The Envelope Please! Start with the Monarchs

Monarch Butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park. Jeff blogs about the art and science of butterflies at

I took a stroll . . .   Oops! a scroll down through our more than 800 images. The thought came to my mind, “Which of the butterflies that I have photographed, are the most compliant, which hold their pose, allow me to shoot them? Which produce the most consistently pleasing images?”

Let’s start with which have been the most difficult, most elusive and most frustrating? My personal list begins with Mourning cloak, Georgia satyr, Gemmed satyr, Red-banded hairstreak, Goatweed leafwing and Compton tortoiseshell. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley two weeks ago, I surely add the usual suspects, the Yellows, large and small, and Metalmarks as well as those butterflies that I saw, shot and winced when I realized how beaten-up they were (Hairstreaks, that Mexican Bluewing).

I used to watch the annual Oscars award show on TV, and that interesting moment, when the movie star asked for, “The envelope please,” fits here, so nicely. The butterflies that I have most enjoyed shooting, affording the most enjoyed images? Start with the Monarchs. This one here, on Joe Pye Weed, at Raccoon Creek State Park in Hookstown, southwestern Pennsylvania is one of many Monarch images I am glad to say are mine. Monarchs get the ‘Oscar.’

Easy runner-ups are the Gray hairstreak, Northern metalmark, Red-spotted purple, Tiger swallowtails at sunrise, Red Admiral, Baltimore checkerspot, Great spangled fritillary and the Regal fritillary.

Funny that, how so many people don’t understand why we love and seek out butterflies. You will spend half a lifetime seeking that 12-point buck, or one image, any image of a northeastern cougar or a brief glimpse of a bird not seen in 30 years. OK, those? But really, really want to finally seek and capture an image of a Creole pearly-eye or a Dingy purplewing  or a Milbert’s? 98% of folks I’ve ever met don’t see the sense of that.

And what’s in your Envelope Please!


Friday for Coral Hairstreaks?

Coral Hairstreak Butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow in Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation, PA

This morning at Raccoon Creek State Park set the table for me, so to speak. The huge Doak Meadow (100 acres +/-) was green and lush, with frenetic male Great Spangled Fritillaries flying non-stop in their desperate search for females. I did see two females, but they stayed low to the ground, flying under the upper stratum of meadow grasses, perennials and shrubs.

There was a near total absence of Bergamot (had a big display in 2014), common milkweed plants were in the minority, even dogbane was not as numerous as years gone by. Joe Pye Weed was present here and there along the forest that edged the meadow, but here another puzzling minimal showing. Goldenrod was coming along, but it too appeared to be reduced in concentration.

The big find of the morning were a handful of Northern Pearly Eyes, looking fine, and probably pleased with the rains that we had a few days ago. One Northern, with what seemed like a smile, offered a swell pose, if, if I set my foot into a small puddle. I did, and my boot sank 4″ into mud! Absent were Wood Nymphs, and the Little Wood Satyrs were all (?) worn and very pale in color. One Little Wood Satyr gave me a full, unhurried photo opp of its dorsal surface, but it was quite worn, with heavy scale loss.

Before I called it a morning, I found this clump of Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa). It’s the same group of plants that this image shows. They were a day or two away from opening. The Coral Hairstreak butterfly you see here is usually difficult to find, and these blooms are their very favorite. You know I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could cop an image of Coral and Butterfly Weed that surpasses this one?

That means returning those 37.2 miles in 2 days, on Friday, June 24th. No guarantees, and if I can return to this spot, it might also mean bringing my tiny folding seat, and waiting patiently for the Corals to show up, if 2016 is a year when they do. There are no guarantees, only perseverance, tenacity,  enthusiasm and . . . a dab of Luck.


Do I Know You?

Wildflower photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, 9/5/14

It is a fine September for viewing the beauty of the natural world. Butterflies are flying, topped by Monarchs reappearing in Doak field. In this Southwestern Pennsylvania field, wildflowers are everywhere. The 100 acres are awash with several species of Goldenrod blooms. The Goldenrod, Bergamot and Joe Pye weed are sirens on the rocks, beckoning hungry butterflies, causing them to take breaks from their romantic pursuits and take nectar. That is to say, you’ll need sugar to continue searching for mating opportunities.

Folks wonder, why do you go to the same field so often? What can possibly be new there for you?

New? I often encounter new butterflies, new situations, new plants and new wildflowers. New insects, new things. New is almost a constant in an undeveloped habitat.

It was September 5th and my scan of the field zoomed in on these wildflowers. Do I know you? Have I seen these before? I didn’t and don’t think so. New!

I’m going to go to my wildflower field guides, and attempt to identify this dainty bloomer. If I can’t conclusively do that, then I’ll contact Shane Miller at Raccoon Creek State Park’s Wildflower Reserve. He is the ultimate resource for identifying botany.

Pete came back with our ID, Gaura biennis, Biennial beebalm. We just keep on learning, No?

New is good. New is stimulating. New is Fun!


Tell Me a Story, Tell Me a Story . . .

Monarch Butterfly and White Blooms photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park in Pennsylvania, 9/4/14
It was the very end of September, the 28th, in the year 2014. Millions of folks east of the Mississippi were bemoaning the near total absence of Monarch butterflies (Danaus Plexippus). They went online asking who has seen them here or there? The mood from June to the end of August was anxious. Could this actually happen, on our watch? Was the migration of Monarchs doomed? Would the time soon come when no one under the age of 30 would remember seeing a Monarch in their garden, town, county?

I spent alot of mornings in Doak field this past September. No Monarchs, then 1 or 2 of them. Then that morning when I counted 11 males and females. Those eleven represented a very good count for this locale.

This morning shown here, I was elated. I was seeing Monarch butterflies on Goldenrod, Ironweed, and Joe Pye Weed. Daddah! There was also this substantial stand of flowerheads with white flowers. Butterflies, 17 or more years of fieldwork has taught, spend little or no time on white flowers. Native white-flowering plants are serviced by . . . moths. I spent some minutes stationed at these 80 or so plants, this little sea of white blooms. An occasional fly, bee, but no more. I moved on, came back, left, returned, nothing.

Learned to never say never, so I returned again. Field guides add weight to my LLBean backpack, so without one, I decided that these plants were Boneset (Eupatorium Perfoliatum) and as I began to once again count it as a no-go flower for butterflies . . . this Monarch flew in. Life’s lesson, learned so many times in my life, and drilled into my head in basic training at Ft. Dix (by a cadre as rough as those guys in Brooklyn who were my neighbors) confirmed.

End of story: Monarch butterflies rebounded, and they partake of a variety of nectars, yes, including the minimally imbibed Boneset cocktail. A Good Morning, that.


Winter Antidotes II

Monarch Butterfly    photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park. Jeff blogs about the art and science of butterflies at
Christmas, Chanukah and now New Years has sailed by us, it seems. Home here in Pittsburgh we are enjoying a 60F day . . . but we have to brace ourselves, for 2 days from now, forecasts are for a high of 19F. Have no fear though, we are here  with another therapeutic image.

This fine example of a Monarch butterfly (Danaus Plexippus) is enough to stir the hearts of millions of Americans and Canadians. Monarchs by the tens of millions are now in central Mexico, mostly dormant in those gigantic fir trees that house them for the next several months.

Did we have a scare last year? You bet we did. Numbers during June and July were scary. August provided some relief, and that one day I counted 11 Monarchs in Doak field in Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Eleven in a single morning was good. Good.

The spotlight in now on the resurgence of Monarchs to historically strong numbers. They are loved by 30,000,000 or more North Americans, and efforts are being made to remedy any and every obstacle to their success here.

The days tick by, sunset is a bit later each week, and soon, real soon, we can open our eyes and again stare at a shmeksy monarch like this one, she nectaring seriously on Joe Pye Weed wildflowers. We can once again stand there, trying to fathom  how this delicate gem of an animal will navigate the warm air currents from Pennsylvania, or Georgia or Toronto, all the way south to Louisiana, and inevitably south again to the center of Mexico.

Hang in there friends, they’ll be here sooner than you think.