Still got the blues for you…

Four different blue butterflies on lavender

A week of hiking in the Morvan, Bourgogne, France resulted not only in pleasant memories of wine and croissants, but also in a colourful end of the butterfly season.

The week started off with overcast conditions and 18ºC. Not a single butterfly was flying around. But every day we hiked the temperature rose by 1 or 2 degrees, so we ended up hiking in 28ºC under clear blue skies. At our second B&B, the lavender bushes were blooming and at least fifty Blues were feasting on it. This pair of mating Common Blue (Polyommatus Icarus) was the highlight of the week:

Common blue polyommatus icarus mating butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.0   1/2000   ISO 100

I was so overwhelmed by the number of butterflies, all of them flying madly around and chasing after each other that it took me some time to discover that not all were Common Blues. Below is a Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus)

Mazarine blue cyaniris semiargus butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/200   ISO 100

Then I spotted a butterfly resembling the female Common Blue, but it looked a little bit more chocolate brown and on closer inspection, it appeared to be an Adonis Blue (Polyommatus Bellargus).

Adonis blue polyommatus bellargus butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.0   1/800   ISO 100

Last but not least, a single Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) completed the spectacle.

Brown argus aricia agestis butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.0   1/2500   ISO 100

C’était formidable!

Mud puddling butterflies

A great gathering of butterflies on a rocky slope in Mercantour NP

So many butterflies and so many species together! This was heaven for the butterfly buff! The spectacle of mud puddling butterflies is well known: they lick salt and minerals from the mud and rocks. A peculiarity is that only males gather in such numbers.

On holiday in Southern France last July, my wife and I walked along a rocky slope with a small stream when suddenly a cloud of butterflies rose into the air: we had literally stumbled into this mud puddling group. After maybe 30 seconds or so, they settled down again. I went onto my knees to look through the viewfinder and check the species. This was the colourful spectacle in front of my camera:A congregation of mud puddling butterflies in Mercantour NP

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/8   1/320   ISO 100

Then, you know there is only one option left: get down flat on your belly and start looking for the best shots. Like this Small Blue (Cupido minimus)…

A small blue cupido minimus butterfly licking salt and minerals from the rocks

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/320   ISO 100

…and this Eros Blue (Polyommatus Eros)

Polyommatus eros blue butterfly licking saltCanon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.0   1/320   ISO 100

After some 30 minutes my back and knees started to complain about the rocky ground, so I rose again (ouch!) but surely I did not complain at all…what a great day it had been for butterfly photography!

Black and white

Four butterflies against a dark black background

The world-famous Dutch painter Rembrandt is the undisputed master of light. Living in Amsterdam gives me the opportunity to see his paintings regularly in the Rijksmuseum. The way he makes the subject stand out, the spotlight on the face often against a dark background, the surroundings out of focus, it is brilliant. Many times more brilliant than my humble efforts in butterfly photography…

Anyway, as my style progresses I notice that I simply love to picture butterflies touched by soft sunlight against a dark or black background. It focuses your entire attention as a viewer on the butterfly itself, its beautiful colours, the dense network of veins, the sheer beauty of nature’s creation.

On the first day of our hiking tour through Mercantour NP, I had already noticed many butterflies on a steep hill close to our gîte d’étape. When we returned there on the last day, I set my alarmclock to 5 AM and went up. Found this Bath White (Pontia Daplidice) pretty fast. The sky was cloudless…except for that part of the horizon where the sun would rise. My bad luck. I had to wait for 45 endless minutes for the clouds to drift away. And was rewarded for my patience with this fine view.

The butterfly Bath white pontia daplidice in early morning light

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/1250   ISO 250

Returning for breakfast I literally almost stumbled on this Escher’s Blue (Polyommatus Escheri). Never spoil a good picture opportunity, breakfast would have to wait.

The butterfly Escher's blue polyommatus escheri against a dark background

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.0   1/2000   ISO 200

The very last day of our holiday, in the Italian Dolomite mountains, this Silver-Washed Fritillary (Argynnis Paphia) was searching for food on the edge of the forest. It was around 32° Celsius, the butterflies were spooked by the slightest movement so the big white 300mm came to the rescue.

The butterfly Silver-washed fritillary argynnis paphia upperwing

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/7.1   1/640   ISO 1250

One of my long-time wishes was a good picture of the Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria Lathonia) with its pearly underside. Finally fulfilled!

The butterfly Queen of Spain fritillary issoria lathonia against a black background

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/5.6   1/500   ISO 160

How do you achieve this effect yourself?

  • Many flowers grow along the edges of forest as this is where they can catch the sunlight. If you see butterflies foraging for nectar along them, check which flowers provide a dark background and just simply wait for a butterfly to pass by
  • Remember the location and return in the next season to improve on your results. Sometimes I need a couple of attempts over the years to achieve the desired result, sometimes I get lucky in one try as in the case of the butterfly photographs above
  • Underexpose by at least one stop to avoid blowing out the highlights. Check your histogram and adjust for the correct exposure

Mating season

Three pairs of mating butterflies that we saw on holiday

Our summer holiday brought us to France and Italy this year. We started off in the Cévennes in the south of France, a beautiful region of hills, dense forests and deep gorges. I expected to see a lot of butterflies there. Apparently, it was also mating season….

While walking south of the village of Le-pont-de-Montvert we came across this pair of mating Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus Argus). As I approached for a close-up, they noticed me and started to disengage, which you can clearly see in the middle of the picture. Quickly I withdrew and left them to it.

Two butterflies Silver-studded blue plebejus argus mating

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/6.3   1/640   ISO 100

Our next stop was Mercantour NP in the French-Italian Alps. An absolute stunner: both for the scenery as well as the butterflies. Just west of the village of Entraunes, we came across this pair of mating Amanda’s Blue (Polyommatus Amandus).Two Amanda's blue polyommatus amandus butterflies mating on a flower

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.5   1/2500   ISO 200

Our third and last stop was in the Dolomites in Northern Italy. A land of ragged peaks and breathtaking views. Usually also a land of many butterflies, but not in our area. A lot of cows were grazing the meadows leaving hardly any flower left. Only on the last day in the middle of a forest I found a lot of butterflies. Just can’t believe my luck that these two High Brown Fritillary (Fabriciana adippe) chose to perform the act just in front of me!Two butterflies High brown fritillary Argynnis adippe mating in warm sunlight

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/7.1   1/640   ISO 125

Butterfly holiday part 2 – Perlenbachtal

In search of the Bog Fritillary and the Violet Copper

After my friend left, I crossed the border into Germany and drove to the little village of Mützenich. My hotel there was close to the Perlenbachtal, the Eifel National Park and Hohes Venn. Three great opportunities to explore new butterfly areas.

After some driving over countryroads and a few wrong turns, I arrived at my destination in the Perlenbachtal. There, I hoped to see the Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia) and the Violet Copper (Lycaena helle). For both it would have been very early in the season so my expectations were low. Well, the butterflies certainly did not disappoint me…

There were two challenges: a strong wind blew through the valley. And the marshes and orchids in the valley are very vulnerable, so visitors must stays on the paths. Luckily there were enough blooming flowers directly next to the path. With the help of my telezoom and a fast shutter speed the following picture was taken of the Bog Fritillary:

Bog fritillary butterfly boloria eunomia in Perlenbachtal

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/5.6   1/640   ISO 500

While I only saw two or three Bog Fritillaries, the Violet Coppers were abundant:

The Violet copper butterfly (lycaena helle) in Perlenbachtal

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/4.5   1/320   ISO 160

The next morning I returned hoping to capture a Bog Fritillary sleeping, covered in dew with a little Sunshine lighting it up. Why not go for the first prize, mind you? Nature sometimes cooperates, sometimes not. It was around 6:00 in the morning – again – and the valley was completely covered in a thick fog. Fritillaries nowhere in sight….

But somehow nature showed mercy. While in Holland I did not manage to produce a satisfying photo of an Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines) here I found three in short order. Particularly this one was begging to be pictured.

The Orange tip butterfly anthocharis cardamines covered in dew in Perlenbachtal

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.0   1/100   ISO 500

And after a lot of searching, one single Violet Copper showed itself taking cover from the rains

The violet copper butterfly (Lycaena helle) in Perlenbachtal, Germany.

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/4.0   1/500   ISO 800

Then the sun started to shine and the valley became a spectacle of light. Taken with my smartphone!

Rays of sun in Perlenbachtal forest

“Always bring your camera along”

The next day I went into Eifel National Park, but the path to the butterfly area was closed for access. My bad luck. I saw some other butterflies, nothing special and returned after a frustrating 8km walk with my heavy backpack full of equipment. I had had this load on for the whole week and my back started to tell me it had had enough. Therefore, the next day, I decided on a long walk with only a small backpack with some refreshments. The second leg (Etappe 2) of the Eifelsteig, a long distance walk through the region, was running directly from my hotel. It would be 17 beautiful kilometers through forests and along streams. Somewhere in Hohes Venn, I thought I saw something interesting: two mating Common Blues. I took a closer look and…indeed! A scene that has been on my wishlist for years. Literally a few meters further, another couple in love. Took a picture with my smartphone of course, but for macro it is close to useless. Sh*t! The lesson here it to always bring your camera along!

Now back in Holland, the butterfly season profits from exceptionally warm and Sunny weather. Let’s see what the season will bring. Hope you will read more in my next blog.

Butterfly holiday part 1 – Viroinval

The chalk hills offer some of Belgium’s finest butterfly spotting.

Viroinval is a region on the Franco-Belgian border well known for its abundant butterflies. The chalk hills contain species that are very rare or even non-existent in the Netherlands, only a 3.5h drive away. Together with a friend of mine, we spent a few days there in May. And we were certainly not disappointed. At least not by the butterflies, maybe a little bit by the unstable weather.

Tienne Breumont was our first objective: a large chalk hill next to the village of Nismes. We arrived around noon and within two minutes I had found a Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) which was a new species to me. Next up were Scare Swallowtails (Iphiclides podalirius) and its sister Old World Swallowtail (Papilio machaon). The latter fulfilled one of my wishes: picturing it free of disturbances with backlighting:The Old world swallowtail butterfly (papilio machaon) underwing in Viroinval

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/5.6   1/1600   ISO 640

The next morning around 6 AM we returned, and were rewarded with these magnificent two Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus)…Two Common blues butterflies (polyommatus icarus) in Viroinval

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/9   1/160   ISO 200

… and this fine Red-underwing Skipper (Spialia sertorius). I tried to picture it while including some flower bulbs as a backdrop.The Red-underwing skipper butterfly (Spialia sertorius) in Viroinval

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/2.8   1/800   ISO 400

Last but not least, another species on my wishlist, the Wood White (Leptidea sinapsis). As it is so dull white by itself, the bright flower lights up the image.The Wood white butterfly (Leptidea sinapis) on a blue flower

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4   1/800   ISO 200

We photographed sixteen different species in three days. My friend had to leave for home then. I moved on to Germany for some more butterfly photography. More on that in my next blog.