29 June 2013

Butterfly of the Month - June 2013

Butterfly of the Month - June 2013
The Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis)

Tomorrow will be the last day of June, and we will cross the halfway mark for 2013. It seems like only yesterday that we were wishing each other a Happy New Year in 2013, and now, half the year is almost over. It has indeed been an eventful month for Singapore in June - at least for those residents who were not away from our little red dot during this school holiday month. As with any blog that has anything to do with nature, the environment and current affairs, it would be unthinkable to avoid talking about the dreaded HAZE.

It is almost an annual environmental scourge that, during the dry season of the year, crop farmers and plantation owners in neighbouring Indonesia clear large tracts of land using their archaic (but cheap) method of slash-and-burn. In the past, where farmlands were more compact and the farmers used this method, the burning was more contained and manageable. In recent years, as large areas of land are cleared using the same method for oil palm plantations, the fires that are started take weeks to extinguish - but not before massive areas of greenery are razed to the ground.

This June, the haze, as we call it, started some time in the middle of the month. As more fires were started on Sumatra, the large volumes of smoke generated was carried by the south-westerly winds over to Singapore. What started as a minor haze around the 15th and 16th of the month grew into something that was to set an all-time record for the Pollutants Standard Index (PSI) level that Singapore uses to monitor the island city's air quality.

The last recorded high was in 1997 when the PSI level topped 226 when most of Singapore choked on the smog and kept cross-border diplomats busy with 'protests'. On 17 Jun 2013, at 12 noon, the PSI breached the 400 level and reached a historical record of 401 (and was way into the "hazardous" air quality level). Numbers notwithstanding, just being outdoors on that day made me feel like a trapped and helpless rodent in a burning and smoking building with nowhere to run. The air smelt of burnt wood and the smoke was absolutely smothering.

It was time again, for Singaporeans of all walks of life to don all manner of masks to try to go about their daily routine of commuting to and from work, and to carry out their daily activities in as normal a manner as possible. The recommended 3M N95 face masks, touted to be more effective than the surgical masks, flew off the shelves of the retailers that stocked them.

And so came the annual haze, courtesy of the old ways of the farmers in Indonesia, and the exploitative large-scale commercial companies whose primary aim is to maximise their profits with the wanton destruction of large tracts of land for their money-spinning oil palm plantations. I wonder how long more this will continue to happen, before Mother Nature strikes back again.

As for our beloved butterflies, the haze will affect them like any other living and breathing organism on planet Earth. Whilst the haze particles and pollutive elements in the air are miniscule, compared to us humans, these very same particles are like large pieces of trash, relative to the sizes of butterflies and their caterpillars. The particles are likely to interfere with the respiratory function of butterflies and their early stages. The impact of the haze on butterflies is yet to be ascertained, but as long as the haze is not prolonged, it is likely that the population of butterflies will spring back, as it did back in 1997. So let's hope that our butterflies continue to be as resilient as they had been in the past.

This month, we feature a medium sized Nymphalid, the Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis). An active and skittish butterfly, the Rustic often leaves many a photographer seething with frustration as it has a wide circle of fear and it takes off quickly before a photographer has a good chance of taking a shot of it at close range. Occasionally, however, when it is attracted to sweat and other food sources that it likes, the Rustic becomes more cooperative and allows a photographer to approach it.

The Rustic is a restless flyer and constantly on the move in its habitats in the forested areas of Singapore. The upperside is orange-brown with a yellow discal patch and a black apical area on the forewing. The wings are ornamented with black spots and streaks. The underside is pale yellow orange, but with essentially the same black markings and spots as above.

The butterfly is usually observed singly and is quite widespread in Singapore.  Although it prefers the safety of the forested nature reserves, individuals have been observed in urban parks and gardens where its caterpillar host plants - Flacourtia rukam and Flacourtia inermis, which it shares with other closely related species like the Leopard and Vagrant.

The complete life history of the Rustic has been recorded on this blog here. The caterpillar host plants, particularly Flacourtia inermis has been cultivated in many parks and gardens as a feature plant, e.g. Fort Canning Park, Ang Mo Kio West Town Park and Gardens by the Bay, and will probably attract the species to these parks from time to time.

Let us hope that the urban greening of Singapore continues to favour butterfly biodiversity, as we move towards more biodiversity-friendly strategies to promote and enhance nature. In our city planning there are ample opportunities to allow development and nature to co-exist in harmony, and it is up to everyone who cares about nature to work towards this vision.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Goh LC, Antonio Giudici, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Loke PF, Simon Sng, Terry Ong & Horace Tan

This article is dedicated to ButterflyCircle member Tan Chung Pheng (who uses the online nick Rustic), a long-time butterfly photographer who has taken a leave of absence from active butterfly photography to enjoy a blissful married life, and raising a bundle of joy.

27 June 2013

Down Memory Lane - Orange Albatross

Down Memory Lane : Gone Forever?
The Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulina)

This new weekday short article series features some butterfly species that were previously recorded in checklists of the early authors who collected in Singapore from the 50's through to the 70's. Two main references of the species found in Singapore during that era were "Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula by Corbet & Pendlebury 4th Edition, revised by Col John Eliot" and "Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore by W.A. Fleming".

The latter author's collection of nearly 9,000 specimens is now nestled in the good hands of Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. See the story of the collection arriving in Singapore here.

The first species in this series is the Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulina). Recorded in Singapore in the 70's, the Orange Albatross has not been seen since. Veteran butterfly expert Steven Neo recalls this species flying around in the "kampung areas" during his younger butterfly-chasing days.

The butterfly is dark orange above with prominent black veins on both wings, whilst the underside is a light yellowish orange. Males of the Orange Albatross can sometimes be common in Malaysia during the months of March to June and found puddling on sandy streambanks in the company of other Papilionidae and Pieridae. Will we ever see this orange beauty in Singapore again? Or will it remain only in our memories and is gone forever from Singapore?

26 June 2013

A Loitering Vagrant captured in Singapore!

A Loitering Vagrant captured in Singapore!
Featuring the Vagrant (Vagrans sinha sinha)

A vagrant is generally understood as "one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support". It is therefore a curious name for a butterfly to be named as such. But, knowing the myriad common English names and their possible origins, trying to find the genesis and rationale of a butterfly's "given" name is often a question of guessing what the author saw or experienced at the time he coined a name for the species.

Recently, in Singapore, a "long-lost" species, the Vagrant, was seen on two separate days at Gardens by the Bay. Newbie ButterflyCircle member Billy Oh, had posted a couple of shots of this species as he could not identify what he shot. It turned out to be our first re-discovery of this year! The Vagrant was in the checklists of the early authors, but has not been seen in Singapore for at least the past three decades or more. Then all of a sudden, it re-appeared. This pristine individual was seen in the vicinity of one of its caterpillar host plants, Flacourtia sp. that is found at GB.

The following day, when ButterflyCircle members went hunting for the species, member Koh CH was fortunate to encounter it again in the early hours of the morning. As it is a skittish and always on-the-move species, it was difficult to track and photograph it. Also, as the species shares the same host plant (and also behaviour) as the related Leopard (Phalantha phalanta phalanta), and which coincidentally also looks and behaves like the orange-coloured Vagrant in the field, searching for the Vagrant proved more challenging than anticipated.

Hence, with two confirmed sightings and photos from ButterflyCircle members and the following rationale, we will be adding it to the Singapore Butterfly Checklist as a re-discovery for Singapore :

  • The individual sighted is relatively pristine and in very good condition, suggesting that natural migration by flying over from Malaysia may be unlikely. Also, the Vagrant is not a known migratory species, nor is by any measure a particularly strong flyer.
  • The month of June is typically the season with south-westerly winds blowing from Sumatra, hence any migration aided by prevailing winds from the north in Malaysia can be ruled out. Whilst the species may have come from the Riau archipelago is a plausible theory, evidence of the Vagrant's existence in nearby Batam or Bintan is sketchy.
  • The import (from Malaysia) of two of the Vagrant's host plants, Flacourtia rukam and Flacourtia inermis and cultivated at Gardens by the Bay could be a possible 'vehicle' on which the early stages of the butterfly could have stowed away and entered Singapore. However, the plants at GB are already quite mature and have been brought in since the previous year prior to the opening of the Gardens at Bay South. Hence it may not be anything recent and the species may have been already breeding on the plants at GB.
  • The Vagrant is typically a forest-dependent species, but as with the Rustic (Cupha erymanthis lotis) another Flacourtia feeder, may have been attracted to the urban coastal park due to the abundance of its host plant.

Will the Vagrant be seen again anytime soon? It was surprising enough that it re-appeared in Singapore after all these years, and even more surprising to find it at an urban downtown park like Gardens by the Bay! Are there young caterpillars breeding on one of the many Flacourtia trees, just waiting to show themselves again soon?

No one can never say for sure. But we certainly hope that the Vagrant will continue to stay on in Singapore and add to the diversity of butterfly species that can be found on our little red dot.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Koh Cher Hern and Billy Oh

Footnote : The taxonomic name of Vagrans sinha sinha is used here, instead of the earlier references to the species name as Vagrans egista macromalayana due to a series of recent papers by Tsukada (1985) Treadaway (1995), Vane-Wright & deJong (2003) and Smetacek (2012) regarding the status of sinha vs egista in the Sundaland taxon.

With special thanks to Dr TL Seow for his expert views and background research on the revised taxon name of the Vagrant

24 June 2013

Random Gallery - Malayan Eggfly

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Malayan Eggfly (Hypolimnas anomala anomala)

A break in the haze over the weekend prompted some ButterflyCircle members like Loke PF to get out in the sunshine and relatively clear skies to go butterfly-hunting again. In the aftermath of PSI levels of greater than 400 points on the index (which spells 'hazardous' air quality conditions), the sunshine and blue skies over Singapore on Saturday afternoon was a great relief. The winds changed direction and blew the haze northwards to Malaysia, even as the National Environment Agency in Singapore cautioned that it would only be a temporary relief as the winds would likely blow the smog down south again soon.

Anyway, here is an excellently-executed shot of a Malayan Eggfly feeding on the flowers of Leea rubra. The added bonus of a stingless bee floating just behind and below the butterfly makes the shot an outstanding one. The Malayan Eggfly is locally common and is well known for the behaviour of the female butterfly laying up to 100 eggs at one go, and then standing guard over her eggs until her demise.

22 June 2013

Life History of the Banded Demon

Life History of the Banded Demon (Notocrypta paralysos varians)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Notocrypta de Nicéville, 1889
Species: paralysos Wood-Mason & de Nicéville, 1881
Sub-species: varians Plötz, 1882
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 33-36mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Costus lucanusianus (Costaceae, common name: African Spiral Flag).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Above, the wings are dark brown. The forewing has a large white band consisting of conjoined spots in spaces 1b, 2 and the distal end of the cell. There is usually a small white hyaline spot in space 4 of the forewing. The hindwing is unmarked. Underneath, the wings are brown and dusted with purplish scales next to the termens. The purplish hue is more readily observed in pristine specimens. The antenna has a pale whitish band just below the club.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
Banded Demon is moderately common in Singapore. The adults are rather localized and are typically found in the vicinity of its host plant in the fringe of the nature reserve. The adults are fast fliers among the ground cover and shrubbery. They visit flowers for nectar, and at times perch on sun-bathing spots with half-open wings.

21 June 2013

Random Gallery - Common Tiger

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Common Tiger (Danaus genutia genutia)

This is the last of a long series of butterflies seen and photographed at Gardens by the Bay. With the planting of appropriate host and nectaring plants at GB, the butterfly population has been increasing steadily, with the number of species spotted reaching about 50. It will remain to be seen in the coming weeks how the current haze from forest fires in Sumatra, Indonesia, will affect the butterfly population in Singapore. Reaching a PSI of 401 and the highest on record, the environmental impact on our fauna is something that researchers may want to document.

This Common Tiger is amongst the Danainae species that are attracted to the secretions of the Rattleweed (Crotalaria retusa). In particular, they like the seed pods of the plant, where the butterfly appears to scratch the surface of the seed pods with their sharp tarsal claws, causing a "wound" that secretes a transparent sap that the butterfly likes. In this shot, taken by ButterflyCircle member Loke PF, the Common Tiger feeds on secretions on the yellow flower and buds of the Rattleweed.

20 June 2013

Random Gallery - Black Veined Tiger

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Black Veined Tiger (Danaus melanippis hegesippus)

Despite the haze, our butterflies still need to go about their daily activities and surviving the best they can in environmentally hazardous conditions that they can do nothing about. Given the biology of butterflies and their caterpillars, they breathe through a series of openings at the sides of their abdomens called spiracles. Oxygen is transported via a complicated structure of tubes and air sacs to the cells. Varying sizes of butterflies and caterpillars would mean that the spiracles vary in size as well. We do know that haze (or simply smoke) consists of suspended particles in air. Some of these particles are big, relative to the size of the butterfly's spiracles. It is highly possible that these particles can clog up these spiracles, and prevent the butterfly or caterpillar from breathing properly, effectively suffocating it. Picture a first instar caterpillar which measures no longer than 1-2mm.

This adult butterfly, a Black Veined Tiger, goes about its business of feeding on the flowers of the Blood Flower (Asclepias currasivica) at Gardens by the Bay. ButterflyCircle member Sunny Chir photographed it. Will our butterflies and caterpillars be severely affected by the current haze in Singapore? Like all living/breathing organisms, I am sure there is some effect. How bad this effect is, is yet to be seen in the coming weeks.

15 June 2013

ButterflyCircle in the News!

ButterflyCircle in the News!
Shutterbugs on the Prowl

© Singapore Press Holdings - ST Life! Weekend article 14 June 2013 by Lea Wee

ButterflyCircle was featured in a media article about nature photographers in yesterday's Straits Times Life! Weekend section. The article, by ST journalist Lea Wee, spoke about nature photography in Singapore, the various interest groups and their respective subjects. ButterflyCircle's 14-year old talent, Jonathan Soong, was prominently featured on the main photograph of the article, whilst he was stalking a butterfly at our outing last Sunday at Gardens by the Bay. Jonathan is now ButterflyCircle's poster boy!

The article talks about nature photography as a challenging but rewarding pursuit by hobbyists and special interest groups, and spending their free time chasing birds, butterflies, dragonflies, spiders, other critters and even plants! Looking back at my own experience over the years, the availability of affordable digital photography technology some time in the early 2000's saw a significant leap in all genres of photography, with nature photography being one of the more popular ones.

ButterflyCircle members helping each other get an unobstructed shot of a butterfly, whilst the others wait patiently for their turn

In the days of film cameras, I recall that I had to shoot, wait for the entire roll of slide film (I usually use the ISO 100 Fujichrome Velvia, 36 exposures) to be used up, send the roll for developing, and keeping my fingers crossed, hoping that the shots turn out as expected. There was at least one occasion when the entire roll of slide film came back completely black - I had misloaded the film in the camera!

The staple film of nature photographers in the good ol' days

I can never imagine going back to the film days when it was often hit-and-miss with exposures, lighting, focus and so on. And the one of the boons of digital photography - the ability to change ISOs to suit lighting conditions. With a roll of film, you have a fixed ISO and you have to deal with it until the next roll of film. Of course, the exorbitant cost of developing a roll of slides and printing technology in those days were pretty prohibitive, and shooting at 8 frames per second was unthinkable, unless you had a magazine of film loaded onto your camera back and you also had deep pockets!

My trusty ol' first digital camera, the twist-turn Nikon Coolpix 995!  It had an "massive" 3.34Mp sensor in those days

So the digital age crept up silently on us, and during the early days, I relented, jumped on the digital bandwagon and bought myself my first digital camera - a Nikon Coolpix 995. I still remember the heated debates between the film supporters and the digicam supporters. "There is no way that digital cameras can replace film cameras". "The resolution in film will never be surpassed by any form of digital technology". Ad infinitum... I just wonder what cameras these skeptics are using today.

ST Journalist Lea Wee interviewing ButterflyCircle's oldest member, Sunny Chir

So last Sunday, ButterflyCircle arranged an outing at Gardens by the Bay. ST journalist Lea Wee and photographer Joseph Nair joined us. Our members went about their usual butterfly chasing exploits whilst Joe stalked Jonathan and Lea interviewed Brian, Jonathan, Sunny and me.

We continued to hunt for the Vagrant, which was shot by Billy and Cher Hern just a couple of days before (more about this new find in my next blog article). But the latest addition to the Singapore butterfly fauna list was nowhere to be found, and proved elusive, despite so many of ButterflyCircle members hunting for it. The species will probably turn up again when we least expect it.

Newbie Nona looking like a damsel in distress, and then shooting confidently with Sunny's expert coaching

Two members who had been in hibernation for some time joined us on this sunny morning too, and it was good to see them back in action with the regulars. The day started out with the skies threatening to open up on us, but somehow the winds changed and we were blessed with a relatively sunny day. The butterflies were up and about, and this part of Gardens by the Bay can be considered a 'butterfly garden' by any standards. Given that it is a free-ranging butterfly garden, it is ecologically and environmentally more sustainable than a caged facility.

WANTED : The butterfly murderer!  A White Collared Kingfisher

As biodiversity increases, firstly via the horticultural palette of plants, insects like butterflies and bees will follow suit, and then the higher forms of animals will appear to feed on them. Already, we spotted a 'serial murderer' in the form of a White Collared Kingfisher (Todirhamphus chloris) lurking around the area, and our members spotted it snacking on a poor butterfly.

Three Lycaenids found at Gardens by the Bay

The rarer form-chrysippus of the Plain Tiger - a male, also made a guest appearance. In Singapore, the dominant form is the white-hindwinged form-alcippoides. The form-chrysippus which has the hindwings unicolourous with the forewings, is much rarer, and sightings of this form have been few and far between. Interestingly, as we move northwards to Malaysia, and even further afield to countries like India, the orange-hindwinged form-chrysippus is the dominant (and more common) form.

A male form-chrysippus Plain Tiger - the rarer of the two forms of Plain Tiger found in Singapore

It was fun watching veteran ButterflyCircle member Sunny Chir racing after the Plain Tiger. He was very focused, as he locked his 'gun-sights' on the skittish and constantly on-the-move butterfly and determinedly tracked it for almost half and hour. It was a case of whether the butterfly or the photographer would be fatigued first. But Sunny's shot above indicated that it was the butterfly that needed refueling break first. In an earlier blog article, Sunny shares his experience and techniques in stalking and photographing butterflies.

More colourful butterflies found at Gardens by the Bay

Butterfly photography is indeed a challenging past time. There're always the difficulties of a skittish subject, finding a clean background, lighting condition, struggling with a strong breeze at times and most importantly, understanding and respecting nature and the environment around us. Fueled by the thrill of the hunt, and the satisfaction of admiring a well-executed shot on screen makes ButterflyCircle members go out on butterfly shooting outings weekend after weekend in our quest for the 'perfect shot'.

ButterflyCircle's youngest member, Brian Goh, scrutinising his camera's preview screen to see whether he nailed that 'perfect shot' or not!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Goh EC, Loke PF, Billy Oh, Nelson Ong, Jonathan Soong & Ellen Tan

Special acknowledgment to Singapore Press Holdings for the ST Life! Weekend article and Lea Wee for the excellent article on Nature Photographers in Singapore.

WildSingapore! : Shutterbugs on the Prowl!  

13 June 2013

Random Gallery - Pea Blue

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Pea Blue (Lampides boeticus)

The Pea Blue is a widespread and common butterfly, and described to be distributed from southern Europe, throughout Africa, spreading throughout the Indo-Australian region all the way to Hawaii. On hot sunny days, it is fast-flying and skittish, but stops to perch on its favourite leaves regularly. The caterpillars feed on the Rattlebox Bush (Crotalaria pallida) and Rattleweed (Crotalaria retusa) which are common plants in wastelands and secondary forest.

This pair of mating Pea Blues was shot last Sunday at Gardens by the Bay, where it is a resident species at the areas where its caterpillar host plants grow. ButterflyCircle member Mark Wong took the opportunity to shoot this pair perched on a leaf whilst they were indisposed.

11 June 2013

Random Gallery - Blue Pansy

Random Butterfly Gallery
The Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya wallacei)

This week, we continue to feature butterflies shot at Gardens by the Bay (GB). There was apparently a blog that commented that there were few or no butterflies at Gardens by the Bay. I wonder where the author was making his observations at. Perhaps inside the airconditioned conservatories?

ButterflyCircle member Loke PF shot this pristine male Blue Pansy on Sunday at GB. Did you know that the local subspecies of the Blue Pansy in Malaysia and Singapore was so named in honour of Alfred Russell Wallace? The Blue Pansy is a pretty but often skittish sun-loving species that prefers open grassy fields. Often males are seen dogfighting and chasing each other, sometimes in spiralling duels reaching 10-15 m up into the air.