Chasing after butterflies is a notoriously addictive pastime. It starts out as a passing curiosity but swiftly becomes an obsession. I may as well own it. I am a butterfly obsessive. I spend most of my days seeking out a butterfly high. I look for them everywhere… at home in the garden, or at work in my lunch break, or on bush walks (or street walks), in botanic gardens and parks, in and around creeks, in scrubby vegetation by the beach, on bare or stony patches of ground, on flowers, on weeds, or in the grass… you get the picture. But I have come to understand that what I am really doing is seeking awe and wonder.
It’s difficult to explain the frisson of pure delight I experience when I see a butterfly flit past me. Perhaps it’s like being a child again and experiencing things with fresh eyes and a curious mind? To marvel at a butterfly’s vivid colours, their flight patterns – sometimes lilting, sometimes erratic – and to think upon the sheer unlikeliness of their existence, are all wondrous things.
Pursue whatever fascinates you and brings you to life.Elizabeth Gilbert
This enthusiastic pursuit of butterflies began about two years ago, which was around the same time my husband and I became “empty nesters”. After 25 years of exhausting busy-ness – raising a family, working, studying, writing – I suddenly found I had a lot of “free” time on my hands. I needed to find something that would take up my time and keep my brain occupied. I needed to learn something new. I took up photography – again. I had really loved photography when I was in my teens, so I decided to buy a camera and start learning how to use one all over again. I soon got busy photographing architecture, landscapes, flowers and plants.
One day, when I was in the garden photographing some flowers, a big butterfly whizzed past me and landed on a chive flower-head. I know you’re not supposed to allow herbs to flower or run to seed but the bees and the butterflies seem to love them, so why not? This particular butterfly had parked itself quite close to me. And it didn’t seem to mind me being there. It sat there slowly opening and closing its wings a few times before deciding it was safe to bask in the sun with wings wide open. It was brown and orange and white, with a small pale blue patch near the top of each forewing. I was transfixed. It was some months later that I bothered to try and find out what sort of butterfly it was. Turns out, it was a female Hypolimnas bolina. Common name: Varied Eggfly. After that, things just seemed to snowball. I saw more and more butterflies. I took more and more photos. I grew more and more curious.
Since I’ve started photographing butterflies (and posting the pics to Instagram) I’ve had more than one person say to me: “you know, there aren’t many butterflies around any more, not like there were when we were kids”. But here’s the thing… if you no longer see any butterflies around, it’s because you’re not really looking. They are, most definitely, everywhere. Well, in North Queensland they’re everywhere at least. They’re out there zipping past and looking fabulous while quietly going about their business. And their business is important. Butterflies are pollinators. We NEED them.
Just to be clear, I have no desire to physically capture butterflies. Only to observe and to photograph them. I do admit that I follow them around until I can get a good photo (which may well be annoying for them) but I think, on balance, that I am really the only one in real danger in this equation. And that’s because I frequently step into some hole in the ground – disappearing up to my shin; or come perilously close to toppling off the edge of some high embankment; or find that I am standing on top of a nest of angry bull-ants – all because I am totally lost in the excitement of trying to get a photo of a butterfly. Along the way, my husband has managed to catch “butterfly fever” too, and is now my spotter, official photography assistant and bushwalking companion.
In Search of a Blue Argus
Back in December, it occurred to me that even though I had photographed close to 60 species of butterflies (Australia has more than 400), I had not yet seen a Blue Argus [Junonia orithya]. It is supposed to be a common (and widespread) species but I had not yet stumbled across one. It seemed to me that this was something that urgently needed rectifying. But where, exactly, should I start looking? After a bit of searching on the internet, I realised that I should be looking in dry, open bushland. So I looked during my lunch breaks on the bush university campus I work at – despite the searing December heat – but always with no luck. And just before Christmas we drove up to the Ross River Dam to look around there. Lots of Tawny Costers, and a bunch of creepy-looking empty Cicada shells stuck to big tree trunks, but no Blue Argus.
Then, one Saturday in late February, after weeks of rainy weather, the clouds seemed to clear and the temperature was not too bad – well, it was tolerable at least. After breakfast, we drove out to Pallarenda for a walk around the headland to Shelly Cove. We had tossed around the idea of driving up to Paradise Lagoon to potentially do a scout around for Blue Argus butterflies, but the weather forecast predicted light clouds from around mid-morning. This would not be conducive to seeing butterflies on the wing, so we settled on a bushwalk to Shelly Cove.
We parked at the end of the old Quarantine Station, grabbed our hats and water bottles, and lathered up with insect repellent. We walked across a short footbridge that spanned a small tidal stream that was thick with mangroves. On the other side of this bridge, a sandy track split in to two. We decided to take the trail that branched off to the left of us. We had no sooner turned our heads towards the track when we both saw something small and black and possibly with a hint of blue flitting around in front of us. Could this be a Blue Argus?
It was fairly small. Was this it? We watched in dismay as it quickly flew away into the scrub somewhere on the side of the embankment. But then we realised it was sitting on the tiny rocks in the middle of the track. I started snapping away with my camera, but it was hard to see. With its wings snapped shut, the underside colours blended seamlessly with the sand and pebbly rocks on the track. I moved a tiny bit closer. It opened its wings ever so slightly. I saw black and white on the forewings. And then, the tiniest little smidge of blue was evident on the lower wings. Then it opened its wings a little wider, to bask in the sun, revealing the azure blue on his upperside hindwings. This was him – a Blue Argus! At last!
A male Blue Argus (Junonia orithya). Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2023.
This one was a male. And a near-perfect specimen. The eye spots at the base of the upper hindwing were small-ish. It’s these eye spots that the butterfly gets its common name from – Argus (or Argos) Panoptes: a many-eyed giant in Greek mythology. The female Blue Argus has larger eye spots on the hindwings and is a slightly larger butterfly overall, which is quite obvious in the field – if you get to see one. Which we did! On our return an hour later down the same pebbly track. This specimen was a little damaged – one hindwing in particular had a fairly large chunk missing, though this took nothing away from her beauty, I can assure you. She was gorgeous. Dark, velvety-black upper wings, with white/cream-coloured markings and orange-ringed eye spots. I had finally found (and photographed) the Blue Argus. An excellent day out, in my book.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably thinking: this woman has far too much time on her hands. And you’d probably be right. But when I’m out walking and looking for butterflies, I’m getting some exercise. And when I’m sitting and waiting and hoping for a particular butterfly to appear in some shady, tree-filled glade somewhere, I’m communing with nature… actively observing what’s going on around me – engaging my senses, being small and quiet and blending into the landscape. It’s good for the soul. And something wondrous has been awakened inside of me.
I was born a naturalist, though all these years for want of anything to excite it, it had lain dormant within me.Margaret Fountaine – butterfly collector and world traveller