12 January 2019

Butterfly of the Month - January 2019

Butterfly of the Month - January 2019
The Coconut Skipper (Hidari irava)

A pristine Coconut Skipper perches on a leaf in a shaded spot

The new year slipped quietly by as we bade farewell and good riddance (as far as some of us are concerned!) to 2018. New Year resolutions are made and book-marked; some filed away whilst others are pursued with enthusiasm and determination. Another year starts and we look ahead for brighter days - for our families, work, and especially our butterflies.

Strangely, it has been a similar situation for butterflies globally - a consistent comment from enthusiasts and butterfly-watchers that the numbers of butterflies seem to be dwindling all over the world. Or at least not as many as in previous years. Just last week, a report from the Xerces Society highlighted that the overwintering Monarch butterfly population in California plunged by 86% !

Let's hope that the butterfly populations recover naturally. But with intensive development and thoughtless destruction of habitats, the prognosis is pretty bleak. Conservation efforts are few and far between, even though there are individuals who are still working hard behind the scenes to make a difference to stem the downward trends of butterfly diversity and numbers.

In Singapore, there are small groups of enthusiasts who are helping to post butterfly photos on social media in an attempt to showcase these beautiful insects to the world. Every small attempt to educate and get more people to appreciate butterflies would be a step forward in helping to conserve them.

When taken without a flash in natural lighting, the wings of the Coconut Skipper appear a drab brown

Those of us who are working with the communities to set up butterfly gardens, and with the National Parks Board to create butterfly-friendly habitats are doing our bit to try to conserve butterflies for future generations to enjoy. But it is a constant battle with infrastructural development on our little land-scarce city state and the ever-mounting pressures for competing land use.

Our first Butterfly of the Month for 2019 is the humble and low-key Hesperiidae, the Coconut Skipper (Hidari irava). Even the common English name is simple and straightforward, that it is a Skipper and the fact that its caterpillars feed on the leaves of the Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It is one of the species of butterflies that is consistent wherever it occurs and the scientific name stops at the species level.

The Coconut Skipper occurs in urban parks and gardens, as well as in forested areas, particularly where its host plant, the Coconut Palm can be found. The species is a fast flyer but can often be observed perched on the tops of leaves or branches with its wings folded upright. The species is crepuscular, and when seen in the daytime, it is usually found at rest amongst the shrubbery in deep shade.

An opportunistic shot showing the upperside of a Coconut Skipper

The upperside of the Coconut Skipper is a rich dark brown with pale yellow hyaline spots on the forewing. The upperside of the hindwing is usually unmarked. The underside is predominantly pale buff brown with a faint purple wash in a sidelight. In pristine individuals, the purple sheen can appear quite prominent when photographed with a flash. The hindwing has a few post-discal spots and a white spot just above the cell. The forewing below has a series of dark sub-apical spots.

In a side light or with flash, the purplish sheen of the wings of the Coconut Skipper is obvious

The Coconut Skipper has deep red eyes and the apiculus and part of the club of the antennae is yellow. The cilia on fresh individuals is pale yellow on both wings.  All the six legs are developed, although when some individuals are perched, their forelegs are held tightly against its thorax, appearing that it is only standing on four legs. 

Text by Khew SK  : Photos by David Chan, Khew SK, Koh CH, Loke PF, Nelson Ong and Jonathan Soong

06 January 2019

Interesting Ubin Butterflies

Interesting Ubin Butterflies
Featuring 10 Butterflies on Pulau Ubin

Our first weekend blogpost for 2019 showcases 10 species of butterflies that are more often spotted on Pulau Ubin than any other location in Singapore. Some are not uncommon when they make a seasonal appearance, whilst others are rare and seen only once or twice on the island. Quite a few of the species featured in this article include newly discovered/re-discovered species for Singapore.

The male Malayan Birdwing (left) was spotted on Pulau Ubin, whilst the female was bred from a caterpillar found at Alexandra Hospital Butterfly Trail

Amongst the Papilionidae, two species are noteworthy. The first is the Malayan Birdwing (Troides amphrysus ruficollis). A re-discovered species that was first documented in 2011, a free-ranging male was photographed in late Nov 2013 on Pulau Ubin. Recorded as extant in the early authors' checklists, the Malayan Birdwing has not been seen in Singapore for a long time. The species is known for its wide flight range and the male spotted in Nov 2013 could have been aided by the North-easterly winds during the monsoon months of the year in this region.

A Common Jay feeding on the flower of the Buas-Buas bush at Pulau Ubin

A puddling Common Jay shot at Pulau Ubin in 2004

The second Papilionidae is the Common Jay (Graphium doson evemonides). A new discovery when it was first spotted in 2004, the species is regularly seen on Pulau Ubin. Given that its caterpillars can feed on a number of relatively common host plants on the island, the colony of Common Jay that currently still exists on the island is probably quite sustainable. Even as recent as in Jan 2019, a Common Jay was spotted feeding on the flowers of Lantana at Butterfly Hill.

A recent addition to the Singapore Checklist in 2018, the Orange Gull was spotted puddling at Pulau Ubin

A recent re-discovery amongst the Pieridae, is the Orange Gull (Cepora iudith malaya), that was spotted puddling on the island. Listed on the checklists of the early authors, this species has not been seen in the past three decades at least, until Dec 2018. Again, the theory that some of these strong-flying species were aided by the tail-winds of the North east prevailing winds could be true.

This female Wanderer was found near the Sensory Trail in 2011

Back in March 2011, a female Wanderer (Pareronia valeria lutescens) was photographed on Pulau Ubin. Although reports of the fast-flying males were made some time earlier, no reliable evidence of this species was available until this female was spotted perched on a leaf in the shady undergrowth. Again, considering the month that this species was found in Singapore, there could be a correlation with the North-easterly winds that are prevailing from around Dec to early March annually as defined by the Meteorological Services of Singapore website.

The Grey Glassy Tiger was observed at Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin

Amongst the Danainae, the Grey Glassy Tiger (Ideopsis juventa sitah) was discovered in Oct 2014. The robust Danainae, known for their toughness and migratory characteristics, are able to fly long distances and perhaps this individual made it to Pulau Ubin from up north. However, what is curious is that another individual was photographed at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in Jul/Aug 2015 that debunks any theory that these are wind-aided individuals that reached Singapore.

The Dwarf Crow is common and is regularly seen at Butterfly Hill on Pulau Ubin

The Dwarf Crow (Euploea tulliolus ledereri), first spotted on Pulau Ubin in 2002, continues to be regularly seen on the island and makes seasonal appearances where it can be considered common. Then it disappears altogether for several months and then re-appears again where up to five or six individuals can be observed together at nectaring plants on the island. Recorded as a re-discovery, the colony of Dwarf Crow is probably a sustainable population as it has been seen almost annually on the island.

The very rare Mangrove Tree Nymph made an appearance at Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin in 2013

One of our largest butterflies in terms of wing surface area, is the Mangrove Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe chersonesia). This subspecies, which is mainly found in mangrove swamps in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, is very rare and local. First observed during a survey of the butterfly fauna of Pulau Tekong, a Mangrove Tree Nymph was photographed on Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin in Jul 2013.

Spotted a number of times at Pulau Ubin, the Malayan Nawab was a re-discovered species for Singapore

The Malayan Nawab (Polyura moori moori) another re-discovery, has been spotted at least half a dozen times on Pulau Ubin. Given its similarity to the Plain Nawab (Polyura hebe plautus), it is likely that this species may have been missed earlier or misidentified as its commoner cousin. As recent as in Oct 2018, another individual was photographed again on Pulau Ubin. Thus far, the species has not been reliably seen on the main island of Singapore yet.

The White Banded Flat is a species regularly seen on Pulau Ubin but not elsewhere in Singapore

Amongst the Hesperiidae, another Ubin "resident" species is the White Banded Flat (Celaenorrhinus asmara asmara) which was first spotted in 2011. Unlike the vagrants or seasonal migrants, this species is extant on Pulau Ubin and a viable colony has existed till now. As recently as Jan 2019, the White Banded Flat has been spotted on the island.

The very rare Yellow Streak Darter was first discovered on Pulau Ubin in 2011.  Thus far, it has not been seen anywhere else in Singapore

The final species of the top 10 interesting Ubin butterflies is the Yellow Streak Darter (Salanoemia tavoyana). First discovered in 2011, this very rare species occurs on the island in a small localised colony. The caterpillars were found on the Mangrove Fan Palm (Licuala spinosa) and successfully bred to adulthood. However, the adult is rarely seen and prefers to lurk in heavily shaded vegetation.

There are likely to be several more species to be added to the Ubin list of unique and interesting butterflies, but that will be for another time.  Ubin is probably a convenient 'pit-stop' for migratory or stray butterflies coming from Malaysia, and more should be looked out for in future. 

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Federick Ho, Mei Hwang, Khew SK, Loh MY, Loke PF, Michael Soh, Horace Tan and Yong WH

30 December 2018

2018 - Looking Back

ButterflyCircle 2018 - Looking Back...
The Year in Review

Looking towards 2019 - clear blue skies ahead in the new year?

As the last few days of 2018 are winding down and a fresh new year is nigh, we take a look back at the year and reflect on how the butterfly scene has been in Singapore, and what ButterflyCircle, as an informal online group has shared and contributed to add to the knowledge about butterflies. It has been a relatively quiet year, although stable, in terms of overall butterfly activity over the months.

This blog continues with its article-a-week journey, sharing information about butterflies, ranging from taxonomy to photography. Now into its 11th year, the total number of individual blog articles now stands at 907, including this one. Perhaps, when the number of articles reaches 1,000, it will be time to take a long break?

We started 2018 with our series articles on the collective groups of butterflies by their English common names. Over the course of the year, we showcased the Jays, Judys, Sergeants, Sailors, Helens, Lancers and Snow Flats found in Singapore. Known by their easier-to-remember common names, these articles compared the individual species in these groups of butterflies and diagnostic features elaborated to help ID them in the field.

The long-running Butterfly of the Month series continued, with a feature butterfly each month and discussing the species with more photos and in more detail. As at Dec 2018, this blog has showcased 134 species as its monthly centrefold butterfly, collecting photos from members of ButterflyCircle and featuring their excellent work via the monthly articles.

Aberrant butterflies

Sexual dimorphism in butterflies

And then we had some technical discussions on evolutionary attributes of butterflies, with articles on the phenomenon of aberrations in butterfly appearances that produce individuals that differ from the conventional or typical physical appearance of a species. We also highlighted species that display sexual dimorphism in that the males and females of a single species have adapted themselves and appear so differently as to suggest that they are of totally different species.

Labial palps of butterflies

The technical series on butterfly morphology continued with a feature article on the labial palps of the butterfly. The article discussed observations on the differences in shape, size and other physical characteristics of this important appendage of a butterfly - which is part of its olfactory sensory system.

Butterfly subspecies

Anatomical terminology of butterflies

New discussions on taxonomy covering the definition and details of "subspecies" in butterflies were featured in a blog article. Also, due to popular request from newbie enthusiasts who were struggling with taxonomic and scientific terminology, a 4-part series on Butterfly Anatomy was written (complete with annotated diagrams) to help the layman butterfly watcher deal with these terms in a much simpler way.

Our Life History articles featured only 2 species this year, as our early stages expert, Dr Horace Tan, is finding it more difficult to source new material for the immature stages of butterfly species in Singapore. We have, thus far, documented a total of 195 species' life histories on this blog, the majority of which are Horace's hard work. Two species, the Cabbage White and the Banded Yeoman were featured in 2018.

Continuing the Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring plants series, we added 2 more nectaring plants to the list, the Spicate Eugenia and Peacock Flower, bringing the total featured plants to 16. We continued the series with other assorted flowering plants that butterflies occasionally visit, but not always as attractive as those earlier featured. This brings the total flowering plant species that butterflies feed on, to 22 plants on this blog's archives.

Photographic digital post-processing articles

For the first time, we started a digital photography post-processing series for our butterfly photography enthusiasts. Written by ButterflyCircle member Loh Mei Yee, who is, herself a very accomplished butterfly photographer, the 4-part series covers some basic tips and tricks using post-processing software and the digital workflow to make your photos look better!

Sharing session by NParks on Butterfly Phenology studies and surveys

We also looked at the seasonal appearances of certain species of butterflies and discussed the phenomenon of seasonality in butterfly observations. NParks also conducted a sharing session on butterfly phenology studies in Singapore and analysing the survey results from butterfly survey data conducted by the public. Further surveys will continue, and hopefully the data collected will form a good base on which management and development strategies of our parks can be made.

Speaking of our local parks and gardens that are good locations to spot butterflies and photograph them, we added four more parks to our list of butterfly shooting locations. These were Lower Peirce Reservoir Park, Upper Peirce Reservoir Park, Windsor Nature Park and Kranji Marshes. Highlighting different habitats, all these public parks are under the management of Singapore's National Parks Board, which has been doing an excellent job of curating these parks and creating better accessibility for everyone to enjoy these sites of greenery and biodiversity.

Festival of Biodiversity 2018

BioBlitz butterfly survey at Rail Corridor

Butterfly Survey at the Singapore Zoo

Butterfly Interpretative Signage

ButterflyCircle members also contributed time and expertise by volunteering for surveys and nature events in the community. Although we did not set up a booth at the annual Festival of Biodiversity 2018, our presence was in the form of photos and write-ups on butterflies. Members also participated in scientific surveys organised by NParks, like BioBlitz, Bukit Timah Biodiversity Survey and Pulau Ubin Biodiversity Survey. Photos and write ups on interpretative signages in parks and other facilities also featured ButterflyCircle members' work. We also participated in butterfly biodiversity surveys at the Singapore Zoo.

Grey Tinsel spotted at Pulau Ubin in 2018

Malayan Jester spotted at Dairy Farm Nature Park in 2018

Malayan Nawab spotted at Pulau Ubin in 2018

A new group of enthusiastic photographers also added to the valuable sightings of butterflies around the island. Some sightings included species like the Malayan Jester (Symbrenthia hippoclus selangorana), Malayan Nawab (Polyura moori moori) and Grey Tinsel (Catapaecilma major emas), which are very rare, and are species that have not been regularly sighted since they were first observed in Singapore.

Bi-color haired Palm King spotted at Pulau Ubin (ID'ed by Dr Seow TL) - a new discovery for Singapore, if confirmed

Orange Gull spotted at Pulau Ubin in 2018 - a re-discovery for Singapore

Two new additions in the form of an Orange Gull (Cepora iudith malaya) and Bicolor-haired Palmking (Amathusia friderici holmanhunti). Both species were spotted at Pulau Ubin, and brings the total number of extant species recorded in Singapore to 336 for the moment. There are several other cryptic species under investigation and hopefully, with voucher specimens, these can be validated and confirmed in the near future.

All in all, it has been a good year for butterflies in Singapore, and ButterflyCircle is happy to have been part of the education, appreciation, conservation and research efforts in our local butterfly fauna. Looking forward to an even better 2019 and more projects in the pipeline to showcase nature's flying jewels in Singapore!

We would like to wish all our readers a Happy 2019 and May all your Butterfly Dreams Come True!

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Alan Ang, Bob Cheong, James Chia, Antonio Giudici, Goh LC, David Ho, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Loh Mei Yee, Loke PF, Simon Sng, Michael Soh, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan, Tea Yi Kai and Mark Wong