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Butterfly Watching Tips

Are you interested in butterflies and keen to know more about butterflies but having problems finding them at the moment? Well, this article might be of some help and provides some useful tips for butterfly watching.

The word butterfly is believed to be derived from a contraction of “Butter- colored Fly”. A butterfly is a nectar-feeding insect with two pairs of colorful wings covered by microscopic scales. It has a clubbed antenna, holds its wings vertically up over their backs at resting position and is mostly active during day time. These are some of the peculiar characters of butterflies that differentiate them from Moth. It is estimated that about 20,000 butterfly species are present in the world; 675 reside in Nepal.

Butterfly watching is less popular and has remained since a lot of people think of them as frilly and boring creatures. In fact, they are just so cool and bizarre and fascinating. It never gets boring actually.

Courtship behavior of Bath White Pontia daplidice

What you’ll need to have?

It’s not much, you just need to have:

  1. A very beginner field guide like “A photographic pocket guide to Butterflies of Nepal” by Colin Smith, 2011.
  2. Binocular (not compulsory)
  3. DSLR camera or smartphone for photos
  4. And a small note copy.

See that’s simple!

When and Where to go?

The best part is you don’t have to wake up early but keep sleeping in till the day is warm enough for the butterflies to enjoy the sun. Unlike birders, who drag themselves out of the bed before dawn, you can wait until the day is warm enough. Butterflies are ectotherms just like amphibians and most reptiles, which means their internal temperature is regulated by their environment which is why you can find butterflies in open spaces of any nearby natural area and around midday. 

The grasslands with lots of flowering herbs and shrubs, agroforestry areas and roadside with flowering invasive plants like Lantana (Nep: Kirne kanda) Lantana camara, Grofton weed (Nep: Kalo banmara) Ageratum adenophora, Blue weed (Nep: Nilo gandhe) Ageratum houstonianum etc are the best places where you can find most of the butterflies flying to feed on nectar plant. Some butterflies can also be seen feeding on decaying plant matter or feces.  Also, you can find some species like Common Evening Brown Melanitis leda, Dark Evening Brown Melanitis phedima, Common Forester Lethe isana, Common Duffer Discophora sondaica, in shaded part of forest and bamboo clumps.

The grasslands with varieties of flowering plants and forests are the good habitat for butterflies
Human settlement and agricultural land are also source of nectar plants and other food sources for butterflies in some extent.

One trick to watch butterflies is to look for specialized behavior like basking and hill topping. During warm mornings, butterflies can be found sunbathing, or basking, with their wings spread or folded flat so the warm rays from the sun will raise their body temperature to help them fly. Species like swallowtails often gather in large numbers for hill topping (flying up to and staying on hilltop). The mud puddles are also a good place to watch butterflies where they gather and get the salt they need.

“I’ve seen many butterflies do this on the hiking trails after a rain”.

Indian Fritillary Argynnis hyperbius basking on sunlight
Large hedge blue Celastrina huegelii puddling on decaying plant and animal dung

Home gardens and backyards are also the best places to watch butterflies. If you have planted flowering plants or nectar plants you can easily see/spot common species like Indian Cabbage White Pieris canidia, Pea blue Lampides boeticus, Common Grass Blue Zizina labradus, Indian Tortoiseshell Aglais cashmirensis flying around.

Backyards are also best place to watch butterflies. Indian Cabbage White Pieris canidia nectar on Lantana Lantana camara, an invasive plant. © Suman Prajapati.

The seasons also play a significant role in finding butterflies. The best time to find or watch butterflies is during summer (June, July and August) and spring (March, April and May) seasons. During the winter season (January and February) you’ll find a smaller number of butterflies flying around since this season is dry, cold wind blows and there is occasional rainfall and snowfall. So, always plan in advance, or you’ll have to wait a long time before you see them again.

Kaiser-i-Hind Teinopalpus imperialis imperialis can be observed during the month from May to July only.© Harshvardhan Huidrom

Along with this, try to do some research on butterflies of your areas. Online portal like “Butterfly Watchers Nepal”, “Butterflies of Nepal”, and “Insect World Nepal” and “ifoundbutterflies.org”, and “butterfly-conservation.org” are some of the national and international link where you can get more information on butterflies.

Which binocular to have?

Having binocular will be a real treat for watching butterflies. Obviously traditional way is to capture using insect net, kill and pin in board and use a magnifying glass. But for general purpose to get a much better view is through a good pair of binoculars. 

Before buying binocular firstly, be sure what your purpose is of buying? Is it either for viewing objects like butterflies, or also work well for birds, other wildlife? If your concern is just for butterflies then you can buy close minimum focusing general use binoculars to get as near to butterflies without frightening it away.

Vortex Crossfire 8 x 42 and Nikon 10 x 50 are my go-to binoculars for now”.

Vortex Crossfire 8 x 42 (©bhphotovideo.com)                       Nikon 10 x 50 (©Nikon.co.in)

Photographing Butterflies

Though both digital cameras and binoculars have reduced the frustration of many butterfly watchers, it still takes care and stealth to approach butterfly and have patience and practice to have near view.

When I see butterfly flying around or at a certain point, I remain still for a moment and let them come to me or visit at the same point”.

Butterflies mostly tend to visit the same plants or place again and again. So, do not be panic, wait and have patience you will definitely get a chance to have close view or photograph.

Photographing mating behavior of Dark Clouded Yellow Colias fieldii

Another way of knowing butterfly is using a net to catch butterflies but be quick and extremely gentle holding it while you examine, making sure to release it unharmed.

Insect net is commonly used tools to catch butterflies.

There is no any hard and fast rule to buy or have certain cameras or lenses for butterfly photography. You can just have a simple point n shoot compact camera or professional DSLR bodies attached expensive macro lenses. Based on your priority either just for fun, simple photo is ok or need a very sharp and high-resolution photographs you can purchase the photography gears.

Taking notes

The most important part of watching butterflies is to take notes or write down the information/ data like species id, the habitat type, location, time, weather, month, etc. If you are a good artist, field sketches of butterflies are the best reference for species identification and also give much information about other activities. More the information you collect, more ease in describing the details or predicting on species later. So, always carry at least a small notebook to write down details.

I prefer to use android apps like #Note_everything and #MY_Diary often”.

Note taking in the field is the best way to record the data to use in future reference.

Butterfly watching can be fun and educational if proper techniques and methods are perceived and whether you’re a casual observer or experienced one, take a moment to appreciate these backyard beauties. The more you see, the more you’ll want to learn.

Sanej is an ecologist and keen traveler interested in highland biodiversity. He has been working for the butterfly conservation for a while now.