Butterfly Observation

In recent years there has been an expanding interest in nature watching on the part of many Canadians. Birdwatching has turned into a major recreational activity. Similarly, there is increasing interest in butterfly watching by those who may be interested in watching, photographing, or studying butterflies, but do not wish to undertake the more traditional method of forming a collection.

Observing butterflies with the naked eye is possible under many circumstances, but it can also be frustrating. It can take incredible patience and luck, particularly for the smaller and duller-coloured species, to even make a positive identification in the field. With more experience this becomes easier. However, there are certain species that rarely let you get close to them.

Technology has come to the rescue. Binoculars, as for the birdwatcher, are becoming a more important part of the butterfly watcher's equipment. They allow you to bring the butterfly in question up close without disturbing it. The best binoculars to use are those of lower power (6× to 8× magnification) to allow focusing at close distance (5 to 6 feet). In recent years, a number of keen birdwatchers of the authors' acquaintance have branched out into butterfly watching because of the new challenges it offers.

For those who don't wish to collect, a net is still a very useful instrument. With care, butterflies can be captured and handled (or placed in a clear bottle) for very close-up observation. Although fragile, butterflies can be gently held by the thorax and then released unharmed. This procedure is used by many butterfly educators when introducing people to the study of their subjects. Many scientific supply houses sell butterfly nets.

Another fast-growing aspect of observing butterflies as a hobby is capturing them on film. Modern cameras are both light enough and versatile enough to enable even beginners to get good images of perching or nectaring adult butterflies. Butterfly photography has also become an essential tool for recording early stages. For many even well-known species, early stages have not yet been properly photographed.

The key to good butterfly photography, in addition to patience, is getting the right equipment. An essential is a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. These are generally more expensive than the widely used instant cameras (such as range-finders), but the results are worth it. A critical factor is the lens chosen, ideally one that gives maximum magnification, depth of field, and light exposure. The regular lens on most cameras is a 50 mm. This is the focal length of the lens and indicates the distance between the film plane and the lens. Such a lens does not allow you to focus in close enough to get a reasonable-sized image of the butterfly. Inexpensive extension rings or bellows can be installed, but they are awkward and the resulting photo may not be sharp. Telephoto or telephoto zoom lenses allow you to stand back, without disturbing the butterfly, and get a close-up picture. But it is difficult to get a sharp, close focus. Most recommended are the macro lenses. They allow you to get very near to the subject (for the smaller macros - e.g., 50 mm - this is sometimes too close and will often scare off the butterfly). The longer the macro, the easier it is to get sharply focused photos without being right on top of the subject. Of course, the longer they get, the heavier they are. Anything in the 100 mm to 200 mm range should prove satisfactory.

Another factor to consider is the film to be used. You must decide if you want slides or prints (from slides, you can always make prints). Next is the decision on the speed of the film (expressed as the ASA number). The higher the ASA number, the less light needed to properly expose the subject, but lower ASA film gives a sharper image and tends to give truer colour replication.

The choice of film is also dictated by whether one wishes to use natural light or a flash when taking pictures - always a hot topic among butterfly photographers. Flash (using lower-speed film) allows photography under almost any lighting conditions, including overcast days and at dusk, and gives greater depth of field. But it blacks out almost all the background. Natural-light aficionados insist there is more sport to taking butterfly photos under available light and that the results are closer to nature's reality. You will probably also use up more film, as results are less certain. The choice is difficult, but you can also combine the two options.

Getting close to butterflies for any of the above activities (netting, observing, photographing) requires the development of certain skills. Butterflies, with their multi-faceted eyes, are capable of 180-degree vision, making it difficult to sneak up on them. So patience is a must. It is always best to approach from behind, with perhaps the wings or some foliage obstructing the butterfly's view. Best yet, approach the butterfly when it is occupied in some other activity, such as nectaring or mud-puddling. Sometimes butterflies get so absorbed in sipping up moisture or nectar that they will ignore you even if you touch them. PWH had this happen when he cautiously approached a wet spot on a Quebec back road with a large number of rare Early Hairstreaks (Erora laeta) sipping the mud. The hairstreaks even walked on his fingers searching for salts in the perspiration.

For anybody interested in observing butterflies, by far the best source of information on all aspects is Robert Pyle's The Audubon Society Handbook for Butterfly Watchers (Pyle, 1984).

© 2003. Reproduced with permission from The Butterflies of Canada by Ross A. Layberry, Peter W. Hall, and J. Donald Lafontaine. University of Toronto Press; 1998. Specimen photos courtesy of John T. Fowler.