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 California Natives - Flora Nature Photography

White-lined Sphinx Moth

On a recent hike with a friend, Silvia, we came across a late instar of a White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata) caterpillar that was probably looking for another plant to consume followed by a good place to pupate. Silvia nick-named him Gilberto.

The color and markings of this moth’s larvae varies. All the individuals I have seen in the area are black with yellow stripes and orange spots but the larvae can also be green with other markings such as red or orange spots encircled by black. A harmless horn at the back end is always present in this species regardless of coloration.

This video shows our brief encounter with Gilberto and includes some basic information about the White-lined Sphinx moth. Cyclists, hikers and runners in our area (Los Angeles and Ventura counties) have seen (and continue to see) lots of the caterpillars this spring.

A few days after our hike I was bicycling in the Santa Monica Mountains. I stopped to photograph flowers along the side of Decker Canyon road and noticed a White-lined Sphinx larva trying to climb up and repeatedly rolling back down a steep “hill” of loose dirt. I gave it a lift onto a “ledge” among a clump of Parry’s Phacelia before continuing on my ride.

(Parry’s is in a prolific phase of bloom in the mountains right now. Like poppies? Take a look at, but do not tread on, the phacelia.)