Clipper Mountains, 4/22/2020

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The following is a hiking trip report from a hike that I did last spring out in the desert--specifically focusing on the butterfly species I would (hope to) find.

Clipper Mountains, Mojave Desert 4/22/2020
(The following is an adaptation of a post originally made to the DesertLeps entomology listserve in the summer of 2020 regarding a hike I made in the desert.)
What's a month and a half of lateness? Just pretend I just went here yesterday and it will all be okay. Just think--if I wasn't a procrastinator I'd be an anti-crastinator, and then I'd never make these posts!

So... you can probably piece together enough vestiges of the backstory here sufficient to make a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. Once upon a time in a faraway land known as April 2020, when all we had to deal with was a pandemic (and killer cops, vicious rioters, and teargassing Trump weren't even on the radar), everything was peachy keen: freeways were clear, gas was cheap, and so long as you stayed away from formerly-crowded closed local rec areas, you could have virtually all the wilderness to yourself. With all of that ancient memory in this reality of curfews, normalizing gas prices, and once-again clogged traffic arteries, I hereby will taunt you with this account of that happier era.

With a once-in-decades lushness to almost the entire Southwestern desert owing to unusually late heavy rain, I deemed that if this wasn't the year to check out as many of the little-known, isolated ranges as possible, that year would never come. While the best Mojave sky islands are locked away by Dianne Feinstein's infamous open-air jail cell known as the Mojave National Preserve, there remain several outlying smaller ranges that could, conceivably, produce something interesting in a wet-enough season. Would that include a new indra colony? After all, we all know about the Deads, which were once a true hidden jewel.

After leaving home at nearly 8 p.m. om the 21st, a mediocre night's sleep departed me far too soon at the Newberry Springs Rest Area (if everyone had a spouse as faithful as insomnia is to me, the divorce and unhappiness rate would be zero!), I set out for the circa 75 miles it would take to reach my destination off of Essex Road. I had been wanting to visit the Clipper Range since first glimpsing them on a AAA map in 2003: they are no more than 10 air miles immediately due south of the Providences, and attain a respectable elevation (4600'). It's true there is no good road access, and no guarantee that anything would be there in this desolate corner of creation (although the indra god, Dr. Wayne Whaley, had privately told me he wouldn't be surprised if fordi was resident), but where there's a will there's a way, right?

Said access road, apparently a grandfathered cherrystem into the BLM wilderness (Mojave Trails National Monument allows collecting) that runs just above the north end of the range, is barely an improvement over parking on I-40--but at least you won't get your car towed. It's acceptable enough, lacking big rough rocks, but what it lacks in boulders it makes up for in soft, silty wash bottom crossings--and a lot of them. Both entering and exiting was a white-knuckled, prayerful experience. As far as I know it has no name, but there are official county signs at intervals. 

Right at around 8 a.m. I parked at the wash crossing (~2200') that would become the mouth of the main canyon taking one straight up to Clipper Peak (4605'), subsequently answering nature's call, drinking some water, and guzzling down part of a protein shake (not enough of both--something that would become quite apparent later). I just wasn't very hungry or thirsty and didn't want to force my body into doing something it didn't want to before what I knew would be a difficult physical test. The 22nd was slated to be a warm one, and indeed even at this relatively early hour it was already about 70F. The Mojave Desert "on switch" may have been a little sleepier than usual in the spring of 2020, but once it's go time, it's go time.

As most of us who have done these long roadless desert hikes before know, you proceed through an endless ocean of wash for eons before beginning to encounter anything interesting or gaining any altitude. Even at the lowest elevations, the E. fasciculatum desert subspecies was teeming with Euphilotes bernardino martini--a harbinger of greater leps to come once actually in the mountains? Despite the early giddy rush provided by these stunning albeit too-abundant polyommatines, the butterflying really took a while to get its sea-legs--a nectaring coloro here (and there was tons of nectar of many different kinds), a protodice there, and not a whole lot else. The numbers of the latter two gradually increased as I proceeded south, but not in any earth-shattering fashion. As the bounteous precipitation's effect was obvious all around and I was in a perfect drainage for its retention, this grew irritating--but all I had to do was look straight ahead to see a seemingly infinite stretch of relief awaiting me. Surely some of that high country had interesting stuff, including indra host, right? The canyon was anything but straightforward and direct--the placemarkers I made on Google Maps the day before to help keep me guided and grounded did their job, but at least there were no dry falls or tricky boulders, and very little brush. And, I had "plenty" of water, and my copious imbibement had me feeling fine, with no trace of my exhaustion from poor sleep. Whew, right?

One pleasant surprise on the latter half of my ascent was the trickle, and then thickness, of a beloved butterfly host--Keckiella antirrhinoides, the manna of Yahweh for desert populations of Euphydryas chalcedona. There was TONS of it--more than virtually anywhere save the Kingstons--and it was so big and healthy. I was positive that right around the corner I'd begin to see a familiar salmon-colored friend greet me in the wash bottom--or, barring that, a few remaining last instar caterpillars--or perhaps some early-instar masses if somehow I was just totally too late for everything. That greeting never came, and then this omnipresent bush penstemon wasn't so beloved after all. It's hard to believe the bug wasn't here not that long ago, and became extinct over decades of drought.

The final portion of the surge to the saddle is steep--and you'll be focusing more on surviving than swinging your net at this point. Any tumble here will be rough to say the least, as Mark Walker's ribs proved in February. That being said, even here the terrain wasn't too treacherous. The rocks were relatively well-anchored, and both the scree and huge jagged boulders of many similar final frontiers were quite lacking. Out of the corner of my eye a hundred yards or so before the final stretch, a purple twinkle caught my eye. "Nah... that can't be... or can it???", I asked myself, quickly starting to panic as I am prone to do when something special flits my way. Keeping in mind the recent listserve discussions of simaethis from just the day before, the stranger erased all doubts as it plopped down on a fiddleneck for a badly deserved meal. For once in my life, I took charge of my nerves and put my net down on the weary, but unmistakable, traveler. Even if I didn't catch another butterfly, this hike was now a smashing success!

From there, I quickly reached the saddle, and then the summit. I worked pretty much the entire high ridge on both sides of the saddle. A veritable Thamnosma heaven awaited me--with the P. p. coloro to match--albeit all but a couple were the expected zelicaon doppelgangers, even though I could have sworn I had a bright dark male f. clarki nectaring on brittlebush down below. I would wind up bagging a couple standard yellow females and even a badly-worn female form clarki; I got a half-dozen eggs across them, half of which came from the clarki. This wasn't quite what I hoped for but would be good enough for a re-pairing, the results of which I trust will be considerably more fruitful.

The coloro explosion gave a nice thrill, but it didn't pan out to anything else worthwhile. Not one indra hostplant (or specimen) would rear its head. Overall diversity was weak--I had a couple Chlosyne californica at the highest points, a few protodice, a good flight of A. cethura (most but not all of which were worn), and a hyantis/lotta or two. An extensive mesa outcropping of about 4000' was the closest thing to a Yucca schidigera plantation I've ever seen, and contained plenty of prime small plants and suckers among that crop, but if Yucca Giant-Skipper ever lived here, it got raptured some time past. (Needless to say, a certain other Megathymus from the desert was a non-starter, as well.)

With live pregnant ladies to care for in envelopes in my hot backpack and the clock ticking away on what would be a long descent, I began to inch my way down the mountain. I decided to check one last cone on the other side of the saddle--otherwise, the thought of "well you could have missed some Cymopterus there!" would forever torture me. That's when a foe that Dave Wikle and the aforementioned Dr. Whaley had long ago warned me of hit--I lifted my foot one foot to bag the little sub-summit and I got electrocuted by a low-potassium leg cramp. I was out of protein bars and quite low on water--a third or less of my gallon remained. I could have panicked, but instead took a deep breath and continued the short ascent with slower, more cautious steps. The cramps didn't go away, but subsequently lost much of their bite. With that final lump in the record books, I set down the saddle for good--guzzling about half my remaining H20 first. I focused on the pleasantly warm air, something that had eluded me for so much of the spring of 2020, and refused to dwell on my threateningly limited hydration or the infinite expanse of rocky ground in store. It's true that about the first third of the plummet would (literally) be a real downer in its steepness--what goes up, must come down--but I reminded myself of the lack of dangerous rocks or falls, and my deliberate calming act did the trick. Fake it 'til you make it!

Once I was at a more comfortable rate of descent, I once again began to notice butterflies. Apodemia (mormo? mejicanus? virgulti?) deserti made its appearance--quite belatedly, given the plethora of inflated buckwheats to choose from. An annoying junk-species in most years in the desert, Leptotes marina, was welcome for the time being, being plentiful but not overly so. One or two Burnsius and Heliopetes showed their faces, albeit just the usual. Why is Pyrgus scriptura always so restricted?!? No more stray hairstreaks--or any hairstreaks--would be found. I had essentially no water left, but was feeling fine. The leg cramps came on, albeit merely sporadically, and were not unmanageable.

When I concluded the retracing of the endless horizon of flat wash and reached my now-baking car at close to 3 p.m., it was nearly 90F and felt at least ten degrees warmer. It had to have been at least 30 degrees above that in my little wheeled oven. Even ten minutes with all the doors open barely fazed the autoclave inside. Dehydrated as I was, I glugged down close to a gallon of hot water as though my life depended on it, and finished my protein shake in my cooler. That would be one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I got the females on-ice and despite not feeling great, packed up and resumed the harrowing trek down the soft sandy dirt road. What else was I to do, stay there and cook? After a brief detour to rescue an incredibly dense horned toad immediately in the crosshairs of my tires, I was on the terra-firma of Old 66 sooner than expected, albeit only for a block before reuniting with 40.

My energy level was not helped by the blasting hot wind at 80 mph, and before long I would need to pull over somewhere for a nap. Full sun in the desert is not the best for restfulness, but the underpass of Kelbaker Road was just a little over twenty miles to the west and had wide shoulders. It would be unlikely that CHP would bother me there, out of the way of everyone. Indeed they did not--albeit I can't state the same of my rather offended insides. By getting myself so depleted on that trek (on a relatively empty stomach) and then overcompensating at the car, I gave myself a nice case of hyponatremia. For literally HOURS I couldn't stop relieving my bladder ever ten minutes, to the tune of what seemed like gallons at a time, with a pleasantly splitting headache as the cherry on top. With passing cars, including those pesky cop vehicles, not as infrequent as one would expect in this time of allegedly total shutdown, this was much harder than it needed to be. Before long, I was hit with both barrels when my bowel decided it was feeling left-out, and I was forced to make a detour a couple miles south to the first dirt side-road and low wash I could find to finish the alimentary circle-of-life. Needless to say, I wasn't getting any nap between the two-by-four perpetually dividing my cranium in half and the most petulant bladder in the history of mankind. Four hours later, I finally had enough of this nonsense. Popping a couple of my trusty car aspirin, I held it together enough to reach the Newberry Springs rest area yet again at around 7 p.m. There, I would finally get my nap, before what would be a somewhat kinder, gentler ride to Barstow for gas and at long last, mi casa.

Clipper Mountains, 2200-4600', East Mojave Desert/Mojave Trails National Monument, Essex, San Bernardino County, California, USA, Wednesday April 22, 2020, 8 am-2:30 pm. Full sun, light breeze on summit only, 70-88F. Very lush conditions throughout with lots of host and nectar--Encelia, Thamnosma, Spheralcea, Keckiella, multiple species of Eriogonum, etc.

DESERT BLACK SWALLOWTAIL Occasional during ascent and descent, very common on and around the high ridge with lots of Thamnosma, one of my best days ever for it. No larvae on the Thamnosma. This trip and my subsequent rearing demonstrated just how little I had paid attention to true coloro form clarki until now. I never realized that they often have yellow abdomens, and pale yellow abdomens at that. How bizarre and trippy!

CHECKERED WHITE Many all over, especially on summits, but not really common
DESERT MARBLE A few in decent shape at high points
DESERT ORANGETIP Fairly common on ridgeline, most (but not all--even at this late date) worn
ORANGE SULPHUR One female nectaring at bottom in wash, the only Coliadinae of the trip

BERNARDINO BLUE Abundant almost wherever Eriogonum fasciculatum was in full bloom, tied with desert black swallowtail for dominant butterfly of the day
MARINE BLUE Common at mid-elevation in canyon, but not annoyingly so
SILVER-BANDED HAIRSTREAK One worn stray near saddle at about 4200', as previously described

DESERT MORMON METALMARK Several in canyon bottom, not common though

CALIFORNIA PATCH Just a couple at the absolute summit
PAINTED LADY Only a few, thankfully!
QUEEN One or two, near the base

WHITE CHECKERED-SKIPPER A few in canyon bottom
LARGE WHITE-SKIPPER One possible flyby

Pros of the hike:

--If you want absolute solitude, you'll get it out here.
--The access road was okay.
--No dry falls or dangerously loose rocks!
--Quite aesthetically pleasing from start to finish.
--It was nice having a big boom of P. (p.) coloro.
--No snakes (this is for you, Ken D.)
--Silver-Banded Hairstreak, baby!!!


--No Papilio indra, or indra host. Overall poor diversity.
--I didn't budget for water and backpack food very well and paid the price.
--The sheer vastness of the hike was somewhat overwhelming, especially considering the meager butterfly rewards.

While proud of myself for crossing off my bucket list this must-do of nearly 20 years, I think this is a one-and-done for me. There's many other places in the desert to go.


Submitted: February 14, 2021

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