Posts from the ‘Butterflies & Moths’ Category

Northwest Minnesota—Part 2: Norris Camp & Big Bog, June 12-13, 2016

Heading east from Thief Lake WMA I decided to check out Norris Camp, a remote Minnesota DNR station in the Beltrami Island State Forest that I’d heard had a nesting Black-backed Woodpecker. I was pretty sure that I was too late as most woodpeckers had fledged young already. But I was in luck! And I spent a couple hours with this pair of rarely seen boreal woodpeckers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1467 (1)Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
The folks at the camp pointed out that this was the same mated pair that nested on the grounds last summer. How did they know? Notice the band on the adult’s leg; they actually banded them last year and both the male and female returned to nest only 100 yards from last year’s nest. Woodpeckers NEVER use the same cavity twice but always excavate a new nest; it may be in the same tree but usually not. In this case, the tree they used last year had blown down since last summer. I don’t know much about site fidelity or mate fidelity in woodpeckers but this was a very interesting anecdote that I will for follow up on.
Also note the male’s yellow cap; the female shows only black on the head. He’s feeding a young male who is already sporting his jaunty yellow forehead feathers.

Black-backed Woodpecker nest Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1380Black-backed Woodpecker nest at Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest; Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1427 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
While waiting and watching at the Black-backed Woodpecker nest, I was treated to a lifer butterfly. Not 20 feet away I noticed an orange butterfly that was repeatedly landing on the same fallen log. I finally took a closer look and lo and behold, a Macoun’s Arctic! This species only flies every other year in the North Woods so I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. They are found in openings in sandy Jack Pine forests, and that is exactly the habitat I was in. Males use the same perch as they wait for females.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 184mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

arctic Macoun's Arctic Oeneis macounii near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1434 (1)Macoun’s Arctic (Oenis macounii) at Norris Camp, Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
When perched with wings folded, the Macoun’s Arctic is well camouflaged, like just another piece of bark. This species has a fairly limited range in North America extending from the North Shore of Lake Superior west and north to Churchill, Manitoba, British Columbia and just extending north into the Northwest Territories.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 135mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1600 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

blue Silvery Blue Glaucopsyche lygdamus Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1669 (1)Silvery Blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 100mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/1250 at f7.1; ISO 320; -0.67ev; hand-held]

Aquilegia canadensis Wild Columbine Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1347Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Polygala paucifolia Fringed Polygala Gaywings near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1567Fringed Polygala or Gaywings (Polygala paucifolia) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Corydalis sempervirens Pale Corydalis Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1623Pale Corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1543Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
One of my favorite orchids found in the bogs of north central Minnesota, the Ram’s-head Ladyslipper. This small group was past prime as you can tell by the collapsed dorsal sepal on top of the slipper pouch. This may mean that the flower had already been pollinated. It is a very small ladyslipper, maybe 6 inches tall. This group was growing in a Cedar bog.

Cypripedium arietinum Ram's-head Ladyslipper near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1550Ram’s-head Ladyslipper (Cypripedium arietinum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 113mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/250 at f8; ISO 250; -0.67ev; tripod]

Cypripedium parviflorum Yellow Ladyslipper Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1709Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1607Mosquito on Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota

Platanthera hookeri Hooker's Orchid near Norris Camp Beltrami Island State Forest Lake of the Woods Co MN IMG_1577Hooker’s Orchid (Platanthera hookeri) in a Cedar bog near Norris Camp in Beltrami Island State Forest, Lake of the Woods County, Minnesota.
[Canon 7D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens at 104mm and Canon 500D close up attachment; 1/100 at f6.3; ISO 400; -0.67ev; tripod]

Big Bog sign IMG_3441

My last stop was Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) near Waskish, Minnesota on Red Lake. This is the largest patterned peatland in the lower 48, and massive in size. It was once home to Minnesota’s last wild Caribou herd which disappeared in the 1930s and 40s. Their trails can still be seen from the air.
The boardwalks is one mile long and a very pleasant hike. MANY interpretive signs highlight the human and natural history of the Big Bog.

Big Bog Boardwalk IMG_3443A portion of the mile-long Big Bog SRA boardwalk near Waskish, Minnesota.

Tamarack cones IMG_1758Tamarack cones along the bog boardwalk.

fritillary Bog Fritillary boardwalk Big Bog SRA Beltrami Co MN IMG_1779Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia) on the Big Bog SRA boardwalk.
This was my lifer Bog Fritillary! Unfortunately I mistook it for a different, more common species, and I didn’t take the time to get a really good photo. Oh well, just a reason to go back!
I was going to camp overnight in the area, but I got a text message on my phone that a Calliope Hummingbird had shown up in Duluth…in breeding plumage! This is a bird of the mountain west that has only been recorded in Minnesota a couple times…and never in its stunning breeding plumage. This was reason enough to head for home.

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Iowa Prairie Monarchs…from 4 inches away!


I really have a passion for “wide angle wildlife”…which can be a challenge with critters…most of which would rather be a long ways away from us stinky, scary humans. And, of course, to get the bird, mammal, reptile or butterfly a respectable size in the frame, and not just an indistinguishable dot, you have to GET CLOSE!

So, on September 6th I found myself taking a detour off the highway near Lime Springs, Iowa to check out Hayden Prairie State Reserve. It is a 242 acre parcel of tallgrass prairie..and sadly the largest tract in the state outside of the Loess Hills. The prairie honors Ada Hayden, an Iowa farm girl who became one of the first woman botany professors in the country, receiving her PhD in 1918.

I had a few hours to shoot before sunset and I noticed many Monarchs feeding on the sunflowers and goldenrods. But getting close to the Monarchs was not easy…First I tried just walking up to nectaring Monarchs on the head-height sunflowers…but they didn’t appreciate that. Then I discovered a patch of goldenrods where the nectar must be especially good and abundant. The butterflies were a bit more tolerant here. And as anyone who’s shot a lot of wildlife knows, every individual has a different comfort zone. So I just kept trying to find a mellow Monarch.

The image I had in my head was getting the Monarch large in the frame, shooting into the sun so the sky was dark and the sun would be a starburst. Backlit subjects can make for tricky exposures. I knew I had to shoot at high-speed sync in order for the butterfly and sky to be in the same exposure range. I’d pre-set my camera on manual exposure to f22 at 1/1250 and my Canon flash was set to high-speed sync. Then I autofocused on my hand at 4 to 6 inches and then turned off the lens autofocus. The technique was to crawl as close as I could to the Monarch, then extend my arm with the camera and start shooting…keeping my finger on the shutter button as I reached out towards the butterfly. It was low percentage shooting but lots of fun. My knees paid the price though.

The photos here are images you could not get with a telephoto lens…Note the extreme depth of field in the shots.


Crawling through tallgrass prairie can be tough on the knees…and jeans!
The Monarchs were starting their migration south to Mexico’s Mariposa Monarca Biosphere Reserve where they would overwinter. As any school kid knows, this migration is one of the most amazing in the animal kingdom…A fragile butterfly flying several thousand miles south to the mountains of Central Mexico where this species has likely overwintered for thousands of years. Even more amazing may be the fact that it is a different generation of Monarchs that returns to the north each spring. You can actually track the Monarch’s southward flight on the internet. Check out Journey North’s Monarch Migration map here to check on their southward flight.
To get the “starburst” sun you need to be shooting at f16 or smaller aperture.

Baptisia leucantha Largeleaf Wild Indigo or White Wild Indigo, a unique tallgrass prairie plant. Note the crazy large seed pods.

[All photos taken with Canon 7D and Sigma 10-20mm lens (between 10mm and 16mm) at f22, ISO 400, 1/1250 second, Canon 420ex flash set to high-speed sync at -2EV]

A Butterfly Big Year: Mariposa Road

If you’re looking for a summer book to read at the beach (or in the photo blind), then I’ve got a goody for you. Robert Michael Pyle’s Mariposa Road is a hybrid between Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. The subtitle says it all…“The First Butterfly Big Year.” And I am a sucker for Big Year books!

If you’re not familiar with the concept, a “Big Year” is a quest to see as many species in North America as possible in one calendar year…almost always this means birds. In fact the recent Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson movie was about just that, “The Big Year.” But Pyle wanted to do the first official Butterfly Big Year.

Robert Michael Pyle is a legend among naturalists…as an author, and as a conservationist…Yale-trained and Guggenheim “fellowed,” he also founded the Xerces Society, an organization dedicated to invertebrate conservation. He also wrote one of the first butterfly field guides…and the classic books Chasing Monarchs and Where Bigfoot Walks.

So I was more than thrilled when he came to Duluth last winter to speak and do a book signing at Hartley Nature Center. The room was packed and he did not disappoint. The man is also a dead-ringer for the off-season Santa Claus…big belly, big white beard and booming voice.

His trusty steed for this noble quest was his 1982 Honda Civic, a vehicle he lovingly referred to as “Powdermilk.” He took the back seat and the front passenger seat out, replacing them with a sleeping cot. And Powdermilk was faithful, carrying Bob 40,533 miles criss-crossing the continent. Shunning hotels and fast food, he camped roadside. One of the most interesting aspects to this book is his ability to meet and converse with strangers of all kinds

His only Minnesota venture involved crawling through a snow-dusted and frozen Cedar Creek bog vainly searching for Bog Copper eggs (eggs count!…as do caterpillars)

Pyle’s quest also raised $46,000 for conservation. A noble cause.

My only real complaint with the book is that he only uses Latin names in the text…This means I spent a lot of time looking up species in the Kaufman Guide that I kept handy. Also there is no Index 😦

Just for fun, I perused the appendices for the species he MISSED during his Big Year (After all, a human can only be in one place at one time, so inevitably some species were understandably missed). Here are a few that I have been fortunate to see and photograph, that Pyle missed.

Jutta Arctic (Oeneis jutta) Black Spruce bog in the Ditchbanks, Carlton County MN

Golden Banded-Skipper (Autochton cellus) Big Bend National Park, Texas

Indian Skipper (Hesperia sassacus) Hubbard County, Minnesota

Harris’s Checkerspot (Chlosyne harrisii) Black Spruce bog (Nickerson Bog) Carlton Co, Minnesota

Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) Sax-Zim Bog, Minnesota

Bog Copper (Lycaena epixanthe) Open bog in Carlton Co, Minnesota

Mariposa Road
Robert Michael Pyle
Houghton-Mifflin
558 pages
ISBN: 978-0-618-94539-9
Buy it at Amazon here

13 Tips for Stunning Butterfly Photos

Getting a beautiful, artistic photo of a butterfly is more of a challenge than you’d think. After all, they are attractive insects that regularly perch on attractive flowers. How hard could it be? But the challenges are many…How do you get close? What lens do you choose? Why is the background so cluttered? Here are 13 tips that will improve your butterfly images 100 percent.

1. GET EYE LEVEL

Silver-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) on Daisy Fleabane, MN

This is probably the #1 tip to getting better butterfly photos (combined with Tip #2). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, eye-level photos bring greater intimacy to the photo and a stronger connection to the critter by the viewer. So you’ll be doing a lot of crouching, kneeling, stooping and crawling through meadows, but it will be worth it.

2. USE A TELEPHOTO LENS

Marine Blue (Leptotes marina) Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas

It is VERY DIFFICULT to get great, or even good butterfly images with a wide angle or normal (50mm) lens. The short focal length does not give you enough working distance…i.e. you can’t get close enough to skittish butterflies (almost all fall into this category!) to make them large enough in the frame for a pleasing image.) And if you could, the wide and regular lenses allow too much depth of field so that you would have a cluttered background of in-focus leaves and stems. I shoot almost ALL of my butterfly images with a 200mm lens mounted on a 1.6x crop-sesor DSLR so it effectively becomes a 320mm lens! This allows me to shoot from a distance that does not spook the butterfly and gives me a shallower depth of field so background vegetation blurs nicely.

3. SUPER MACRO

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio canadensis) Sax-Zim Bog, MN

The crazy and wonderful patterns on all butterfly wings are the result of colored scales. In this cropped close up of a road-kill Tiger Swallowtail’s hind wings you can see the individual scales. Maybe you remember a poster that showed the entire alphabet, each letter a macro image from a butterflies wing. Fresh road-kills are great for this purpose as few living butterflies would allow this close approach. Now you can use your 60mm or 100mm macro to zoom in on the detail. Great for the “Wow Factor.”

4. BACKLIT BEAUTY

Silver-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene) Minnesota

This is a fun technique to try later in the afternoon when you have butterflies perching atop wildflowers with dark backgrounds. Underexpose by at least 1 stop…maybe 2 stops…to get this effect. The wings just seem to glow. Remember to turn off your flash too!

5. WATCH YOUR BACKGROUND

European Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) Carlton Co, MN

The nicely blurred, smooth green background (called “buttery bokeh” in photographer jargon) in the image above is the holy grail of butterfly photography. But it is difficult to achieve. The trick is having the background vegetation far enough away so it blurs at the f-stop you are shooting at, yet keeping all or most of the butterfly sharp at the resulting depth of field. To get this effect, I am often shooting at f5.6 to f8…depending on if the butterfly’s wings are held flat or together over its back (f5.6) or slightly spread (f8 to get more depth of field).

6. WAIT FOR THE FLOWER

Sheep Skipper (Atrytonopsis edwardsii) Big Bend National Park, Texas.

Sometimes a drab butterfly can play second fiddle to the flower it is feeding on. Such was the case with this brown-gray Skipper nectaring on this stunning cactus flower. This principal can apply to all butterfly photography…Park your butt at a magnificent specimen of a flower and wait…On hot sunny midsummer days you shouldn’t have to wait too long.

7. GET HORIZONTAL (AND DIRTY!)

Baltimore Checkerspot (Euphydryas phaeton) Cranberry Rd Sax-Zim Bog MN

Many species of butterflies perch on the ground (especially dirt roads and trails) where they take up water and minerals from the soil or animal dung. But a photo from the standing position may help you identify the beast but not be a very pleasing image. So I usually find a subject that seems to be preoccupied with feeding, lay down on the ground a safe distance away and slowly work my way closer. It is rather painful on elbows and knees and necks but does not alarm the bug as much as approaching on foot. When I get within range, I switch to LIVE VIEW so I can view the butterfly on the back of the camera. I then just extend my arms and watch the Live View until I have my perfect framing and subject size. Of course, the success ratio for all butterfly photography is VERY LOW so don’t get discouraged; Try, try again.

8. FILL FLASH

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on Liatris, Carlton Co, MN

Maybe 50% of the time I’ll use fill-flash in my butterfly photography. It helps define wing patterns on sunny days, illuminates shadowed underwings and faces, and can freeze motion. I either use the pop-up flash or an external flash and always set it to -1 1/3 e.v. BUT if the sun is at my back and not high overhead, I probably won’t use it. Sometimes it becomes difficult to use it on sunny days too because even at low ISOs you have to have a small aperture (f16) to shoot at the flash sync speed (1/250 for me)…and then the background is too much in focus.

9. DON’T FORGET THE UNDERSIDES

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) Carlton Co, MN

The undersides of many species wings are as spectacular, or in some cases, even more stunning than the pattern on the top side of their wings. This is true for many fritillaries whose top sides are all very similar, a patchwork of orange and black markings, but underneath they have distinctive and colorful spots and patches.

10. …AND DON’T FORGET THE CATERPILLAR!

Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on Milkweed, Carlton Co, MN

Though most spectacular caterpillars that you come across are actually the larva of moths, there are some stunning butterfly caterpillars. The Monarch’s caterpillar comes to mind first, but the larva of the Baltimore Checkerspot and most swallowtails also make great subjects. And don’t forget the Harvester caterpillar…It is the only carnivorous butterfly caterpillar, feeding on woolly alder aphids.

11. BUTTERFLY IN HABITAT

Common Ringlet (Coenonympha tullia) Western Minnesota

You don’t always have to get frame-filling images. Sometimes it is good to back off and include more habitat. This Common Ringlet is a butterfly of prairies, marsh edges, meadows and other open country so in addition to the close-up I also got a wider shot showing the grassland habitat.

12. FLIGHT

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia) Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois


Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) and Texas Bluebonnets, near Alice, Texas.

Here’s a challenge for you; Try to shoot a butterfly on the wing! Autofocus won’t work—the butterfly is too small in the frame—so you need to manually focus. Talk about low-percentage shooting! Though this swallowtail is not sharply in focus, I still think it works as a unique flight-habitat image. p.s. I went back to this same ranch the following April and due to drought there was not a single flower in this pasture!

13. KNOW WHERE TO GO…BUTTERFLY MAGNETS

Sulphurs “puddling” in South Texas

Knowing when and where to go are about as important as all other tips. First, get a good regional butterfly guide and study it. It should give you an idea of when the butterflies on the wing (“flight phenology”) and the habitat to look for them. Behavior can also lead you to subjects; “Puddling” as in photo above is when several butterflies concentrate at wet soil or mud to take up nutrients. On top of hills or slight rises with openings you may find mixed groups of butterflies “hilltopping,” a common butterfly behavior. Animal dung/scat also attracts butterflies who take up nutrients from the dried piles…But this doesn’t make for very attractive photos! Bottom line…Get to know the biology of your subjects and your chances of success improve greatly.

Okay, a shameless plug for a field guide to butterflies of the North Woods (which includes species of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) published by my company (www.kollathstensaas.com) and written by my friend and neighbor, Larry Weber. Includes all 125 species found in the North Woods and phenograms, habitat, identification and biology for each. You can Buy it at Amazon.

NW MN part 1—Firetower Flyby & Big Bog Boardwalk

March 21, 2012: Promise me that sometime in the next year or two you’ll go visit the relatively new Big Bog State Recreation Area (SRA) up near Red Lake in northern Minnesota. It’s not as far as you think…a quick 200 miles from Duluth. And they have a brand-spanking new visitor center with some great displays about the ecology of Black Spruce bogs. And a flock of Sandhill Cranes “flying” overhead down the main corridor. But the highlight at the Waskish site for the young and young-at-heart is the renovated firetower.

I climbed up the ever-smaller and steeper steps to the top. Calm on the ground, it was howling wind up at the top. Spectacular views over Red Lake (the largest lake completely in the borders of MN and 16th largest in the U.S. at 443 sq miles!). I recorded a short video segment while hunkered out of the wind at the top, hoping out loud that a Bald Eagle would fly by. And within 10 minutes, one did! These images were shot through the fencing at the very top of the firetower. The eagle was so close that I couldn’t fit the entire bird in the frame! But I still think it works. (Don’t tell anyone, but I like the plumage of immature’s more than adults…Scandalous!) Note the eagle’s nictating membrane is closed over its eye in image 2.

Located about 13 miles north of the visitor center is the crown jewel of the park—a one-mile long Bog Boardwalk that lets you experience a Black Spruce bog without getting your feet wet! But it took me awhile to get started on the trek because the dirt parking area was alive with early-emerging butterflies and moths. Thanks to a very mild spring, several Mourning Cloaks, Commas, Red Admiral, and tortoiseshells were out of hibernation a bit early. I also got my best-ever photo of the stunning Compton Tortoiseshell, a large holarctic species, that is also among the longest-lived species at 10 months or more.

For someone who’s tramped a fair number of bogs in rubber boots and headnet, access to the bog itself was not the highlight. The most interesting part to me was the ample natural history signage located along the boardwalk. Most fascinating was the fact that this bog was home to the last remaining herd of Woodland Caribou in Minnesota…and that they hung on to the 1940s. Of course, this was also a scouting trip to examine the boardwalk itself, as this is the type Friends of Sax-Zim Bog (www.SaxZim.org) would like to construct to give birders access to boreal bog birds. It is also built so that the bog underneath will get enough sunlight and moisture and continue to thrive.

Stay tuned! More installments of my NW Minnesota trip coming up.

The Regal Regal Fritillary

The Regal Fritillary is threatened over much of its range. It is found in prairies and grasslands in the central U.S. And it is a regal looking butterfly. It is large with boldly marked above and below. The big silver white spots on the underside of the dark chocolate colored hindwings is especially beautiful.

I felt very fortunate to find several Regal Fritillaries at the Nachusa Grasslands in northern Illinois. Unfortunately they were in egg-laying mode which meant that they rarely landed on a flower to nectar. They would constantly be on the wing searching for their ground-hugging host plant, the Bird’s-foot Violet on which to lay eggs. So I gave up on photographing one on a flower and instead switched to “wing shooting” mode. I had to manually focus since the autofocus could not lock on to such a small subject, so I prefocused at a certain distance and when the butterfly came in range I just started blasting, hoping to get an acceptably sharp photo. After hundreds of attempts I got a few keepers including this one. It is not a perfect specimen with many wing tears and chunks missing but it is a fair representation of  rare species.

Canon 7D, 400mm f5.6 lens, handheld, ISO 800, f5.6 at 1/2000 second