|PO Box 207|
1241 Illinois River Rd
Selma, OR 97538
Phone: (541) 597-8530
Fax: (541) 597-8533
Contact: Siskiyou Field Institute
Hours: 9:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., Monday-Thursday (winter hours)
Of PARNASSIANS, METALMARKS and FRITILLARIES
<!--[endif]-->The Continuing Butterfly Play
by Erik Runquist
Let us revisit the Play we began watching this past spring. When we left off, the curtains had risen and the first Sara orangetip butterflies (Anthocharis sara) had stepped onstage. As the days have gotten longer and warmer, these harbingers of spring have all but disappeared and Act II is now is well underway. A diverse progression of butterfly “actors” has joined in the action, creating a bewildering complexity of subplots. While commentary on each of their stories is prohibitive, the broader theme is this: Summer is the busiest time of year for butterflies and those who enjoy observing them.
The spectacle does not last, however. Summer’s long sunny days dry out the flowering plants on which butterflies and moths (collectively called the lepidoptera) are so intimately dependent. When moth diversity peaks in late July, butterfly diversity is already beginning to plummet. A handful of “leps” hang on into late summer and autumn, but early summer’s surprises become more difficult to come by as this climactic scene in the Play comes to an end. Sometimes a bit of luck and fortuitous timing is required; last August, I had a bit of both.
The road was dusty. It was hot though, and closing the car windows was not an option. We drove past a familiar, now dried-out seep along the road. When wet from snowmelt in May and June, this seep had attracted dozens of butterflies to its muddy banks for water and dissolved minerals. It was late August now though, and the only butterfly in sight was a newly emerged black and yellow mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) defending a tree hollow in which it would spend the ensuing winter. We continued our drive uphill, in search of coolness and more exciting butterfly pastures.
Eventually, we reached the end of the road, and a short walk took us out of the forest to our destination: Boccard Point in the newly designated Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (CSNM). Below this 5,600-foot rocky promontory, a long, south-facing slope drops away precipitously for a few thousand feet to the California border and beyond to the Klamath River. The air was filled with smoke from wildfires burning in northern California that obscured the usual views of Mount Shasta, the Marbles, and Trinity Alps. With no spectacular vistas to distract us, we turned our focus to the community of herbs and shrubs growing around the point itself.
Since my last visit to this favorite spot a month ago, the abundant patches of sulphur-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) had gone to seed and shriveled away. When in full bloom, these plants had been literally crawling with butterflies feasting on buckwheat nectar. The only flowering plant in sight now was rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), so I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that most activity had moved to them. At first glance, there were the usual suspects. The oodles of woodland skippers (Ochlodes sylvanoides) were beginning to show their old age at six weeks. A few fresh Juba skippers (Hesperia juba) and a similar Oregon comma skipper (Hesperia colorado ssp. oregonia) sat undisturbed on the yellow flowers. In a week or two, our endemic subspecies of the sandhill skipper (Polites sabuleti ssp. aestivalis), one of the last local butterflies to emerge, would be foraging on these same shrubs.
Growing amidst the jagged rock nearby was a patch of stonecrop (Sedum obtusatum). Upon closer inspection, tiny white spheroid eggs appeared on the surface of the stonecrop’s succulent leaves. I had not seen these during my previous visit. They had been laid here a few weeks ago by Sternitzky’s parnassian (Parnassius smintheus ssp. sternitzkyi), a primitive relative of the swallowtails. The primary distribution of P. smintheus is in the northern Rockies, ranging as far west as the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon, 400 miles away. Sternitzky’s subspecies is restricted to rocky subalpine habitats in the Klamath-Siskiyou region, where their stonecrop host plants grow. The eastern-most known colony lives atop Soda Mountain, just a mile northeast from where I stood.
Then, just above the ground near the rabbitbrush, a flying blur of black and white caught the corner of my eye. At this time of year, I knew it could only be one species: the Mormon metalmark (Apodemia mormo). As their name implies, Mormon metalmarks are mostly a species of the Great Basin, and do not occur across most of the Pacific Northwest. But here they were on the western edge of their range, defining the ecological boundary between the high desert and the soggy Pacific Coast. I watched intently as a female flew over to a patch of sulfur-flower buckwheat and, oblivious of my presence, laid several light-pink, turban-shaped eggs.
The assemblage of butterflies that live in these dry woodlands and rocky ridges at the eastern edge of the Klamath-Siskiyou is particularly special, and we were getting a glimpse of it first-hand on this August afternoon. There are only a handful of places on earth where Mormon metalmarks and Sternitzky’s parnassians can be found living together. However, the biological distinctiveness does not end there. Earlier in the summer, I had seen great arctics (Oeneis nevadensis) flying around Boccard Point. They, among a handful of others, represent an influence from the Cascades. In addition, a whopping 13 butterflies that are found primarily in California reach or approach the northern limits of their range here. I was standing at the place where east meets west meets north meets south; the Clash of Ecoregions.
The landscape within view of Boccard Point appears to be the richest area west of the Cascades and the whole of the Pacific Northwest for butterflies. After 10 years of personal investigations and an intensive 1999 survey, I’ve put the known butterflies of the national monument at a robust 107 species. To put this number in perspective, it represents 90% of the total species known for all of Jackson County, and 66% of the 162 species that are found across the entire state of Oregon. In addition, I suspect that as many as 20 more species are possible in the area, including nine new would-be county or state records.
Exceptional day trips in the CSNM can yield 50 butterfly species. However, 4th of July butterfly counts (rather like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts) in the vicinity have reached as high as 77 species; this is good enough to consistently rank in the top five list for butterfly diversity in the entire country. The most diverse areas in the U.S. are southeastern Arizona, central Colorado, and south Texas, where known butterfly lists approach 250 species and over 100 can be encountered in a day. What piques the interest of lepidopterists here is not so much the sheer numbers of species as the unique combinations of species that can occur.
What about the oft-ignored and much-maligned moths? The lepidoptera’s “dark side” are 10 to 20 times as diverse as the butterflies, and thus the total moth diversity of the Klamath-Siskiyou region probably surpasses 2,000 species. About 1,200 species of “macromoths” have been found in southwestern Oregon (more are discovered every year), but the diverse and aptly named “micromoths” (with wingspans less than ¼”) remain truly unexplored. Just a handful of experts worldwide pay any serious attention to the “micros”, and I suspect that a significant chunk of the estimated 1,500 or so species in our area would be new to science if they were more intensively studied.
Then there is the question of endemism: how many of our butterflies and moths make their home only in the Klamath-Siskiyou? With mobility that is less than birds and mammals but much greater than plants, patterns of endemism in the region’s lepidopteran fauna are often subtle. A handful of butterfly subspecies can be recognized as endemics. For instance, Kelson’s blue (Agriades cassiope ssp. kelsoni) is currently only known from the ridges above Caribou Lake in the Trinity Alps. At the same site, our isolated subspecies of the closely related gray blue (Agriades podarce ssp. klamathensis) is found in association with its larval host plant, Jeffrey’s shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi). Other endemic subspecies include the glorious fritillary (Speyeria zerene ssp. gloriosa), Dorothy’s copper (Lycaena gorgon ssp. dorothea), and the Trinity Alps checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona ssp. trinitina).
Several other butterflies that occur here are not endemic but instead represent isolated portions of the species larger range. For example, the mardon skipper (Polites mardon) was thought to be Washington’s only endemic butterfly for 98 years, but isolated populations have since been found near the coastal town of Smith River in far northwest California, east of Yreka (Siskiyou Co., CA), and in southern Oregon (from near Boccard Point to Lake of the Woods). These populations were recently described as a new subspecies, now called klamathensis, the Klamath mardon skipper. Mardon skippers are a Federal Species of Concern and the Washington populations have been listed as State Endangered. Very little is known however, about the distribution, ecology, and status of our populations.
Wilderness areas like the Kalmiopsis and Marble Mountains have barely been surveyed for butterflies and probably still hold a few surprises. On the other hand, the Trinity Alps and Mount Eddy have been well surveyed with 115 species documented. Other popular butterfly “hot spots” within the region include the south slope of Mount Ashland (Jackson Co., OR), the serpentine outcrops of Eight Dollar Mountain and Rough and Ready Creek (Josephine Co., OR), and the Castle Crags (Siskiyou Co., CA).
As we headed back towards the car from Boccard Point that afternoon, a dozen golden hairstreaks (Habrodais grunus) whirled in the late-day sun around their larval host plant, an old veteran chinquapin (Chrysolepis chrysophylla). This little butterfly is a Californian species close to it’s northern limit here. I smiled. It was not really a smile for the sweeping vistas of the Point or even the unique biological convergence that I had seen. The eggs of Sternitzky’s parnassian and Mormon metalmarks were merely reminders of the contrasting forces of life that ebb and flow throughout our little part of the world, mixing in swirls of color, geology, climate, and time. It was a smile for the random dumb luck that allowed me to be born and raised in this truly precious place, and for my treasured awareness of a fraction of the little subtleties that make it so.
We were within sight of the car now. Before grabbing for the keys and returning to the artificial insulation of society, I looked up. A male pine white (Neophasia menapia) was floating around a Douglas-fir, 75 feet above the ground, searching for a mate. Like the Sara orangetips heralding the beginning of spring and Act I, the Pine White is the usher of autumn, and his presence signaled that the butterfly glory days had come to an end. With that, the curtains began to fall on Act II. Take solace though because our Play never really ends as Act III will eventually loop back again to Act I. For that, I smiled again and grabbed the keys.
Erik Runquist is a lepidopterist born and raised (apparently, with a net in his hands) in the butterfly-rich foothills of the eastern Siskiyous near Ashland, OR.