25 June 2017

ButterflyCircle : Conservation and Education

ButterflyCircle: Conservation and Education
Part 1 : Publications

Resplendent Rainbows - pages from Private Lives : An Expose of Singapore's Freshwaters published by the National University of Singapore, 2010

A nature enthusiast friend recently asked me, "so what do you hope to achieve out of photographing butterflies?" An innocent and simple question, but one which triggered off some profound soul-searching. My friend wondered why some ButterflyCircle members kept photographing the same species of butterflies, albeit in different natural environmental settings and over different weeks, months and years. So why do we do it? Yes, one cannot deny the aesthetic value of a pretty butterfly perched on a colourful flower, or a majestic species with intricate patterns that awe our senses, or a rare species that was previously seen only a handful of times.

ButterflyCircle members' photos populate at least 75% of the book by Dr Laurence Kirton launched in 2014

But is that it? What do we do with the 'tons' of butterfly photos on our computer hard disks? Do we just post the photos on social media sites to garner lots of 'likes' with nods of approval and shouts of admiration? Or are there deeper and more meaningful reasons for the continued outings and adventures in and out of Singapore to accumulate more photos of butterflies? Is there something more significant that our photographs and write-ups can be used for - to create awareness, and promote butterfly conservation and education?

ButterflyCircle's contribution to the online edition of the AsiaMag in 2010. Photo shown here by Mark Wong

Looking back over the years and the archives of photos that number in the tens of thousands (not every shot is a stunner, of course, but they still get saved somewhere for future reference), I reminisced at how some of these photos got into newsletters, magazines and various other publications. Having the opportunity to write for some of these publications from the mid 1990's onwards, I had a good platform to share and feature Singapore's butterfly biodiversity in various publications.

Gardens Bulletin Vol 49 (Part 2) : 1997

The first article that I penned way back in 1997 with my butterfly-veteran friend, Steven Neo, was a refereed journal article in the Gardens Bulletin entitled "Butterfly biodiversity in Singapore with particular reference to the Central Catchment Nature Reserve" Gardens Bulletin pp 273-296. That research article, written some 20 years ago, formed the first baseline study of butterflies of CCNR. Back then, information on butterfly diversity was patchy and data was based on different sources furnished by collectors between 1960's to 2000.

Wetlands : Sg Buloh Wetland Reserve magazine. Article appeared in Vol 7 No 2 : 2000

One of my first articles that appeared in a magazine was the 2000 issue of Wetlands (Vol 7 No 2), a publication of the Sg Buloh Wetland Reserve, outlining the butterfly-plant relationship at the wetlands park in Singapore. On the cover of the magazine was a picture of a pupa of the Common Palmfly, that was about to eclose. That marked my first foray into sharing some information about butterflies in Singapore in a less formal or scientific format.

Colours in the Breeze : Article in Gardenwise magazine of the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2001

Shortly after, my friends at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the then-Director Dr Chin See Chung and Dy Director Ms Wong Wei Har invited me to contribute an article about butterflies at SBG. This initial attempt yielded the article entitled "Colours in the Breeze : Butterflies of Singapore Botanic Gardens" in the SBG magazine, Gardenwise 2001 : Vol 17.

More butterfly articles in Gardenwise in 2006 and 2009

This was followed up several years later with two more articles, "Butterflies Thru' the Lens" featuring some of ButterflyCircle members' work in Gardenwise 2006 : Vol 27 and "Butterflies of the Singapore Botanic Gardens" Gardenwise 2009 : Vol 32. ButterflyCircle members also had the opportunity to showcase their work at a photographic exhibition at the SBG in early 2002.

Article in Photovideoi, a photography magazine in 2006

Then in 2006, a photography magazine, Photovideoi, featured some of my butterfly work in the magazine in their February issue. The following year, the Singapore Zoological Gardens (Mandai Zoo) invited me to write an article for their in-house magazine, Wildlife Wonders. This resulted in an article titled "Nature's Jewels - Butterflies" in Vol 16 of Wildlife Wonders.

Wildlife Wonders Vol 16 : 2007 - in house magazine of the Singapore Zoological Gardens at Mandai

Singapore Red Data Book 2008 : Section on Butterflies featured ButterflyCircle members' photos

In 2008, when the National University of Singapore and the Nature Society (S) decided to update the Singapore Red Data Book, which featured the threatened plants and animals of Singapore, ButterflyCircle members contributed their photographs in the butterfly section of the book. The write-ups described some of Singapore's threatened butterflies and provided some suggestions on how to conserve them.

Habitats in Harmony 2009 : Butterfly photos by ButterflyCircle member Tan Ben Jin

Habitats in Harmony 2nd Edition : Photo of Dark Tit by ButterflyCircle member Federick Ho

The following year, the National Environment Agency's book, Habitats in Harmony : The Story of Semakau Landfill, published in 2009, featured a 3-page spread of ButterflyCircle members' work, featuring butterflies of Pulau Semakau, and following a number of surveys that ButterflyCircle conducted on the island off the southern shores of Singapore. A second edition of the book followed in 2012, which also featured ButterflyCircle members' photographs.

Pages from Private Lives : An Expose of Singapore's Freshwaters published by the National University of Singapore - featuring Singapore's butterflies

In 2010, I was invited to write various sections about butterflies in the book, Private Lives : An Expose of Singapore's Freshwaters published by the National University of Singapore. The sections discussed the ecology and behaviour of butterflies in Singapore's freshwater forests and featured a section on the butterfly species that have gone extinct in Singapore and have not been seen for many years after they were recorded by the early researchers.

Dr Chua Ee Kiam's Rainforest In A City 2015

Then fellow-nature photographer and author, Dr Ray Chua invited me to contribute some photos to his award-winning books, Wetlands in A City (2010) and Rainforest in A City (2015).  No book about Singapore's biodiversity would be complete without photos of butterflies found in our local habitats.

ButterflyCircle was featured in a special box article in NUS' An Encyclopaedia of Singapore's Biodiversity as a major citizen science contributor to Singapore's biodiversity conservation and education initiatives. The special section highlighted ButterflyCircle's discoveries, projects and contribution to the local butterfly research, education and conservation efforts.

A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore (2010) and 2nd Edition (2015) featured ButterflyCircle members photos in one of the most comprehensive works on Singapore's butterfly diversity

It was during the work on the NEA's Pulau Semakau book that I got to know the publishers, Ink On Paper Publishing, and that association culminated in the first book on the Butterflies of Singapore in 2010. The book was the first comprehensive work on butterflies of Singapore, and was a compilation of the best works of ButterflyCircle members. This was followed by a 2nd Edition of the Butterflies of Singapore in 2015 when we added 29 more species to the book and updated information that was not covered in the 1st edition.

Caterpillars of Singapore's Butterflies (2012) by ButterflyCircle member Horace Tan

In between the two butterfly books, Caterpillars of Singapore's Butterfly was launched in 2012. This unique book featuring caterpillars, plants, landscape design for butterfly gardens and conservation was published by the National Parks Board. This book was co-written with Horace Tan, ButterflyCircle's early stages expert, with a print run of 2,000 copies.

50 Plants and Animals native to Singapore : Temasekia, featuring the Singapore subspecies of the Shining Plushblue

There are probably many more Singapore-centric publications here and there, where ButterflyCircle members' work can be found. The photos serve part of a larger purpose to create awareness of Singapore's butterfly diversity, educate the local community about butterflies so as to further the conservation cause sustainably for generations to come.  So it may be a very lengthy answer to the question asked at the beginning of this article, but it demonstrates ButterflyCircle members' significant contribution to citizen science, education and conservation efforts over the years.

Text by Khew SK : Photos and copyrights attributed to the various authors and publishers of the books, magazines and other publications as described in the article.

17 June 2017

Butterfly of the Month - June 2017

Butterfly of the Month - June 2017
The Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra beatrice)

2017 edges towards the mid-way mark of the year, as some of us may be pondering what we have achieved over the first half of the year. Or how much of our new year resolutions have we accomplished? Time and tide wait for no man, and each of us should just focus on pursuing our own dreams and aspirations, and not judge what goals others chase by our own irrelevant yardsticks. To each his own, and as long as it brings that person happiness, who are we to judge?

The summer months are upon us, and temperatures are hitting uncomfortable highs again. It would not be a surprise if ambient temperatures around the world hit records again this year. It is therefore lamentable when the world's largest economy has decided not to collaborate with the rest of the world on climate change mitigation strategies. Choosing that path will probably set back efforts made in the last few decades, and we can only face the consequences with the rest of the world, as we share the same old mother earth.

The local economy continues to appear weak, as far as the industry that I work with, is concerned. As many companies struggle with costs and business sustainability, governmental agencies are pushing for more collaborative business models and the increased use of technology. For many companies, it is a time for contemplation about the future of the business and how to remain competitive and yet profitable. Change is certainly in the air, and time is of the essence.

In Singapore, it would be difficult for any coffee shop talk to avoid making reference to the current dispute amongst the siblings of a most prominent family. A personal take on this, is that the matter that is being debated heatedly across all portals of social and mainstream media, is a private matter that should be settled amongst themselves and not dragged out in the open as a free show. And like most things on social media, everyone would have their own theories and opinions, whether welcome or not.

Hence back to our world of butterflies where life is probably still more innocent and simpler. This month, we feature a common urban butterfly, the Common Palmfly (Elymnias hypermnestra beatrice). This species is rather widespread across Singapore, where it can be seen in urban gardens, parks as well as the forest fringes. As its caterpillars feed on many varieties of ornamental palms this 'boring' looking butterfly is very much a part of our urban biodiversity in Singapore.

A mating pair of Common Palmfly. Male on the left, female on the right.

The Common Palmfly belongs to the subfamily Satyrinae, often referred to by the common English name of "Browns and Arguses". They are typically drab-coloured butterflies, usually ornamented with cryptic patterns and ocelli on the undersides of their wings. Satyrinaes prefer shaded habitats under the tree canopy and normally fly at low level amongst the shrubbery. For a large number of species in this family, their caterpillar host plants tend to be monocotyledons like grasses and palms.

On the upperside, the Common Palmfly has bluish-black forewings with light blue submarginal spots. The hindwing is reddish brown. The underside is speckled with reddish-brown striae that is very variable. The general appearance on the underside of the Common Palmfly can vary quite a bit in terms of the physical features and also the colour. Females tend to be lighter coloured with the submarginal areas on both wings lighter.

The males can be much darker and appears almost a dark purple-blue in some examples. In most examples, there is a white spot on the costa of the hindwing. However, there are some individuals where this white spot is significantly reduced or even totally absent (causing some observers to assume that they are looking at a different species of butterfly).

A Common Palmfly showing a peek at the upperside of the forewing

In my early years of collecting butterflies as a kid, we referred to this species as the "Thumb Print Butterfly". This is because the apical area on the underside of the forewing has a lighter patch with reminds one of a thumb print on the butterfly's wing.

The Common Palmfly is skittish and is difficult to approach when it is alert. It takes short 'hops' amongst the shaded undergrowth and stops with its wings folded upright, all ready to take off again should an intruder enter its circle of fear. A unique behaviour of this species from field observations is how the butterfly occasionally stops on the surface of a leaf, walks on the leaf using its legs, then then flies off to another leaf and repeats this behaviour.

Some local examples of its caterpillar host plants are : Ptychosperma macarthurii (MacArthur Palm), Cocos nucifera (Coconut), Dypsis lutescens (Yellow Cane Palm), Caryota mitis (Fish Tail Palm). Undoubtedly there will be more species of palms that its caterpillars feed on. Many of these species of palms are used in urban landscape design, and this explains why the Common Palmfly can be seen in urban residential gardens, particularly where pesticides are not used regularly.

Cat-like look of the Common Palmfly caterpillar

The caterpillar feeds in a very neat way of making a straight cut across the leaf of the palm making it appear as though someone had cut the leaf with a pair of scissors. The caterpillar has an interesting appearance with 'horns' on its head, giving it a cat-like appearance. The full life history of the Common Palmfly has been successfully recorded here.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Jerome Chua, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Henry Koh, Loke PF, Bobby Mun, Horace Tan and Benjamin Yam.

10 June 2017

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden
Community Planting Day 

The Bukit Panjang community and volunteers with Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin at the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden

Located in the north-west of Singapore, Bukit Panjang, formerly called Zhenghua, is home to about 140,000 residents. Pre-independence, Bukit Panjang consisted of mainly rural settlements and agricultural farming. Over the decades, Bukit Panjang has developed from a largely agricultural and industrial area to a highly urbanised and self-contained town, as kampung folks and farmers were re-housed in new Housing and Development (HDB) flats. Despite these changes, much of the area’s terrain and greenery have been preserved to form a unique blend of urban and rural space. The area retains its strong connection to nature through the neighbouring Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to the south and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve to the east, both of which contain rain forests.

Trail of Community Gardens in Bukit Panjang.  The Butterfly Garden is not shown on NParks' map at the moment

In recent years, the National Parks Board's (NParks) Community in Bloom programme worked with the residents to bring back the kampung spirit in the form of community gardens. Residents and volunteers are encouraged to set up gardens where they can bring back their past activities as well as bond with their neighbours and friends living around the precinct. Bukit Panjang constituency is home to more than 11 community gardens specialising in edibles and medicinal herbs. The Bukit Panjang community gardens have a large variety of vegetables and fruits which are grown by community gardeners who work together to keep the kampung and gotong royong spirit alive in modern Singapore.

Sussie Ketit, who started the original Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden in 2013

Tucked in between two of the community gardens along Bukit Panjang Road, a small butterfly garden was set up in 2013. Championed by grassroots activist Sussie Ketit and her team of volunteers, the butterfly garden led a low profile existence with about 10-15 species of butterflies regularly seen at the garden.

Site visit to the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden with Mayor Dr Teo in March 2017

This year, Sussie approached Foo JL of Seletar Country Club Butterfly Group for his assistance to expand the Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden (BPBG). A site visit amongst our group of butterfly enthusiasts and the Mayor of North West Community Development Council (CDC), Dr Teo Ho Pin in March this year, initiated plans for the expansion of the original BPBG.

Planter beds all ready for the plants 

The group, ably led by Foo and his volunteers, Sussie and Sebastian Chia, and landscape contractor Tian HM set out to plan BPBG 2.0. The Town Council and a group of volunteer gardeners chipped in to help as well. The plans took shape as the planter beds were constructed and topsoil added. Butterfly host and nectaring plants were prepared and readied for the planting day planned for Jun 2017.

Foo JL and Cheng Khim at the morning briefing and show-and-tell to the volunteers

The Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden 2.0 Community Planting Day started early on Saturday 3 June. Foo JL and Cheng Khim were on hand to brief the community volunteers and gardeners about butterfly plants and the caterpillars of butterflies that feed on them. Cheng Khim helped to brief the non-English speaking participants and everyone enjoyed the show-and-tell session with live caterpillars and information about plants that attract butterflies.

Working hard at planting butterfly plants!

The group then went to the various planting beds that were already prepared with many butterfly host and nectaring plants. A final briefing by Tian on how to properly dig a hole and place the plants gently into the soil, everyone was raring to go. Armed with spades, shovels and changkuls, the volunteers, young and young-at-heart, helped to fill the planters with their selected plants.

Young and the young-at-heart digging and putting in their favourite plants with tender loving care

Despite the hot and humid morning, everyone had a lot of fun digging and planting the various host and nectaring plants. The rather ad-hoc placement of the plants is typical of a natural butterfly garden habitat, where the landscape design allows for a more natural look, rather than a horticultural display of organised and manicured planting.

Mayor Dr Teo Ho Pin joins in the fun

Mayor Dr Teo joined in the planting exercise and he energetically planted a Red Tree Bush (Leea rubra), a butterfly nectaring plant, right in the centre of the "VIP" planter bed. The local gardening community ladies also joined in to help Mayor Teo make sure that the plants were well watered. Foo JL brought some butterflies for Mayor Teo to release, to mark the event.

Making sure the plants are well watered

The morning ended with a nice buffet (like all things Singaporean, there will always be good food at such gatherings), generously sponsored by Sussie. After the hard work, everyone was in high spirits and looking forward excitedly to more butterflies at BPBG in the coming months.

The proximity of Bukit Panjang Butterfly Garden to the Nature Reserve and park connectors makes it a potentially good location to attract more species to its location

The BPBG is situated along Bukit Panjang Road next to Block 213/214 Petir Road. The site is quite ideal, as it is linked to the Pang Sua and Zhenghua Park Connector network that links to biodiversity-rich areas like Dairy Farm Nature Park and further south, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. Its immediate proximity to the forests of the Central Catchment Nature Reserves is also advantageous, as a concentration of nectaring plants may attract some forest butterflies along the edge of the reserves to fly over to feed.

The next generation.  A bunch of eggs and caterpillars of the Three Spot Grass Yellow (Eurema blanda snelleni) found at the BPBG.  Very soon these pretty yellow butterflies will be fluttering around at the garden!

And so BPBG has been planted and good to go. It has 'pupated', waiting for the plants to grow, and for the flowers to bloom and attract butterflies. Its metamorphosis has started, and we will wait for a couple of months to see the fruits of the community's labour. Hopefully, we can encourage more butterfly enthusiasts to enjoy butterflies and conserve the environment that is conducive for our winged jewels to survive for our future generations to enjoy them.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sebastian Chia, Foo JL, Huang CJ, Sussie Ketit, Khew SK, Or Cheng Khim and Rita Dumais Sim.