23 February 2019

Albatrosses of Singapore

Albatrosses of Singapore
Featuring the Albatross Butterflies in Singapore

A group of puddling male Chocolate Albatross - common in Malaysia but a seasonal visitor to Singapore

The Pieridae family (collectively referred to as Whites and Sulphurs), feature a number of butterflies that are basically white and yellow. Many species in the family are also well-known for their migratory tendencies and sometimes in masses. Whilst observations of mass migration of the Pieridae species seem to be quite rare in recent years, they are still often encountered in numbers when puddling at sandy streambanks in Malaysian forests.

A male Striped Albatross feeding on the flower of the Spanish Needle

Amongst the species in the family are several genera of butterflies that are referred to as "Albatross". Perhaps these butterflies' names were coined as a reference to the large white seabirds. Many of these butterflies are indeed predominantly white with rather pointed forewings. Over the years, we have recorded only one extant resident species and one other regular seasonal visitor to Singapore. From the past recent years' observation records, three other occasional visitors have been spotted in various parts of Singapore. However, these are very rare, and probably stray vagrants blown over to Singapore by strong prevailing winds during certain seasons.

1. The Striped Albatross (Appias olferna olferna)

The only extant and resident Albatross species is the Striped Albatross. A commonly found species in urban areas where its caterpillar host plant, Cleome rutidosperma (Purple Cleome) grows wild. Previously classified as a subspecies of Appias libythea, a series of discussions and papers have elevated the Southeast Asian species to Appias olferna.

Upperside and underside of male and female Striped Albatross

The male Striped Albatross is white with prominent black veins on the underside. The wing base of the male is tinged with yellow. The female has broad grey markings making the butterfly appear darker and greyer, whilst its hindwings are more generously shaded with yellow. Males can sometimes be seen puddling at damp sandy trails and streambanks, whilst females are usually found feeding at flowers.

2. The Chocolate Albatross (Appias lyncida vasava)

Upperside of male (top) and female (bottom) Chocolate Albatross

The Chocolate Albatross is a common species in Malaysia (sometimes abundant is more appropriately used to describe its status). However, in Singapore, it is seasonal and only makes its appearance in certain months of the year. Several individuals appear quite suddenly and sightings of both males and females have been reported all around the island. Then, as abruptly as they appeared, the species disappears altogether until the next season. Thus far, they have been observed quite regularly over the years but have never been considered a 'resident' species in Singapore.

The Chocolate Albatross is a regular but seasonal visitor to Singapore

The male Chocolate Albatross has white uppersides, with a black dentate border. The underside of the hindwing is a bright lemon-yellow with a broad dark brown border. The female appears almost medium grey as the upperside is heavily dark dusted with broad bands across both wings, whilst the underside is grey, with the hindwing generously dusted with yellow. Males of the Chocolate Albatross have often been seen congregating at damp streambanks to puddle, whilst females are more often spotted feeding on flowering plants.

3. The Lesser Albatross (Appias paulina distanti)

Sightings of the Lesser Albatross are few and only in recent years have yielded confirmed evidence that this species has made an appearance in Singapore. The species is not uncommon in Malaysia, but a few seasonal vagrants have made their way into Singapore and recorded accordingly over the years.

The upperside of a male Lesser Albatross showing the distinct black spot in space 3 of the forewing

Males have white wings with a distinct black spot in space 3 of the forewing above, attached to the black marginal border. The female has a thick black marginal border on both wings. The underside is cream to pale yellow and there are two forms in the female of this species. The species, like its related cousins in the genus, are often found puddling at damp streambanks in forested areas.

4. The Malaysian Albatross (Saletara panda distanti)

A male Malaysian Albatross with its distinctive yellow undersides

This species is recorded in Singapore from a single confirmed rare sighting of a female in the nature reserves. Again another re-discovery, it appears that many species of theses "Albatrosses" were indeed extant in Singapore in the mid-1950's onwards, but somehow disappeared as Singapore developed.

The Malaysian Albatross is variable in its colour, ranging from creamy white to lemon yellow. The upperside of the male is white with a narrow black border along the costal edge and running along the termen. The female has broad greyish borders on both wings and the colour of the hindwing may vary from white to a creamy yellow. Both sexes have been spotted puddling at damp sandy streambanks.

5. The Orange Albatross (Appias nero figulna)

A most recent re-discovery in 2018, the wings of a dead female Orange Albatross were collected and identified. Whilst there was an unconfirmed sighting of this species on Sentosa Island some time in the mid-1990's no other reliable sightings have been recorded. Documented as an extant species by the early authors, it was apparently regularly sighting in the early 1970's in parts of Singapore but has not been seen since until the 1990's. Not considered a common species, even in Malaysia (usually single specimens turn up at puddling grounds together with other more common species like the Chocolate Albatross), it is probably a rare seasonal vagrant that may appear in Singapore from time to time.

A basking male Orange Albatross showing its uppersides 

The Orange Albatross is the most colourful and attractive of the Albatrosses. In the male, the butterfly is dark orange above with prominent black veins on both wings, whilst the underside is a light yellowish orange. Females are more heavily dark dusted with broad wing borders and usually a deeper orange than the male.

An Orange Albatross perches on a leaf to rest after feeding

And here we have the five Albatrosses that have been recorded in Singapore, and we should continue to keep our eyes peeled for these species that seasonally make their way to Singapore from time to time. The only local resident species, the Striped Albatross, is considered common should continue to sustain itself in the years to come.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Sunny Chir, Khew SK and Tea Yi Kai

17 February 2019

Assorted Nectaring Plants - Part 2

Butterflies' Nectaring Plants
Assorted Flowering Plants - Part 2

A female Blue Pansy feeding on the flower of the Feather Cockscomb

In our earlier article on assorted flowering plants that attract butterflies to feed on them, we featured six plants that some butterflies visit for their nectar source. Again, it is important to point out that some of these plants, whilst featuring flowers that may appear pretty and attractive to us human beings, may not necessarily be all-time favourites with butterflies.

A female Plain Tiger feeding on the flower of Yellow Cosmos 

In Part 2 of Butterflies' Assorted Flowering plants, we feature another six species of plants whose flowers some butterflies occasionally visit to feed on. Many of these plants are cultivated for their ornamental and colourful flowers in landscaped parks and gardens.

7. Honolulu Creeper (Antigonon leptopus)

A Leopard Lacewing at the pretty pink flowers of the Honolulu Creeper

This Mexican native is a herbaceous slender climber that features pretty pink flowers. There are tendrils that arise from the ends of the inflorescence that aid in climbing up trellises and pergolas. It is often found in commercial butterfly enclosures in the region. Tea made from leaves of this plant is used to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, flu and menstrual pains.

The plant can be found in Singapore at the Botanic Gardens, and grows wild at the Dairy Farm Nature Park near the Wallace Education Centre. We have found small Lycaenids like the Cycad Blue and Gram Blue feeding on the pink flowers in the wild. Larger butterflies like the Leopard Lacewing and some Danainae are occasionally seen feeding on the flowers where other more popular nectaring sources are scarce.

8. Feather Cockscomb (Celosia argentea)

Healthy shrubs of the Feather Cockscomb at an urban park in Singapore

The Feather Cockscomb is an attractive shrub that is often found as feature plants in landscaped gardens and used as coloured highlights in the landscaping palette of plants. Originating from tropical Africa, this plant is an annual and needs to be cut down and replaced as the plant grows old. The feathery flowers is used in floral arrangements or ikebana either live or dried.

Found in some open butterfly gardens the Feather Cockscomb has been observed to attract only a handful of butterfly species of the Danainae like the Blue and Dark Glassy Tigers, Blue and Peacock Pansys and a small variety of Lycaenidae.

9. Blue Butterfly Bush (Rotheca myricoides)

A Slate Flash feeding on the flower of the Blue Butterfly Bush

Called a "Butterfly Bush", the Blue Butterfly Bush is unfortunately, not particularly attractive to butterflies. The curious name of the plant is due to its resemblance to a butterfly. It is a perennial woody bush that grows up to 2-3 m tall. The attractive flowers feature unique long, white to bluish stamens that arch over the petals which serve as a landing platform for insect pollinators.

Hungry butterflies feeding on the flower of the Blue Butterfly Bush

Usually cultivated in parks and gardens, the flowers attract the smaller species of the Lycaenidae and Hesperiidae butterflies. The occasional larger Leopard Lacewing has been observed to visit the flower when other nectaring sources are in short supply. The smaller species like the Common Grass Yellow, Cycad Blue, Slate Flash and a small variety of skippers have been seen on the flowers of the Blue Butterfly Bush.

10. Indian Heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum)

The Indian Heliotrope is a "magnet" for the Tigers and Crows

This annual herb that probably originates from South America and Tropical Asia is a well-known "Danainae magnet". The low-growing shrub, when pulled out by the roots and hung upside down to dry, attracts many species of Tigers and Crows very quickly. The small flowers (3-4 mm wide) are light purple or white with a yellow centre.

The fresh flowers are mainly visited by butterflies of the subfamily Danainae like the Plain Tiger, Striped Blue Crow and Glassy Tigers. Curiously, we have not observed any other species of butterflies feeding on the flowers.

11. Yellow Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)/Wild Cosmos (Cosmos caudatus)

Top : Yellow Cosmos and Bottom : Wild Cosmos flowers in pretty shades of yellow and pink

This ornamental plant with cheery bright yellow, orange and pink flowers are a favourite with gardeners wanting to add colour to their patch of greenery. The leaves of the plant can be eaten raw and used in Malay cuisine (hence the plant is called Raja Ulam). It forms a type of salad in Malay cuisine in combination with other vegetables and garnishing, and eaten with rice. The plant originates from tropical South America. There are many species of Cosmos with colourful flowers that can be found here.

Urban butterflies in parks and gardens often visit the colourful flowers of the Cosmos spp. to feed on the nectar. Amongst these, the Nymphalinae and Danainae are the most regularly seen on these colourful flowers, besides the occasional Pieridae and Hesperiidae species. Where it is cultivated in a free-ranging butterfly garden, the Plain Tiger and Glassy Tigers are often seen feeding on the flowers of the Cosmos.

12. Water Jasmine (Wrightia religiosa)

A Dark Glassy Tiger feeding on the fragrant white flower of the Water Jasmine

This woody shrub is a native to Southeast Asia, and is often associated with religious use. The plant is considered sacred, and can often be found in the vicinity of Buddhist temples in Thailand. The Water Jasmine, called "shui mei" (水梅) or literally "water plum", is cultivated in private gardens for its delicate white flowers and intense fragrance. The Water Jasmine is also a favourite with bonsai enthusiasts as the plant can be pruned and can form interesting shapes when managed well.

A Five Bar Swordtail taking nectar from the flower of the Water Jasmine

The fragrant white flowers sometimes attract the larger butterflies and some skippers, but not many species favour it. Even when the flowers are in full bloom and the fragrance is intense and strong to us human beings, it is curious that it is somehow not as attractive to butterflies. Some of the Glassy Tigers and Swallowtails have been observed searching for nectar from these flowers.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Khew SK, Bene Tay and Anthony Wong

Assorted Nectaring Plants - Part 1

References : 

09 February 2019

Butterfly of the Month - February 2019

Butterfly of the Month - February 2019
The Common Imperial (Cheritra freja frigga)

Chinese communities all over the world welcomed the Year of the Pig on 5 Feb 2019. The pig is the the twelfth animal in the 12-year cycle of Chinese zodiac sign and 2019 completes the cycle that started in 2006. This year's pig is the "Earth" pig according to the Chinese almanacs.

According to the Chinese astrology , 2019 is a great year to make money, and a good year to invest! 2019 is going to be full of joy, a year of friendship and love for all the zodiac signs; an auspicious year because the Pig attracts success in all the spheres of life. Sounds generally good enough for me! :)

It is always a nice feeling to shed the old and bring in the new, especially when 2018 wasn't a particularly good year on many fronts. It was heartbreaking when my mom left us at the age of 87 in early January. That month was just a total blur of sadness, grief and pain - combined with a flurry of activities.

But thankfully, our family support and well-wishes of friends helped us tide over that period. Mom would have wanted us to carry on and be happy that she no longer had to endure the suffering that she had to go through in the last 4 months of her life. To all the relatives and friends who were there for us, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My apologies if I could not thank each of you individually, but you know who you are, and you have my humble gratitude that you reached out in my family's moments of darkness.

So life goes on for those of us, as we ponder our own mortality, and what we plan to leave behind us in the time that we have left in this world. Whatever little good that we can contribute to the world around us, we should. And we move on to do our little bit to make the world a better place in our own ways.

And we continue to bring cheer during this Chinese New Year period and look forward to better times that we have to work hard for. Our world is changing rapidly in many tangible and intangible ways. Disruptions of all sorts and sizes abound, and we have to face new challenges all the time. But that's what makes life 'colourful' and less mundane, even though we struggle to maintain order and stability around us.

Let us come back to our colourful friends, the butterflies. This month, we feature the Common Imperial (Cheritra freja frigga), a delicate long-tailed beauty of the Lycaenidae family. It is always a breath-taking experience to see this butterfly flutter amongst the shrubbery with its elegant white tails trailing behind.

Upperside of a male Common Imperial

The Common Imperial is more often seen in urban parks and gardens than within the forested nature reserves in Singapore. This may be because the species' caterpillars depend on a variety of host plants that are more commonly found in urban areas. The caterpillars of the Common Imperial have been successfully bred on Callerya atropurpurea, Duabanga grandiflora, Adenanthera pavonina (Red Saga) and Cinnamomum iners (Wild Cinnamon). The last two host plants are common roadside trees.

The upper wing surfaces of the butterfly is a deep purple-blue in the male, and dark brown in the female. The tornal area on the upperside features large black quadrate spots. The underside is mainly white on the hindwing with the forewing a shade of orange. The tornal spots on the hindwing is overlaid with iridescent greenish-blue scaling. The Common Imperial has white tails along veins 1a, 2 and 3 of which the one at vein 2 is the longest.

The Common Imperial has a rapid flight and is often skittish, preferring to stay high in the treetops. Where it is found amongst low shrubbery, males have a tendency to perch on a few favourite spots and 'attacks' any intruders into its space. Females descend to the lower levels to oviposit in the mid- to late afternoon hours of the day.

A Common Imperial sometimes displays a behaviour where it hides under a leaf

A Common Imperial puddling at a sandy streambank

At certain hours on hot humid days, males may be seen opening their wings flat to sunbathe. At other times, it displays a behaviour where it hides under a leaf with its wings folded upright. It is not often seen puddling at damp streambanks or muddy trails, but there have been occasions where males are observed puddling.

A mating pair of the Common Imperial

Sightings of this species have been more regular and often in the past decade. However, it appears to have become rarer in the recent few years, having been spotted mainly in the parks of Singapore's Southern Ridges. As with many of the English names of butterflies, those that carry the "common" prefix are often not as common as one is led to believe. The Common Imperial is a species that is considered moderately rare to rare, and is usually observed singly.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Goh LC, Federick Ho, Khew SK, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan, Tan Sze Siong and Anthony Wong