California Natives - Fauna Nature Photography


As I learn more about the behaviors of butterflies, I am getting a little better at photographing them. Swallowtail butterflies, like many other Lepidopterans are fast moving. At this stage in my education, I can usually observe a butterfly in flight and determine within a minute or two whether, with the requisite patience, I have a reasonable chance of catching a photo.

If a butterfly is repeating a loop in which it returns to the same or a nearby spot to perch or forage, my chance of getting a photo improves.

To approach, I move in slow motion to get as close as possible, then I twist or squat or kneel–whatever I have to do to compose the photo from an angle that optimizes light, foreground and background. If I succeed in completing my initial approach and setup without drawing the attention of an insect whose sharp eyes are attuned to motion, that can detect colors humans can only approximate, and that enjoys a much wider range of vision than we do, I might step away with a good photo.

Cool mornings may produce lucky photos because many butterflies do not fly under a certain temperature. For example, Monarchs cannot fly when the temperature is below approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the chill of morning, a butterfly will hang from a leaf, motionless, waiting for more warmth to start the day. Butterflies that have recently emerged from a chrysalis or that are very focused on drinking nectar from a long-necked flower tend to be good opportunities as well.

The video in this post includes photos and clips I took on trails in Conejo Open Space and the Santa Monica Mountains in the spring and early summer of 2020.


California Natives - Fauna California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

iNaturalist Observations

I am spending much of my time in the field and just outside my door taking photographs of plants, flowers and insects with the occasional bird, reptile and mammal included when our paths intersect.

Doing this kind of work requires patience and focus. I find that I must slow down and concentrate on my subject.

Many times I fail to get a decent photograph. Other times the photographs are good but I am stumped when it comes to the identification of a plant or insect that I have not seen before. Even when I am starting to feel confident, knowledgeable about a species, I sometimes find myself starting over again, or at least second guessing my assumptions of what I thought I knew. Because a creature I thought I knew one day may appear on another day in a novel, for me, context.

For example, I might spot a bee species that I have often recognized without much trouble, but this one is foraging on a flower that suggests a new association (of pollinator to pollinated), or maybe the lighting is unusual, leading to visual or photographic difficulties. Some assumptions are bound to fall away. When that happens, I go back to review the characteristics of a species I thought I knew.

And that is part of the challenge and the reward of focusing on the natural world, it forces me to put one hundred percent of my focus on a living thing, not just glancing at, but really seeing the diversity and splendor of life around me. A key requirement is to see and record with me removed as much as possible. So the project is easiest when I forget where, what, who and why I am. The subject becomes, just for a few moments, the locus for all those conceits, the answer to all those questions.

California Natives - Fauna Nature Photography

Bindweed Turret Bee

I came across a large aggregation of Bindweed Turret bees building their nests on May 28, 2020. I was mountain biking on Albertson Fire Road and was riding back down when I heard the sound of a swarm. The aggregration is located on a section of Albertson Fire Road that runs through National Park Service land. The spot is beyond the intersection with China Flat, but before the climb to the powerline tower.

What seemed like a thousand or more bees were flying, digging and tending to nests in a wide open, level space on either side of the fire road. Some were digging on the road itself, but most were outside of the human traffic zone.

The Bindweed Turret bee, Diadasia bituburculata, is a solitary bee that nests in the ground. Each female digs her own nest and provides sustenance in the form of pollen and nectar packets that she leaves in the nest for the larvae to eat when they hatch.

I encountered a smaller but very active aggregation earlier in the month on the Hidden Meadow trail in Conejo Open Space. Since late May, I have also observed this bee species in the Paramount Ranch area and heard of their presence in several other locations in the Santa Monica Mountains. I was saddened to see that the Paramount Ranch site appeared to be trampled by the time I visited there to see it. A small group of bees was still active and nesting together, but the main aggregation looked like a stampede had come through it.

If you encounter a nesting site, slow down a little and be careful where you step or roll to avoid destroying the nests.

With so many bees flying about, it can be hard to focus. I noticed one bee trying repeatedly to break ground and focused on her and a neighbor, whose nest seemed to be nearly finished. I was careful where I stepped and stood near the middle of the swarm. These bees are not aggressive or territorial. They will sting only if handled or threatened. I can testify that standing near their nests to observe is not perceived by them as an existential threat. In fact, they did not appear to take much notice of my presence at all, except to modify flight trajectories so as not to collide with a large obstacle.

California Natives - Fauna Nature Photography

Acmon Blue Butterfly

I observed this butterfly on a hilltop near Albertson Fire Road. The plant it is foraging on is Spanish Clover or Spanish Lotus aka American bird’s foot trefoil, Acmispon americanus, one of several caterpillar host plants for this species. According to Calscape, there are 533 likely host plants for the Acmon Blue, making it a generalist and very adaptable to what is available for laying eggs. A generalist has an easier time finding the resources it needs to feed and reproduce as compared with a specialist, such as the Monarch.

Another generalist that I have seen in my garden and on the trails this spring is the Painted Lady. Several caterpillars hatched on and have been munching on the lupine around my house. Last year the desert superbloom created favorable conditions for a great migration of Painted Lady butterflies. The larvae that developed in the Santa Monica Mountains area mowed down many an invasive thistle that sprung up after the Woolsey Fire. Painted Lady caterpillars make tents out of leaves by stringing leaf edges together and zipping themselves in with their own silk as defense against predators, such as ants.

Specialists like the Monarch lay their eggs only on milkweed and the larvae will not eat anything else. No milkweed, no caterpillars, no reproduction.

Icaricia acmon