Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Vanessa atalanta

with 21 comments

Click for greater clarity.

Click for greater clarity.

Behold Vanessa atalanta, a red admiral butterfly. On the sunny morning of December 13th I saw perhaps a dozen of them in the half-hour that I spent by a poverty weed bush, Baccharis neglecta, in my neighborhood. What I’d never seen before was the way this butterfly drew sustenance not from a flower (those of the poverty weed had long since given way to seed-bearing fluff, and even most of that had blown away by this late date) but from a small opening in the bark of one of the bush’s branches. I don’t know what liquid the red admiral’s tongue was able to extract from that opening, but the butterfly was so caught up in what it was doing that it let me get very close and take picture after picture.

If you’re interested in learning more about red admiral butterflies, here’s an article about them. If you’re interested in photography as a craft, points 1 (which I often mention) and 18 (which I’ve rarely mentioned) in About My Techniques are relevant to this photograph.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 20, 2012 at 6:22 AM

21 Responses

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  1. I love it when they are occupied and I can shoot them at my leisure! Great shot.


    December 20, 2012 at 7:09 AM

  2. What an accommodating specimen! How often does that happen?
    I saw something similar in spring for the first time. My maple trees were weeping sap and the butterflies were after it. What does yours find in December? It certainly is a mystery. Perhaps another of your readers will have an answer for us?


    December 20, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    • It certainly was an accommodating specimen. I can’t quantify how often that happens, but it’s often enough to get a good pictures every now and then. (The most recent time was two days ago, and I’ll probably show a photograph from that encounter next week). And then there are butterflies that are so skittish it’s hard to get close enough for a decent picture.

      I speculated that this red admiral might be getting sap, but I don’t know that for a fact. Let’s hope a viewer can help us out.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 20, 2012 at 7:38 AM

  3. What a grand experience for you to get up close and personal with the species.


    December 20, 2012 at 8:29 AM

  4. Great shot Steve, this butterfly is one of my favourites!


    December 20, 2012 at 10:03 AM

    • Thanks. I was surprised last year when I realized from a photograph on a German blog that this species lives in Europe as well as North America.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 20, 2012 at 10:17 AM

  5. Interesting article, I’ve only seen them in flight or nectaring, never on the tree sap, fruit or bird droppings but you caught one, at least, on the sap, making it both fascinating and beautiful photo.


    December 20, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    • Judging from the article I linked to, I guess this red admiral was indeed going after the tree’s sap. That was a new experience for me, but obviously not for the butterfly. This is one species that parts of the United States and France can share.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 20, 2012 at 11:30 AM

      • Red admirals are a member of a large family of butterflies called “brushfoots.” Their 2 front legs are greatly reduced so that they look like they have 4 instead of 6 legs. Brushfoots feed on flowers and sap flows. We have 2 species here in southern Illinois that overwinter as adults, and they can be seen on sunny days when the temperature reaches 50.


        December 20, 2012 at 12:10 PM

        • Here in central Texas, where the climate is a lot milder than in Illinois (even southern Illinois), we have quite a few brush-footed butterflies, including various crescents, two painted ladies, and of course the red admiral. With I’m glad you get to see your two species on warm winter days.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 20, 2012 at 1:40 PM

  6. Great shot of the red admiral. Yes, they love sap and bird droppings and if all esle fails then they finally feed on nectar plants. The amazing things about nature. I have seen other butterflies on manure and it was mind boggling. I always thought that butterflies only fed on flowers but that is not the case. I like your picture a lot.


    December 20, 2012 at 7:50 PM

    • I was grateful for the chance to get in so close and be able to stay there for so long. I’d seen butterflies getting minerals or other substances from damp ground, but when it comes to plants, now I know that at least some butterflies are attracted to more of their parts than just the flowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 20, 2012 at 9:02 PM

  7. I nominated you and your beautiful blog for an award, see here for some more details: http://metaphoricalmarathons.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/blog-of-the-year-award/ x


    December 21, 2012 at 3:50 AM

    • Congratulations. I’m pleased to see that readers enjoy what you’re doing in Metaphorical Marathons. Thanks also for thinking about these views of nature in central Texas. When the question of awards first came up last year, I thought about it and eventually decided that this blog and people’s comments on it would be reward enough for me without any overt awards. Thanks again, and I hope you’ll understand my decision.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 21, 2012 at 6:26 AM

  8. […] I didn’t disturb the red admiral that you saw yesterday, even when the front of my camera lens got close to it, eventually a yellowjacket flew in and […]

  9. I can spend many minutes with photos like this, drinking in the details like that butterfly’s drinking in – well, whatever. One question – it took me just a bit to find the second of the antennae. It’s out of focus, which suggests you were really close to that butterfly – so close that the antenna pointing toward you went out of focus. Inches, maybe?


    December 21, 2012 at 9:25 AM

    • Inches it was. As you point out, depth of field becomes a problem when I’m that close. With insects I generally focus on the head, and especially on an eye. Anything else that comes out sharp is a bonus (helped along by as small an aperture as the light will let me get away with). In this case I was lucky that one antenna just happened to be approximately parallel to the camera’s sensor and therefore came out reasonably in focus.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 21, 2012 at 11:45 AM

  10. […] the base of the poverty weed from which a yellowjacket chased away a red admiral on December 13th, there was a drying colony of doveweed, Croton monanthogynus, a low-growing […]

  11. […] was true with the red admiral you recently saw here, this butterfly was so caught up in what it was doing that it mostly didn’t mind my getting […]

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