11 April 2015

Chiangmai Expedition 2015

ButterflyCircle's Chiangmai Expedition 2015
Thailand - A Haven for Butterflies

The gang of ButterflyCircle members, complete with a specially designed T-shirt

Thailand is a country in Southeast Asia that is well-known for its rich floral and faunal biodiversity. Situated on the Indo-China plateau, Thailand has the distinction of being the 51st largest country in the world, covering an area of over 513,000 sqkm (or about 720 times the size of Singapore!). The country shares its borders with four neighbours - Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia.

Thailand is a long country, covering a distance of about 2,000km from Yala, the southernmost province, to the Chiang Rai province in the north. Butterfly diversity is amazing, with Pisuth Ek-Amnuay, the author of Butterflies of Thailand 2nd Edition 2012 recording a total of 1,287 distinct species found in Thailand. If all the subspecies are taken into consideration, then the number rises to a total of 1,604.

Two beauties from our previous trip to Chiangmai province.
Top - Blue Admiral ; Bottom - Kaiser I-Hind

After two prior trips to the Chiangmai area in Apr and Oct 2014, ButterflyCircle members decided to organise another "expedition" in 2015, to capture the beauty of the northern butterfly species. With a group of 12 enthusiasts from England, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, we visited a series of our favourite butterfly-hunting grounds within the Chiangmai Province.

Antonio's Butterfly Expedition patch and car decal.  He organises tours for butterfly enthusiasts and this season, he hosted several groups from Hong Kong as well

This butterfly "expedition" ably organised and put together by team leader and "butterfly tour guide" Antonio Giudici for ButterflyCircle members spanned a total of 8 days and 7 nights for the group. Interestingly, the weather for the entire week was hot and dry, with absolutely no rain at all whilst we were there.

The journey begins!  Boarding time!

Members of the group arrived in Chiangmai on various dates, with the main group of 6 from Singapore arriving in the late evening on 14 Mar. All of us stayed at our favourite Dome Hotel, a very decently-priced and comfortable hotel in town where we had previously stayed. This hotel offered the simple comforts of modern living, complete with free wifi!

Our regular "home" in Chiangmai - Dome Hotel

The hotel is located about 20 mins drive from the Chiangmai International Airport (minus the traffic jam), and within walking distance from F&B outlets and a nice modern shopping mall. For those who get cold turkey without their smartphones' 3G data plan, buying a SIM card in Thailand is cheap and convenient. A full 7-day data plan (enough for surfing FaceBook and doing your fill of Whatsapping) costs only 129 Baht. (That's about SGD5.50!)

Dinner at a local food court

After a sumptuous dinner of local delicacies at a very competitively priced food court (with a few beers thrown in), the group started planning the itinerary for the coming week. It was a gathering of old friends and some new ones. Everyone was looking forward to a butterfly-ful week ahead.

Day 2

Arriving in Chiangmai on the late evening flight the day before meant Day 1 of the expedition was just lazing around in Chiangmai and catching up with the latest news and butterfly sightings by other butterfly photographers over the past few days. We started the day off with a hearty breakfast at the Dome, and our two 4WD zoomed off to nearby Doi Suthep for our first outing of the expedition.

Top : Doi Suthep Ace, a skipper that is apparently endemic to Doi Suthep
Middle : The Grey Count
Bottom : An undescribed female aberration of the Archduke?

Our first stop was at along a river which is a popular spot for the local picnickers. As it was still early, we had the place to ourselves for some time as we searched for puddling butterflies. Amongst the notable species were the Grey Count, Doi Suthep Ace, several Polyura spp. Barons, Archdukes, Knights and so on.

A quick check on our little waterfall halfway up yielding species like the Blue Imperial, a couple of Lethe spp., the usual Logania that we saw on previous trips, and several others. Driving further up to the spot where the strange-looking Truncate Imperial was recently spotted, the group spent some time chasing this rarity and were rewarded with some shots of it.

The day's catch left everyone happy, as we made our way back to Chiangmai International Airport to pick up one more member - the rose amongst the thorns, who came one day later than the main group. Dinner was in Chiangmai as we compared notes on our day's "lifers".

Day 3

The famous Chiang Dao checkpoint and carpark which is a butterfly heaven according to some!

Early next day, the group was up and about, and we checked out of the Dome Hotel, and headed to Chiang Dao, a reputable 'hot-bed' of butterfly activity. The intention was also to stay at a "local" hotel in the vicinity of the famous Chiang Dao carpark, and then save on the typical hour's travelling time between Chiangmai and Chiang Dao.

The excitement rose as we neared the spot which many of us shot so many butterfly species on previous trips. There was also a slight apprehension as we noted the newly-tarmac'ed road leading to the checkpoint. If the authorities had, in their well-meaning intention of improving the roads and facilities, also "upgraded" the carpark at the checkpoint, then it will be the end of our favourite butterfly-shooting location!  Fortunately, it wasn't the case.

This must be the origin of why we are called ButterflyCircle?

From the word "go", the place was teeming with butterflies and there were hundreds of them puddling and flying around. The park rangers who manned the checkpoint must be quite used to crazy butterfly photographers at this location, but were still nevertheless amused at our group. One of them obliged by spraying water on the ground to attract the butterflies to puddle. This area is quite a butterfly gathering place, and to attract butterflies, "just add water" and they will flock to feed on the salts from the ground.

We spent a whole day shooting butterflies of all shapes and sizes, and the group, though many of us, walked around to several favoured spots so that we generally avoided getting into each others' way. Until when someone shouts in excitement at spotting a rarity, then the group will rush to see what caused the ruckus. When a rarity does show up, the more experienced members of the group generally practise photography etiquette so that as many members as possible are able to shoot the subject.

Dinner at the Nest2

When we were done for the day, the tired but happy gang of photographers headed to the nearby Nest 2 resort and checked in. We were pleasantly surprised at the nice accommodation and even more pleasantly surprised at the nice food available at the resort so that we didn't have to leave the premises to look for our dinner. Accommodation was in nice chalets and the environment was clean with all the luxuries that we would expect in the city.

Day 4

A typical chalet at the Nest2 with the scenic mountain view behind

The next morning, five of the group headed off north to the town of Fang, and to Doi Pha Hom Pok with the mission of nailing the elusive Kaiser I-Hind (Teinopalpus imperialis). The remaining group of five headed back to the carpark to continue our Chiang Dao butterfly-shooting adventure. It is always exciting to find that each day brings different species to the same location.

It was another hot and scorching day, and the butterflies were out in numbers as soon as the sun warmed up our shooting grounds. Due to the exceptionally large numbers of the Zebra Blue, it was always a challenge to look for small and rarer species - literally searching for needles in the haystack. But ever so often, a solitary rarity will appear out of nowhere to taunt us, and then magically disappear before we could get close for a good shot.

Highlights of the day were several Grey and Yellow Tinsels, a friendly Indian Red Admiral, a White Commodore, Indian Fritillary, several Skippers and many more. The group that went up north had a relatively quiet day, but managed to spot and shoot the rare Blue Peacock (Papilio arcturus) and Orange Freak up on the mountain.

Dinner was back at the Nest 2, and the usual after-dinner chats and sharing of the day's catch at one of the relaxing outdoor cabanas in the resort grounds. We packed our bags and got ready to check out the next day, but not before heading back to the Chiang Dao carpark for more shooting before taking the hour plus drive back to Chiangmai.

Day 5

The outdoor cabana at the Nest2 in the early morning hours

After breakfast, we checked out and bade farewell to the nice people at Nest 2, and dumped all our luggage into the cars. A quick 5-minute drive to the shooting location, did our usual setting up activities and it was back to our "back-breaking work" of shooting butterflies. I noticed that my camera body and lens were coated with dust after a few days of "puddling" with the butterflies in the dirt. This time around, our investment in getting knee and elbow guards helped minimise the abrasions and injuries when getting down to shoot puddling butterflies.

There were also a lot of bees and other biting insects amongst the butterflies, and always a source of irritation to us butterfly shooters. A few of us even got stung more than once, but fortunately, none of us were allegic to bee stings (perhaps with the exception of our English friend, Les, who somehow managed to get away unscathed).

A strange female form of the Courtesan

The rare Saffron that made Antonio's day!

It was another day of heavy shooting and we encountered several more new species that we did not see on the previous two days of shooting at Chiang Dao. Antonio had his "special" when he was able to shoot a species on his "hit list", the Saffron (Mota massyla). The rest of us continued to search for a more species, or to take a better shot of one that had been previously shot. Most of us managed to shoot a strange female form of the Courtesan (Euripus nyctelius) that appeared to be a hybrid of two other forms.

As we were about to leave, our sharp-eyed member spotted a Green Flash amongst the low shrubs and everyone scrambled to chase it down. But alas, this individual wasn't cooperative and after a few zips here and there amongst the green weeds, its undersides blended in well and camouflaged it from the group of frustrated photographers.

So off we headed onto the highway back to Chiangmai, checked in to the Dome again, and after a much needed shower and wash-up, we headed out for dinner. It was a relatively fruitful 3-day shooting outing in Chiang Dao, though some of the "locals" would say that it could be better!

To be continued...

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Chng CK, Les Day, Goh LC, Antonio Giudici, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loke PF and Simon Sng.