Behind the Breathtaking Pictures

A carpet of monarchs at El Rosario. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

Sabrina Dao talks about shooting the monarchs in Mexico.

Butterflies & Their People is a small non-profit dedicated to paying locals to protect the Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. We were beyond excited when nature photographer Sabrina Dao offered to donate a finished 20×30 canvas art piece of one of her images to our current fundraiser. Give at least $200 USD to enter your name in the June 30 drawing for the image of your choice. Several options are featured below.

Nectaring monarchs on Cerro Pelon by Sabrina Dao.
ES: How did you become interested in nature photography?


Sandhill crane baby and mama from 2015 by Sabrina Dao.
SD: I have always liked taking photos during our vacation travels to different places. The summer of 2015, when I first saw a Sandhill crane nest with two cutest little babies hatched in our local Kensington Metro Park, which opened the doors for me to notice the beautiful nature and wildlife that I had not taken notice living nearby for over 20 years. I then started going to Kensington Park frequently and photographing the Sandhill cranes, this is where it all began… Since then, seeing and photographing wildlife has become my passion.

Monarch Butterflies wintering in Central Mexico is one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles on this planet — the ability to both see and capture such beauty has been one of the most rewarding photography experiences in my life.

Tree trunks radiate heat and keep the monarchs warm. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

ES: This season, you spent a whole day up on Cerro Pelon with the Butterflies & Their People workers. What was it like? What were the best images from that day?

SD: Spending a day with Ranger Pato and Arborist Pancho gave me an insight to see what they do to protect and save the Monarchs. While they kept their watchful eyes on their job to protect the forests, they were busy re-roping, marking and clearing the trails, helping and interacting with tourists and sharing their intimate knowledge of the local Monarch activities. I could tell that they were very proud of what they do and work extremely hard to ensure the Monarchs will always come back to this sacred place for the generations to come. Spending a day with them was a unique experience. There were many Monarch photos taken that day, but the photo of Pancho and Pato will be the one to remember.

Butterflies & Their People arborist Francisco “Pancho” Moreno with Butterflies & Their People Coordinator/CEPANAF Ranger Patricio “Pato” Moreno in the Cerro Pelon Sanctuary, State of Mexico, in front of monarch clusters. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

ES: Your photos are all from the El Rosario and Cerro Pelon Sanctuaries. What are the differences in visiting and photographing those two colonies?

SD: EL Rosario and Cerro Pelon are two of my favorite Monarch butterfly sanctuaries. Both are amazing in seeing the millions of Monarch butterflies floating in the sky; however, visiting the Cerro Pelon colony is more special. It gives you the feeling that you are closer to nature, the wilderness, the mountain and the locals who have lived there for generations. Although it is always challenging to get to the mountain top for the Monarch viewing, once when I reach there, the moment of seeing the enormous butterfly clusters like hanging baskets decorated around you, always gives me that indescribable sensation and emotion of being inspired and energized. I couldn’t wait to capture that moment and the beauty to share it with the world. So far, I have gone up Cerro Pelon four times!

This season in El Rosario the clusters formed right above the trail near the entry. Photo by James Tang.

ES: How does photographing monarchs compare to capturing other kinds of creatures?
James and Sabrina on Cerro Pelon.

SD: Ever since I have developed the passion for wildlife photography in 2015, my husband James and I have traveled extensively to see and photograph wildlife in North and South America. Photographing Monarchs in Mexico has always been a magical experience which brought us back for the second time early this year. When you are surrounded by a sea of those tiny orange and black colored creatures, and loads of butterfly clusters on every branch in front of you, sometimes it can be overwhelming on which ones to focus. Each experience is different and once is never enough!


Monarchs adorn a dead branch on Cerro Pelon in the State of Mexico. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

ES: What advice do you have for people on how to take good pictures of monarchs?

Monarch necatring on salvia mexicana. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

SD: Photography of Monarchs is similar to photographing other wildlife; you need to stay focused and watch where the Monarchs are landing; try to capture both close-up shots to show the butterfly details and their behaviors with a zoom lens; also get surrounding landscape shots to show the environment of the wintering sites for the Monarchs. Look for a clear background so the butterflies can stand out; use high shutter speed to capture the butterfly flying motion. Last but not the least, it often takes time, patience, anticipation and luck in order to get that image you have always wanted. Remember, photography is not everything, enjoying the magical experience will give you that richer fulfillment in life. Being able to get good photos to share with friends and family will always be an extra bonus!

A carpet of monarchs at El Rosario. Photo by Sabrina Dao.

P.S. Sabrina is donating a ready-to-be-displayed 20 x 30 Monarch Butterfly Canvas Wall hanging, which she will send directly to the lucky winner. Donate $200 USD to Butterflies & Their People to enter the June 30 drawing. Tune in to the Cerro Pelon streambox that day at noon CT to find out whose name Pato and Pancho will draw. Read more about Butterflies & Their People here.

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