The Delicate Detail of Whites

For most people who have gardens, cabbage whites are the enemy and that’s pretty much it. If their caterpillars aren’t shredding your vegetables, they’re shredding your nasturtiums. They’re not colourful, they’re not rare and it never occurred to me they might be worth photographing. Until one day in the spring of 2019.

I’d taken some pictures of Blues and Fritillaries up on Salisbury Plain towards the end of the previous summer and been pleased with the results. I had a new lens which was producing crisper pictures than I’d managed before. So when I found myself watching an Orange Tip fluttering about in our garden one morning, I thought I’d get my camera and see if I could get a decent picture. 

I was lucky enough to capture an Orange Tip perched on a Cuckoo Flower – one of their food plants – which I was pleased with. But there was something that surprised me when I looked at the results on the computer screen: the olive green dappling on the underside of the wing. I’d never noticed it when I’d seen the butterflies flying past before. And then I discovered, reading more about Orange Tips, that the females don’t actually have orange tips at all, and that they’re often mistaken for Small Whites.

I thought I’d try taking some more pictures of what I had assumed were Small Whites that were also fluttering about the garden, to see if they were in fact female Orange Tips.

And they were. And I also discovered that some of them were another species of White entirely: the Green-Veined White, a species I’d not been aware of before. The first one I saw in close-up was a revelation, with its delicate green veins on pale yellow, and its tiny olive green scales. Even a bit battered and bruised, that first one I captured looked stunning with its translucent wings.

A few days later I was out on Salisbury plain walking the dogs when I saw a single white butterfly some way off, making its way along a hedgerow of hawthorn that was in full bloom. I would never have bothered taking pictures of a white butterfly before, but this time I was on its trail pretty quickly and managed to capture some images which are amongst my favourites so far.

Reading more about the Whites, I learned that female brimstones were also white rather than yellow, with an orange dot in the middle of their wings. I guessed that the larger white butterflies I’d seen from earlier in the year were probably female Brimstones, as the yellow – and as I now know, male – Brimstones were also flying at the time. I didn’t manage to capture a stationary female Brimstone (they seem less inclined to sit still than the males) but I did manage, a while later, to get a few of a male and female doing their courtship dance up on the plain.

Dog walking gets you out and about in most weathers and noticing aspects of nature you would not otherwise notice. You see the passing of the seasons; you see how the different flowers and insects have their time, and you see how the colours change during the course of the year. But sometimes dog-walking can still feel like a chore. Taking a camera with you is a way of making it more interesting. If it wasn’t for the dogs, I probably wouldn’t have become as interested in photography or butterflies.

There are times, though, when taking photographs, that you really don’t want to have them around. Like when one of them comes bounding up to you, disturbing everything, including the butterfly you’d at last managed to find perched on the tip of a piece of vegetation with just the right background. Shot gone. 

But then again there are other times when their behaviour can result in pictures you would otherwise never have taken. The dancing Brimstone pictures are an example.

The dogs were sniffing around old rabbit burrows and I decided to leave them to it. I sat down in some shade and waited for them to finish. It was as I was sitting there I noticed the dancing brimstones and thought I’d have a go at capturing them. It’s not the only time the dogs doing their thing has resulted in some decent pictures that I wouldn’t otherwise have captured. 

So thank you, Roxy and Flint.

I came to the point, having taken a few pictures of the species of Whites whose colouring I’d been unaware of before, that I was keen to see what Small and Large Whites, the “Cabbage Whites”, looked like through a telephoto lens.

My first opportunity came in early July when I saw a couple of what I thought might be Small Whites fluttering about over the boggy ground in the field next to our garden. I managed to get over the barbed wire fence and found myself just close enough to one which decided to alight next to a fresh thistle blossom. And took my shot.

For me, their simple, delicate detail is stunning and every bit as beautiful as the other whites.

Here’s a selection of some of the other Whites (and a Yellow, and another Small White), taken in the garden over the last twelve months. I did spot a Clouded Yellow on the plain – the only other Yellow we have in the UK – but it flew faster than I could follow.

Browns Can be Beautiful too

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