Renowned nature photographer returns to his roots with butterfly exhibit at Chico Creek Nature Center
“It’s an educational exhibit, not just an art exhibit,” said Jon Aull, education coordinator at the Chico Creek Nature Center. Aull was speaking recently as he walked from butterfly photo to striking butterfly photo in the Nature Center’s current, ongoing exhibit of the photography of renowned bird and butterfly photographer John Hendrickson.
He lingered on a colorful close-up of the yellow-and-black California Dogface butterfly, which actually resembles a pansy more than it does a dog.
“This is our state butterfly,” Aull pointed out, “but it has largely disappeared from our area.” The Dogface’s “host plant”—the plant on which the Dogface larva (caterpillar) feeds—is the false indigo, “which has disappeared [from the Chico area], so we no longer have that butterfly,” he said.
Aull indicated which butterflies were poisonous (who knew such a thing existed?)—such as the blue, black and orange Pipevine Swallowtail. Folks who have walked or biked through Bidwell Park will be familiar with the orange-spotted, black Pipevine, having likely dodged (or run over) countless of them as the caterpillars cross trails on their way to finding a good spot to become a chrysalis.
Aull said he asked Hendrickson to pick his favorites from “his incredible wealth of pictures” for the current show, adding, “Most of these [butterflies] you can see in Bidwell Park.”
The Nature Center has a special connection with Hendrickson—whose work has been shown at many museums around the country as well as on the pages of widely read publications such as National Geographic and Newsweek, and the various versions of the prestigious Audubon Society calendar. The 60-year-old happens to be a graduate of Chico State, where he got a master’s in environmental education and field biology. He is also one of the founders of the original Bidwell Nature Center, precursor to the Chico Creek Nature Center.
“I photographed that one at my house,” said Hendrickson when I brought up the California Dogface. The friendly, chatty Hendrickson was talking by phone from his home in the far-flung little Butte County community of Clipper Mills. His property, which sits at 3,600 feet, is “covered with native plants that attract butterflies. I have taken a zillion butterfly pictures on my property.”
Hendrickson found out recently that his photography was selected for not only the front cover of the Audubon Society’s 2012 butterfly calendar, but for seven of the 12 months as well, “which is just unheard of. You’re very lucky to have one, or two. … It’s very exciting to me.”
Hendrickson’s interest in butterflies began when he was 3 and—encouraged by an entomologist neighbor in his hometown of Orinda, Calif.—started collecting them. “I was really, really into butterflies as a very small child,” he said. “I was incredibly possessed. … I couldn’t believe how beautiful they were.”
When he was 12, however, Hendrickson had a change of heart: “I looked down [at my butterfly collection] and realized I didn’t want to catch them anymore.”
At about the age of 20, Hendrickson started photographing birds. “I set butterflies aside for about 20 years,” he recalled, “and then I started to photograph them. And all of a sudden that childhood passion was relit.”
Hendrickson, who is currently at work on a book about California butterflies, said it’s his combination of “beautiful equipment” and his intimate knowledge of the habits of butterflies and caterpillars—such as the fact that “some species only fly for 10 days at a specific time”—that allows him to get the incredible shots he does.
“I don’t think that the photographs and the [accompanying] words can do the job,” he added, of the Nature Center show. “I hope they will motivate people to get outside to get reconnected or further the connection they have to nature. … There’s no substitute for getting out in it.”