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How to Shoot Butterflies   Leave a comment


Philip Davison Nature Diaries. Bosque del Cabo Rain Forest Lodge.

Shooting Butterflies

Over the course of seventeen years monitoring butterfly populations on the grounds of Bosque del Cabo Rain Forest Lodge, I have inventoried just under 400 species of butterfly.  Most butterflies spend their days as adults at the top of the trees where it is a little difficult to see them so the species I have observed have been at ground level.  Many species I have only seen once and then never again so they have been fortuitous sightings.  It may not be that the butterflies are rare but rather, for whatever reason, found themselves fleetingly making their way from the canopy to ground level.

Most of my monitoring takes place at forest edges which essentially is where the forest canopy comes to the ground.  I do have trails that take me through the forest but the incidence of sightings is much lower here.  Also, the open areas and gardens are always a good place to see butterflies and the opportunity of seeing more species and individuals is increased if there are patches of nectar producing plants to entice them to hang around.

Many butterflies do not seem to land and can be seen on the wing but always fluttering by. Those that do land, once warmed by the sun do not stay in one place for more than a fleeting second or two.  Their wings are constantly moving and after a quick sip of nectar and a few strong wingbeats they are airborne again.

Given the above, when it comes to photographing butterflies there are several problems to overcome.  Butterflies respond to movement and color.  It is rarely that they will stay perched if you are moving in a quick and jerky manner, that is behavior guaranteed to affect their departure.  Nor do they like being chased.  So many people say to me, “I chased the butterfly everywhere but it would not settle”.  There is little chance of obtaining an image if you are pursuing your subject.  The best course of action is to observe the creature’s behavior, to know your subject.

Many of the longwings feed on the nectar of Lantana camara.  Set yourself up, preferably with a tripod but you can do it handheld, and keep the camera focused on one particular bloom.  As long as all of your settings are correct, as soon as the butterfly lands just press the shutter release.  Earlier in the morning is best as the butterflies are not so warmed up at that time and tend to stay still for longer.  Also, the sun is not as fierce as midday so you don’t have to fight bright light and strong contrast.

Inside the forest beneath the canopy there is a different set of problems.  Here the light levels are low and many of the forest species fly close to the ground.  A lot of the species here will be Satyrs and they don’t have the bright, gaudy poster colors of the species that favor open areas.  Here the colors are from a palette rich in earthy browns, ochres and grays.  However, upon close scrutiny you will find that nature has blended this collection of more subdued tones into an array of wonderfully subtle patterns that give the almost feeling of deep rich velvet textures or the appearance of a miniature intricately woven Persian rug.

The problem now faced by the photographer who wants to fill the frame with image is one of gradually lowering yourself to ground level and slowly sneaking up on your belly to get close enough to capture every minute detail.  It can be done but patience is a virtue here.

I always keep the settings on the camera more or less the same.  The shutter speed I keep at 1/30 sec if I am using the camera hand-held unless I am photographing skippers, which tend to react very quickly to flash, in which case I will use anything from 1/150 to 1/200 of a second.  The ISO is set to automatic but not to exceed 400.  The f-stop is the only one I change.  For the butterflies I use a 105 mm macro lens.  If using a tripod, I use manual settings.  If carrying the camera in my hand I use autofocus settings.  I start off taking a shot at f13 and if the subject stays still then I decrease the aperture through f16, f22 and finally f32.  Each time I have to slightly increase the flash by several stops.  If everything works out right and I have a little bit of luck then I can usually get the shot, not always, but a large percentage of the time it does work.

Old and New

Last week when I was out conducting my weekly butterfly counts I managed to get a few photographs.  I only carry the camera when I am doing my research lest I should see a species I cannot identify or an opportunity presents itself to capture a subject that lends itself to an easy shot.  I do not go with the intention of photographing any particular subject as I have no time while walking a timed transect, it has to be quick and easy.

It was lucky that I had the camera with me because I found two species I had not seen before and I needed to see the less than obvious patterning.  The first was a metalmark, family, Riodinidae which flew past me along the forest edge.  These tend to be small butterflies and you quite often have to see smaller diagnostic details to know what you have.  This one was pale blue dorsally when it flew but when it landed the underside of the wings were a drab yellow color with white ovals centered with a black spot.  What I had found was a Blue-based Theope, (Theope virgilius).  There are seventeen species of Theope recognized in Costa Rica, they are by no means common and are very hard to identify.  Luckily I managed some good shots of this individual.

Blue-based Theope. Riodinidae. Felipe del Bosque.

Blue-based Theope

Later that same morning while walking this time on a trail through secondary forest, a small black and white butterfly kept alighting on leaves close to the ground and all the while constantly opened and closed its wings.  So here was a challenge.  I had to get close enough and I also had to make sure I synchronized hitting the shutter button while the wings were open.  Not only did I manage that but then I rolled over on my side at an awkward angle to get a photo of the under-surface while the wings were closed.  Searching through the reference material later that day I was pleased to find that this was the second new record for the area in one morning.  This one was Catilia ofelia, a nymphalid in the subfamily: Nymphalinae.  It is found widespread throughout Central America but is not often seen.  Like so many Neotropical butterflies very little is known about its life-history.

Castilia ofelia. Bosque del Cabo Rain Forest Lodge.

Castilia ofelia

Castilia ofelia. Nymphalidae. Osa Peninsula. Costa Rica.

Castilia ofelia – underwing

As the day progressed I saw a large number of different species, after all this time of year is the peak of butterfly activity.  The sad situation is that over the course of the past seventeen years then the number of both adults and species has declined in a linear fashion year by year.  On the trail through secondary forest I found, at different locations, three species that I had seen many times previously that stayed perched long enough for me to get the shots.

The Orange-rimmed Owl-Butterfly, (Catoblepia orgetorix), is one of the owl butterflies, related to the morphos.  They have a habit of resting head up on the trunks of trees.  This species has two distinct large eye spots on the underside of the hind-wing.  These butterflies have no toxic defense and rely on the fact that they fly in dark, shady areas and more particularly at dusk.  The wings are easily torn and any predator, whether it be a lizard or bird, will strike at the false eyes and only be rewarded with a tatty piece of wing membrane which you can see has already happened to this individual.  The literature cites this as an Atlantic species only but it is not uncommon to find it in the forests of Bosque del Cabo.

Orange-rimmed Owl-Butterfly. Morphinae. Bosque del Cabo.

Orange-rimmed Owl-Butterfly, (Catoblepia orgetorix)

Another butterfly to be found commonly perched, this time head down, on tree trunks is the Dirce’s Beauty, (Colobura dirce).   There is only one species within the genus Colobura.  The underside of the wings have a very obvious pale and dark striping with a broad cream band.  A closer look reveals quite a fabulous abstraction of patterns and color.  It is a widespread species occurring extensively throughout Central and South America.  This is a reflection of its larval host plant, Cecropia of which there are many species.  It is one of the butterflies that will readily land on you to imbibe sweat from your skin.

Dirce's Beauty. Nymphalidae. Philip Davison

Dirce’s Beauty, (Colobura dirce)

Cattleheart butterflies are not always easy to identify when flying.  With time the different species in an area can be distinguished one from the other but it always helps if they land which they rarely do.  Most of them have a pattern of red blocks on the underside of the hindwing and a yellow bar across the underside of the forewing.  The difference in these features is sometimes very subtle.  The similarity of the species and the exhibition of aposematic or warning coloration suggest that they are toxic to eat and are members of a Mullerian mimicry complex – where all co-mimics of toxic species closely resemble each other.  I only ever see Parides species flying in the forest, never in the gardens.  From the features I could not clearly see that I was photographing a Green-celled Cattleheart, (Parides childrenae).

Green-celled Cattleheart. Osa Peninsula.

Green-celled Cattleheart, (Parides childrenae)

Philip Davison Is a Biologist, Writer and Photographer Based in Costa Rica