For me, a camera is an essential piece of outdoor gear regardless of the time of year or the activity I'm engaged in. Sometimes my camera is the only piece of gear I take on some outings, which often turn into mini photo safaris. A couple of those short hikes recently produced some exceptional opportunities to photograph several species of late-summer butterflies.
Although it may sound trite, photographing butterflies in the wild offers many challenges that parallel conventional hunting. These colorful insects will allow you to get close, but only so close, similar to most game birds and animals. That "zone of tolerance" varies somewhat from species to species and even with the weather, but to produce a good photo I've generally try to approach within three to five feet to set up for a shot.
Even at that distance, a telephoto lens is necessary, and that means shooting from a tripod. So along with having to use some basic stalking skills just to get close enough, that stalk needs to be made while lugging a bulky tripod with camera attached, often through waist-high weeds. Once in position, the tripod needs to be set without frightening the subject. Then the camera must be carefully aimed to frame the photo before finally clicking off a shot or two. That is if all those things can be accomplished before the butterfly flits off to another flower, forcing you to start the process all over again.
So why would anyone want to spend time at something that often yields more frustration than photos? I suppose for the same reason we walk through miles of thickets and grapevine tangles to flush a grouse or two or sit for hours in the wind and cold waiting for a buck to walk by. Of course, in nature photography just as in hunting, there are those wonderful days when everything seems to fall into place, making the effort all the more worthwhile.
That is how I felt when I found a spot where several monarch butterflies proved to be willing models for my camera.
On two different days, I was able to shoot these large, well-known butterflies as they busily extracted nectar from various wildflowers such as purple loosestrife, New England aster and boneset.
Also in the area were some viceroys. These orange-and-black butterflies closely resemble monarchs although they are slightly smaller. Most of the viceroys I encountered were much more difficult to get close to than the monarchs were. In spite of that trait, I was able to get many good shots of them too.
The common buckeye is smaller still, but in spite of it size, it is stunning to see close up. Buckeyes have a pair of dark eyespots on its fore and hind wings along with white and orange stripes to create an intriguing color pattern unlike almost any other species in our area. Buckeyes are also rather flighty and like to perch on the ground along paths or grassy spots. To photograph them requires a careful stalk on hands and knees.
Kneepads are also a help when photographing another common butterfly this time of year, the eastern tailed blue. These tiny butterflies are no bigger than a fingernail and stay close to the ground or patches of gravel, which is why many folks never notice them in spite of their abundance.
Tailed blues are magnificently beautiful insects whose wings have completely different patterns on the upper and under sides. When at rest, however, this butterfly almost always hold its wings upright and together like a tiny sailboat so the bright blue upper side that gives it its name is rarely visible. The underside is grayish-white with a pattern of dark spots along with an orange spot at the edge of each hind wing near the tiny tail that is also characteristic of the species.
In addition to those four species, I was also able to get close-up photos of several other species of butterflies that are present this time of year, including yellow and black swallowtails, great spangled fritillary, silver-spotted skipper, cabbage white and clouded sulphur, along with some dragonflies, damselflies, beetles, bees and wasps. That's one of the extra benefits of hunting with a camera - everything is always in season and there are no bag limits.