A favorite genre of wildlife photographers is BIF, birds in flight. I wanted to attempt a different BIF, namely, butterflies in flight. During the fall migration of the monarch butterflies in August, 2020, it was the peak of the Covid pandemic so we were stuck at home. I decided this would be a good time to tackle this BIF. These photos were all taken in our backyard where there is a nice patch of zinnia flowers that seemed to be attractive to the monarch butterflies.

In the USA monarch butterflies are probably the favorite subject because of their outstanding color. But the majority of photos of monarchs are taken when it is perched on a flower. In that pose it normally has its wings folded so it is relatively rare to get a shot of the dorsal aspect of the wings.

Photographing the monarch in flight turned out to be much more difficult than getting birds in flight, especially compared to my favorite subject of eagles in flight. Usually one catches them in flight after they leave a perch. For big birds like eagles, you get a warning when it is about to take off because it will typically flex its legs slightly to get ready to leap off the branch. But butterflies show no such sign: one moment they’re on the flower and the next moment they are in the air and usually out of focus. In my experience it was more difficult with butterflies than with birds to catch that moment right after they are in the air. The fortunate thing about butterflies is that you usually get several chances as they flit from one bud to the next so you get a lot of practice.

To get around the problem of not being able to predict time of departure, I also tried taking a video when the monarch was feeding on the flower and waited for it to take off. Some of the images here are from screenshots of the 4K videos.

At rest

Monarch on a zinnia . Note that the lower half of the wing is slightly paler than the upper half on this ventral side.

Dorsal view

Under favorable conditions the dorsal view of the monarchs can be seen in flight. Interestingly both the upper and lower wings have the same bright orange color on the dorsal side. Also the dorsal view allows one to determine the sex of the butterfly. Male monarchs have a small black dot along the ‘vein’ of the lower wing that is only visible from the dorsal view.

In a favorable case the wings can be seen symmetrically in dorsal view, in this case of a male monarch.

Note that the upper and lower parts of the dorsal aspect of the wings have the same orange color.

Side view

In prayer


Hey, that’s my zinnia

While waiting for the monarch to leave the flower, a bee came along behind it and stung it in the rear. The monarch took off fast!

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