31 August 2013

Life History of the White Palm Bob

Life History of the White Palm Bob (Suastus everyx everyx)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Suasus Moore, 1881
Species: everyx Mabille, 1883
Sub-species: everyx Mabille, 1883
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 24-28mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Daemonorops augustifolia (Arecaceae; common name: Water Rattan Palm).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
The adults are diminutive in size. Above, the wings are brown and typically unmarked. In some female specimens, small white spots might be present in space 2 and the cell in the forewing. In the hindwing, the tornal area and tornal cilia are white. Underneath, the wings are brown and overlaid with buff scaling. In the hindwing, the lower two-thirds are white with several dark spots of varying sizes. The abdomen is brown and white banded.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The White Palm Bob is rare in Singapore. Sightings are rather localized to a forested area in a reservoir park. They are usually found flying in the deep shaded area near ground level. At times, they are also sighted puddling on wet ground and on bird droppings.

29 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Aberrant Oakblue

Butterflies Galore!
The Aberrant Oakblue (Arhopala abseus abseus)

The distribution of this distinctive but very small Arhopala is quite intriguing. Whilst many of its other related species are mainly forest denizens, preferring the forested and shady sanctuaries in the nature reserves, the Aberrant Oakblue has also been observed at various urban parks from Fort Canning Park, Singapore Botanic Gardens and Ang Mo Kio West Town Park, just to name a few. It is more regularly observed in forested areas where it lurks in the shaded understorey. It is also a small species but is distinctively marked compared to other Arhopalas. Another key feature is its three pairs of white-tipped tails, of which the pair at vein 3 of the hindwing is the longest.

This pristine individual, shot by ButterflyCircle member Jonathan Soong, was observed at the Singapore Zoological Gardens at Mandai. The Aberrant Oakblue is considered a moderately rare species and is usually observed singly whenever it occurs.

28 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Lesser Harlequin

Butterflies Galore! 
The Lesser Harlequin (Laxita thuisto thuisto)

This shade-loving denizen is mainly found in the forested nature reserves of Singapore. It is considered rare and there are times when the species is not seen for long periods of time. Like the other species in the family Riodinidae, the Lesser Harlequin is often encountered flitting from leaf to leaf and twisting and turning with half opened wings. The underside is orange-brown with blue edged black spots. Males are all-black above, whilst the females have similar patterns as the underside.

Last weekend, BC members stumbled on a colony of the Lesser Harlequins where a few individuals, both males and females, were observed at a forest trail in the nature reserves. This shot of a male Lesser Harlequin was taken by ButterflyCircle member Sunny Chir.

27 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Sumatran Gem

Butterflies Galore!
The Sumatran Gem (Poritia sumatrae sumatrae)

The Sumatran Gem is a forest-dependent species and is rarely found outside the sanctuary of the deep shady habitats within the nature reserves in Singapore. It is very local in distribution, although several individuals may often be seen flying together in a small area. The underside of the butterfly is predominantly brown, with dark reddish striations. Males are more often seen than females. The male tends to open and close its wings as it flits to a new perch, but then subsequently stops and stays still with its wings folded upright unless disturbed.

The males are iridescent green on the upperside, with a thick black apical border, whilst the females are purple with dark reddish markings and borders. ButterflyCircle member Huang CJ encountered these two males side-by-side and got an opportunistic and unstaged shot, giving an interesting composition to this moderately rare species from the subfamily Poritiinae, of which there are only two representatives in Singapore.

24 August 2013

It's a Bird! No, it's a Butterfly!!

It's a Bird! No, it's a Butterfly!!
Jays and Albatrosses

A Common Jay perches on a leaf

Recently, during a visit to the California Academy of Sciences tropical rainforest conservatory in San Francisco, a young boy next to me exclaimed to his mother, "Look, mommy, a pretty Blue Jay!". I turned around quickly, expecting to see a fast-flying individual of Graphium evemon that I am familiar with. But no, it was a bird. Pretty no doubt, but certainly a bird and not a butterfly!

A Blue Jay puddling on sandy ground

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on the common English names of some butterflies in the region, and some theories behind how the names were coined. In that article, the names mainly came from military and aristocratic titles. My recent experience in San Francisco reminded me that there are quite a few groups of butterflies that shared common English names with birds. A look at some of the literature available yielded a few groups of butterflies in Singapore that had names of birds.

A puddling Tailed Jay

This article features just two groups of them - one from the Papilionidae family and the other from the Pieridae family that has common names that may confuse these butterflies with birds! There are others, which I will leave for future articles. The first group that will be featured in today's blog post, are the Jays.

The Jays

If we google the name "Blue Jay", and look for websites or images, chances that the search will feature more bird articles and images than butterflies. In the world of ornithology, the collective group Jays refer to several species of medium-sized, usually colourful and noisy, passerine birds of the crow family, Corvidae. In the image below, an image search yielded many photos of this pretty blue bird of which there are several different species in North America and Canada.

A screen capture of images after googling "Blue Jay"

Back in our world of lepidoptera, a Blue Jay refers to the species Graphium evemon eventus a fast-flying swallowtail that is relatively common in our forested areas in Singapore. It is regularly observed puddling at muddy banks of streams. The collective term "Jay" also features two other species in Singapore - the Common Jay (Graphium doson evemonides) and the Tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon agamemnon)

A puddling Blue Jay

The Common Jay is found more regularly on the offshore island of Pulau Ubin where its host plants, Desmos chinensis (Annonaceae, common name: Dwarf Ylang Ylang), Michelia alba (Magnoliaceae, common name: White Champaca), Polyathia longifolia var. pendula (Annonaceae, common name: False Ashoka Tree), grow quite commonly. Its life history has been recorded in our blog here.

A puddling Common Jay

The third Jay is the green-spotted Tailed Jay. A common urban butterfly, the caterpillars of this species feed on the Soursop plant, amongst several other species of alternative host plants. This species is found in urban parks and gardens as well as in the forested areas of our nature reserves. This is the largest species in the genus Graphium. Over in Malaysia, there are at least three more species of the same genus that bear the English common name "Jay".

Another puddling Tailed Jay

So the next time you are out in the field and someone shouts look at that "Jay", don't just assume that it is a butterfly that will fly past. Although in equatorial Singapore, it would be unlikely that it will be a bird! Perhaps the collector who first coined the name "Jay" for butterflies is most likely a non-local who associated the blueness of the butterfly with a bird from his home country?

The Albatrosses

The second group of bird-butterfly common name is the Albatross. Again, from the ornithological viewpoint, the Albatross belongs to the family Diomedeidae. This family features magnificent birds that are usually associated with coastal habitats. Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds, and the Great Albatross (genus Diomedea) has the largest wingspans of any extant birds, reaching up to 12 feet (3.7 m).

A screen capture of images after googling "Albatross"

Although it is unlikely that we will encounter one of these large birds in Singapore, yelling out the name "Albatross" to a group of visiting bird watchers from temperate countries may invite curious stares and raised eyebrows! Two species of butterflies, the Striped Albatross and the Chocolate Albatross, occur here in Singapore.

A male Striped Albatross feeding on a Bidens flower

The Striped Albatross (Appias libythea olferna) is a common urban butterfly, that frequents parks and gardens on bright sunny days. The caterpillar of this species feeds on a common "weed" Cleome rutidosperma. The male butterfly is predominantly white, with black veins, whilst females have grey shaded wings. The Striped Albatross has a fast and erratic flight but is certainly less majestic than its gliding avian namesake.

A female Striped Albatross feeding on a Bidens flower

The Chocolate Albatross (Appias lyncida vasava) on the other hand, is seasonal and does not appear to be a resident species in Singapore. Up north in Malaysia, it is very common, and even seasonally abundant. During certain months of the year, the Chocolate Albatross may be observed in Singapore. At times, there may be several individuals seen together in local areas.

A male Chocolate Albatross puddling

The Chocolate Albatross is also a fast flying butterfly and in its native country Malaysia, up to 20 or more individuals have been often observed, puddling together at sandy riverbanks, together with other species of butterflies. The distinctive bright lemon yellow hindwing in the male separates it from any other species of butterflies. Females are rare and often seen feeding at flowers and flying in the forested areas.

A male Chocolate Albatross with half-opened wings basking in the sunshine

So there you have it, two groups of butterflies that share common names with our feathered friends. Although the similarities between butterfly and bird are hard to associate, it is likely that the Jays were coined as names for butterflies of the Graphium genus that are mainly blue, reminiscent of the blue coloured birds of the same name. For the Albatrosses, it is also possible that the butterflies, which are predominantly white when in flight, reminded the original author of the magnificent ocean-going birds of the northern hemisphere.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Koh CH, Bobby Mun & Anthony Wong

23 August 2013

Down Memory Lane - Orange Gull

Down Memory Lane
The Orange Gull (Cepora iudith malaya)

The Orange Gull is a distinctive Pierid in that the whole of the underside of the hindwing is yellow with the tornal area dark orange and brown marginal borders.  It is not likely to be confused with any other species in the family when at rest.  On the upperside the wings are predominantly white with black veins but the tornal half of the hindwing is a bright yellow. The species is often observed puddling at sand banks with other butterflies.

This species was recorded in Singapore by the early authors, and has been described in C&P4 as "widely distributed on the plains in Malaya, occurring from the Langkawi Islands in the north to Pulau Ubin and Singapore in the south." However, the Orange Gull has not been reliably seen in Singapore since the early 90's, and there has been no sign of it on Pulau Ubin either. It is not known why this relatively common Pierid disappeared from Singapore. Will it be back here again one day? Or will it remain only in our memories and is gone forever from Singapore?

This is the 500th post on this blog.

20 August 2013

Butterflies Galore!

Butterflies Galore!
The Fluffy Tit (Zeltus amasa maximinianus)

Bird droppings and other mammalian excretions appear to contain nutrition that some butterflies like to feed on. In the forests, we have often seen butterflies, especially some Lycaenidae and Hesperiidae, feeding greedily on bird droppings. Even when disturbed, a hungry butterfly will return repeatedly to its precious food source.

This Fluffy Tit was photographed feeding on this bird dropping on a leaf last Sunday by ButterflyCircle member Goh EC. The butterfly was quite tame, staying still for periods of time just feeding. At times, it turned around repeatedly, and continued feeding, almost as if it was looking for a better spot to get more nutrients from the bird dropping.

17 August 2013

Life History of the Tree Flitter

Life History of the Tree Flitter (Hyarotis adrastus praba)

Butterfly Biodata:
Genus: Hyarotis Moore, 1881
Species: adrastus Stoll, 1780
Sub-species: praba Moore, 1865
Wingspan of Adult Butterfly: 34-38mm
Caterpillar Local Host Plant: Daemonorops augustifolia (Arecaceae; common name: Water Rattan Palm).

Physical Description of Adult Butterfly:
Above, the wings are dark brown with the forewing adorned with white hyaline spots in the cell-end and spaces 2, 3, subapical spots in spaces 6,7 and 8, and another in space 1b. Underneath, the wings are dark brown with an irregular white discal fascia on the hindwing. The cilia are chequered on both wings. The antenna has a white patch below the apicus.

A sun-bathing Tree Flitter.

A newly eclosed Tree Flitter with partially open wings.

A Tree Flitter taking nectar from Syzygium flowers.

Field Observations of Butterfly Behaviour:
The Tree Flitter is moderately rare in Singapore. Infrequent sightings are restricted to the edges of the nature reserve and at times in urban parks and gardens. The adults are fast flyers and zipped around rapidly at close to ground level most of the time. They have been observed to visit flowers and sunbath in sunny weather, and to puddle on bird dropping.

16 August 2013

Happy 6th Birthday, ButterflyCircle Blog!

Happy 6th Birthday, ButterflyCircle Blog!

Over 6 years ago, I was persuaded by my nature-lover friends, Ria Tan and November Tan, to start a blog to share all the photos, stories and information about butterflies in Singapore. Already veteran bloggers at that time, both Ria (who blogs at Wild Shores of Singapore) and November (who maintains her Midnight Monkey Monitor) were sharing useful nature conservation news and initiatives on the Internet.  At that time, I was also inspired by Dr Wee Yeow Chin's Bird Ecology Study Group's articles, where Dr Wee's frequent posts brought the behaviour and observations of birds to life in a very simple and engaging manner to the nature community.

After fiddling around with various blog software packages, I settled on Blogspot, as it was a popular platform, and relatively easy to use. A maiden post on 16 Aug 2007 started off this journey of blogging.  Even so, I was still hesitant about blogging, as I knew that it would take time, research and a lot of commitment and perseverance to sustain the effort. It was only a few months later in November 2007 that I began posting articles in earnest, setting myself a conservative target of at least one article per week.

After starting the blog, I also noticed that there were other local butterfly enthusiasts jumping on the blogging bandwagon, and recording their own experiences and observations about butterflies. In fact, some even had two or more blogs! However, it's often easy to start something, but to sustain it is another matter altogether. The majority of these blogs are now covered with cobwebs and some of them last posted something back in 2009 and have not been updated since! I wonder why these people don't just shut down the blogs completely, rather than leave a trail of miserable 'ghost town' blogs in their wake.

Anyway, with nearly 500 posts on this blog, we have come a long way since that initial post back in 2007. I must convey my sincere thanks to Horace Tan, who has done awesome work on the Life History series on this blog, that is second to none in this region. Horace has meticulously documented many butterfly life histories with such detail that each article is actually a research project in itself!

Special thanks also, to the occasional contributors like Sunny Chir, Ellen Tan, Federick Ho, Tan BJ, Goh LC, and all the wonderful photos from the larger community at ButterflyCircle, who have generously agreed to allow Horace and me to feature their work in our articles.

This blog is dedicated to the hardworking photographers and members of ButterflyCircle, and I hope that this blog will continue to spread the awareness and beauty of Nature's Flying Jewels for many more years to come! Happy 6th Birthday to the Butterflies of Singapore Blog!

Main Contributors : Khew SK & Horace Tan

Down Memory Lane - Clipper

Down Memory Lane
The Clipper (Parthenos sylvia lilacinus)

This large and showy butterfly used to fly in the forested areas of Singapore, according to the early authors, who listed this species, the Clipper, as extant on their checklist for Singapore. The upperside of the Clipper is black with blue and green lines and stripes, with a large white post-discal patches on the forewing. The underside is similarly marked, but paler, and with the wing bases shaded a light blue. With an average wingspan of 40mm and more, it can hardly be missed.

It is able to fly strongly, gliding rapidly from perch to perch, usually stopping with its wings opened flat. The Clipper is a 'regular' at commercial butterfly parks in Malaysia. It is one of the species that is often seen at the Changi Airport Terminal 3 Butterfly Garden's butterfly aviary, which imports pupae from the Penang Butterfly Farm on a regular basis. It has not been reliably seen in the wild in Singapore for over 30 years. Why did it disappear from Singapore? Were its host plants wiped out? Will it be back here again one day? Or will it remain only in our memories and is gone forever from Singapore?

14 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : King Crow

Butterflies Galore!
The King Crow (Euploea phaenareta castelnaui)

This "Crow" is the largest representative of its genus Euploea, which comprise butterflies that are predominantly black or blue with white streaks and spots. As the caterpillars of the species of this genus feed on mainly lactiferous plants which are known to be toxic, all the Euploea species are believed to be distasteful to predators. Hence collectively, the black/blue with white streaks/spots appearance of the "Crows" are considered to be a form of aposematic colouration display to warn predators of their distastefulness.

This King Crow was photographed at Pasir Ris Park Butterfly Garden. It is a "resident" species at the Pasir Ris Park Mangrove area, where its preferred caterpillar host plant, Cerbera odollam (Pong Pong Tree) grows in abundance. The butterflies are often spotted making forays to feed at the flowering plants at the nearby Butterfly Garden or when the Syzygium trees along the footpaths of the park bloom.

13 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Narrow Spark

Butterflies Galore!
The Narrow Spark (Sinthusa nasaka amba)

This small butterfly was a new discovery for Singapore when it was first discovered in 1995 during a survey. It is rather local in distribution in Singapore, preferring to remain in the shady understorey of the forested nature reserves. It can be considered a forest-dependent species, as it is rarely, if ever, seen in urban parks and gardens. At a glance it resembles the Common Tit or Dark Tit. However, having only two white-tipped filamentous tails will distinguish it from the four-tailed Common or Dark Tit.

Photographing this species is always challenging, as it prefers to lurk in areas where there is low light. Coupled with its small size and often having to deal with the light breezes under the forest canopy pushes the photographer and his equipment to the limit. This well-taken shot, by ButterflyCircle member Jonathan Soong, certainly does justice to this pretty little butterfly and demonstrates the skill and determination of the photographer too!

12 August 2013

Butterflies Galore! : Common Bluebottle

Butterflies Galore!
The Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon luctatius)

A puddling Common Bluebottle photographed in the nature reserves. This fast-flying "Swallowtail" species would otherwise be very challenging to photograph if not for its habit of needing to puddle for essential minerals for its physiological functions. An earlier article on this blog explains some of the reasons why a butterfly needs to puddle. Another article deals with the types of food sources that an adult butterfly seeks out.

In a recent article, Dr Wee Yeow Chin of the Bird Ecology Study Group shares his observations about the feeding behaviour of butterflies on his blog. The article includes two video clips of feeding butterflies. So the next time you come across a butterfly with its proboscis extended and probing a flower, a rotting fruit or just on some damp sand, you will be more aware of why the butterfly feeds, and what its diet consists of.

10 August 2013

Butterfly of the Month - August 2013

Butterfly of the Month - August 2013
The Mangrove Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe chersonesia)

A magnificent individual of the Mangrove Tree Nymph spotted on Pulau Ubin last month

The aftermath of the haze that affected Singapore and southern Johor in the month of June appears to have created some delayed effect on the butterfly population. Although the haze has abated, perhaps due to the combination of the rains and also the Indonesian government's timely action to curtail the open burning of forests in Sumatra, the particles in the air during the height of the haze may have been fatal to the caterpillars of various stages.

Interestingly, if we tracked the average time lag between the early caterpillar instars, pupation and eclosion of the majority of butterfly species, it appears to correlate with the time that these butterflies would have eclosed in early August. All over Singapore, there is an apparent reduction in the numbers of butterflies in many areas where they are usually found. Is this a coincidence? Or really a result of the environmental damage caused to butterflies by the recent haze? Perhaps this is a study that academic researchers may want to pursue to ascertain the extent of the damage caused by the haze.

August saw the celebration of Singapore's 48th birthday on 9th, as the Muslim community also celebrated Hari Raya Puasa a day earlier. The long 4-day weekend is a much welcomed break for many, although ButterflyCircle members' outings in Singapore seemed to re-affirm the low butterfly activity across the island. It is hoped that our winged jewels will spring back again in numbers, as they have been doing so in past years.

We feature the very rare Mangrove Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe chersonesia) as our Butterfly of the Month for August. This species was first re-discovered on the military training island of Pulau Tekong in the early 2000's during an NParks survey of the island. Subsequent trips indicate that there was a small but highly threatened population of this large Idea species in the mangrove areas on the north of the island. Since then, there were some unconfirmed sightings of the species in the neighbouring island of Pulau Ubin.

The Mangrove Tree Nymph feeding on the flowers of the Peacock Flower bush

Late last month, during a ButterflyCircle outing to Pulau Ubin, members spotted a large black-and-white butterfly flying slowly and feeding on the Peacock Flower (Caesalpinia pulcherrima). It was confirmed to be the Mangrove Tree Nymph! The large individual, which appeared to be a female, was flying up and down, teasing our members who were trying hard to get a good shot of it. After feeding at a few flowers, it decided to take refuge in the shaded forested area nearby, and rested a few times. We continued following it until it decided to move off elsewhere and flew high above the treetops and out of sight.

The Mangrove Tree Nymph soaring high in the air

It was indeed exciting to see the Mangrove Tree Nymph after so many years, and we hope that it is successfully breeding in the mangrove areas of Pulau Ubin. The caterpillar host plant is probably one of the lactiferous plants of the Apocynaceae family. It would be great if the life history could be recorded before this species disappears from its preferred mangrove habitats that is progressively disappearing from Singapore and Malaysia.

The Mangrove Tree Nymph is a large butterfly, with a wingspan usually exceeding 130mm and often reaching 150mm or more. It displays the aposematic black and white colours like the other species of its genus. It features large black spots on both wings where the marginal and submarginal black spots are conjoined to form an irregular black band. The post-discal triangular spots on the hindwings are large and always touching the black veins, forming a jagged black band. The wing bases are yellow tinted.

The Mangrove Tree Nymph is a very rare species that occurs in coastal mangrove habitats. It is known to occur in Pulau Tioman in Malaysia and believed to also occur in the mangrove areas of Johor. A recent survey on one of the small offshore islands near the Indonesian resort island of Batam also yielded a sighting of the Mangrove Tree Nymph in the mangrove area of the island.

The Taiwan Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe clara) shot at Sentosa Butterfly Park

The species is not to be confused with the abundant and easily bred subspecies clara that originates from Taiwan. Another possible subspecies would be siamensis that occurs in Thailand.  This subspecies (either clara or siamensis) occurs in many butterfly parks and farms across the globe and is bred for its showy appearance - popular with visitors to these butterfly enclosures.

Thus far, it has been seen regularly in butterfly parks in Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and as far north as the Phuket Butterfly Farm in Thailand. In Singapore, it is a regular "resident" species found at the Fragile Forest enclosure at the Singapore Zoo, the Sentosa Butterfly Park, Changi Airport Terminal 3 Butterfly Garden and the Hort Park Butterfly Garden.

A mating pair of the Tree Nymph shot at Phuket Butterfly Park.  Possibly subspecies siamensis?

The subspecies clara as it is known at the moment, has a whiter appearance, with the black markings on the wings reduced as compared to subspecies chersonesia. Another related subspecies, siamensis which has a similar appearance to subspecies clara also occurs in Thailand. A characteristic feature is that the post-discal spots on the hindwings, particularly in spaces 4, 5 and 6 are much reduced and not conjoined.  

Given the relative abundance of this non-native species, there is a high possibility of escapees from the various butterfly parks. Indeed, two individuals were spotted in the Sime Forest of the Central Catchment area (and captured) in 2004 and 2005. It is interesting that no escapee has been able to colonise any area in Singapore as yet. Perhaps its preferred caterpillar host plant is not available in abundance, and unable to support any succeeding generations of these escapees.

In any case, we hope that the opportune sighting of the real McCoy, the Mangrove Tree Nymph ssp chersonesia at Pulau Ubin is a good sign that the species still exists in Singapore. Though its hold on to survival is tenuous and is considered a critically endangered species, we hope that it will continue to survive in the remaining mangrove habitats of Singapore for many years to come.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Goh EC, Khew SK, Loke PF, Nona Ooi, Simon Sng, Anthony Wong & Mark Wong.

Special footnote : In the Butterflies of the Malay Peninsula, it was suggested that the various subspecies of Idea leuconoe could in reality be two distinct species, due to differences in their caterpillars. In which case, the Mangrove Tree Nymph would be assigned the name Idea engania (Doherty, 1891). Until there is a definitive research and a published paper on this, the Mangrove Tree Nymph remains subspecies chersonesia of Idea leuconoe for the time being.