Photographic Cautionary Tale – yet another

And Some Late Season Surprises

When I did the regular dog walk on Friday I didn’t bother taking my camera with me as it was overcast and I didn’t expect much in the way of butterfly action anyway. And sure enough there wasn’t any. The days definitely have an end of season feel to them now. But then, when I arrived back home the sun popped out I saw a couple of Small Whites fluttering about in the front garden and also, more interestingly, a Small Copper. It landed and stayed landed on a grass bank. I hadn’t taken a picture of Small Copper in the garden this year, so I nipped inside to get the camera. When I got back the butterfly was, unusually, still there. The sun had gone in but it was sheltered in that particular spot and the butterfly was very still. I decided to try dropping the exposure speed down to 1/50 to see if I could get a sharp image with a reasonably low ISO. And I did. The result is below.

Small Copper on a tangle of grass

Fast forward a couple of minutes to the back of the garden.

I thought I’d have a bit of a walk-about to see if there were any other late season butterfly surprises. There was nothing, initially. And then Chantal, who was enjoying the warmth of the Autumn Sun with a cup of tea at the back of the garage, called out that there was a yellowish butterfly heading towards the garden from across the field. And she thought it might be a Clouded Yellow. As soon as she’d said it, the butterfly had turned round and landed somewhere in the thick undergrowth, so I didn’t get to see it.

I hadn’t taken a picture of a Clouded Yellow in the adjoining field – or the garden – before, so I thought it worth a try. I asked Chantal to keep an eye on where it had landed as I clambered down to cross the stream. I also had to get over the barbed wire fence on the other side which can be a tricky manoeuvre when you’re holding a camera, making you effectively one-handed for holding down the springy barbed wire while balancing on one leg to lift the other one over. But I managed it without any nasty rips in awkward places.

The field back in May. (The white of the Hawthorn Blossom at the back of the field has now turned to berry red.) The garage from where Chantal gave directions (bench just out of shot) is to the right of the stream

Once in the field I asked Chantal to direct me to the where she thought the butterfly had landed, which she did. “Left a bit, right a bit, keep going…”. It’s usually quite boggy ground in that part of the field and that’s what it felt like underfoot (it’s difficult to see where you’re treading with the weeds waist high at this time of year). I’d discovered previously, when following escapee whippets or stalking small butterflies in the field, that the best way to cross the boggy ground, when you’re not wearing  boots, is to try to step from tussock to tussock, of which there are quite a few. But searching for the next one through the thick undergrowth is not easy. You haven’t got much time to look ahead for butterflies. It was tricky.

“You’re just about there,” was the call from behind the back of the garage. 

I looked over and around the foliage in front of me and, sure enough, there it was: a Clouded Yellow. “You were right,” I called out. And then as I was manoeuvring into a good photographic position, the butterfly flitted off again. “Oh well, opportunity gone for another year,” was my immediate reaction. Clouded Yellows spend a lot of time flying quickly and not a lot of time landing and keeping still – in my experience – and I wasn’t expecting it to land again close by. But this time, to my surprise, it did. It landed almost immediately on another piece of vegetation just a few paces away. In my excitement I forgot the tussock to tussock rule and immediately felt a slip-on deck shoe splodge into the watery bog between them. A brief pause as I felt water seep in between the laces and then I was off again. And the slip-on deck shoe, predictably, slipped off. I’d never managed a shot of a Clouded Yellow in the field before so leaving the shoe behind didn’t seem like too big a deal, and within a few one-shoed paces the butterfly was in range. I manoeuvred into position – it still hadn’t flown off – and started taking pictures. Through the lens it looked like I was getting one or two nice shots. I managed to move round to the other side to get a couple of shots with the sun on the butterfly which would mean a nice variety and a few shots to choose from. Brilliant. And then the butterfly was off and this time it didn’t stop, disappearing behind trees at the edge of the field. But I’d got my pictures. I found my shoe, slipped it back on to a soggy-socked foot, and wandered back towards the garden. I have to admit to a small feeling of triumph at that point.

And then I had a thought: had I changed the speed back to my usual default setting of 1/500 from 1/50 which I’d set it to when I took the shot of the very stationary Small Copper.

I checked the setting on my camera. The answer was no. 

It had somehow got to 1/100, but with the breezy condition out in the middle of the field, and the way the butterfly had been moving about, it meant the chances of having a good crisp picture were low.

And so it proved. Below is the best of the bunch.

As you can see, the picture is not sharp. It could’ve been a nice shot: the composition was okay; the background was nicely blurred; the wings had a little bit of illumination from the sun, which I like, and the rusty brown markings on the yellow wings nicely echoed the rusty brown markings of the fading leaves. What can I say? When it comes to taking photographs it’s a good idea to check the settings before, rather than after, you’ve taken them. Even if I was a bit excited at the time, it was a schoolboy error and yet another good opportunity blown. I stomped about in my soggy sock and waterlogged shoe for a bit before I stopped cursing.

The story does have a more positive ending though.

The next day, Saturday, I was walking towards the garage when I noticed a yellow butterfly beyond it, flitting about over the grass. I hurried back to the house to get my camera, and about half a minute later I was in the middle of the lawn, looking around for yellow butterflies, this time double-checking the exposure on the camera. And then there it was: high up, moving along the line of a tall hedge and flying at speed away from me. I went in pursuit, hoping against all reasonable expectation that it might just change direction and fly directly at me. And that’s exactly what it did. I couldn’t believe it. And it landed on a late flowering blue geranium a few paces away. I managed to get about a dozen shots and the best three are below. Simple as that.

The dead and dying foliage with the bright green background makes for a confusing image, but the contrasting blue of the geranium in a garden pretty devoid of colour in early/mid October was a positive. And this time the focus was pretty crisp.

I noticed a couple of things in the pictures when I saw them on the computer screen.

Firstly, judging by the markings on the wings (particularly the shape of the smaller of the two white dots ringed in brown) the one I saw on Saturday was a different individual from the one I saw on the Friday. Secondly, there were some blueish markings near the base of the wings of the Saturday Clouded Yellow, which I don’t think I’ve seen before. I’m wondering whether they are actually unusual markings or whether perhaps it’s been smudged with blue pollen on its travels. Do any flowers out there have blue pollen? Or could it be some kind of bruising? One to check out.

Then today, the sun came out again. After the last couple of days I had my camera (settings checked) with me while I enjoyed the end of a Sunday lunchtime beer behind the garage. I could see a couple of what looked like Small Whites flitting around some bramble bushes some distance away and was absent-mindedly wondering whether the butterflies might be sipping the sugary juice of the over-ripe blackberries, when another butterfly, a brown and orangey one, suddenly appeared and landed on one of the few remaining flowers of Catnip in the garden. I had a vague idea it might be a Gatekeeper, but were they about at this time of year?

As soon as I saw it through the lens I could see it was a Wall Brown, the first one I’d definitely seen in the garden. I managed to get a couple of shots before it was off again, landing twenty feet away on a tiny Herb Robert flower, and this time it kindly opened its wings. I managed to get a picture of it there too. And then it was off and away and the visitation was over. A look at the Butterfly Conservation website confirmed that Wall Browns are around until Mid October.

So there we are. I’d thought the butterfly season was pretty much over, and within the space of three days I’d seen two species I’d never seen in the garden before. And taken pictures of them too, even if I did fluff the first attempt. Lesson learned. At least for the time being.

To Camouflage or not to Camouflage

If the whole world was made up of faded Lemon Verbena plants, then Cabbage White butterflies would be perfectly camouflaged. I’m guessing, though, that success, when you’re an adult butterfly, has more to do with attracting mates than avoiding predation. Of course when you’re a caterpillar and uninterested in members of the opposite sex, your top priority, while you’re concentrating on eating your cabbages, is to avoid being eaten by birds and wasps – or being removed by eagle-eyed gardeners for that matter – so green would be the successful colour for you at that more stationary stage of your life cycle. And so it is for the Small White caterpillar.

The above picture was taken in our garden with the shade of long grass along a fence in the background, hence the dramatic lighting. More dramatic lighting in the next shot of a Holy Blue I spotted yesterday in the dappled light from overhanging trees up on the Plain.

And below, the same butterfly in direct sunlight a foot or two away. 

A hundred or two yards earlier on the dog walk I’d seen Gatekeepers and a Wall Brown (or two – difficult to differentiate between them when they’re in flight) chasing each other on the edge of the same escarpment wood. It looked like a bank of Willowherb, covered in floss, was the real estate they were fighting over. I’m guessing the Wall was winning as he tended to perch near or on the Willowherb…

Wall Brown with its exotic underwing markings

… while the Gatekeepers seemed to be retreating to the branches of some kind of wild plumb or damson tree overhead, their fruits beginning to ripen.

Also seen on the walk were Chalkhill Blues – first of the year for me – at the SSSI where I often drop in on dog walks to see what’s happening.

The Harebells were out, as were the Clustered Bellflowers, enjoying the sun of the south facing chalk escarpment.

Harebells in the sun
Clustered Bellflowers

On my way there, over open grassland, I thought I saw a clouded Yellow zooming along in the distance, though it could possibly have been a Brimstone – there are one or two of them on the wing at the moment. But I knew there were Clouded Yellows about as well as I’d seen a couple chasing each other on the plain about a fifteen minute drive away on Sunday. I managed to photograph one of them after a mad, zig-zagging chase over grassland. A first for me.

Eyes bright, almost radio-active green. A bit spooky.

Will try next time to get a shot without grass in the way, but these migrants from Southern Europe and North Africa do not like sitting still – or giving you many chances with a camera.

Am looking forward to the emergence of the Common Blues, a favourite for me – and much more laid back when it comes to having their photos taken. Should be with us in the next week or two.