Creating Your Own Wildlife Photo Habitat

A monarch butterfly on a flower.
The striking and photogenic monarch butterfly.

Story & photos by Tom Haxby

We are all staying much closer to home these days, yet the need to connect with nature through our photography is needed now more than ever. One way to do so is to create a wildlife photo habitat in your yard. This is how I came to create a habitat for monarch butterflies in my northern Michigan yard.

In the Beginning

Two years ago I was fortunate to have one of my photos place in the top 250 in the Showcase competition, as well as being a winner in the Nature’s Best Backyard photo competition. It was also included in one of my magazine articles. This award-winning image of a trio of monarchs posing on a northern blazing star was taken at a nearby botanic garden, which is a certified Monarch Waystation. It’s about 20 minutes from my house and gets a lot visitors who would sometimes inquisitively approach me as I was quietly and patiently trying to photograph the monarchs. This of course caused the monarchs to flee.

Three monarch butterflies on a flowering plant.  Each monarch is at a different stage of their life cycle, from freshly out of the cocoon to a mature adullt.

Two Years Later

Fast forward to today. My own yard is now a certified Monarch Waystation. During the summer, I spend a lot of time 30 feet from my front door photographing the monarchs and other pollinators in my yard. I watch out of the windows for the monarchs to appear, usually after 10 a.m., and carefully consider the lighting of the moment.

I have also had painted lady and viceroy butterflies, a few hummingbirds, assorted bees, other pollinators, rabbits, and even one unidentified snake each of whom considers my yard a nice place to visit.

Creating the Habitat

The question you may ask is how did I go about converting my yard to a Monarch Waystation? Grass on my sandy soils has never done particularly well since I tend to neglect it, so competition for flowers was not an issue. There have always been a few common milkweed plants around and an area of planted tickseed coreopsis spread to other areas of the yard. There have been a few purple coneflowers that seemed to reproduce each year too. I started to notice the monarchs taking a liking to the yard and thought that perhaps if I could add more butterfly friendly plants it would draw in even more butterflies. After first doing research on suitable native plants, I made a visit to a local native plant nursery and came home with prairie blazing star, northern blazing star, Joe Pye weed, whorled milkweed, more coreopsis and more coneflower. I inter-planted these among the existing flowers which added even more incentives for monarchs to visit my yard.

A Monarch butterfly against a black background.
A Monarch butterfly against a shady, black background.

Photographing Monarchs in the Yard

And visit they did. All through the summer the monarchs laid eggs on the milkweed or sipped nectar from the native flowers in the yard. As September rolled around, it seemed as if the two varieties of blazing star would never bloom in time for the fall migration but, magically, they did. The yard full of native wildflowers looked like a tall-grass prairie and the tall-purple spikes of the blazing star were a magnet to the southward-migrating monarchs. It was so much fun photographing the monarchs and I got quite a few good photos as the combination of the bright purple of the blazing star and the orange monarchs is striking in photographs. I also found that the out-of-focus yellow of the coreopsis made for a good background. Another background was an area of shade behind the sunny flower areas, which added a dark background, and the weathered street that showed as white in the background of another photo. Funny how you notice those things when you visit an area often.

Becoming a Certified Monarch Waystation

What does it take to have an area certified as a Monarch Waystation? Through a program sponsored by Monarch Watch, monarch enthusiasts are encouraged to create, conserve, and protect monarch butterfly habitats. To learn more go to https://www.monarchwatch.org/

Three monarch butterflies on a flowering plant.

Maintaining the Habitat

Fall finally arrived and the last of the monarchs visited on a cold and blustery day. The first frost and an early snow ended the growing season for the wildflowers. I managed to harvest a few milkweed and blazing star seeds and those were shipped to an uncle in Pennsylvania who has started his own monarch garden. Finally, spring is just around the corner and another batch of native plants in a mix called a waystation flat has just been ordered. This time I will be adding butterfly weed, swamp milkweed, whorled milkweed, cylindrical blazing star, bee balm, showy goldenrod, New England aster, New Jersey tea and big bluestem grass. I think I need a bigger yard.

Monarch on northern blazing star.
Monarch on northern blazing star.

You Can Do It Too

Your own wildlife photo habitat can be for birds, frogs, bats, or any number of species. It is fun, a good thing to do for our wildlife and the benefits of having nature close to home can yield endless opportunities for photography.

Tom Haxby is an award-winning nature photographer and the 2019-2020 President of NANPA. His photography is influenced by over 25 years as a natural resource professional and a lifetime spent exploring the outdoors.

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