Big blooms, big butterflies

Photo by Eleanore Fahey / Special to the Sun – An original watercolor painting by Eleanore Fahey shows the delicate details of Kern River Valley’s newest residents: painted lady butterflies.

By Eleanore Fahey
Special to the Sun

About three weeks ago, the valley woke up to an infestation of small winged creatures, darting this way and that, without any regard for their personal safety. Lives were lost due to cars colliding with their two-inch bodies. No doubt some people tried to dodge them, but to no avail; they just kept coming. And all of this occurred during one of the biggest wildflower blooms in years.

Coincidence? No, not at all. While some folks searched for a religious answer, asking how God could know to provide abundant food for this multitude, the answer appears to be more prosaic. Every year these butterflies produce larvae which overwinter here and gestate until the next spring, which ended just a little over three weeks ago. This year, with the perfect conditions for abundant food sources, many more survived than usual. In years with a small wildflower bloom, many will starve.

California and the Kern River Valley go through a full cycle of weather events about every 10 years, says naturalist Alison Sheehey. Normal for the state is 5 years of drought, 4 years of wet/dry state and one year of super wet. This year, she said, Kernville had about 16 inches of long, steady rains (about 5 inches above normal) with cool mornings, perfect weather for those emerging from their cocoons.

During their short lifespan of about 2 weeks or a little more, these Painted Ladies (species Vanessa Cardui) spend their time feeding on plant nectar and preparing for the next generation. And, the plants benefit too, as the butterflies cross-pollinate in their search for nectar and incubation sites.

And what a fabulous job they have done in bringing colorful flora to our valley. Notable was the comparatively early arrival of poppy season, an event that continues to ornament the south-facing slopes of the highway 178 canyon area and some KRV home gardens.

In our valley, we are gifted with areas large and small that are filled with spring color. Within a short walk of this author’s home are visual bouquets of Purple Owl’s Clover, mixed in with multi-bloom stalks of Spider Lupine, the tiny Bird’s Eye Gilia, Popcorn Flower, the long-stemmed Blue Dicks, and carpets of a little sunflower called Goldfield. Ms. Sheehey cautions viewers to look but don’t touch the Tansy Phacelia, as little hairs along its stem can cause a rash. To identify, this lavender flower cluster unrolls itself in an arc, with three or more clusters per stem.

But the really big show can be found just east of Kernville, up Mountain 99, towards Riverkern. Streetside groves of Owl’s Clover and Goldfields give a preview of the event just beyond the rock-walled bridge at a site called Forebay. This area provides parking just off the road, or a decent dirt road to drive up for a closer look. And what a view it is! With the brooding mountains for a backdrop, great swaths of California Goldfields, Birds-eye Gilia, Owl’s Clover, and Miniature Lupine segue one into to the other. Amazing! And the view goes on for miles.

A note of concern: So that others may enjoy its almost pristine beauty, please do not create new walking trails or car paths. As they say, take only pictures and leave only memories.

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