Why does the Monarch Hide its Eyes?

I have been taking photographs of butterflies for a long time, and I have some photos that I consider pretty good.  However, I have had a hard time getting photos that I really like of monarchs.  I think I figured out why, but that only posed another question.

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Monarchs have a series of white spots on a black background that break up their profile, and hide their eyes.

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My definition of a good butterfly photograph usually starts with the eyes being in focus.  Here the eye is in focus, but you don’t really notice it.

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And another shot–the eye is clearly in focus, but not obvious to look at.

One would assume this is a defensive mechanism–a predator might attempt to strike the monarch and miss the eye and head.  But what predator? Monarchs are toxic to birds.  Most insect predators would be too small.  Maybe defense against lizards?  Lizards would not be a big issue here in the north, but might be further south.

I looked at my other butterfly photographs to see which ones have similar spots.  Soldiers and queens, the other milkweed butterflies, have spots that are similar.  Viceroys, red-spotted purples, white admirals, spicebush swallowtails, and black swallowtails all have white spots which might disrupt the coloration and hide the eye, but to a much lesser extent than the monarch.

Typically, brushfoot butterflies have an eye color that is the same as the ground color of the butterfly.  For example, the mourning cloak:

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And the red admiral:

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And the common buckeye:

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The major exception I found was the little wood satyr, which has black eyes on a brown body.

Skippers and gossamer wing butterflies tend to have black eyes.

Here is a coral hairstreak:

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The western pygmy-blue has blue-gray eyes, but they match the ground color of the butterfly:

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Of course, some butterflies like hairstreaks have eyespots on their wings, which can divert predators (thought to be mainly jumping spiders) from their heads.

Why do monarchs and other milkweed butterflies hide their eyes?  What particular predator is this a defense against?  Let me know if you know.

 

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Late Season Butterflies

Monarchs are back!

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They are showing up in pretty good numbers, also.  Concerns about the status of the monarch are well founded, but they are having a really good year this year.

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The other late season butterflies are having a terrible year–probably knocked out by the very heavy rains we have had.  Last year there was not a monarch to be found.  This year, they outnumber the other butterflies at least ten to one.  But the other butterflies are few and far between.

I did find this battered and beaten great spangled fritillary.

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I’m feeling a little battered and beaten myself lately.

 

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When to use flash, and when to not use flash

Butterfly photography requires a certain amount of stealth.  I use a single-focal length macro lens–105 mm, and slowly get as close to the butterfly as I can.  In bright sun, I use an aperture of f/16 and a shutter speed of 1/250 sec, at ASA 100.  Here is a photo I took of a pearl crescent with those settings.

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Ideally you have the sun to your back.  But when you are stalking the butterflies, that does not always happen.  It can help to use a little fill flash–keeping it simple, I use the pop-up flash on my camera.  That changes the aperture to f/22 and the shutter speed to 1/200.  I always use the manual settings so I have complete control.

If I used more flash, or if the background were farther away, the background would go dark.  With this photo, that is not really an issue.

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A little bit of flash really helps this photograph.

I found a pair of little yellows, mating while hanging upside-down under a leaf.  Here is what the photo looks like using the fill flash.

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The photo is clear, you can easily see details of the scales and the eyes, and even little hairs on the leaves.

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Without the flash you lose some of the sharpness and detail, but you get more of a sense that the butterflies are underneath the leaf.  In this instance, the natural light photo is much better.

At least, that is the way I see it.

 

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Blowing in the Wind

The biggest problem I had with taking this photo of a pearl crescent, Phyciodes theros, was the wind.  The wind moved the subject into and out of focus.  So I held the flower by the stem, and focused by moving the camera in and out.  I used a little bit of fill flash to get this shot.

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But the wind helped a little bit, also.  Pearl crescents have a tendency to rest with their wings out horizontally, and the underside is more difficult to photograph.

 

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Here’s Looking at You, Kid

I ran across this fellow on our log pile.  This is a very small jumping spider–unidentified as of yet.

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Taken with a macro lens and extension tubes–if you put it on a penny, it would not cover Lincoln’s head.

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Why They Call Them Brushfoot Butterflies

This is a male pearl crescent, Phyciodes tharos.

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Butterflies are insects, and insects have six legs, right?  But this one only seems to have four.

Pearl crescents belong to a family of butterflies, Nymphalidae or nymphalids.  The group is also referred to as “brushfoot butterflies.”  The front pair of legs in this family is greatly reduced in size and the hairs remind some people of brushes.

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The right leg can be seen just below the eye.

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See it now?  Not much good for walking.

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The Other Color

A couple of days ago I posted a photograph of a female eastern tiger swallowtail.  I should have been a little more specific in my description–it was the yellow form.

Eastern tiger swallowtails have two different forms (or morphs) of females–one is yellow and black, as are all males of the species.  The other form is all black, like the one shown here.

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It can look very black, or stripes can appear, depending on how the light hits it.

Scientists explain it in terms of mimicry.

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On a Better Day for Butterflies

Today was a good day for butterflies–certainly better than yesterday.  I spent some time walking the prairie and the roadside and found some good ones.

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This is a Peck’s skipper, Polites peckius.

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A nice silver-spotted skipper, Epargyreus clarus.

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And finally, a gorgone checkerspot, Chlosyne gorgone.

It was a very good day for butterflies.

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A Good Butterfly on a Bad Day for Butterflies

This morning I wanted to take pictures of butterflies but the weather was not right for it.  It had been rainy and misty, and while the rain had stopped the ground was still wet and it was still cloudy.  I walked around and saw no butterflies.

Finally, I saw one.  It was a magnificent eastern tiger swallowtail.  It flew around and landed in a few places before I was able to get close enough to get a photo.

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This is a female, as evidenced by the large amount of blue.

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What Does a Butterfly Know About Death?

I walked past a dead orange sulfur butterfly along the road.  It is not such an unusual sight, and who knows what kills them.  I would guess it was a victim of traffic. But as I traveled on, I saw a live orange sulfur butterfly land on the exact spot of the dead butterfly, as if it were attracted to it.  I took a picture, but as I went back to get closer it flew off. 8-10-140067 So I looked a little closer. 8-10-140069 The petals are from the hoary vervain that grows alongside the road. There may be a deeper meaning, but I don’t know what it is.  Who understands the brain (or heart) of a butterfly?

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