I want to get close to you! Habituation in butterflies

Red admiral, Vanessa atalanta, butterflies are notoriously territorial, particularly when they occupy their favoured spots in the late afternoon. I have been photographing one particular male this month (24-26 June 2020) which has commandeered a nice little bank of wild flowers in the grounds of a local church, St Mary’s, Scarborough. The butterfly’s territory is centred on a bank at the edge of the grounds, beside the road (below).

St Mary’s Church flower bank

Red admirals occupy these sites, driving out any other intruders in spiraling flights, hoping to attract a female. As soon as I arrived at this particular local, the resident butterfly flew up and around me a number of times, clearly not happy with the presence of a large primate in its little patch of heaven! He was very ‘flightly’ – restless – and hardly settled in one spot before taking off again. Needless, to say I was continually creeping up on him, trying to get a better shot with my camera!

The Red admiral was regularly occupying a number of perching sites: on flowers, on a low stone wall, and on the pavement next to the wall.

Red admiral perching on umbel head
Red admiral perched on wall, St Mary’s Church, Scarborough, 24 June 2020.

Eventually, after a long time (15-20 minutes or so) the butterfly did settle down sufficiently for me to get some close up shots (below), although they were closed wing poses! It was seemingly, still not relaxed enough to let me get close when it was basking with its wings wide open!

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) ventral side 24 June 20. Photograph by Dr Raymond JC Cannon

I also managed to get a head on photo showing the proboscis (below).

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) ‘close up’ 24 June 20 showing proboscis. Photograph by Dr Raymond JC Cannon

When I returned to the site the following day, same time, late afternoon c. 18:30, I had the distinct impression that the butterfly was not so ‘flighty’; not so wary. I suppose there is small chance that it was a different butterfly! Different individuals can lay claim to the same territory, and there were other Red admirals around, being chased out of the patch by the resident male. Anyway, whether it was because the temporary territory had changed ownership, or, as I like to think, the same individual had grown used to my presence – sitting on the wall – it was a lot more ‘confiding’. Confiding is a term used by bird watchers when a bird shows itself very well to onlooking, binocular-clutching, twitchers. Birds get habituated too!

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) ‘close up’ 25 June 20. Photograph by Dr Raymond JC Cannon

So, this individual had either got used to my presence, or was another, much more risk-averse individual! I managed to get the images I wanted.

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking on pavement 25 June 20. Photograph by Dr Raymond JC Cannon

It is important to stay warm and keep those wing muscles tuned up – by basking (below) – as you have to chase off other males, and always be prepared to race off to some shady glen with a receptive female!

Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) basking on wall 25 June 2020. Photograph by Dr Raymond JC Cannon

As someone who spends a lot of time creeping up on butterflies (!), I have noticed a certain degree of habituation. At first the butterfly is very wary and will take off and fly away as soon as you start to approach it. Gradually however, they start to calm down! Their innate startle response diminishes, and they seem to tolerate your presence more and more. I like to think that they just get fed up of being pursued as say: “OK, go ahead and take your flipping photo if you want, then leave me alone!”

Close up shots taken with Sigma 150mm macro lens and an aperture priority setting of f 13.


Cannon, R. J. (2019). Courtship and Mating in Butterflies. CABI.



One comment

  1. Every year (well not this year as we can’t get there) we have a similar experience with Red Admirals on the rear balcony at our French house. At the start of our visit he flies off very quickly by the end he (or they) perch very contentedly alongside us

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