Ask the Naturalist

Ask the Naturalist: Best spots to photograph Bay Area butterflies?

August 21, 2014

Q: I’m interested in photographing wildflowers and butterflies, and I’d like to learn about Bay Area places that encourage butterflies by planting the proper plants. — Patrick C.

A: Guest Naturalist Liam O’Brien answers:


Doesn’t get much better for eye candy than a butterfly on a flower, right? Because these creatures are generalists when it comes to nectaring, this idyllic photo you seek can happen just about anywhere. I once saw an Anise Swallowtail hunkered down on a lawn with its  proboscis extended into a tiny dandelion! Might not be the shot you’re seeking, but it rocked this nerdy lepidopterist’s world.

My Top Three Places in the Bay Area for Butterfly Photography:

1) Mitchell Canyon Trail/ Mount Diablo State Park, Clayton, CA (April, May & June) Enter the park through Mitchell Canyon Road. The trail towards Donner Summit will give you so many opportunities, you’ll be swapping out batteries in an hour: Common Buckeyes, Northern Checkerspots and Pale Tigers flit about. Walk to the White Canyon trail split part-way up and you’ll be parallel with a Buckeye Tree canopy – the main gas station for all Bay Area butterflies when these trees are in bloom.

2) Alum Rock Park, San Jose, CA (February-March) Walk west about 2 miles in and the slopes just might reveal the Sonoran Blue, considered by many to be the most beautiful small butterfly in North America. You may find an array of other spring species as well.

3) Alemany Farm, San Francisco, CA An educational park/farm for city kids open to the public. I’ve seen 18 species there in an afternoon. Huge Buddleia bush positions many for good shots.

If you’re interested in butterfly houses/Costa Rican species, the exhibits at Six Flags Amusement Park/Vallejo and the Cal Academy of Sciences in SF should feed that need. (I get discouraged that the humidity in those places makes my pictures look foggy….)

Bonus: No doubt the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden in Berkeley would rock for this.

The North Peak of Mount Diablo revealed a gem for me the other day: my first Thicket Hairstreak (Callophrys spinetorum). One click and … it was gone. Gosh, that only took twenty years.

Photo by Amber Hasselbring
Photo by Amber Hasselbring

Lepidopterist Liam O’Brien is the architect of San Francisco butterfly habitat projects like Tigers on Market Street, the Green Hairstreak Corridor, and the restoration of endangered Mission blues on Twin Peaks. Butterfly champion Liam is Bay Nature’s 2014 Local Hero for Environmental Education

Learn more about Liam’s restoration work and guided walks at his website,

About the Author

Liam O'Brien is a San Francisco-based lepidopterist. He writes and illustrates the monthly Flying Pansy column for