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CdV's Field Notes, 1/13/19: Ladybugs on Harsin Butte

It was hazy in the Wallowa Valley today—air stagnation warning, blue woodsmoke, lingering fog over the river—and so, for our weekly Sunday Outing, my husband and I decided to head north, out to The Nature Conservancy’s Zumwalt Prairie Preserve, to hike Harsin Butte for fresh air and a view. We knew there’d be sun out there. We crossed our fingers that the road would be navigable. It was, more or less. We had to break out the tire chains, which were caked with mud and rust from an ill-fated adventure last spring in the mountains of Utah, but ask me about that some other time. Today, the butte.

We gunned through the drifts, turned into the Preserve, and coaxed the car across the prairie to the base of Harsin. We got out and stretched and began to make our way up the shadowy north slope. One elk called in alarm from the draw to the west; we never saw her.

The snow was crusty and wind-sculpted, rotten around the bunchgrasses and wild roses. As

the slope grew steeper and deeper, it grew harder to stay on top of the crust. We fell through and laughed and tried to sleuth out the best places for our boots. We tested hypotheses and envied the knowledge base of animals who spend all winter out on the snow. We wondered how long humans postholed around before inventing snowshoes and crampons—not very long, we figured, as we sank thigh-deep into another drift. (The oldest snowshoe so far discovered is 5800 years old, I read later.) We avoided the shrub tips and picked our routes crabwise along the windward tilts of the drifts, imitating the tactics of a local fox, who seemed to have developed a pretty solid travel strategy—though even he had trouble where the hill was steepest. I love the moment, captured in this photo, when the fox slips a little off his own neat track.

The top of the butte was wealthy with sunshine. Cole and I were warm from our tricky hike and thrilled to be gazing at this spectacular, familiar landscape: south toward the Wallowa Valley and the mountains, east toward Hells Canyon and the Seven Devils, northwest across my Wild Connections project area toward the ridgelines of the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. In that direction, I tried to pick out Starvation Ridge, which was my initial proposal for a hiking destination today; when I suggested it, Cole said No Way we’re going to a place called Starvation Ridge in the middle of January.

As we poked around in the sunshine, listening to the birds, we came across something odd: ladybugs. Dozens of them. The rock outcrop where we found them faced south; the rocks were warm, and the beetles were out in droves, soaking up the sun, clustered in the darker crevices. We were delighted for a moment and then we were confused, even alarmed: why are these ladybugs emerging in January? Are they out for some vitamin D, as Cole and I are? But it takes a lot of energy for creatures to wake from hibernation. There’s no food for them out here, unless the aphids are hatching early too: unlikely, at 5500 feet, when the plants are dormant.

Call me a girl with a dark turn of mind, but I felt sure that the ladybugs were here because of climate change: unusually high midwinter temperatures, I figured, triggered an early emergence. I’m no entomologist; I hope there’s a benign explanation; if anyone reading this can reassure me, please get in touch. But when I got home, I did what the amateurs do: I Googled Lady Bug Emergence for a while, and the internet called it a First Sign of Spring. Well, it’s not spring. It’s January.

I’m unsettled, but I value moments like this: when I see something I haven’t seen before, in a place I know well, and my naturalistic curiosity is triggered. It’s important to reckon with how quickly things are changing, in this place, on this planet. We humans are very adaptable, and sometimes our brains and bodies enjoy conditions that may spell disaster for other creatures. Cole and I did enjoy the rest of our day in the warm sun, in the fresh air, but as I climbed into bed I was thinking: I hope not all of them came out. I hope some of them are still deep in the divots in the rocks, sleeping until spring.

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