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Butterflies – Identification and Photography


The identification and photography of butterflies begins with a lifetime of casual observation. Probably all outdoor people, from hunters to gardeners, are aware that many butterflies are beautiful creatures. As a boy, I didn’t know proper names, so gave them my own names. For example: the fritillaries I saw were “leopard” butterflies, and the swallowtails were “tiger” butterflies.

As an adult, my youngest son and I had a good summer putting together a small butterfly collection. I was forever discouraged from collecting after that time because some variety of carrion beetles got into the wooden boxes containing our specimens and destroyed them.

Learning to photograph butterflies and moths

Terry has shared his introduction to butterfly identification and photography. During the past two years we have experienced a sharp learning curve in lepidoptery – the study of butterflies and moths. There have been some surprises and a lot of lessons in knowing where to find them, how to approach them, and the photography challenges they present to us.

First, here are some generalities we’d like to share:

  • Some butterflies are very limited in their arrival times and existence. “Arrival” itself has multi meanings. It can mean from a migration to the local area, or from wintering over in one of three stages of its life – egg, larva (caterpillar) or pupa (chrysalis). A few hibernate as adults in warmer climates. Most butterflies only live a couple of weeks in the adult stage, others longer – like the Monarch Butterfly. We have seen just a few of those on our property. Some species are with us all season from spring into autumn. Others appear and disappear in the course of a few weeks.
The Monarch Butterfly - famous for its migration from Mexico to Canada.
The Monarch Butterfly – famous for its migration from Mexico to Canada.
  • Their food sources will pretty much determine their presence and their ability to successfully breed and produce. Many larval stages are dependent on specific plants such as specific milkweeds for the Monarch Butterfly larvae.
  • Butterflies have very strong vision – a male is able to spot a distant mate while “hilltopping” along a ridge top while she flitters about in the brush. They are also aware of approaching photographers. We learned to move in close to them on flowering shrubs or ground flowers very, very slowly so not to frighten them off.
  • Butterflies are attracted to more than flowering plants. They seek out moist ground, mud, rotting fruit, flowing sap and even animal scat. They will continue to work an area repeatedly, day after day, and perch near these food sources.
  • Always check hillside seeps, streamsides, ponds, and puddles. It’s not unusual to find many species together.

Photographing butterflies requires attention to some points. With digital imagery, fast shutter speeds are important. Many butterflies engage in a body vibration barely visible to the naked eye as they nectate on blossoms. You have to stop this action for a sharp image. Today’s equipment allows for remarkable captures for those who apply fast settings.

We were often successful in photographing butterflies when we planted ourselves in the middle of their feeding sites. We quietly waited on them to move in on us. Some are quite tolerant under these circumstances. The wariest species would instantly flee if we walked in upon them while they were feeding.

Siva Juniper Hairstreak - only 1/2 to 3/4 inches.
Siva Juniper Hairstreak – only 1/2 to 3/4 inches.

Terry and I always attempt to correctly identify everything we photograph. Be aware that this is often tricky when dealing with butterflies and moths. Primarily, this is a relatively very young science with many unknowns. The guide books have limited ability to include the many variations of a species, and even species themselves are yet to be confirmed. We found several insects in our area that required professional help to identify as they were not previously known to be in our location, or they had markings that were variable. At first we were excited by new discoveries, but we have come to expect there will be many unknowns. We have cataloged our butterfly images based on the founding works of Paul Opler and Andrew Warren, as also used by Kaufman’s “Field Guide to Butterflies of North America.”  Click on this link to our slideshow of butterfly images we have taken on our property and nearby – all Grant County, Oregon: https://www.terrysteelenaturephotography.com/butterflies-oregon/



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