Anne Horrigan Geary: a photographer's dance with butterfly

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DALTON — "Come a little bit closer, gingerbread boy." Sometimes I feel just like the witch in "Hansel and Gretel," but I'm not trying to lure kids into an oven.

No, I'm trying to lure a butterfly within range of my camera. This week I was successful, but it wasn't easy.

Anyone who has ever raised children or been in their presence for more than a day understands the indirect approach to getting them to do what you want. Toddlers, especially, the "no" crowd, cannot be coerced. They need to be gently led, cajoled, or sometimes tricked into eating their peas, taking a bath, or (and this is the biggest challenge) going to bed.

Having practiced all these skills on two of my own children and thousands of other peoples' children, I felt prepared to deal with one recalcitrant butterfly.

Matching wits with a single Eastern tiger swallowtail was an uphill battle. Over the course of several years, I have planted butterfly and hummingbird gardens all around the house. I have read books, followed blogs and gone to butterfly farms to observe the tiny creatures. I have learned about the lifecycle of butterflies, their needs and migration habits.

Butterflies do visit my yard. They come on their own schedule, generally not when I am sitting under the pergola with my camera in hand. They come when I am sewing, looking out the window.

Photography tip: taking pictures of birds and butterflies through double-paned glass — with the sun in your face — is not a successful way to shoot. Jumping up from the sewing machine, putting on shoes and heading for the back door generally guarantees that the prospective subject will be long gone by the time you set foot on the patio.

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So, in addition to knowing all the discrete facts of butterfly life and likes, I now had to figure out butterfly schedules, which seem to vary as temperamentally as those of a teething baby. I know that some people believe that retirees have all the time in the world to peer out the window or sit in the yard. The sad fact is that we occasionally have to sleep, eat, or shop.

After days of surveillance, I encountered one butterfly strictly by chance. I walked into my little plastic greenhouse one morning — the door is now left open because of the heat — and found a butterfly perched near the peak of the roof. My camera was in the house, so I spent a few minutes simply savoring the details of the lovely little creature, then went about the rest of my gardening chores.

I did not rush in the house to get the camera for two reasons: I knew the butterfly would leave while I was gone, and I didn't want a picture taken in the greenhouse with the webbed plastic for a backdrop. It felt a little like shooting fish in a barrel, and the butterfly deserved better.

But the greenhouse episode gave me an idea. I had just purchased some gorgeous orange lantana plants and, once repotted, I was certain I could use them to lure my free-spirited butterfly into camera range.

First, I placed them right outside the greenhouse, so the butterfly would be sure to notice them on her way out. Each day I moved them closer to the house. Finally, I hung the plant a few feet from the pergola.

A couple of days later I was looking out the kitchen window, and there it was, sitting contentedly sucking nectar out of each lantana blossom. I grabbed the camera and tip-toed out the door and to the deck. I started shooting pictures, and crept closer with each click of the camera. The butterfly was engrossed in feeding, and let me get to within a few feet of the plant. Click, click, click.

I finally got my photos, and they are lovely. But I'll be out there again tomorrow to try to get even better ones. Like a toddler with a bag of cookies, I always want more.

Anne Horrigan Geary is a regular Eagle contributor.


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