Friday, 28 January 2022

Chasing elusive butterflies amid gorgeous wildflowers

I’VE just returned from two hours on top of Watlington Hill, photographing butterflies on your behalf. In the blazing sunshine amid the gorgeous wildflowers, I might add, just in case you were feeling sorry for me. It was blissful but frustrating.

I wish I could tell you how easy it is to photograph a butterfly, but I can’t. They seem to know when you are watching, particularly when you have a camera in your hands.

Butterflies don’t rest for very long and cover an awful lot of ground — making me cover a lot of ground as well! They always land just out of reach of my lens and when I make a move, they are off. Do butterflies have ears? Can they hear my steps or sighs of frustration?

Well, I have found out that insects like butterflies and moths have a structure called a chordotonal organ that transmits sound by way of vibrations to their brain — so this is probably how they know I’m about. They instinctively fly away from these vibrations as well as any sudden movements or shadows.

I attempt to creep up on them with my shadow behind me but that doesn’t always work because butterflies have compound eyes with many lenses that enable them to look in numerous directions at the same time, quickly picking up moving objects (like me and other predators). And they never close their eyes because they don’t possess eyelids!

In addition, their eyes can see ultraviolet and polarised light, creating a unique visual world that we can only dream about. Reading ultraviolet light patterns on each other’s wings is how they can find members of their own species and most importantly, the opposite sex. And, speaking of light, don’t bother looking for butterflies on cool or cloudy days as they will be resting or hiding out of sight. It’s the sunshine that brings them out, so grab your camera on a lovely sunny day and see what you can find.

Photographing butterflies is often a matter of luck, but it is so satisfying when a good image is captured. I usually don’t know if I got a good photo until I arrive home and upload the images on my computer. Sometimes I am rewarded to see that I’ve captured their long tongue curled up or probing a flower for nectar.

While a butterfly is attracted to a flower by its scent, it doesn’t have a nose. They actually smell and taste with their antennae and feet. In addition to

helping with balance, the antennae allow butterflies to determine if a flower is full of nectar (and also if a potential mate is about). Their feet will chemically establish if the surface on which they are landing is edible.

Butterflies have four wings — two front ones (forewings) and two back ones (hind wings). What I find amazing is how different the upper wings (those that you see when the wings are open) appear from the outer wings.

Looking at the drab brown outer wings of the peacock butterfly or the small tortoiseshell, you’d never know the fabulous colours hidden inside. Yet it is these unexciting textures and colours that camouflage the butterflies when they are at rest or hibernating.

If you observe some butterflies closely, you’ll see how they almost seem to disappear when they shut their wings (they will do this to conserve warmth when the sun goes in).

Many of the outer wings (like those of the brown argus and common blue) are very similar, making identification in the field difficult until the wings are opened. Some butterflies never rest with their wings open, making identification even more challenging!

Wing patterns send messages of their own, such as warning signals of toxicity if eaten, or simply that they aren’t very tasty. Eyespots enable butterflies to threaten predators while mottled textures allow them to hide by blending into their surroundings.

As with most of the natural world, the males are usually prettier than the females, and use their beauty to woo them. Their brilliant colours and markings also serve them well in male vs male rivalry. The metamorphosis from a tiny egg to a voracious caterpillar to an ethereal butterfly in all its glory is truly one of nature’s most enchanting phenomena. Butterflies are fascinating and easy for everyone to enjoy and appreciate. And if you’d like to know the collective noun for a group of butterflies, it is, of course, a flutter!

If you wish to study butterflies in greater depth, I recommend joining the charity Butterfly Conservation They have an Upper Thames branch that is just for our area. It runs identification webinars, which are excellent, and also do free walks. For more information, including a chart that helps to identify local butterflies, visit

I’d like to thank Nick Bowles, the Upper Thames branch co-ordinator, for his help with this article. Thanks also to Grahame Hawker and Matthew Oates.

I am posting daily photos of nature in the Chilterns on my Instagram page:

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©2021 Linda Seward

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