Wildlife Notes

7. Orange-tip Butterfly

Article text
The Orange-tip is one of my favourite butterflies to photograph; I love its green under wing markings and the orange of its upper wings. It is also very symbolic to me of the freshness of spring flora and the first warm sunny days of the year.

These little guys’s can be very hard to catch up with as they spend much of their time patrolling and are often very flighty. However, persistence usually pays of when you find a favourable area and you can usually find a basking or less flighty individual that will tolerate you photographic endeavours.

Many of these images were taken in late April 2009. I had been scouting for good places to find them for a couple of weekends while walking the East Devon Way. The section between Newton Poppleford and Colyton showed a lot of promise, with many sightings and an abundance of food plants, and so I now had to wait for a sunny calm day in order to get some good images.

Luckily that day arrived on the last weekend of April so I set off on a circular route in search of willing subjects. I was lucky enough to see many of these little gems early on in the walk but they where all too flighty and I just could not approach them. It may have been that it was still early morning and so feeding and patrolling was on their minds.

I carried on hopeful that some later areas would provide suitable opportunities. Some 4 hours later, and having been frustrated by many subjects, I came across a group of 4 Orange-tips that appeared to be quite happily resting only ten minutes walk from the car. Great I thought…. this is my chance.

They were very tolerant and I happily snapped away for at least half an hour trying to get the best compositions (of subject and plant), profiles (especially the head/eye detail and angle) and backgrounds (clear of distractions and a fair distance behind the subject so they blur nicely and ideally of a great complimentary colour). I Hope you like them.




Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/160th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/250th
F13
ISO 320
Tripod



Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/200th
F8
ISO 200
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod

For butterflies down to their size my trusty butterfly kit comprises:

Canon 50D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4x Extender II
Canon Extension Tube EF 25 II (optional)
Canon Flash 580EX
Flash Extender (optional)
Gitzo Carbon Tripod - With home made foam padding on its legs to ease the pain of carrying on my shoulder
Markins Ball Head
Waterproof Camera and Lens cover – Cuts down greatly on the usual, tiring, how big is your lens comments!
Rucksack capable of holding all the above with foam padding inside and a big heavy duty plastic bag and freezer clip to seal the whole lot should it rain

When processing on the PC I usually tighten the images by cropping up to a maximum of 25%.

To minimize noise, I try to use the lowest ISO I can get away with to produce a sharp image and never go above ISO400. Bearing in mind I almost always shoot from a tripod, my minimum shutter speed really depends on subject movement, if they are absolutely still I am happy to go down to 1/30 (with mirror luck up enabled). If there is slight subject movement I wait until the subject appears absolutely still (which requires a lot of patience) and take my images at that instant and will be reasonably confident of a sharp image down to 1/100th , but prefer to be at around 1/250th. If the subject is moving and won’t hold still then I want to be as fast as I can get, and at least 1/800th and ideally 1/1250th or more. At these fast speeds F13 will be out of the question at acceptable ISO and so I have to consider what Images will work with less depth of field.

My favoured F stop range is usually F8 to F13 in order to get a reasonable depth of field. The minimum focus distance of the Canon 300mm F4 IS without Extension Tube is an extremely handy 1.5m, however if you try to get this close all the time I have found some images can be blurred when you see them properly on the PC at home and so I tend to try and take most of my images at around 2m, this also helps not to frighten away my subjects. I also tend to manually focus most of the time to get the precise focus points I am looking for. I always take along an Extension Tube but it doesn’t get used that much at present.

I usually always shoot in AV mode and my default starting point is always Evaluative Metering and -2/3 of underexposure, I want to absolutely avoid blowing out the highlights (whites and yellows are particularly prone to blowing and so loosing detail). I have the blown highlights identification option activated on my camera to quickly spot when it occurs and always check my histograms.

I cannot say enough good things about the Canon 300m F4 IS, it’s my absolute favourite all-round wildlife lens, image quality with a 1.4 Extender is very good provided I keep to F stops of 7.1 and above. Without the Extender images are superb down to F4. It’s comparatively light, the IS and auto focus is pretty good and I love the inbuilt hood.

If I plan to take images of butterflies smaller than Orange-tips then the Extension Tube comes into play or I will use a Canon 180mm Macro, plus usually a 1.4x Extender and probably an Extension Tube and a Canon Twin Flash (to produce a more subtle and desired lighting effect).

For close-up work the flash is for fill light to give the images a light feeling and bring out image detail, I usually set it at - 2 2/3 as my starting point and then alter it as required. The flash can also help to sharpen the image due to its speed. I often try to take images with the sun passing through their wings and so a flash is essential to bring out detail in the darker shadow areas. I don’t always use the Flash Extender for this type of work, but will use it to prolong battery life if it’s going to be an issue. For macro work I then start to rely very heavily on the flash as my primary light source due to my desire for depth of field.


For butterflies in general, I find some have a territory, if you watch them they will patrol an area, fending off rivals, other butterflies and chasing after suitable partners. I guess these are probably the males and females drift around between their territories. If you watch long enough sometimes you can identify flowers that must be producing more nectar than others that day and so they are favoured feeding points. Other spots will be favoured basking places. I have had some successful photographic opportunities by making use of this knowledge and waiting patiently, motionless and prepared by these flowers or favoured basking places.

When actually taking images I move very slowly, I take a few images from say 3m to 4m out then gradually get closer as the subject gets used to you. If you happen to find a really willing subject you can get very close indeed, there all individuals after all! Just like everyone else I also spend most of my time being frustrated by my attempts to get close so I never expect every butterfly I find to be a push over. Your failures make your successes that much sweeter.

When I’m composing images I try my best to get pleasing compositions there and then but don’t get really carried away as I know I can do final work adjusting this on the PC later. I concentrate most on getting good clear images of the subject in a pleasing profile, with real attention to their head, eyes, antennae and depth of field. I also only try to take images of fresh, quality, individuals and those on fresh flowers.

Having taken my images of these super little chaps I then returned home, eager to see my results on screen and start the usual PC work to finish the images.

I hope you enjoyed them and they give you the sense of spring and life renewed they give me.

I shamelessly include an adapted extract from the web below that gives great detail about their natural history. I hope that does not offend.

Male Orange-tip Butterfly - Anthocharis cardamines

Text adapted from - http://www.ukbutterflies.co.uk/species.php?vernacular_name=Orange-Tip

The Orange-tip, like the primrose and the cuckoo, is a true herald of spring. It is one of the very few species that are on the increase in Britain, having spread northwards in recent decades, whilst still remaining common and fairly abundant in the south.

The bright orange tips to the males' forewings (the females lack the orange) are believed to be aposematic, acting as a warning to birds that the butterflies contain toxins derived from the larval food plants. It is notable that many other butterfly species also have very brightly coloured males, but plain females. One reason for this is that males are far more active, constantly flying in search of mates, and in constant danger of being attacked, so they need to advertise their toxic nature. Another reason is that they need to advertise their presence to potential mates. Females on the other hand are generally passive, tending to move very little until mated. When searching for egg-laying sites they tend to move slowly and deliberately, and for them, plain colours or good camouflage are a better means of defence.

The main foodplants are Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) and Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Charlock (Sinapis arvensis), Hairy Rock-cress (Arabis hirsuta), Hedge Mustard (Sisymbrium officinale), Large Bitter-cress (Cardamine amara), Turnip (Brassica rapa) and Winter-cress (Barbarea vulgaris) are also used.

Orange-tip larvae are noted for their cannibalistic tendencies - this has probably evolved because most of the larval food plants (e.g. cuckoo flower) only produce enough foliage to sustain a single larva through to full development. Larvae will not leave the plants on which they hatch, so for their own survival it becomes necessary for them to devour their competing brethren.

The slender green larvae feed nocturnally on the leaves of the plants, but in the daytime habitually rest on the seedpods, where they are superbly camouflaged.

Caterpillars which have been feeding on cuckoo flower always leave the plants when ready to pupate, and attach themselves with a silken girdle to a nearby woody stem. Caterpillars on garlic mustard, however, often pupate on the stems of the plant on which they fed. The very distinctive pupa cannot be mistaken for any other species. There are two colour forms of the pupa - green, and brown, of which the brown form is by far the commoner.

Male Orange-tips begin emerging in early April, followed about a week later by the females. As with many other butterfly species, female Orange-tips must mate within a couple of days of emergence, after which they appear to lose their attraction to the males, so the staggered emergence is nature's way of ensuring that there are plenty of males available when the females emerge.

There is virtually no variation in the colouring or patterning of Orange-tips, but there is a great deal of variation in size. The smaller butterflies may result from larvae that have fed on cuckoo flower - these plants have barely enough foliage to sustain the larvae, and it is possible that they literally run out of food, and pupate early.

When seen in flight, female Orange-tips are extremely difficult to distinguish from Green-veined Whites, but when they settle, the beautiful mottled green markings on the underside hind wings make identification easy. The colour is not caused by green pigment, which is rare amongst butterflies, but is an optical illusion caused by a mottling of black and yellow scales. The markings are an extremely effective camouflage which works against a variety of backgrounds - the butterflies are very difficult to spot at rest on the bracken fronds, hazel leaves, nettles, and garlic mustard flowers on which they roost on dull days.

Orange-tips visit a wide variety of flowers including bluebell, bugle, wood anemone, blackthorn, primrose, hawthorn, garlic mustard, violets and dandelion, but have a particular fondness for the nectar of cuckoo flower. When nectaring, or settling for short periods, they normally keep their wings half open, but in hazy weather or late evening sunshine will bask for long periods with the wings wide open.




Canon 7D
Canon 300mm F4 IS plus 1.4 x Extender
1/400th
F13
ISO 400
Fill Flash -2 2/3, Tripod



Canon 7D
Canon 300mm F2.8 L IS plus 2 x Extender and Extension Tube EFII
1/250th
F9
ISO 500
Fill Flash -3, Tripod



Canon 7D
Canon 300mm F2.8 L IS plus 2 x Extender and Extension Tube EFII
1/250th
F13
ISO 500
Fill Flash -3, Tripod



Canon 7D
Canon 300mm F2.8 L IS plus 2 x Extender and Extension Tube EFII
1/500th
F13
ISO 500
Fill Flash -3, Tripod