Posted on: 20/05/2011

The frustrations of a nature photographer

You don't really see the unpredictability of nature without watching it closely and I have to confess that over the last couple of weeks, despite a lifetime of observing, the level of uncertainty has been a surprise to me. I have been watching caterpillars in order to photograph moults and metamorphosis. It's not unreasonable to expect certain things to happen they way they are supposed to but...

CATERPILLAR ONE: Attached itself to a solar lamp in the garden and adopted the classic 'J' position for its chrysalis stage. It remained like that all day and I was slightly annoyed that it had already shed to reveal the chrysalis when I got down early in the morning. Still, it looked very healthy so not the end of the world. Hatching usually happens after two weeks or so, depending on temperature. After 15 days of good weather it was not going to be long to wait so I checked every 30 minutes or so for signs of movement. As I approached on my last visit, from a distance I noticed some movement.  Excited, I ran the last yards only to discover a wasp, eating away at the chrysalis which was already half gone and well and truly dead.

CATERPILLAR TWO:  Was unusually small when it climbed up the wall by the kitchen and adopted the 'J' right above the door. It was too high for normal shooting so I got a ladder out and secured the tripod and lights to it, making the kitchen door out of bounds for anyone passing through. It was already evening so I set a timer to take a shot every ten minutes. By midnight nothing had changed. I went to bed leaving everything set up and continuing the timed shots, expecting the caterpillar to be well through the moult by morning. 7.00 am - no change, just the tiniest of movements. By the evening it was clearly deceased, my guess being that it simply hadn't fed enough to gain enough energy to manage the change. Essentially, 150-odd shots of the same thing.

CATERPILLARS THREE & FOUR: Number three was a real youngster which had climbed up a wall and stopped moving - a classic sign that a moult is close. I made regular visits to check... Meanwhile I found a good sized caterpillar (number four) climbing the same route as number two (don't know what it is about our kitchen door?!) so I put a piece of branch close to it for it to walk up if it chose. It did. So I brought it into my studio putting it inside a large vivarium where it could moult and hatch safely with no risk of wasp, bird or parasite. When caterpillars moult into the chrysalis stage they can take ages to choose the final spot, shuffling and re-positioning before spinning the silk pad from which they will hang. Well, it went through all the rituals, slowly walking back and forth along the uppermost twig, repeatedly leaning over backwards and down as if checking for space and comfort. Finally, after about 15 hours it stopped moving. Meanwhile I was regularly checking number three - no movement - no change - went to bed.

In the morning, first check was little number three, no movement - no change. Number four on the other hand, had changed its mind completely and was briskly walking around at the bottom of the vivarium as if all it had needed was a good rest. I had no option but to release it as, having found it on a wall I wasn't sure what to feed it. Taking it outside I put it on the grass and watched to see where it would go or what it would eat. It sped off like an athlete taking no notice whatsoever of any plant and I eventually lost sight of it amongst long grass and rocks. A little miffed I returned to check on number three - it had moulted and gone.

Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger!