Monarch in the garden

A good day –a monarch butterfly is flitting around our garden! Here she is perched on the leaves of the peach tree.
Monarch butterfly perched on a peach tree
It has been a couple of years since George watched a monarch lay eggs on the milkweed in our backyard. We brought some of the eggs inside to raise in safety.  Click here to see the photos I took of the whole process, from the tiny eggs, to the caterpillars, to the chrysalises, and finally to the butterflies which emerged (and which we released.)
But despite all of the milkweed George has planted to attract them, we’ve hardly seen any monarchs in the garden since that special year.  So imagine my delight when I saw this one — she (George got close enough to identify her as female) was sunning on the angel’s trumpet, and she also seemed to like the fennel plant and the dogwood tree, as well as the milkweed.   Here she is on the dried seed pods of the fennel, which is one of the anise swallowtail butterfly’s larval food sources.
She spent quite a bit of time on the milkweed, and I’m hoping she left some eggs.
I love this milkweed, it’s Asclepias physocarpa. Bees like it too – can you see the honeybee a bit to the left of the butterfly? Physocarpa is also known as “Family Jewels” because the seed pods look like … well, here’s a photo I took yesterday of one of the dried seed pods, see for yourself.
Here’s a closeup of the butterfly on the milkweed, you can see her poor tattered wing.
Did you know that one of the monarch butterfly’s protective characteristics is to poison its predators? In the larval stage it eats milkweed leaves to incorporate the milkweed toxins into its body. Perhaps a bird realized after getting a bite that it didn’t want to keep eating.

Photo of the week

Has it really been a week since I posted my first Photo of the Week? Yikes, well okay then, here’s the second – my favorite photo(s) from this week, with some background …

Admiral butterfly feather collage

Admiral butterfly feather collage

Okay, obviously not a straight photo. It’s a collage from three photos I took this week. I started with my photo of a red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta):

Red admiral butterfly

Red admiral butterfly

George and I trekked up Albany Hill to check on the monarch butterflies – starting around this time of the year they overwinter in the eucalyptus trees there. Last year we only saw a few, so this year we were very encouraged to see far more. Hopefully they’ll keep coming.  I didn’t get any photos of the monarchs because they were fluttering around high up in the sky, but there were a lot of red admiral butterflies flitting lower down and then landing to sun their wings on the duff. This one let me creep close enough to get a shot.

I blended that photo with a closeup I shot of a small bouquet in a vase on my windowsill. It’s a black and white striped hen’s feather next to a dried stalk of some soft pouffy grass.

Feather and grass

Feather and grass

I was struck by the conjunction of the lines and disparity of the textures and tones.

The third photo in the collage is another closeup of part of the same bouquet.

Silver dollar plant

Silver dollar plant

It’s the remains of a seed pod of a money plant (Lunaria Annua), also known as silver dollar plant. The plant has been slowly eroding, and I liked the juxtaposition of the frame of the disk with the empty spaces and few remaining tattered pieces.

I used the layer blending tool in Photoshop Elements to blend the photos. I liked a few of the different settings to blend the first two, but finally settled on the ‘overlay’ setting.  I then added the money plant and blended them all into the final collage.  When I make my blended abstract collages I usually take photos from different years – it was fun to use three that I shot on the same day.  Here are some of my other blended collages.  You can see that butterflies appear in many of them. What are your favorite subjects in your art or photos?

Photo of the week

My first in a series of weekly posts, where I show you a photo I took, throw in a little background … short and sweet!

Buckeye wing in spider web

A bright color caught my eye as I glanced out my bedroom window.  This is one wing of a buckeye butterfly, caught in a spider’s web. Buckeye butterflies are common in our area.  Below is a photo I took last year.

Buckeye butterfly on milkweed flowerYou can see what the entire butterfly looks like — this one was feeding on the milkweed in our garden. 

Buckeye collage

And one of my favorite kaleidoscopes, which I made by blending copies of my photograph of a buckeye. Have you seen buckeyes in your yard?  This is the wikipedia entry, if you want to learn more.

Anise swallowtail butterfly from 2006!

I think I’ve mentioned here before that anise swallowtail butterflies don’t emerge from their chrysalises on a set timetable, like monarch butterflies do. George thinks that it’s probably to ensure better survival, so some of the adult butterflies will emerge pretty quickly – in a couple of weeks, but others hang out for much longer.  You can tell that they’re still alive by touching them gently – they move.

This photo collage I did for the butterfly exhibit in the El Cerrito Library shows the caterpillar getting ready to become a chrysalis (pupate) – that’s the top left. The bottom left and top right show how different the chrysalises can look, some bright green, and some drab brown. The bottom right one shows what the empty chrysalis looks like after the adult butterfly emerges. Anyway, we were so excited to see that the beautiful female that emerged today became a chrysalis way back in 2006!

She must have come out sometime during the night, because she was ready to go this morning. Since the weather is so nice, we put her outside on a yampah plant, that’s the native larval food source for anise swallowtails. While she was resting happily in the sun, I got this photo of her from the side, showing her head, including her eyes, proboscis (that’s what they sip liquid food through), and antennae.

We always hope that the females we raise and release will remember the plant and come back to lay eggs, so we can continue the cycle.

Butterflies in Your Garden

My butterfly display at the El Cerrito Library  is up! It’s in the glass case at the front of the library.  It will be there from June 5th through mid-July.

One of my aims is to show people how to garden to attract and nurture butterflies in their gardens.  Along with some of my photos of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly and of the anise swallowtail butterflyand my artwork and crafts from my butterfly photos, I’ve put together some lists with information about local butterflies, their food sources and helpful plants.  I’m attaching the lists to this post as pdfs for you to read and print out for your own use.  If you want to copy them for any other use, please contact me for permission.

First, a partial list of Bay Area butterflies, with my photographs of a few of the butterflies:

Bay Area Butterflies

Second, a partial list of larval host plants for local butterflies. These are the most critical plants, because the butterflies need them to lay their eggs on. When the eggs hatch, they eat the plant to survive until they change into chrysalises:

Gardening to Attract Butterflies: Larval Hosts

Third, nectar plants for butterflies. This is also a partial list to give you some ideas about what you can plant to provide nectar for Bay Area butterflies. Most adult butterflies feed on flower nectar. Not all flowers provide nectar, so if you really want to help the butterflies, try to include as many nectar-providing plants as possible. The butterflies will waste energy visiting flowers that don’t provide nectar. And of course butterflies are great pollinators, and as they feed on the nectar they carry pollen from previously visited flowers:

Bay Area Butterfly Nectar Plants

Fourth, I compiled a bibliography of books related to butterflies, native plants and gardening that are available in the El Cerrito Library.  This is the link:

Books about Butterflies and Native Plants at the El Cerrito Library

Last, but not least, George wrote a wonderful description of the evolution of our garden and yard into a wildlife habitat:

Killing our lawn, by George McRae

If you have any questions, just let me know in the comments.  Hope you can make it to the display.

Wingspread Mixed-Media Art Doll

Wingspread Art Doll

Wingspread Art Doll

Meet “Wingspread,” a mixed-media art doll that I created, using several different techniques to transfer or attach my original photographs and designs to the soft stuffed cotton doll. Most of Wings’ body is decorated with fragments of my Golden Butterfly” photo collage. I used Transfer Artist Paper (TAP) to transfer the Golden Butterfly design to the doll.

Wingspread Art Doll - back

Wingspread Art Doll - back

Here’s Wingspread’s back.  The back of her (his?) head is a TAP transfer of my mandala design that I made from my photos of a monarch butterfly wing and a peacock feather.   This is the image:

And here’s a closeup of the wings on the back:

Anise swallowtail butterfly wing on lutradur

For the large wing on the right side I printed my photo of an anise swallowtail butterfly’s spread wing on lutradur coated with Golden’s Digital Ground. I stitched the wing to the center of the back. I also added a small metal wing, and a dangle of pearl, metal and glass beads.

Wingspread’s headdress is made from beautiful black and white striped hen feathers from Barred Rock hens. They are affixed to the head through another piece of lutradur, which I printed using my photo collage of the open wing of a Barred Rock hen.

Wings wears a colorful bowtie, which I made from my original design fabric.

Wingspread is a bit over 20 inches tall, including the feather headdress.  I love art dolls, and it was so fun to make this one, incorporating my butterfly photos and designs, and using so many different techniques and products.   You can see more pictures at my Artfire gallery.  Have you ever made an art doll?  What materials did you use?

Swallowtail butterfly eggs!

The wheel turns, another cycle begins …  Just last week two of the butterfly chrysalises that we’ve been sheltering emerged.  They’re anise swallowtail butterflies.  The first one was a male – if you can get a good close look, one set of the black lines on the male’s wings is thicker than on the female’s —

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Anise swallowtail butterfly

We let him go quickly because the weather was really nice.  The anise swallowtails can remain in the chrysalis stage for years.  We’ve had some for more than two years.  You can tell they’re still alive because if you touch the chrysalis gently it will move.  It’s very different with monarch butterflies — the timing for the stages monarchs go through from egg to emergence are always the same.

A day or so later another one of the swallowtails emerged – this one was a female.  As we released her I said what I always say to the lady butterflies: “Come back to our garden and leave babies!”

So, as for the cycle of nature turning — today I found three eggs on the fennel in our garden!  The native plant the anise swallowtails lay eggs on is called yampah.  This great online resource,,  has lots of information about yampah and other native plants.  We have some yampah in a pot, but it grows very slowly.  Here’s a picture I took last year.  The egg is the tiny yellow dot near the center of the picture.  It’s about the size of the head of a pin.

Since yampah is very hard to find in the wild around us (not much wild left hereabouts  …), the anise swallowtails have turned to the fennel plant, which grows very easily here, to lay its eggs and as its larval food source.  Fennel grows in vacant lots and along the highways.  Many people cut it down as it gets rangy later in the summer, which is too bad, because they’re probably killing hundreds of swallowtail eggs and caterpillars.   Here’s a photo of an egg on fennel:

This is roughly three times larger than life size.  These last 2 pictures are from a series I did on the entire life cycle of the anise swallowtail butterfly.  You can see all of the photographs on my smugmug gallery.

What butterflies have you been seeing your garden?   Do you plant milkweed for monarchs or other plants to attract and feed butterflies?

Butterflies emerging!

What a celebration we had for the first beautiful warm day after a horrendous stretch of pounding rainstorms, hail and cold — two of our swallowtail butterflies emerged!

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Anise swallowtail butterfly

Number one came out in the morning.  He’s an anise swallowtail butterfly that we raised from an egg we found on fennel in our garden.  We let this guy sit inside for a bit, then after his wings had firmed up, we opened the cage and away he flew.  Anise swallowtails are interesting, because they don’t emerge according to a set timetable (as monarch butterflies do).  The swallowtails stagger their emergence, possibly to insure that some of them at least emerge at a time when there will be plenty of food for them.  We have some swallowtail chrysalises in our butterfly nursery that date back more than 2 years.

Swallowtail chrysalis

Swallowtail chrysalis

You can tell they’re still viable because there’s movement inside if you touch them.  After checking some of them, George noticed that another chrysalis had darkened, which they do when they’re getting ready to emerge.  And shortly after that, number two came out!

I only got a few shots of these guys, but if you want to see my photos of the life cycle of the anise swallowtails, go to this gallery in my smugmug website.  I have closeup shots of the entire process — from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly.  Oh, and we haven’t seen any monarch butterflies in our yard yet, and we don’t have any of them in our butterfly nursery, but you can see my photos of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly at this gallery.  Happy Spring!

Golden Paint’s Digital Grounds products, part 1

Once again to my love of printing on unusual surfaces.  I haven’t filled in a lot of my background on that, it’s coming, but I want to jump ahead a bit to something new on the market.  Golden Paints, a wonderful company, has just come out with their Digital Grounds line of products, three different substances that, when applied to surfaces, make them receptive to inkjet printing.  There’s so much information on their website, I won’t repeat it all here, just the basics and then my experience.  I know that there’s a similar product that has been on the market for quite awhile, inkAID.  I never tried inkAID although I have read a lot of great things about it.

The three Digital Grounds products they’re offering are white matte for porous surfaces, clear gloss, and gloss for non-porous surfaces.  I first tried the white matte.  I had some lutradur (a non-woven polyester material) that I had tried printing on directly last year.  The results with direct printing (no surface preparation) were so-so, the images were not sharp and the colors were muted.  That’s okay if you want that effect, but I was after images that looked more like what I could get on injket paper.  Well, I sure got that with the matte digital ground.

I got a small bottle to try out.  You tap the bottle on a surface to free a mixing ball inside, then rock it back and forth for a minute.  Apply the ground with a foam brush.  I cut the lutradur and taped it to some newspaper, then brushed in one direction.  I had a fan blowing away the fumes.  It doesn’t smell too bad but it’s not good to inhale, so work with good ventilation.  I also used gloves to protect my hands.  It took quite a few applications to cover the lutradur.  I then taped it up and directed a fan to dry it.  After drying (maybe half an hour with the fan), I taped it back to the newspaper and brushed on another layer in the opposite direction.  You can wash the brush out with soap and water.

I let it totally dry over night and printed it the next day.  I nearly always use the setting for enhanced matte on my Epson 2400, so I tried that setting with the coated lutradur.  I’m printing with the black matte ink these days and have no idea how the glossy black would work.   The lutradur went into the printer beautifully.  I didn’t need to even tape the leading edge, but that’s always an option when you’re having trouble getting something to feed into the printer.  I used the normal paper feed, there was no problem at all with the lutradur getting around the curve — the digital ground was completely flexible.

I thought the results were just beautiful.  I know I’m repeating myself, but the sharpness and saturation were like what I get from good inkjet paper.  There were some tiny random holes where the digital ground hadn’t adhered, but that’s just part of printing on something that’s not paper or a solid surface, it’s part of the effect that I wanted.

This is my photograph of a swallowtail butterfly printed on lutradur.

Swallowtail butterfly photograph printed on lutradur coated with Golden Digital Ground

Swallowtail butterfly photograph printed on lutradur coated with Golden Digital Ground

I wasn’t sure how to finish it, so I decided to just hang it from a dried branch of a curly willow tree from our garden.  I attached it to the branch with baling wire that I curled in random patterns.  I also attached some curled baling wire to 3 holes in the bottom of the print.  Not sure if I mentioned before, but one of the qualities I love about lutradur is that you can cut it but it won’t rip or tear, so whereas with fabric you’d have to reinforce the holes, with lutradur you can poke or cut a hole and know that it won’t rip through.

By the way, if you’re interested in butterflies, this is an anise swallowtail butterfly that we hatched.  We gather the eggs (the size of a large pinhead) from fennel plants in our garden or around town, keep them in a small bottle until they hatch into tiny caterpillars, then transfer them to a larger bottle where we feed them the fennel or yampah (sp?) if we can find it – that’s their native food source but it’s hard to find these days around here.  They change into the chrysalis, and we keep them until they emerge, at which point we release them after a few hours.

If  you want to learn how to print on lutradur using inkAID or Digital Grounds, I have an online class on craftedu. There’s a free preview at the beginning, check it out!