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White Admirals

In between visits to the shrike sites, admiral butterflies in the sunlit woods prove too good an opportunity to ignore.

Day 6: Thursday 17th July

By chance, on my way to Shrike Site 2 through the woodland alley yesterday evening, I found three white admiral butterflies. Today I spot them again, at the same time and place, on the edge of the woods. Delicate and with an understated black-and-white striped marking, they dance up and down the bend of the road, in and out of the sun beams that cut through the trees. The beams filter through their stained-glass wings. This is the sunniest part of the road and, being sunlovers, these butterflies are moving where the sun takes them.

I have about an hour until this area will be just shade and I should be returning to the shrikes, so I get out my tripod and set it up near a particularly sun-dappled patch of leaves. It's a good bet one of the butterflies will land here, as virtually all other leaves around are shadowy grey. This is the kind of environment that I like working in - soft sunlight and strong shadows, simple and aesthetically pleasing. I'm used to it, and it's a far cry from what I'll need to do to get strong images of the shrikes.

However, like with the shrikes, I can see my observation is paying off. These butterflies also have favourite perches, including the one my camera is currently set up on. I fire off a few shots of a particularly handsome individual but realise that, as its wings are closed and the sun is shining from above and not from the side, there is not enough light to illuminate the closed wings. I still have my flash with me, so could use that, even if it means interfering with natural light a bit. It produces a result I don't expect - the black-and-white pattern is transformed into a myriad of gold waves, tart oranges, shimmering turqoise and lapis lazuli, punctuated with ebony spots and flecks. My flash suddenly reveals a whole different world.

I noticed another butterfly above my head, so I try again, pointing the flash up at its underwings, and taking care not to get unwanted glare on its nettle perch.

The flash shows off the admiral's bold and gutsy colours, but isolates it from the background. I'm keen to get a shot that shows this animal at harmony with its environment, and with the sunlight. I try without flash now, and with a wider lens, using a large aperture, foliage and overhead sunlight to create an impression of the scene.

For me this is a much more pleasing image, and suddenly my mind is set in motion. Frontlight (i.e. flash) reveals bold colours, toplight (i.e. sunlight) reveals black-and-white and subdued colours - but what about backlight?

I angle my camera and tripod so that it points at a 45degree angle, with the sun just over the butterfly's "shoulder". All's set up on a perch; now just wait for a butterfly to come one. One does - unfortunately it's the third butterfly I haven't photographed yet, and I've avoided it because it has very tattered wings. I try a couple of experimental shots all the same, and this is the first result (converted into black and white afterwards).

The shot is far from perfect but the general effect is pleasing - bokeh discs of light, and sunlight through the wings. A "look" that suits the character of this butterfly very well. Fortunately a butterfly with intact wings comes along, but above my head, so I get a monochrome photo with the sun passing through the wings.

As the shade creeps in, the butterflies rise higher and higher, too far for my camera to pick up. The sun meanwhile still beats down on Site 2, where the shrikes will be starting to catch the evening's insects - moths and grasshoppers mainly. I'll be back, but for now I make a hasty retreat to my hide and sit in wait for the star of the evening to arrive: the shrike fledgling.

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