Category Archives: Insects

When the days get hot and the birds go to hide, many birders turn to the study of butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies. Their vivid colors and intricate patterns can be quite fascinating. With the help of binoculars and spotting scopes, you can get close enough for a good view without scaring off the subject.

Getting Close to Bugs

Painted Lady - getting close

Painted Lady

The old saying goes “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” But we who  study butterflies, dragonflies, or other small creatures, know that many other things need proximity. Getting close looks at and/or photographing them requires optics that let you see these beauties in enough detail. That means being able to focus at very short distances. On the Optics4Birding website, a binocular’s close focus distance must be less than 8 feet to be considered close-focusing. I photographed these butterflies with a lens that allows close focus as well. All these images are full frame. I have not cropped the photos, only resized them to fit our page format. The Painted Lady (above) was feeding on nectar from these flowers. Continue reading

OC NABA Butterfly Counts, 2014

Marine Blue Butterfly on OC NABA butterfly count

Marine Blue Butterfly on OC NABA butterfly count

The Orange County chapter of the North American Butterfly Association (OC NABA) held its annual butterfly counts this weekend. Counts took place in Thomas Riley Regional Park and O’Neill Regional Park. It was my privilege to participate in the Riley count and to lead the O’Neill count. We had a pretty much ideal day for them, warm and clear without being beastly hot, though a little more moisture to bring on a bloom of more flowers would have been helpful.

As it was, the diversity of butterfly species was a bit on the low side, while the numbers of some species, notably Checkered Whites and Marine Blues were fairly impressive. We had 35 Marine Blues on the Holy Jim Canyon section of the O’Neill count alone, mostly clustering around wet mud puddles. They were difficult to count accurately since they were always moving, and you had to be careful that you didn’t miss something different hiding amongst them. We had a handful of duskywing butterflies, mostly Funereal Duskywings (photo). Many of these were freshly emergent, so the subtle markings in the upper wings and the white trailing edge of the hind wings were particularly bright and well-defined. Continue reading

Wildlife Photography is Full of Surprises

Female Flame Skimmer

Female Flame Skimmer

To paraphrase Forest Gump’s mother, wildlife photography, especially video, is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get. Animals do things on their own volition, so it always pays to wait and watch.

After looking at shorebirds along the Los Angeles River last fall, we walked back to the car through a park along the river. It was late morning and butterflies and dragonflies were quite active. Although we are primarily birders, we are interested in all of nature. So, we stopped to see what we could find.

Dragonfly Feeding Behavior

Dragonflies have two main methods of getting food: hawking and patrolling. In hawking, the dragonfly perches on the end of a branch, stump, or rock and waits for its prey to come flying by. In patrolling, the dragonfly flies up and down an area, often a path or road, and searches out its prey. Patrolling dragonflies are notoriously difficult to photograph because they are hardly ever stationary.

The Wildlife Photography Surprise

As we walked along, I noticed a Flame Skimmer. It was sitting perched on a stick in the middle of a planted area. Fortunately, Flame Skimmers are hawking dragonflies, so I decided to digiscope some video through my Kowa TSN-884 spotting scope with my micro four thirds camera. I set up, zoomed in, and started recording, waiting for something interesting to happen. The first few times the skimmer flew off its perch, I stopped recording, but it kept returning. Interested in showing that behavior, I started a new clip and decided to let the video run until it came back. Was I ever surprised and happy.

Letting the video run really paid off. When the Flame Skimmer returned to its perch, it was chewing away on a gnat! I never expected that. What a surprise! Isn’t wildlife photography fun?

Dragon and Damselflies Up Close and Personal

Lately, we’ve been digiscoping insects while field-testing the Swarovski ATX/STX modular spotting scopes. One of the stand-out features of these scopes is their superb digiscoping capabilities. The scope’s 65-mm objective module close-focuses to 6-feet, meaning it works almost like a macro lens.  We played with the scope to see how it would perform taking pictures of dragon- and damselflies. All these odes inhabited a quiet little stream less than a mile from our store!

Blue Dasher

Digiscoping a Blue Dasher Dragonfly

Digiscoping a Blue Dasher Dragonfly

This is a male Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, a common dragonfly of southern California. Note the blue abdomen, sea-green eyes and white facial plate, and subtle amber patch on the hind wings. Females are browner on the thorax and abdomen, with cream markings for accent, but they still have the green eyes and white facial plate. Territorial males frequently chase each other around. We commonly find Blue Dashers, members of the skimmer family, over rivers, ponds and streams. They tend to hunt from perches, which means they’re often stationary, making them much easier to photograph!

 

California Spreadwing

California Spreadwing damselfly

California Spreadwing damselfly

This blue-eyed beauty is a male California Spreadwing damselfly, Archilestes californica. Spreadwings are unusual among damselflies in that they often perch with the wings wide open. The California Spreadwing is told from the Great Spreadwing by the white markings on the thorax flanks, and the two-toned pterostigma. Like the Blue Dasher, this spreadwing is a sally hunter. That means it hawks prey from a perch to which it often returns. To photograph them, we focused on the perch and waited for the hunter to return.

Vivid Dancer

Vivid Dancer damselfly

Male Vivid Dancer damselfly

Lastly, here’s a brilliant blue male Vivid Dancer damselfly, Argia vivida. Distinguish these gorgeous little damselflies from other similar species by the carrot-shaped black marks on the abdominal segments. This species occurs in every single county in California, making it our most common one. When Vivid Dancers emerge from their nymph forms, a pale gray pruinescence coats them. That wears off with time to reveal their brilliant color. Vivid Dancers often perch away from water, on rocks, logs and shrubs, as these were doing when we found them.

 

All these pictures were taken with the Swarovski ATX-65 spotting scope, equipped with the TLS-APO digiscoping adaptor, using a Canon 40D camera.

Bright or dark, close or far – ATX/STX spotting scope

It seems that the guys here have been writing quite a bit lately about the Swarovski ATX/STX spotting scope using the 85mm objective. This scope performs remarkably well in comparison to most other 80mm class scopes. It makes sense to me they have had it in the field this much. The performance of the 85mm objective is really impressive but the scope also offers the advantage of simply switching out the objective to either a 65mm or 95mm objective for different conditions or preferences. What this means is that by simply changing the objective you have a completely new scope!

The ATX/STX Spotting Scope

I’ll have to admit that I was a bit skeptical when the new scope design was announced by Swarovski. Their design allowed switching objectives to different sizes. All the same, the different sizes offered interesting possibilities and some really impressive capabilities. The guys have written about digiscoping with the 85mm objective using both point and shoot and micro 4/3rds cameras.  I thought I would test the other modules using my Canon 7D DSLR camera.

As a note before I discuss these other two modules, at this time there is no other scope on the market that has digiscoping adapters that are as simple and complete. This means that you can easily take a photo of what you are looking at through your scope. You can do this with any of the aforementioned camera types. I won’t go into detail about that here as it is discussed in detail in the scope review.

The 65mm Objective

close-up photo taken with Swarovski ATX/STX spotting scope

Close-up photo using Swarovski ATX/STX spotting scope

When Swarovski originally brought in their new ATX/STX spotting scope to show us, they brought the 65mm objective and the straight STX eyepiece module in a binocular field bag! This combination is extremely compact and opens the possibilities of traveling with a spotting scope like never before. I took the photo at the left with the this combination. The intent of this picture was twofold. First is brightness, color, and sharpness. I’ll let the image speak for itself. Everything is even brighter and sharper when you look with your eyes.

Second is closeness. The Swarovski ATX/STX spotting scope with the 65mm objective will close focus to 6.9 feet! That is closer than most binoculars. This means that the whole world of small is now possible at up to 60 times magnification. I could go on about this little scope but with the same camera I figured I’d see what the 95mm objective was capable of. Continue reading