviflora) and Rattan’s (C. rattanii), at the top of the slope. The area by the creek was lovely as always, with both Marshall’s (Micranthes marshallii) and Merten’s (Saxifraga mertensiana) saxifrages covered with full sprays of little white flowers, California mistmaiden (Romanzoffia californica), seep monkeyflower (Erythranthe microphylla, I believe, one of several species that used to go by Mimulus guttatus), and lots more larkspur and blue-eyed Mary. I was really sorry Nancy had to miss this.

Naked or purple broomrape (Aphyllon purpureum, what we used to call Orobanche uniflora. So many new names, sigh). It is commonly found in broadleaf stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium), as it is here. We also saw a great deal of it in the stonecrop along Hills Creek Reservoir earlier in the day.

After a quick look and a few photographs down below, I rejoined Nancy, and we headed back. As we neared the part of the road where I would have parked had I known the road was cleared, we were surprised by a bark. Someone else had driven all the way up the road. We stopped for a while to chat with Dave, a volunteer for the Forest Service, who was hanging out behind his truck. We also made friends with his friendly canine companion, Scout. Dave was doing wildlife surveys, so I showed him the little pond hidden in the woods just a few hundred feet away. It was too late in the season for the concert of chorus frogs John Koenig and I delighted in back on March 30, 2018 (see First Flowers at Coal Creek Bluff), but I’m sure lots of other wildlife use this wet spot. After a bit, we said goodbye to Dave, but Scout apparently wasn’t ready to part with us yet and tried to accompany us back to my car. How I miss having a dog sometimes (don’t tell my cats!).

We saw surprisingly few insects, but I did spot this small bee on large-flowered blue-eyed Mary at the end of the day.

We still had some time but not so much energy, so I drove over to Staley Creek Bridge to show Nancy this special spot. She was a real trooper following me blindly over so many obstacles, so I wanted to do something easy and share with her one of my favorite spots. The larkspur and large-flowered blue-eyed Mary were outstanding here as well, and we found several blooming chocolate lilies. I was disappointed that I didn’t spot any of the little candelabrum monkeyflower, as this was one of the few other sites I had seen it at, and I’d hoped it would be farther along. I’m planning to draw it for Volume 3 of the Flora of Oregon, so I wanted to get better photos of it. Hopefully, I’ll see it later on at Bristow Prairie. The water was really gushing down the gorge, so we didn’t even try to get down by the edge of the creek. I looked for the dipper nest I’d seen before, but it must not have survived the winter. However, we did spot a dipper in the same spot in the middle of the creek above the cascade where I’d seen them before. We watched it fly farther downstream, so perhaps it is working on a new nest.

One Response to “Spring Again at Coal Creek Bluff”

  • John Koenig:

    Hi Tanya, Thanks for a great report and beautiful photographs. Sorry I had to miss the trip. With all our recent rain, it looks like the wildflowers were really spectacular. Wanted to mention that last spring when I visited Staley Creek bridge, hiking a short distance upstream I spotted two beautiful Harlequin ducks swimming in a quiet section of the creek. Something else to watch for when you visit that site in the future. Also, small world it seems, as the guy you met while walking back from the bluff is Dave Shroeder who I’ve worked with as a regular volunteer at the FBP Native Plant Nursery. He told me he had a new border collie named Scout who apparently has a lot of energy! Sorry to hear the chorus frogs weren’t singing.

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