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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 7, 2011 at 7:00 AM

Butterflies: Jewels of the summer sun

Creatures of sunlight and warmth, butterflies are one of the signature delights of July. On a visit to Eastern Washington over the Fourth of July weekend, during a nice, hot hike up Cowiche Mountain at the Snow Mountain Ranch, butterflies were constant companions on the trail.

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This electric blue butterfly was one of the thrills of the hike up to the top of Cowiche Mountain at Snow Mountain Ranch, home to at least 58 species of butterflies.

Lynda Mapes photo

According to David G. James, Associate Professor of Entomology at Washington State University, Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, the mountain hosts as many species of butterflies as can be found in the entire United Kingdom. James writes in an article he prepared for the upcoming edition of the newsletter of the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy that the ranch is home to 10 to 12 species of butterflies that are rare or localized in their distribution in the Pacific Northwest. The Snow Mountain Ranch is a sanctuary and overwintering site and breeding ground for what James calls “winged jewels” — and right he is.

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Callophrys sheridanii, or Sheridan’s green hairstreak light up the desert landscape

David James, photo, courtesy Cowiche Canyon Conservancy

Five species of large swallowtails also can be seen at Snow Mountain Ranch, big, flouncy and spectacularly colored.

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David James photo, courtesy, Cowiche Canyon Conservancy

Betsy Bloomfield, executive director of the conservancy, notes that the Snow Mountain Ranch encompasses 1,800 acres in all, and is a crown jewel of the sagebrush steppe habitat the conservancy works to preserve. The ranch was purchased with help from the Washington State Salmon Recovery Funding Board, the Bonneville Power Administration and Trust for Public Land in 2005.

And then, there’s the hike. From the wind blasted, sun-baked top of Cowiche Mountain, the snowy domes of Mount Adams and Mount Rainier gleam like the vanilla cones that would taste so good right about then.

And which is more precious? The quiet? So deep and rich it is dimensional, broken only by the call of a meadowlark, the rustle of blowing grasses, conversation of crickets, or sudden whoosh of bird, flushed from its snooze in the sagebrush. Or is it the fragrance that is most delicious, the baked bread smell of dried grasses in hot sun, the pungent refreshment of sage?

It is a world of both grand and small beauty: the heroic sweeps of open space are lit with the delicate faces of desert flowers hunkered into the sage.

To Bloomfield, a native of Seattle, the sere sagebrush steppe was a sensory shock that re-set her whole sense of beauty. “I grew up believing that beauty was water and trees and mountains. When I came over here to live I discovered a miniature world that is so lush with beauty and drama,” she said, when I called to tell her about my hike — and wonder what butterflies I had been seeing.

Partly, it was the sweeping sense of space that won her heart. “Over there [in Seattle] we are constrained by skyscrapers and buildings or woods and the light is like being in an aquarium, all blue and green,” Bloomfield said. “Here, it is Georgia O’Keefe land, it is pink and yellow and sage and tan, and because it is exposed the bones of the Earth are visible. The geology is there for you to see, and you can walk across the countryside and never get lost. There is this gigantic sense of space and light.”

One of the rarest native habitats left in Washington, most of the state’s sagebrush steppe has been lost to agriculture and development. “Saving the rest of the best is what we do,” Bloomfield said.

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This butterfly’s colors blend into the sagebrush country. David James photo, Courtesy, Cowiche Canyon Conservancy

Click here for more information on Snow Mountain Ranch trails, including maps and trail descriptions.

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