Photographing butterflies

I took a break from curriculum development on Tuesday and drove down to Pinnacles National Park. Of course I looked at the incredible rock formations for which the park is famous. But as spectacular as the scenery was, the highlight of the trip was watching butterflies in Bear Gulch. In particular, I spent about ten minutes watching one Western Tiger Swallowtail visiting larkspur blossoms. I took a great many photographs of this one butterfly, getting as close as I could. With a photograph, you can capture narrow slices of time: the position the butterfly’s wings take as it balances on a flower; the way it clings to the flower with its legs and arches its head towards a blossom; the moment when the butterfly is just approaching the flower:

Papilio rutulus

But sometimes what sticks in your memory is not what you actually saw, but the photographs of what you saw. After I left Pinnacles, I drove to Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. When I saw butterflies there, I made a point of trying to sketch them in my field notebook rather than just photograph them, like this common butterfly:

Vanessa atalanta

This sketch, as an end product, is not nearly as attractive as a photograph (and I did take a photograph of this insect as well) — it’s not as attractive, but I learned more about butterflies by making this sketch. By comparing my sketch to a field guide, by seeing what I left out, I learned what I don’t see when I look at butterflies. I suspect making less attractive sketches like this does more towards sharpening my powers of observation than does taking a great many very attractive photographs.

Bald Knob

Carol and I decided to hike up to the top of Bald Knob from the parking lot at Higgins Canyon Road. We climbed steadily through the Coastal Redwoods up into the Douglas Fir forest, and in less than two hours were at the summit of Bald Knob. It was a little disappointing, because Bald Knob wasn’t at all bald, and instead of the views we had hoped for, we just had a Douglas Fir forest. But it was a beautiful Douglas Fir forest, smelling of fir trees and woods, and it was quiet, so we sat down to eat lunch.

After lunch, we walked down Irish Ridge Trail, and just a short distance down the trail, there were green grassy slopes sprinkled with wildflowers. Dad and I used to talk about the way wildflowers sprang up all over the hills of coastal California during the spring; it was one of the things that had most impressed him, I think, in one of his early trips to California. Unfortunately, Dad’s dementia means that that well-worn, familiar conversation is no longer possible, so I took a photograph of some flowers instead — Dad has always taken photographs documenting what he saw in the world; and still does, sometimes.

Irish Ridge Trail, San Mateo county, California

And a little way further down the trail were the views that we had hoped for. We looked out over an open slope, which was covered with Poison Oak in full bloom, down into the Lobitos Creek valley, out at the Pacific Ocean. Some kind of flower was sending its delightful perfume into the sun-warmed air around us; I’m pretty sure this perfume came from the Poison Oak; maybe Poison Oak is good for something after all.

Looking down from Irish Ridge towards the Pacific

On the way back down the trail, Carol said that these tree roots, balanced precariously on a gradually eroding bank, looked like a huge Muppet monster:


By the time we got back to the car, it was cloudy and cool, down to 52 degrees. We had walked about 11.4 miles, with a total elevation gain of about 2,500 feet. We felt kind of tired.