Monarch Butterfly at Raccoon Creek State Park in Southwest Pennsylvania

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

We share with you one of the most fascinating butterfly images that I have ever photographed. In real terms, this is one of the 50,000+ slides we’ve processed.  It is one among the most enigmatic in the collection.

This Danaus plexippus female Monarch butterfly was resting on a wilted flowerhead in Nichol field in Raccoon Creek State Park in Southwestern Pennsylvania. There may have been a bit of damage to the margin of her hindwings, an indication of the butterfly’s lifespan, but she was otherwise intact and beautiful. It was 10:20 A.M. on a sunny morning, and I decided to attempt to photograph her. I made my patented,  methodical approach.  Take a look at the Technique feature for more details.

I was within excellent range for my macro lens– just 12″ away from the butterfly. She remained in place and did not flee. What happened next continues to puzzle me. Why? Because I have approached several hundred thousand butterflies over the years and I have never seen a butterfly do exactly what this one did. I recently attended an international Congress of lepidopterists and when a researcher presented his study of butterflies and their ability to respond to visual stimuli, I noted this experience during the Q and A interaction – but without much response from the panelists.

What happened? She turned her head to her right, and looked at me. She paused. She fled.

I have never seen a butterfly turn its head before or since. I didn’t know that their heads could move to the right or to the left.

When she had flown away, I stood up and truth be told, puzzled over it.

(posting again after 26 days abroad)

9 thoughts on “Monarch Butterfly at Raccoon Creek State Park in Southwest Pennsylvania

  1. Jeffrey – I checked with another butterfly buddy of mine. This guy is a PhD entomologist. He raises monarchs and about a dozen other species to sell chrysalises to butterfly houses. He said “yes,” monarchs can definitely turn their heads. He grabbed a recently-emerged monarch female in one of the tents where he raises them and demonstrated for me. I tried to get a photo, but all I had with me at the time was my iPhone so the photo’s not that great. However, I did see it with my own eyes. It was news to me, but they can do it, so what you saw was real.


    • Chuck,
      Thanks so much. We observe butterflies so, so many times that when some behavior we spot seems to be unique, we know enough at this point in our travels to respect our experience and judgment and recognize what we’ve seen as real and challenging. Your inquiry is much appreciated. We keep on learning.
      When I present before groups (Powerpoint) I enjoy telling youngsters that ‘though this is 2013, we know very little about most of the butterflies living around us. When I get a particularly receptive group, I ask them to consider seriously tracking specific local butterflies. Observe them and track them over a period of years…because you will soon learn that you have become an expert there, surely one of very few extant…and you will always own that. They listen, and then?


  2. Very peculiar! I shoot thousands of butterfly pix also and have never noticed the ability to move the head. I’ll check with a buddy of mine, a professor of ecology at Univ. of Georgia who’s a passionate lepidopterist.


  3. Somedaywe should go to Racoon State Park for one of Jeff’s lectures. ;)) This explains his recent absence. Anne


    • Thanks Anne. Hope that day will be August 3, when Shane Miller (DCNR Ranger/Botanist) present ‘Butterflies of Raccoon Creek State Park and their Wildflowers’ at 1:30 PM at the park’s Wildflowers Reserve. How will I recognize you?


  4. Jeff, didn’t you notice that your Monarch butterfly was wearing Google-glasses and took a photo of you holding your big fake eye (your camera) in an attempt to misguide him from your real eyes? ‘Ha..’, thought the Monarch, ‘Another one who thinks he can outfox me’.


      • Your head-turning and googly eye-glaring Monarch is just too wonderful not to inspire stories. :-)
        I hope your blog readers will continue our story…
        (There is more, much more, why is your Monarch wearing fashionable blue stockings?)


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