Monarch butterfly feeding on jasmine flower at Ōamaru Public Gardens

This November, I will be holding a photography exhibition at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens gallery space. I’ve called it Wings (like my calendar) and it will feature larger-than-life portraits of butterflies from around my district.

I have a few photos collected now to choose from, covering the southern blue, kahukura, kahukōwhai, copper (plus the day-flying magpie moth, which will be the topic for my newsletter this week – click here to read more and subscribe). However, I realised that I am missing a good photo of the monarch butterfly!

Last year when I exhibited in Ōtautahi/Christchurch with Artemis Jones, I took some time to visit one of the known over-wintering sites for monarch butterflies. I’d never seen monarchs in diapause (a sort of semi-hibernation) before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was fascinating to see them all clustered in the foliage of the tall eucalyptus trees, and when I returned there on a sunnier day I was able to take some great images.

For the Wings exhibition, I’ve decided to ‘niche down’ and focus on butterflies from my rohe (region): The Waitaki District. Before moving here, I didn’t even know the region existed, and since moving here I’ve found it’s actually got a lot of geologically interesting places (like the Elephant Rocks and Moeraki Boulders) and a diverse range of wildlife. I thought the exhibition could be a chance for me, in a small way, to show off the Waitaki.

Elephant rocks, large natural boulders in Duntroon, Otago, New Zealand.
Elephant Rocks near Duntroon, Waitaki District

As we don’t get monarch butterflies in our garden very often, I sought out butterflies at the Ōamaru Public Gardens, where I had seen them before. I hoped that, like Ōtautahi/Christchurch, there’d be some starting to overwinter. If I timed it right I could probably get a good close up portrait as they flew down to feed.

Monarchs choose evergreen trees that face the sun to overwinter, so I knew I needed to look at trees facing Northwest; they would only come down from their perches to feed or to bask, so checking the gardens map I chose areas that seemed to have more flowers. I also checked in earlier with the Windy forecasting website to see when there’d be the least cloud cover. It reckoned there was lighter cloud from 10-11am, so I got to the gardens a little earlier to star the search.

Monarch butterfly basking in autumnal foliage in my garden last year

They are fantastically camoflauged with the autumnal foliage right now, and there were a few times I saw a leaf falling off a tree thinking it might be a monarch! After a couple of loops of the park I finally saw one fly between two large trees… and then saw another, and another! Trying not to lose sight of them, I walked along as they flew, and stopped by a planting of jasmine and dahlias.

I stood back, hoping one would come down – they are not easy to photograph at the top of a tree! Eventually one came down to the jasmine bush and I carefully started photographing. I gave it some space after a few photos, and walked further along. There was a hebe bush still flowering and I would’ve loved to get a photo of the monarch on a hebe! Unfortunately this didn’t eventuate, though I did get a classic shot of one on a pink dahlia.

After photographing I just sat down and watched them for a while, basking in the tree canopies and then floating down to the flowers, over and over. It was a morning very well spent.

Monarch butterfly landing on jasmine flower at Ōamaru Public Gardens

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In Search of Monarchs