Saturday, August 12, 2017

Mount McLoughlin

I recently took my first hike up Mount McLoughlin, the tenth highest mountain in Oregon at 2895m (9,499ft), located in the Sky Lakes Wilderness between Medford and Klamath Falls. It was hot out, the forecast said it was going to be sunny, around 100°, and dry. I drove there on highway 140 with the windows down, letting the wind hit my face. I enjoyed the smells of dry meadows and pine trees as I took a few last glances at Mount McLoughlin before it went out of sight.
The map at the Summit Trail trailhead
From Medford, it takes a little over an hour to reach the summit trailhead, but shortly after setting out I lost sight of the mountain as I entered the woods and foothills surrounding the mountain. Moving ever closer to the mountain the only flowers I could see were fields of wild carrot, Daucus carota, an introduced species from Europe and southern Asia. Occasionally I spotted common chicory, Cichorium intybus, another introduced species hailing from Europe, in the occasional roadside ditch.
Fireweed, Chamaenerion angustifolium
Driving onward, and subsequently higher in elevation as I wound through the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest on the 140, more wildflowers came into view. Fireweed was one of the most conspicuous, as its name not only describes an aspect of its biology, but also evokes its vibrancy and large stature. As the name suggests, it often appears after wildfire where it is native, when competition is burnt to the ground.
Henderson's checkermallow, Sidalcea hendersonii
Another vibrant Oregon native, named after plant explorer and collector Louis F. Henderson (1853-1942), Henderson's checkermallow is related to hollyhocks and grows much like a miniature hollyhock, growing often to around two feet in height. Henderson is the namesake of some of my favorite wildflowers, including Dodecatheon hendersonii, Erythronium hendersonii, and Triteleia hendersonii, all native to this region.
Californioa goldenrod, Solidago velutina ssp. californica
Gracing the parking area at the Summit Trail trailhead, California goldenrod grows to around sixteen inches. Topping each plant is a pyramidal panicle of tiny yellow daisies. They seem to like sunny edges of forest clearings, or in this case, roadsides bordered by a coniferous woodland.
Twinflower, Linnaea borealis, and a bumblebee
I had arrived at the trailhead and was ready to embark. Near the parking area is a cool shady area with abundant shade loving wildflowers such as Western Prince's pine (Chimaphila umbellata) and twinflower. The small honeysuckle relative, twinflower, so named because they nearly always have flowers in pairs. Small bumblebee workers, unfortunately unidentified, were vociferously visiting each flower yet in a manner that made them difficult to photograph by this amateur, thus the blur.
Western Prince's pine, Chimaphila umbellata
I was quite stunned by the beautiful yet diminutive Chimaphila umbellata, a relative to blueberries and azaleas. This plant is categorized as a shrub, though the individual plants measured less than six inches and had an even smaller footprint. Small pendant flowers, maybe half an inch wide, look towards the ground awaiting a pollinator. Curiously I saw not a single pollinator visit these flowers, even though they were the most abundant wildflower on much of the lower forested portions of the hike. Intrigued, I had to smell one, and it had a musky scent similar to that of Prunus or Ceanothus blossoms but reduced in intensity. Peculiar.
Rough hedgenettle, Stachys rigida
Approaching the Cascade Canal that runs parallel to the road to the trailhead, I noticed the nuanced flight of bees, and on closer inspection (by which I mean navigating some rocks to the center and avoiding falling in the water, refreshing as that may be) it was revealed that bees they were! A pair of bumblebees, regretfully unidentified, were foraging on the mint in a small island in the canal. The mint is rough hedgenettle, a wild relative to lambs ear (Stachys byzantina).
Scarlet gilia, Ipomopsis aggregata
After crossing the bridge that spans the Cascade Canal, there was a sunny clearing with a variety of wildflowers, and hordes of butterflies.
Into the woods
The next phase of the trail was through the woods. The ground was mostly flat, and the air was refreshingly cool. Giants loomed above me, mostly red fir (Abies magnifica), and wildflowers dotted the landscape along with woody debris. I exchanged pleasant greetings with passing hikers, most of which were returning from the summit. I had not thought to find out how long this hike would take, until by chance I asked some hikers who informed me that the summit was many hours away. There was a moment of discouragement which I hastily disregarded and continued down the path towards the summit.
Scouler's harebell, Campanula scouleri
The tiny Scouler's harebell was in bloom near the trail along with other diminutive wildflowers. The similar but taller Campanula prenanthoides is visited primarily by bumblebees (personal observation) and I would expect that C. scouleri to be the same, though there was a notable lack of visible pollinators at the forest floor at the time of my being there.
One-sided wintergreen, Orthilia secunda
One plant that intrigued me was the aptly named one-sided wintergreen. Aptly named, because the flowers all hung on a single side of the scape, though in retrospect I regret not crushing and sniffing the leaves to see if they smelled minty, but who does that really? It was the second most common plant in bloom after the Chimaphila, at least in the forest at the low end of the trail. The flowers are green, urn shaped, with long stigmas extending out. I found them to be charming.
Hadromyia pulchra male
Once under the cover of the trees, there was only the occasional buzz of a flying insect (not counting the mosquitoes which did not bother me too much, but, as I was informed, "mauled" some of the other hikers). This large syrphid fly buzzed very loudly indeed, so much so that I initially mistook it for a yellowjacket. I think this was a case of Batesian mimicry in which the fly, harmless, makes itself as conspicuous as possible by flying right up to and around a potential predator, mimicking the sound of a wasp, and even resembling a bee or wasp in the color scheme.
Laphria ventralis male
A large male robber fly perched on a rotting log, seeks a mate, a meal, or both.
Carpenter ant, Camponotus sp.
The most conspicuous insects of all were the carpenter ants. They are large wood nesting ants that live in dead, often rotten, wood. They are omnivorous, eating both dead and living insects, honeydew, and occasionally nectar. They don't eat wood, but rather remove it from their nest as they create tunnels and chambers for food and larvae.
Townsend's chipmunk, Neotamias townsendii
Chipmunks and birds were the extent of the vertebrate wildlife I saw. Birds were mostly heard but not seen. Chipmunks have a strange call, and I've often mistaken the call of squirrels and chipmunks for bird calls. Caught this one red handed.
White-flowered hawkweed, Hieracium albiflorum
Common, and probably overlooked or underappreciated, white-flowered hawkweed flowers by the edge of the trail. Each small yellow stigma is part of a single flower, the entire daisy is in fact an inflorescence.
White-veined pyrola, Pyrola picta
White-veined pyrola, very similar superficially to some species of Goodyera, except the venation is quite different. Goodyera is an orchid (Orchidaceae), but Pyrola picta is in the Ericaceae, along with Chimaphila umbellata and Orthilia secunda.
Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata
A variety of parasitic plants grow along the trail, yet the only thing they seem to have in common is they lack the ability to photosynthesize and instead rely on other sources for nutrients. Corallorhiza is in the orchid family, and rely entirely on mycorrhizal fungi. It seems unclear whether coralroot is insect-pollinated or self-pollinated.
Spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata
Small spots on the lip of the flower suggests that insects are the primary pollinators of coralroot, though in the absence of reliable pollinators the plant has evolved a backup strategy to pollinate itself and form seed independent of insects. Cross pollination is preferable for most plants as it diversifies the gene pool, though some plants are capable of selfing without suffering from the effects of inbreeding.
Striped coralroot, Corallorhiza striata, going to seed
Dutchman's pipe, Monotropa hypopitys
Unsurprisingly, another ericaceous plant, this time in the form of a parasitic plant that does not produce chlorophyll but rather survives through the mycorrhizal network.
Dutchman's pipe, Monotropa hypopitys, close-up of flowers
Gomphaceae (?)
Fungi are ever important in the forest, and everywhere else. Mycorrhizal fungi, those which form mutualisms on and within plant roots, are thought to have relationships with the majority of the plants on the Earth. Mutualistic, because both parties benefit from the relationship. The fungi feed on root exudates, and the plant benefits in multiple ways from the expanded surface area of the root system as the fungi attain a greater amount of water and nutrients than the roots can do alone, and the fungi block passage of pathogens, among other things.
Nearing the subalpine zone, many broken and stunted trees become apparent. The trail at this point is arduous at best, an uneven winding stairway of large angular volcanic boulders of unequal size.
The trail, at this point, became very difficult for me. But, turning around periodically and forcing myself to stop was motivating because I got to see my progress. Passing hikers informed me that the summit was still at least two or three hours away.
Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa
Entering the subalpine zone, the forest opened up and I began to see flowers again. Trees were not as tall, and not as frequent. The air, even in the direct sun, felt cool. A light breeze was invigorating. I wanted to keep going. My body said no while my mind said yes. I was inspired most of all by this single plant, the bleeding heart fed my curiosity and I wanted to see what else was flowering.
Western bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa
Though this is a common wildflower, blooming months earlier in the lower elevations, this is the first one I've seen growing wild. The flowers are odd, pollinated by bumblebees. Dicentra is in the poppy family, Papaveraceae.
Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa
The higher one goes, the most compressed the flowering season. Flowers that may bloom in spring in low elevations will bloom in summer in higher elevations. Western columbine, sharing the specific epithet with Western bleeding heart, is typically found blooming in the spring in similar niches as the bleeding heart in the lowlands. While both typically grow wild in somewhat shady, moist areas, in the higher elevations they grow in the open among rocks in full sun.
Western columbine, Aquilegia formosa
Columbines are bee-pollinated, though garden varieties seem to be subject to nectar robbing. Nectar is held within the spurs, and in gardens, in my observations, carpenter bees and bumblebees will just chew holes in the spurs to reach the nectar. Smaller bees were seen visiting the native columbines in both the lowlands earlier in the year and here in the subalpine environment.
Pinemat manzanita, Arctostaphylos nevadensis
Pinemat manzanita was frequently encountered spreading across stretches of the open area between the sparsely treed subalpine zone, sprawling over boulders. Most were forming berries, and only the shrubs higher up the mountain were in flower.
Cuckoo wasp, Chrysididae
Above the reign of the pinemat manzanita, boulders began to dominate the landscape between the occasional conifer. Between these boulders, pockets of soil has formed. In this soil, solitary bees and wasps were building and provisioning nests. One such wasp, a metallic green cuckoo wasp, was carefully visiting every nook and cranny for a nest entrance of another bee or wasp in order to deposit an egg in. Cuckoo wasps are stingless wasps whose larvae feed on the provisions of other wasps or bees, and thus they don't bother constructing or provisioning nests of their own.
Davidson's penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii
Rock plants, those cherished plants that grow in higher elevations among rocks, are one of the main reasons I wanted to make this hike happen. Davidson's penstemon is a low lying evergreen woody perennial that likes sharp drainage and rocky soils, clearly. Alpine and subalpine soils are formed very slowly, often composed largely of minerals and small quantities of organic mater that has deposited between rocks and in cracks by way of wind or from the sparse vegetation.
Davidson's penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii, with a small bee (Halictidae)
A small bee, a halictid bee of some sort, was foraging on the penstemon while I was admiring it. Small bees have the advantage of fitting inside flowers of this sort. The long floral tube of this penstemon may inhibit larger bees from accessing the nectar. The genus Penstemon, commonly called beardtongue, because of hairs within the corolla. The hairs, I think, serve to exclude inefficient pollinators or nectar thieves and perhaps also slows evaporation.
Davidson's penstemon, Penstemon davidsonii, with a small bee (Halictidae) inside the floral tube
California tortoiseshell, Nymphalis californica, on subalpine fir, Abies lasiocarpa
Both tortoiseshell butterflies and fir trees were very common on the mountain. The former were seen at all elevations, from the trailhead to the ridge. Their caterpillars feed of Ceanothus, their primary host, while the adults visit flowers. I also wonder if the adults feed on tree sap. Tree sap isn't an odd food for butterflies, some in the same genus feed nearly exclusively on sap, id est the Mourning cloak, Nymphalis antiopa.
Marum-leaved buckwheat, Eriogonum marifolium, male flowers
Upon entering the Upper Realm of the mountain, I saw more and more rock plants. Plants in this zone are mostly compact and small, an advantageous evolutionary trait. Conditions can be harsh at the top of a mountain, with conditions favoring desiccation. Plants must be able to survive long dry periods under snow, dry because all of the water is locked up in the form of snow until it starts to melt sometime in late spring or early summer. Growth tends to be very slow, the season is short.
Marum-leaved buckwheat, Eriogonum marifolium, male plant
Eriogonum, sometimes called wild buckwheat, was all over the place. Marum-leaved buckwheat, is interesting because the plants are either male or female. Male plants have yellow flowers, while female flowers are red and yellow (see below).
Marum-leaved buckwheat, Eriogonum marifolium, female flowers
In my experience eriogonums are visited by a huge range of pollinators, from many different types of bees and wasps, to beetles, butterflies, and various flies. Eriogonum marifolium is also a host plant for the buckwheat blue butterfly, Euphilotes battoides.
Marum-leaved buckwheat, Eriogonum marifolium, female plant
Marum-leaved buckwheat is native to the West, mostly Northern California, Southern Oregon, and maybe Nevada. Oddly, the common name comes from a similarity between its leaves and the leaves of Teucrium marum, a Mediterranean native, to which it isn't remotely related.
Oarleaf buckwheat, Eriogonum pyrolifolium
Sometimes plants are given common names that reflect their shapes or textures. Oarleaf buckwheat is so called because of the shape of the leaves. Another, less flattering name, is dirty socks, which is apparently in reference to its odor. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I can't confirm this.
Oarleaf buckwheat, Eriogonum pyrolifolium
Whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis
Many of the trees were either stunted or contorted. Whether this is their normal growth habit, or a result of their growing conditions, or both, is unknown to me.
Thread-waisted wasp, Ammophila sp.
The compacted sandy soil of the trail is a popular nesting place for a variety of solitary wasps, and probably bees as well. Ammophila excavate nests in sandy soil. A female will first dig a nest then use a pebble and sand to conceal the entrance before embarking on the task of finding a caterpillar host. Once paralyzing a host and returning to the nest, she will reopen the nest and drag the caterpillar inside. Once enough hosts are delivered into the nest, or a single large caterpillar host is delivered, the female will lay an egg and seal the nest again with a pebble and cover it in sand to hide it. If the host caterpillar is large, the female wasp will be unable to fly with it and must drag the prey back to the nest, occasionally at incredible distances from the nest site. How they can find their way back to the nest whilst dragging their prey is a mystery. It would be similar to taking a plane from a house you just moved into and then walking backwards back home.
Kleptoparasitic pompilid wasp, Evagetes sp.
Spider wasps were everywhere if one was looking. Spider wasps, as the name implies, seek out spiders to provision their underground nests. A single spider is paralyzed, pulled into the nest (or sometimes in the spiders own burrow) and a single egg is laid upon it. The nest is then sealed, and the wasp larvae feeds on the living but immobilized spider.
Kleptoparasitic pompilid wasp, Evagetes sp.
Not all spider wasps capture their own spiders, such as the genus Evagetes. Instead, some steal nests from other spider wasps, kill the host larvae, and lay their own egg inside. This is called kleptoparasitism.
Square-headed wasp, subtribe Crabronina
Other wasps were certainly present, such as crabronid wasps. Solitary predatory wasps often visit flowers as adults, while capturing various prey insects to feed to larvae in nests in the ground, in wood, or in cracks and crevices between rocks. Bees are thought to have evolved from crabronid wasps.
Partridgefoot, Luetkea pectinata
I was running low on water, poor planning on my part, so I made the risky judgement call to leave the trail and cut across the scree to reach the snow patch on the southern side of the slope. I knew that if I could reach the ridge, I would find my way, and to reach the ridge all ?I had to do was climb up. I would not recommend anyone leave the trail on purpose. The trail becomes difficult to see anyway as it is mostly boulders, and footprints of previous hikers often leave the trail since they too sometimes take the wrong route.
Partridgefoot, Luetkea pectinata
The scree was very difficult to navigate, but I needed water. The sharp sand scattered with stones is held up by practically nothing, much like walking on a sand dune. Many plants thrive in this sandy medium. I needed to stop several times while crossing the scree, practically collapsing in a heap in front of the beautiful partridgefoot. There were a half dozen or so pollinators, flies and wasps I think, that quickly departed when I arrived.
The roots of subalpine and alpine plants are astoundingly long and deep. On the southern slope there were many plants pulled out of the ground, I imagine this was the work of heavy snow slowly sliding downhill. The roots need to reach deep in the sand to anchor the plants, and to find water. Water is not readily available in a scree, something that differentiates it from a moraine which has running water beneath it.
I had reached the snow, and took a long break before climbing up. I got brain freeze, an unexpected holdup. As I was sitting, I heard people calling out. I thought they were yelling to me, but then I heard a call from the opposite side of the slope. Someone had begun to descend the slope in the completely wrong direction. Fortunately his friends set him straight. I imagine a handful of people get lost up here every year.
Thick-leaved groundsel, Senecio crassulus
Castilleja sp.
Cobwebby paintbrush, Castilleja arachnoidea
Many wildflowers, including paintbrush, adorned the sandy slope as I made my arduous ascent. My tip for climbing up a scree, avoid the sandy areas and aim to climb where there are boulders instead.
Cobwebby paintbrush, Castilleja arachnoidea
Wildflowers, each in a special niche
Finally, I had made it to the ridge, and I knew I could find my way down safely.

Admiring the view from the low end of the ridge, I had to decide whether to continue to the peak or turn around. I was exhausted, it was getting late. A few hikers, father and son, greeted me as they started to descend. I asked how much farther to the summit, and they told me 45 minutes of difficult terrain. Pride urged me to keep going but I decided against it. I was dizzy, tired, and eager to get down before dark.
California tortoiseshell, Nymphalis californica
Before heading back down, I sat next to a large ice patch to fill my water bottle once more. A tortoiseshell landed directly on the ice nearby and was drinking from it. I was enthralled.
Alpine gold, Hulsea nana, the only flower I saw blooming on the ridge.
Though I didn't make the summit, it gives me motivation to return and do it again.

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