Thinking About Climate Change at Youngs Rock

The north side of Youngs Rock is hard to get close to. Although there’s no talus, the slope is still quite steep and slippery, and the rock outcrops are not all stable. It reminds me of a Japanese garden. With binoculars, I could see lots of blooming Oregon fawn-lilies and a single cliff paintbrush, but I didn’t feel comfortable trying to get close to them like I did when I first started coming here.

The south side of the rock is really craggy and supports many interesting plants in its cracks. It’s open but also really hard to get up close to because of the slippery and steep talus at its base. Better have binoculars!

On May 26, Lauren Meyer and I spent a beautiful day hiking up to Youngs Rock. It was sunny but only in the low 70s—pretty much perfect. In my work for the Flora of Oregon, I had just read through a draft copy of a chapter on climate change that will be part of the third and final volume of the flora. I couldn’t help but look at what we saw along the trail through the lens of climate change. We discussed it quite a bit as well. The Youngs Rock trail follows a south-facing ridge in the Rigdon area of southeastern Lane County. We hiked the middle stretch—my favorite part through a string of meadows—from about 3100′ to Youngs Rock itself, an impressive pillar rock, at about 4500′. There are a number of plants here that are near the most northerly edge of their range. These include whisker brush (Leptosiphon ciliatus), ground rose (Rosa spithamea), birdbeak (Cordylanthus sp., I’m still unsure how to distinguish the species), and many-stemmed sedge (Carex multicaulis). I’d only discovered the latter a couple of years ago (see Back to Lower Meadows of Youngs Rock) and was surprised at how much more there was along the lower stretches of the trail. I’ll admit I don’t spend much time on graminoids, and this sedge looks more like a rush (Juncus spp.) than a sedge. Farther up the trail, where we didn’t go on this trip, is the most northerly site (so far) for galium broomrape (Aphyllon epigalium). With the caveat that I’m not a scientist, I would think these meadows might adapt to climate change fairly well and could even become home to more species adapted to the hotter regions to the south, though I suspect  blooming periods might move up.

The second meadow is a great place to study clovers. There is a good view south to the Calapooya Mountains. On the left, you can see the large scar of the Tumblebug Fire that burned the eastern end of the Calapooyas 15 years ago. 

We were surprised how few bees and butterflies we saw, but there were quite a few of these cute moths wherever there were a lot of clovers. It looks a little like a duskywing butterfly but doesn’t have clubbed antennae.

Past the stretch of meadows, we passed the giant anthill I’ve been watching for many years. It was still there, but there wasn’t any activity—not a single ant. I hope they haven’t died off. Maybe they just move somewhere else eventually. We didn’t see as many insects as I would have expected with sunny weather and plenty of nectar plants. There were only a few butterflies, some moths, bees in some areas but not a lot, some flies, and a cicada. Probably the most activity we saw was near a beautiful stretch of large-flowered blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia grandiflora). Loss of insects troubles me a great deal, and climate change seems to be affecting many species of insects as much as anything else. And without the insects, what will bats and insectivorous birds eat? 

A pair of gray jays took an interest in us on the north side of Youngs Rock. I don’t see them that often at lower elevations. Unfortunately for them, we’d already finished lunch.

Lauren spotted this newly hatched cicada on a spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum) stalk.

When we reached Youngs Rock, we followed the trail around to the north side of the rock and climbed up to see some of the plants nestled in the cracks. It’s not an easy climb because much of it is open slope with no foot- or handholds, and even the rocky spots were not very stable. I’ve climbed up higher in the past, but I decided to stay behind and let Lauren—over 30 years younger than I am—do a more a careful survey while I found a spot stable enough to use my binoculars. An entirely different suite of plants inhabits this much cooler habitat. It is shaded both by the rock and the surrounding forest. From a distance I spotted a bright red cliff paintbrush (Castilleja rupicola), a species near the southern end of its range. There were lots of Oregon fawn-lilies (Erythronium oregonum) in bloom as well as some Scouler’s valerian (Valeriana sitchensis var. scouleri), a species I often see next to cliff paintbrush on shady cliffs. Two uncommon plants I wanted to show Lauren were tufted saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) and Merriam’s alumroot (Heuchera merriamii). I was pleased she was able to get a close look at both of those, even if I needed my binoculars to find them. In contrast to the south-facing meadows, I’m concerned about the future of these cool refugia. Higher temperatures, less moisture, and the possibility of a forest fire removing the shading trees could all impact the species that inhabit the north-facing cliffs. But for now, I’m just trying to focus on enjoying the beauty we still have.

I was dismayed to see some dead and dying trees along the edge of “Lunch Meadow.” Drought can cause the trees to die from the top down. Bark beetles can attack drought-stricken trees, causing the needles to turn brown and the tree to die quickly. I’m not sure if that is what is happening here, but it just happened to some of the large Douglas-firs on my property similarly situated at the edge of a meadow.

Lauren photographing the endemic spring phacelia (Phacelia verna). I’ve never seen such a large population here. There were hundreds instead of the usual dozens.

On the drive to the trail, we had to stop along Hills Creek Reservoir to see the population of harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) at peak bloom up on the cliffs.

Also on some of the shelves on the cliffs were thick sweeps of ookow (Dichelostemma congestum).

2 Responses to “Thinking About Climate Change at Youngs Rock”

  • Kate Shapiro:

    If you didn’t see it, the 6/9/24 New York Times had an article about die-off of Douglas fir in southwestern Oregon as a result of drought/insects–i.e. climate change. The thrust of the article is about BLM’s response (log it all), but the fir deaths are indicative of what’s happening. As also reported, Ashland has been cutting dead conifers–which I learned about in a visit last year. Widespread death of Doug firs in Oregon will have big economic fallout, & sure change the way the state looks. Here’s a link to the article:

    Sure enjoy your field reports, Tanya! Kate

  • Hi Kate,

    Thanks so much for the link. I missed that article.

    I have a number of dying and dead trees on my property, mostly on the edges of the forest where they are more exposed. It is tough seeing them dying in the mountains. No doubt it will continue to worsen. Logging certainly isn’t the answer. Many of the fires in the area were worse in the younger forests than in areas of older trees.

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