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Dr. Glassberg’s Excellent Adventure Day 4 Alaska – Steese Highway


(Jeff explores Eagle Summit in search of the Astarte Fritillary. Pictured above is a Mustard White – ed)

Having quickly succeeded with Taiga Alpine and Early Arctic, I decided to try for Astarte Fritillary at Eagle Summit. Eagle Summit is about a two hour drive northeast of Fairbanks, along the Steese Highway.   Ken Philip, the posthumous author of Butterflies of Alaska, had detailed a population there.  The problem is knowing where “there” is.  Although I had spoken with Ken numerous times before his death in 2014, I had never thought to ask him exactly where on Eagle Summit did Astarte Fritillaries fly. I set out under sunny skies and arrived a little after 9 am.  I parked in a one-car pullout on the southeastern side of the Steese Highway and climbed the approximately 400 feet to the summit.  Even for a 71-year old flatlander from New Jersey, it wasn’t that difficult. As I climbed, I searched in all directions for rockslide/scree that is the habitat for Astarte Fritillaries.  I saw very little that looked promising.  I reached the summit and it was rather broad and flat, again with no rockslide/scree.  Scampering down the northwestern side, I finally saw an area with some amount of rockslide.  However, I didn’t see any Astartes.  In fact, I didn’t see any butterflies at all!  It was early for Astartes, the earliest date that I know about from here is June 15, so I wasn’t too worried about that.  I was more concerned about the lack of habitat.

Wildflowers near Eagle Summit

I spent another couple of hours looking around in the vicinity and managed to find a few butterflies – 4 Old World Swallowtails, a Western White, 3 Mustard Whites and, unexpectedly, 2 Taiga Alpines.  At around 12:30, butterflying was stopped by a sudden downpour, accompanied by pea-sized hail.

Eagle Summit

On the way back I did run into (figuratively) a moose mom and her young charge.

Young moose!

Back in Fairbanks, I contacted Derek Sikes, curator of entomology at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, to see if he had any more detailed information about the Eagle Summit location for Astarte Fritillaries. It turns out that he didn’t. This might be related to the fact that he works on carrion beetles. He did, however, suggest that I contact Zdenek Fric, a Czech national who had spent some time in Fairbanks and who he remembered going out for Astarte. So I did. And Zdenek quickly responded! Unfortunately, since his response was that he went out to Eagle Summit following Ken Philips instructions, but didn’t see any, was not encouraging, to say the least! He volunteered that he ended up thinking that perhaps the habitat was on the northwest side of the Steese Highway, rather than on the southeast side.

Near Eagle Summit
Alpine Flowers near Eagle Summit
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Dr. Glassberg’s Excellent Adventure Day 3 Alaska

(Jeff continues looking for the Early Skipper in the environs of Fairbanks. Pictured above is a female Palaeno Sulphur. – ed)

I wake up at 5:30 am. It looks like it’s going to be sunny this morning.  I reach the Sheep Creek Road bog at around 8:30 am.  The Common Alpines are already flying.  A female Palaeno Sulphur was nectaring at a dandelion look-alike.

Around 9 am I enter the bog, none too optimistic that I’m going to find any Early Arctics, since I didn’t see any yesterday.  As soon as I enter the bog, Jutta Arctics are all around.  They’re quite variable here.  Although most individuals have underside HWs much more contrastingly patterned than do individuals in populations throughout most of the rest of the range, some are fairly unicolorous.  When the Jutta Arctics take wing with their rather languid flight, the overall impression is one of darkness.  I end up counting 42 Juttas. 

Alpine Azalea and lichens

Taiga Alpines prove to be more common in the bog than I had realized yesterday, and I ended up getting some additional photos of the seven individuals that I saw.  Then, at around 9:45, a pale arctic flies in front of me and lands about 20 feet up in a spruce.  An Early Arctic! I grab a few distant, tough angle photos that are fairly useless except to document the sighting.  The butterfly itself, in addition to staying its distance, was old and worn.  Even so, the photographer, himself old and worn, was feeling elated! 

The Early Arctic!

Other butterflies in the bog included Canadian Tiger Swallowtails, Spring Azure, and one worn Bog Fritillary.  A few hours later, an arctic flew in and landed right beside me.  Startled, I turned quickly and frightened it, sending it off to a nearby spruce.  It was a second Early Arctic.  Although also worn and distant, I was able to get somewhat better (but still bad) photos of this individual.

Polaris Fritillary

Early in the afternoon, I drove to Murphy Dome. Although the temperature was 55 degrees, 10 degrees less than at Goldstream Bog, there were a few butterflies flying.  At a high spot, Old World Swallowtails were hilltopping.  Farther out in a moist tundra area, a few Polaris Fritillaries and Banded Alpines were flying.  I was able to snag some photos of a Polaris Fritillary and a lucky shot of the topside of a Banded Alpine in flight.  Driving back, just below the Dome, I braked the car as I saw an alpine landed on the side of the road.  It, and two others, proved to be Red-disked Alpines.  I had seen this species only one other day in my life, in Wisconsin, where, as some readers of American Butterflies may remember, I drove my car into the bog. This time, as with Banded Alpine, I was able to get a photo of the upperside of an individual in flight.

All in all, a pretty spectacular day.

female Polaris Fritillary
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Dr. Glassberg’s Excellent Adventure Day 1 and 2 Alaska

(Jeff is back in action, this time he’s headed to Alaska in search of its native butterflies! Pictured above is a Jutta Arctic on his finger. Enjoy! -ed)

Friday, June 7th

I boarded my flight from Newark to Chicago, dreaming of Early Arctics, Taiga Alpines and Astarte Fritillaries, three species that Jim Springer and I didn’t see on our 2016 trip to Alaska (see the article in American Butterflies).  Taiga Alpines are commoner in odd-numbered years, while both Early Arctics and Astarte Fritillaries only fly in odd-numbered years.

After I boarded the flight to Fairbanks from Chicago, I was happy to see that we had wifi and Direct TV, because the NBA finals game between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors was going to start at 9 pm EST.  However, both the wifi and the Direct TV disappeared when we hit the Canadian border, about 45 minutes into the six hour flight.  I wondered if this wasn’t because Toronto, the Canadian team, was ahead in the series. We made into Fairbanks a little early, and so I was able to see the last 8 minutes of the game.  Also, when we landed, at about 7 pm, it was sunny and 60 degrees out.  That was intoxicating! At 8 pm, I saw a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail flying by my hotel – that was strange.  

Canadian Tiger Swallowtail

Saturday June 8th

Early morning on the 8th was cloudy and cool, about 54 degrees.  I waited till about 10 am to drive northwest of Fairbanks, to a bog at the intersection of Sheeps Creek Rd and Goldstream Rd.  I parked at a spot where there were a series of ponds, holding nesting Horned Grebes along with American Wigeons, Shovelers, Spotted Sandpipers and other birds.  Almost immediately, an alpine flew next to me and landed.  Although, it turned out to be a Common Alpine (I ended up seeing about 30 of these), and not the Taiga Alpine I was looking for, it did serve to get the three birders who were standing there interested in butterflies.  

Common Alpine

I walked around, it was still cool and cloudy, and eventually spotted a brown form on a plant about 40 ft. from me.  I thought it likely that it was just some dead plant material, but when I got my binoculars on it, it was clear that it was an arctic.  Very excited, I acted on the mantra “shoot first and ask questions later”, firing off a few photos as I moved closer, assuming that it was an Early Arctic.  Finally, I was right up on it and took a long series.  It had obviously just emerged. I put my finger in front of it and it climbed on.  Whether for the warmth or for the thrill of a circus ride, I can’t say. After a bit, I put it back on the plant and it briefly opened up its wings, showing that it was a male.  Quite elated, I finally had enough photos.  I walked back to my car, sat down and looked at the photos.  The butterfly was a beautiful Jutta Arctic, not an Early Arctic.  Although I was happy to have seen it, especially since I’d seen Jutta Arctics just a handful of times in my life, still, it wasn’t a lifer.

Jutta Arctic

The sun came out and I found a trail into the bog.  Once within the bog, Jutta Arctics were everywhere.  I ended up counting 38 of them, although clearly there were many more in the bog.  They tended to fly quite low and usually landed within two or three feet of the ground, usually on a tree trunk. Eventually an alpine flew by and landed.  A quick look showed it to be the sought for Taiga Alpine, and I was able to grab a few not so great photos.  You are lucky that I’m not able to show you the little dance that I did!  Now that I had one of my three targets, I was unskunked, and life smelled a little sweeter.

The Taiga Alpine!