Cranberries and butterflies

Three rare butterflies of peat-moor photographed in one day

The second leg of my quest for Holland’s rarest butterflies led me to the province of Drenthe. It harbours the last Dutch populations of a threesome of butterflies typically found in peat-moor: the Large Heath (Coenympha tullia), the Cranberry Blue (Plebejus optilete) and the Cranberry Fritillary (Boloria aquilionaris). All three are extremely rare and for the blue I had only a rough idea of a location to go on. After last year’s long, warm and dry summer I wondered how these species would have fared, as they are dependent on wet conditions in the moores. Chances were that the small populations would have gone extinct in our little country. So my expectations were not high and I would consider myself blessed if I managed to see all three at all. Boy, I would not be disappointed!

I left the house at 05:00 AM under a bright blue sky. It was also our wedding anniversary so I considered this as a good omen. After 1.5 hours on empty highways I arrived in the Fochteloërveen in Drenthe. It did not take long for the first Large Heath to pass by. Yes! A new butterfly species for me. Happily I took a quick snapshot and considered the day successful already. Along the whole stretch I counted another five or so. Sometimes they will sunbath at the path which allows you to take a decent photograph, but not this time. At the end of the hike I met two friendly ladies with whom I exchanged some information. They provided me with directions to the location of the Cranberry Blue, so I decided to leave the Large Heaths behind and move over to the Dwingelderveld, another nature area close by.

Upon arrival, the directions proved less clear than I had thought. I walked a couple of kilometers seeing nothing special until I spotted some blue, black and red in the distance. It proved to be a small gathering of people. This could only mean one thing: something was worth seeing up there! I quickly moved over to what turned out to be the right place. After some waiting I spotted a blue butterfly in the distance and thought I had a lucky break again, but it turned out to be a Silver-studded Blue upon closer inspection. Eventually the Cranberry Blue flew out of the protected zone and I could take a decent shot. Number 2 was in the bag! Another photographer told me that the location for the Cranberry Fritillary was bursting with butterflies so I decided to move once again and get a lay of the land.

My fellow photographer was right: there were so many Cranberry Fritillaries that you could not miss them even if you wanted to. I took a quick snapshot of a sunbathing Cranberry Fritillary and smiled from ear to ear: the whole threesome in one day and I had expected none! Surely I deserved some rest now after being on my feet all day long. At my hotel I had dinner, set the alarmclock for 04:45 AM and went to bed.

The next morning – a little drowsy still from lack of sleep –  I drove over to the Cranberry Fritillary location. The area is fenced off, but there were at least five butterflies to be found on the permitted of the fence. The first one was in a bad spot for butterfly photography as were the last three, so I made the best out of number two. If only that huge cloud blocking the sun would move over please…impatiently I waited for over half an hour for the soft sunlight to shine through and was then rewarded with this magnificent spectacle of a dew-covered rare butterfly through my viewfinder:

Cranberry fritillary boloria aquilionaris butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4   1/500   ISO 200

Cranberry fritillary boloria aquilionaris butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4   1/400   ISO 100

After taking over a hundred pictures from every possible angle my inspiration dried up and I decided to push my luck again with the Cranberry Blue. Packed my stuff, drove over, unpacked…the rythm was now getting a little too familiar and two short nights started to have an impact. Therefore a big THANK YOU is due to a pair of mint Cranberry Blues that were right at the edge of the field in plain view. No long searching, no long waiting for the butterflies to start flying around, just push that button on the camera and smile at the result. Again I took dozens of pictures, but I like this one most as the butterfly and the background are so alike in colour, lending a particular feel to the photo.

Cranberry blue plebejus optilete butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5   1/125   ISO 250

Getting a little tired, I stepped into the car for the long drive home. I returned with a head full of beautiful memories, a memory card full of beautiful photographs and full of joy to my loving wife.

Lucky in Limburg

Three new butterfly species for me in one weekend

For this year my goal is to photograph as much rare butterfly species in Holland as possible. Why? Because I want to have seen them before they go extinct. The sad news is that butterfly numbers in Holland have decreased by 84% since 1890 (CBS, March 2019) and 40% alone since 1992 (Vlinderstichting, March 2018). Last year’s long and extremely dry summer may have given the final push over the brink for some of our country’s remaining species. Climate change, intensive agriculture, pollution and habitat loss are the main contributors to this dramatic decline. I am grateful for the good work of the Dutch Butterfly Association (vlinderstichting.nl) and other NGO’s to counter this trend.

Now back to the good news: the first ones are in the pocket. In late May I travelled to the Dutch province of Zuid-Limburg. As Holland’s most southern province, more or less on the same latitude as Belgium, it has a relatively warm climate in a landscape dominated by chalk hills. These make for a very unique and diverse flora and fauna.

The species I was looking for was the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia). The village of Bemelen has a small population and  with great anticipation I climbed the local hill to the place-to-be. Only to encounter a fence and a no access sign….damn! Should have realized this of course. The skies were overcast and nothing was flying around so my chances of seeing one were reduced to zero in a split second. I walked around some more to get the lay of the land but soon accepted the fact that nothing would come of it. I decided to drive a short stretch to an abandoned quarry. It was already around 6pm and the sun finally broke through. I got my lucky break then: the Small Blue (Cupido minimus) appeared out of nothing. An extremely rare butterfly for the Netherlands that I did not expect to see. This quarry was close to my hotel so I decided to call it a day and return the next day.

On Sunday, my early-morning visit was first to the Sint Pietersberg to scout for the Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages). Despite sunshine and just a little wind, I could not find a single one. I can just confirm that their brown camouflage works very well…

Therefore I returned to the quarry and saw my first Glanville Fritillary within minutes. All smiles. I took a step closer….gone. Nowhere to be found and I promised myself not to wander off the path. However, the Small Blues were still around:

Small blue cupido minimus butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4   1/320   ISO 200

I decided to try another location and that proved to be a good decision. On a local chalk hill this fresh Glanville Fritillary decided to pose for me. I finally got what I came for.

Glanville fritillary melitaea cinxia butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/250   ISO 200

The catch of the day was this Wood White (Leptidea sinapsis) that I literally stumpled upon. It flew away a few meters in its characteristic fluttery way, but after a few tries it settled down and I could sneak close enough for this shot.

Wood white leptidea sinapsis butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.5   1/800   ISO 200

Three new butterfly species in one weekend: I was very happy with this result and drove home to Amsterdam in a good mood. Let’s see what the rest of the season brings.

Across the Atlantic

Three American butterflies from the Carolinas.

A well known saying goes ” a near neighbour is better than a distant cousin”. Our short visit to a friend of mine and her son apparently was the exception to the rule. She emigrated to the US last year, so all the more reason to pay our first visit to the state of South Carolina. We spent some great time together visiting Greenville, Jones Gap State Park, Conestee Park and Chimney Rock State Park (the latter in North Carolina). While we hiked and chatted, I managed to photograph some butterflies on the way.

Below is a Northern Pearly-Eye (Enodia Anthedon) which can be separated from its congener the Southern Pearly-Eye by the black base of the antenna clubs. This specimen was roosting on a tree in Jones Gap State Park. It was already around 6PM and getting dark in the forest, so I increased the ISO to 800 for a better shutter time and used flash as well. The flash nicely accentuates the bluish hue on the Wings.

Northern pearly-eye enodia anthedon butterfly

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

In Conestee Park, a local swampy area in Greenville, we encountered this American Snout (Libytheana carinenta). This is a fine example that you can make nice pictures in broad daylight, as this was taken around noon.

American snout libytheana carinenta

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM   f/5.6   1/640   ISO 200

Our final visit before returning home was to charming little Chimney Rock State Park. The Park has a small open-air butterfly garden, but it was on the adjacent parking lot that I photographed this Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis). Lying flat on my belly on the gravel it took three attempts before I got near enough before it flew away.

Question Mark polygonia interrogationis butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.0   1/5000   ISO 400

Easter present

An orange tip against a black background

The Orange Tip (Anthocharis Cardamines) and I have a difficult relationship. There are plenty of them around all over The Netherlands, but somehow I need a lot of effort to find one. This morning the alarmclock went off at the very decent time of 03:45. My wife gave me a quick kiss, declared me a fool and slept on. I drove for an hour to the province of Noord-Brabant not too far from the border with Belgium. Traffic was light so I arrived a little on the early side and had to wait for it to get light enough to spot butterflies. Then it took me more than two hours to locate this female Orange Tip.

But that’s as far as complaining goes. In my first shot, I used the bark of a tree as a dark background while the butterfly is backlit by the rising sun. Another one for my beloved black-and-white gallery.

Orange tip anthocharis cardamines butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/5.6   1/200   ISO 400

For the second shot, I switched position to have the sun in my back. Then waited until the sun shone at the right angle to turn the background into a beautiful soft yellow. The sun was still at a low angle, so my camera put the Orange Tip in the shadows. A little bit of flash worked miracles.

Orange tip anthocharis cardamines butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.0   1/250   ISO 400

After these pleasant shots, the wind picked up, the temperature rose quickly and every insect starting flying madly, so I called it a day.

Spring skippers

Grizzled skipper are my favourite spring butterflies

It is November and winter is coming to Holland. The butterfly photographer in me already looks forward to the new butterfly season. Such a long wait ahead….In the meantime, let us enjoy ourselves by looking back. Maybe the Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus Malvae) is my favourite springtime butterfly: not only are they quite rare in our country, but they are so tiny that they are hard to find even if you know they are there. The effort is as much fun as are the photographs you bring home, isn’t it?

This is also the story of the value of returning to the same place for a few consecutive years. Each time the circumstances are a little different, the weather plays along (or not) and the butterflies are in differents spots. I have been visiting this particular field for four years in a row. Every time I feel my photographs have improved. This year I believe I have finally brought home a set of photographs that I am really satisfied with.

Exactly seven months ago, my alarmclock sounded at 04:00 AM on a Saturday morning. I quickly rose for the 1.5 hour drive to a place in the province of Overijssel. Having arrived at the familiar field, usually I could spot dozens of Skippers easily. Then, nothing at first. Oh no…going early in season sometimes means too early and this seemed to be such a time. Pretty disappointing if you stand in a field at 05:30 and are shivering from the cold.

But, butterfly photographers should never give up too fast. After some more searching I finally found the first butterfly, albeit on a bad location for a nice picture. Then the sun rose and finding them was made much easier: each specimen was lit up like a candle against the dark earth. One over there, one more over there….an empty field at first glance turned out to be well occupied. I returned home smiling.

Grizzled skipper pyrgus malvae butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/4.0   1/250   ISO 200Grizzled skipper pyrgus malvae butterfly

Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM   f/3.5   1/500   ISO 200

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