Photographing Butterflies

Eastern tiger swallowtail

This is a time of year that I look forward to because wildflowers are coming into bloom. It’s a time when I can park alongside a patch of milkweed or daylilies and photograph some of the prettiest butterflies that inhabit the Finger Lakes Region right from the window of my vehicle. Like hummingbirds, butterflies feed on flower nectar, which is a sugar-rich liquid produced within the blossom itself. It’s nature’s way of encouraging pollination by providing a sweet source of nutrition. Other nectar-consuming pollinators include bats, bees and moths.

But the stars of the show are the butterflies, which consist of more than six dozen species found in New York State. And they come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and color combinations. One of the most common is the Eastern tiger swallowtail, a large yellow butterfly with a wingspan that ranges from 3 to almost 5 inches and displays the four tiger-like stripes on each forewing that give it its name. The female is larger than the male and sports a pattern of light blue markings on her hind wing that the male does not have. Some females are entirely black but with the same blue tail spots.

The monarch butterfly is also known as a milkweed butterfly because it lays its eggs primarily on milkweed plants from which its larvae and caterpillars feed. Although the orange, black, and white-speckled monarch is one of the most widespread and recognized species in the country, its population numbers have been in decline. The hardy milkweed plant on which it depends once flourished in grasslands and abandoned farm fields across much of the nation and fueled a migration of millions of monarchs over thousands of miles that brought 60 million butterflies to wintering grounds in Mexico. But the number of monarchs reaching Mexico has been declining for years and is now at the lowest level on record, ostensibly due to herbicides and genetically-modified crops. Scientists are studying ways to turn that around.

Depending on the source, New York’s official butterfly is either the white admiral or the red-spotted purple. Both species are frequent visitors to wildflower patches as well, especially those located in or near a woodland habitat, but neither is officially recognized by the state itself. The shoulders along the gravel access roads in many of our state forests and wildlife management areas have been seeded with wildflowers and are not mowed until they have finished blooming each year. Those are places that are teeming with butterflies, making it easy and convenient to photograph them from a parked vehicle. I prefer early to mid-morning while it’s still cool. That’s when they are basking in the sun to warm themselves. They are not too skittish and their wings are usually fully opened to take advantage of the sun’s warming rays. The fragrance of blooming milkweed blossoms isn’t too hard to take either.

adamski_profile_Apr21story and photo by John Adamski

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