Summer, sunshine, skippers

The chequered skipper makes its first appearance on my blog

Hat. Gloves. Raincoat. Thick trousers. Woollen socks. I’ve had to wear them too many times this spring. Temperatures were a few degrees below average in April and May and ths month was also characterised by endless rainy days. So I’ve long been waiting for summer, sunshine and skippers.

Over the past few years you have seen some posts on the Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae). The Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) now makes its first appearance on Red Admiral Butterfly Photography.

Yesterday I drove to NP Groote Peel in the south of The Netherlands, a well-known area for these skippers. It is only a small walk from the visitor center to the place-to-be. Years ago I learnt a lesson that it is almost impossible to find sleeping Chequered Skippers as they can be in the grass, but more likely hidden in bushes and trees. I forgot that lesson , but relearnt it again yesterday at 6 AM or so. Nothing. So I spent some hours birding, as I have done for most of the winter and spring.

Around 10 AM the sun was high in the sky and the skippers appeared. About the first shot is the one you see below. I used flash and the background is nicely even. That is a miracle in itself as the skippers fly very close to the ground, drinking nectar from flowers surrounded by ever present grass.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/250   ISO 100

The second shot was taken right after a cloud blocked the sun for a few minutes and this Skipper warmed itself again. I had maybe a minute to compose a shot with the best possible background, sharp from wing to wing to eyes.

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/3.5   1/500   ISO 100

For another hour or so I tried my best to produce a picture of the underside and the chequered pattern, but to no avail. Maybe next year? We’ll see. For now, let’s celebrate the arrival of summer and hope it lasts!

Butterfly courtship

A male trying to force a female to mate but she rejects

The butterfly season in The Netherlands really starts with the appearance of the Orange Tip (Antocharis cardamines). This year I decided not to set my alarmclock too early and not to drive to my favourite locations, but to try to take some nice photographs closer to home. This proved to be a good choice as yesterday’s results will show.

I had cycled for some 45 minutes to a certain location when I spotted a male Orange Tip flying by. I stepped down from my bike, grabbed the camera and was pulled into action immediately. The male was pursuing a female, but she was having none of it. The female spread her wings and lifted her abdomen in the air, a clear sign of rejection. This prevents the male from clasping his abdomen to hers and force her to mate.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/800   ISO 100

The male however was not deterred at all and continued to circle the female, trying his luck…

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/1000   ISO 100

…and circled some more before finally giving up.

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/1000   ISO 100

The female could then fly away to safety and continue feeding like nothing ever happened.

Do you know that song from Adele that start’s with “Hello, it’s me”. Doesn’t this picture remind you of it? With that eye popping out from under the flower?

Orange tip Anthocharis cardamines
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.5   1/1000  ISO 100

Let’s see what more surprise encounters this year’s butterfly season has in store!

Top tips for butterfly photography #4: qualities

Four top qualities every butterfly photographer should have

What makes a good butterfly photographer? Is it your state-of-the-art camera? I don’t think so. Is it your extensive knowledge of the natural environment? Certainly important, but not decisive. I believe your success as a butterfly photographer is largely determined by your qualities: some character traits that can make the difference between a productive day in the field or a disappointing one. Let me list four qualities that help me get the best results.

Blue sky heath near Arnhem
Netherlands, 2019. Under a blue sky carrying the heavy backpack. Copyright Fokko Erhart/Wildernisfoto
  • Stamina: probably the number one quality of every wildlife photographer, and maybe even more so with subjects as small as butterflies. Finding butterflies may involve hiking considerable distances with a heavy backpack, lying flat on your belly in the mud, wrecking your knees on stony surfaces, spending long days exposed to the sun and then still be abe to keep your camera steady and produce that marvellous shot. Last year in Hungary, a friend and I had spent an hour or so lying flat on our bellies in the mud, all wet and dirty. Just when we were about to finish up, I spotted a new species. To my friend’s amazement, I went back to my uncomfortable position to start shooting again. He said “It’s amazing, even now you go for it again!”. Yes, indeed…
Wading through rivers in Bulgaria
Wading through tivers in Bulgaria, 2017. Copyright Fokko Erhart/Wildernisfoto
  • Perseverance: butterfly photography can be a strain on your body and mind. In 2020 only, I set the alarm clock to 4 AM for most of the summer, drove 400km round-trip from Amsterdam to Maastricht at least five times, got stung by swarms of mosquitoes in Hungary after the wettest summer in twenty years, came home disappointed with nothing to show on my memory card a couple of times, suffered a mild heatstroke once and discovered a tick a little too late to my annoyance. Yet you move on, because you’re motivated by your purpose, and that’s to show the beauty of butterflies to the world.
Hungary 2020 early morning
Hungary 2020, 06:04. It’s already 23 degrees but I’m still wearing long sleeves against the swarms of mosquitoes. Copyright Fokko Erhart/Wildernisfoto
  • Patience: I suppose every wildlife photographer will agree that nature has its own ways. You can plan and prepare all you want, know the best spots and have the best equipment in your hands: if there’s nothing to see, you still leave empty-handed. Butterfly photography is all about patience: strolling around for many hours without seeing your target species and still keep trying. Finding your target species and waiting…..and waiting……and waiting…..for it to come close enough for a shot. Last year I was in Maastricht for the Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) which is extremely rare. One specimen had been spotted in a fenced-off field. I waited at the fence and saw many other butterfly photographers come and go. Most waited for ten minutes, saw nothing and moved on. I stayed. For two hours. Just watching grass grow. Then someone next to me spotted the Marbled White through binoculars. At least 50 meters away. Another 30 minutes passed. Then the butterfly suddenly sailed by, jumped the fence and stayed on our side for a minute before disappearing again. Only three very patient photographers enjoyed this perfect moment together, while at least as many missed it.
Marbled white Melanargia galathea butterfly
Marbled white (Melanargia galathea). Not the best shot, but better than nothing thanks to my patience. Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM f/4 1/1600 ISO 100
  • Creativity: this is the quality that I struggle the most with. Everybody can take a picture of a butterfly; most people can take a decent picture; a minority takes good pictures and only the best take outstanding pictures. I strive to be in the last group, but to be honest, I’m in the “good” group at best. My tendency is too much to go for the straightforward side-on shot with a nice even background. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not delivering striking images. And what serious amateur would not want to produce striking images? I know I’d like to. My intention for the coming season is to experiment with creative compositions, creative lighting and whatever else I can think of. Oh, and add two more rarities to my Dutch species list. No creativity needed there, just stamina, perseverance and patience. That I can manage!

Top tips for butterfly photography #3: on location

Four tips for better butterfly photography on location

In two previous blogs I described how to prepare your butterfly trip and what equipment to bring. Today, I will share four tips for when you are on location.

  • Look for butterflies that settled for the night: do you have at least two days at the same location? Then this is the best tip of all. At the end of the day when the sun starts to set, butterflies will look for a place to sleep. Some do this in the forest treetops and you will never find them, but many sleep on plants or flowers. The trick is very simple: follow the butterflies to their bedtime place, memorize the place and return the next morning. You can then walk straight to the right place and start shooting while the butterfly is still warming up

An Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) in late September afternoon at 17:56, France.

Adonis blue butterfly polyommatus bellargus
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5   1/200   ISO 250
  • Go to eye-level: if you are a beginner, it pays off to get on your knees and eye-level with plants and flowers. Check them one by one for butterflies resting. A tiring task but usually with good results. Over time I have experienced I have developed an “eye” for spotting butterflies and it takes me much less time than when I started this hobby.
  • Use the early morning sun: many butterflies, such as Blues, Browns and Skippers, have a habit of sleeping in the grass or perched on branches or flowers. In the first hour or so after sunrise, the sun will light them up like candles, as those living creatures reflect a tiny bit of sunlight. It takes some practice and a trained eye (see previous bullet) but once you know what to look for, it makes butterfly-spotting a breeze. Through years of training and experience, I can now spot a butterfly as small as a Blue from ten meters away.

A Grizzled skipper (Pyrgus malvae) lights up like a candle in the grass. Picture taken in April at 07:39 in The Netherlands.

Grizzled skipper pyrgus malvae butterfly
Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4   1/800   ISO 100
  • Put your pants in your socks: yes, you should. And tuck your shirt in your pants too. It is one of the best ways to prevent ticks access to your skin. Preferably, I have only my fore-arms exposed and my head. It decreases the risk of ticks substantially and ticks may carry Lime disease. Agreed, it does look a little odd, but hey, we are in the business of butterfly photography, we are not competing in a fashion show…
Butterfly photography
Copyright Fokko Erhart/Wildernisfoto