Updated: Aug 11
In today's world, if you haven't had the experience of being put on hold by a technical support representative, then you likely don't have a telephone. It's woven into our high-tech world that we often don't know how to make some gadget we own do what we think its supposed to do. So we call technical support. I used to get so frustrated with technical support representatives on the phone--the long waits on hold, the seemingly byzantine process by which they sifted out what I knew, the seemingly inane questions ("Had I pressed the power button to turn it on?"). And they could tell how frustrated I was. I didn't realize it until relatively recently, but I was in a state of feeling entitled. I felt that I was entitled to have my problem solved quickly and directly by that person on the phone. It is sad to recall how rude I was at times. They were doing their job as best they could, and I was venting my frustration at not being able to make things go the way I expected them to go.
Photographing butterflies can be like that. Our unspoken (and often unconscious) expectations come alive when the butterfly behaves... like a butterfly. When it doesn't conform to our wishes. When it repeatedly flies away just when we get our camera on it. When it always lands with its wings configured in the opposite way from that which would make the photo we want. When it always lands just a little bit too far away to allow us to get that perfect photo. Argh!
I recently explored this territory again in June while trying to photograph a small, fast-flying butterfly, called the Nevada Skipper. I wrote about it a year ago, after I was finally able to get a single photo of a somewhat ragged individual. I decided to try again this year, this time aiming for a bit earlier in its flight season, in hopes of more and better photos.
This year, with the heavier than normal spring rains, spring was running late and moist. This yielded a greener, lusher environment along the southeast edge of Baker County, where I intended to search. The Nevada Skipper flies very fast and low in treeless habitats on windswept ridges. When the wind is gusting they can just disappear when startled--flying off so fast and far that I can't follow them in flight to see where they land. It was under just these conditions, with a gorgeous azure-blue sky overhead, that I began walking up the ridge where I'd seen Nevada last year.
This year, I'd continued to notice that the unusual spring weather both delayed the emergence of many butterfly species, but also lowered their numbers on any given day. My untested theory is that butterflies, like salmon, have a genetically encoded "behavior" that manifests when weather conditions are abnormal--that they spread out their emergence over a longer period when weather is dicey. I'd also been seeing a greater overlap of spring species and summer species, and therefore an uptick in species diversity, which makes for fun butterflying.
These patterns held true of my observations in SE Baker County. Overall numbers were low, but diversity was higher than in past visits. Species like Half-moon Hairstreak, Western Green Hairstreak, Desert Marble and Common Alpine were nice surprises as I made my way through the waving grasses. As I approached the crest of the ridge, I began to scan for Nevada Skippers and potential nectar plants, including the yellow composite I'd seen them on last year. That flower did not appear to be in bloom yet. I continued meandering along the rolling ridgetop, and came to a distinctive sandy, partly barren patch with very pale lavender asters that were only 6-8 inches tall. That's where I spotted my first Nevada. It was a zig-zag blur of orange, and then landed 20 feet from me. Good. They're here--and at least this one is fresh!
Before getting too focused on photos, I wanted to get the "lay of the land," to see more of the area and any other potential nectar plants and hotspots, and especially to see if there was a favorite type of plant for perching and/or nectaring. So I continued along the sinuous ridge line, where I found a couple more patches of those pale little asters, where again I found Nevada Skippers. Perhaps a pattern is emerging!
My laser focus on butterflies was disturbed when I heard an odd sound coming from down the east slope of the ridge. It sounded like huffing and puffing. I thought of the cartoons I'd seen of a bull scraping its hooves on the ground, about to charge. I walked towards the east slope and soon saw the source of the sound. A beautiful male Pronghorn Antelope. He was facing directly at me, looking right at me, and making these percussive huffing sounds. My impression was that he was not very happy about my presence. I wasn't about to leave without photos of my target butterfly, so I told him as much. He didn't seem impressed. I watched him for a moment, then turned and walked back up the slope and resumed my reconnoitering.
A few minutes later, there he was again, having sidled around the slope to the south of me. Again he was facing me, huffing, snorting and staring me down. For a moment my hair stood on end. He looked like he was about to charge me. I knew what to do when challenged by bears, cougars, geese, etc., but I was drawing a blank on pronghorn. I couldn't recall any stories of antelope harming humans, so after watching him to see what he was going to do, I just backed away from him, to let him know I was not challenging him to any kind of duel. Do pronghorn males do that battle of locked horns thing? I didn't know, and being decidedly hornless, I wasn't interested in finding out through experience.
Eventually, the pronghorn either got bored with me, or decided I was not a threat and wandered off. It was about 85°F now and the wind was picking up in the afternoon. I was seeing Nevada Skippers, but the photo opportunities were scant. I could get distant telephoto shots, but not the crisp, clear close-ups I was hoping for. I began to get a little frustrated with the repeated pattern of seeing a Nevada, walking towards it and it "gleefully" (or so I thought) zipping out of sight was soon as I got near photo distance. I paused, and took my frustration as a cue to ask myself whether my approach might be a mis-match with the situation. I sat down, closed my eyes, and just breathed for a minute or two.
Okay, I thought, my approach is scaring them off. Maybe I need to let them come to me? It was getting late in the afternoon now, so I thought: why not experiment? I sat down in one of the aster patches and just waited. Before long, I saw a Nevada zipping around the patch. Not close to me, but still encouraging. I waited some more. "How long would it take before one came near me?" I asked myself. Not long it turned out. About 5 minutes. But when I made the slightest move in the direction of the skipper, it made the jump into hyperdrive and evaporated into the dry desert air. I waited again. 10 minutes. Same result.
Experience has told me that sometimes when things aren't working well, it is best of step back and look at the situation in a larger frame, rather than to keep trying the same approach with more effort (and stress). So I stepped way back in my thinking. I was on day 2 of a planned 9-day trip. Instead of heading to the next site this afternoon, I could actually afford to spend the night nearby and come back in the morning, in hopes that the skippers would not be so hyper-drivey and skittish in the cool of the morning. It felt like a good theory, so I went with it. I knew of a decent campsite in the area and headed there to set up camp.
It was in the 50's as I made breakfast the next morning, and I enjoyed the songs of MacGillivray's Warbler, Cassin's Finch, Williamson's Sapsucker, and Clark's Nutcracker. I hoped to catch that Goldilocks part of the day where it wasn't too hot and it wasn't too cold. I wanted the skippers to be flying, but with reduced exuberance. Was it too much to ask?
It was a beautiful, crisp blue-sky day when I ascended the ridge again to try Strategy #3. I was hopeful, but also keen on balancing that with an intention to accept whatever happened. I marched up to the smallest of the aster patches, thinking that if they landed there, they would have to be closer to me than in one of the larger patches. I plucked a few grass stalks that would have interfered with photos, and sat down in the dirt and waited. It was 60°F now, and few butterflies were flying. "I have all day," I told myself.
After about 15 minutes, the first Nevada Skipper appeared. Ever so slowly I turned my camera towards it. It was holding its spot. Sweet! Maybe this would actually work! Over the next hour this pattern repeated: from one to three skippers would enter the aster patch and they would perch on an aster flower or a rock. I would very slowly move closer (think of pouring molasses that you've had in the fridge) and aim my camera. I would get a few shots and then they'd fly off, usually at the same time. Then there would be no skippers for 5-8 minutes, after which one or a couple would return.
This pattern required me to really slow down. I couldn't hurry them, and if I sped up I'd have no chance. In this case slower actually was faster! I'd been observing this phenomenon of "slower is faster" in many diverse situations recently. Slowing down made me more aware and present, and I tended to see (and therefore have) more options.
I had applied this in some recent conversations with technical support representatives on the phone. If calmed myself, and my internal world slowed down, it was easier to let go of my expectation of instant gratification. I became more open to the human on the other end of the phone, and they in turn gave me better service.
Sitting in the dirt like a monk on top of a windswept ridge in the middle of nowhere was not only enjoyable, it was effective! Over three hours I got several nice images of both the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) views of several fresh Nevada Skippers!
I had begun my search for Nevada Skippers back in 2004, following guidance from--you might have guessed--Andy Warren. I scoured Ironside Mountain (Malheur County) and King Mountain (Harney County), to no avail. Then, after gleaning more from Andy's book Butterflies of Oregon, I started searching again in 2018 near Pine Mountain (Deschutes County), whiffing on three consecutive days. Finally, I searched near the SE corner of Baker County last year and saw my first Nevada Skipper. All of which led to my trip this June and photographic success! To add frosting to the cake, the Desert Marble photo below was an unexpected bonus for this visit, as this species has also been very hard to photograph and it wasn't even on my radar for this site.
The trip was a success, but probably only because I made repeated course corrections in my strategy and attitude. Maybe the impediments to my success had been more internal than external all along? Slower is faster. Sometimes literally.
Below are my observations for the two days: