28 April 2019

Flying Flowers

Flying Flowers
SG Butterflies named after Flowers

A Common Rose sunbathes with its wings opened flat on a leaf

Colourful butterflies fluttering around in gardens are often admired by one and all. Their beauty, grace and gentleness as they fly from flower to flower, feeding on nectar with their long proboscis have long been associated with the wonders of Mother Nature's creations. By themselves, the intricate patterns and colourful wings of butterflies are often referred to "flying flowers".

A male Blue Pansy showing off its colourful wings

In this weekend's blog post, we take a look at the common English names of butterflies in Singapore, and how many species are named after flowers. In an earlier blog post, we investigated the backgrounds of some of the common names that were coined for butterflies by the early collectors. Whilst common names are usually avoided by taxonomists and scientists, we often find that hobbyists and amateur naturalists tend to use vernacular names for easier reference.

A Common Posy feeding on the sap of the Bandicoot Berry, surrounded by ants

Of the 330+ species of butterflies found in Singapore, only nine are named after flowers, or words specifically associated with flowers. All nine are resident natives species found in Singapore, and the species can be collectively placed under four groups named after flowers.

The Common Rose

A typical red cultivar of a Rose

This Swallowtail butterfly is the first of the species to be named after a flower - the rose. A rose is the flower of a woody perennial flowering plant of the genus Rosa, in the family Rosaceae. There are over 300 species of roses and thousands of cultivars ranging in colour from black to red and whites and yellows. Roses are well-known as bouquets for displays or gifts of affection and love.

Subspecies asteris of the Common Rose that is found in Singapore and Malaysia

The Common Rose is a resident species of Southeast Asia, of which there are at least 20 known sub-species occurring geographically from Sri Lanka and eastwards to the Philippines. The local sub-species found in Singapore and Malaysia is asteris and is the only extant Papilionidae in Singapore to be named after a flower.

Possible subspecies antiphus or even a valid species from Borneo?

There was a period around 2004 - 2009 where a variant of the Common Rose appeared in Singapore. This lacked the large white spots on the hindwing of the butterfly. This "Black Rose" seemed to resemble the Bornean species Papilio antiphus or which some have classified as a subspecies antiphus of the Common Rose, Pachliopta aristolochiae. However, in recent years, this strange Black Rose has not been seen in Singapore.

The Pansy Butterflies

Various hybrids of the Garden Pansy (Viola wittrockiana) in bloom

The Garden Pansy is a type of large-flowered hybrid plant cultivated as a garden flower. The hybrid is often referred to as Viola wittrockiana derived chiefly from the hybridization of the European Johnny-jump-up (Viola tricolor) with other wild violets. Modern horticulturists have developed a wide range of pansy flower colors and bicolors including yellow, gold, orange, purple, violet, red, white, and even near-black (very dark purple).

The Four Pansy butterflies found in Singapore - Peacock, Blue, Chocolate and Grey

The Pansy butterflies are collectively grouped under the genus Junonia. Of these, four species - the Blue, Chocolate, Peacock and Grey Pansys occur in Singapore. These are generally sun-loving butterflies and are usually found in urban parks and gardens in sunlit grassy areas.

All the Pansy butterflies feature eyespots (or ocelli) on their wings and amongst the four resident species, the Blue and Peacock Pansy are brightly coloured and considered the prettiest amongst the four species. The Chocolate Pansy, although more drably coloured, is also an attractive butterfly, with its reddish eye spots. It is by far the commonest of the four.

The last species, the Grey Pansy, may be seasonally common but is the rarest of the four species in Singapore. With a violet-grey ground colour on both wings, the Grey Pansy also features a series of orange-crowned black ocelli across the submarginal area of both wings.

The Posy Butterflies

A Posy of flowers - usually referring to a bouquet of colourful flowers or even a wreath

The word "Posy" is often used to refer to an arrangement or bouquet of colourful flowers presented as a gift. Whilst a Posy does not refer to any specific species of flowers, the word is associated with a decorative arrangement of colourful flowers.

A male Dark Posy resting on a leaf

There are 3 species of butterflies that are collectively grouped under the common name of "Posy". These species, under the genus Drupadia of the family Lycaenidae, are small forest-dependent species. All 3 species look rather similar, although they can be separated by distinctive markings on the wings.

The three Posy butterflies found in Singapore - Common, Dark and Pygmy

Of the 3, the Common Posy (Drupadia ravindra moorei) is most regularly encountered in the forested nature areas in Singapore. The Dark Posy is less often seen but generally encountered in the same localities as its commoner cousin. The last species, the Pygmy Posy, distinctive in its diminutive size and thicker markings, is the rarest of the 3 and not often encountered.

The Forget-Me-Not Butterflies

A cluster of blue True Forget-Me-Not flowers

The True or Water Forget-Me-Not flower (Myosotis scorpioides) grows on tall, hairy stems which can sometimes reach up to 70 cm in height. The plant bears small (8-12 mm) flowers pink in bud, becoming blue when fully open, with yellow centers and white honey guides. The plant is native to Europe and Asia although it is considered an introduced invasive weed in certain countries.

Our Forget-Me-Not butterflies in Singapore - (top)- Silver Forget-Me-Not and (bottom) Forget-Me-Not

There are two species of butterflies called "Forget-Me-Not" - these are the Silver Forget-Me-Not (Catochrysops panormus exiguus) and Forget-Me-Not (Catochrysops strabo strabo). Their English common names were perhaps coined for these species due to their pale blue uppersides that resemble the Forget-Me-Not flowers.

Both species may be considered moderately rare, but appearing to be common in certain localised areas seasonally. They are difficult to distinguish in the field, except when the underside of the forewing's costal spot can be seen. Both species are widely distributed in Singapore, and they can be spotted in urban parks and gardens, and also in forested areas near the mangroves.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Bob Cheong, Khew SK and Loh MY

20 April 2019

A Bornean Adventure : Part 2

A Bornean Adventure
Featuring Mahua Waterfall, Sabah : Part 2

The charismatic Kinabalu Swordtail (Pathysa stratiotes) that is endemic to Borneo

This is the concluding part of our Bornean Adventure to the Mahua Waterfall near Tambunan in Sabah. Last week we featured some of the butterflies that we encountered over the first two days of our trip to the Mahua Waterfall. In this weekend's blog post, we share our encounters with the butterflies over the final two days that we spent, mainly along the forest trails leading to the waterfall and the puddling area around the waterfall.

Day 4 (Tue 2 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall

The Mahua Waterfall substation building.  The blue steps lead to the entrance to the waterfall trail

The day started early as Mei Yee kindly prepared hard-boiled eggs for our breakfast. It was a clear blue sky morning as the warm sunshine bathed the vegetation around our dormitory. We quickly finished our coffee and buns and looked forward enthusiastically to another full day of shooting. As our main puddling ground was quickly drying out, we took a look for any new interesting butterflies, but just the usual common were out in the cool morning hours.

Dappled sunlit spots in the shaded forest understorey

A Malayan Owl perches with half-opened wings on a sunlit leaf

We headed straight to the forest trail that led to the Mahua Waterfall. The sunshine was streaming into the forest and we could see some butterfly activity amongst the sunlit spots in the vegetation. There was a very skittish Malayan Owl (Neorina lowii lowii) patrolling along the trail but was never cooperative enough to give us a good shot of it. It settles on the tops of leaves with partially opened wings but takes off the moment it feels threatened by the slightest movement.

Yellow Barred (Xanthotaenia busiris burra)

Banded Faun (Faunis stomphax)

Yellow Banded Awl (Hasora schoenherr chuza)

Striped Ringlet (Ragadia makuta umbrata)

There were the usual forest-dependent species like the Archduke, Yellow-Barred, Striped Ringlet, Banded Yeoman, Yellow Banded Awl, Banded Faun and many others. The damp forest paths in the early morning hours attracted a myriad of species to feed on the moisture on the leaves and forest floor.

The bridge leading to the Mahua Waterfall

We crossed the suspension bridge leading to the main waterfall and climbed up to the level of the pool where the water cascaded from 17m up the cliff. It was still too early, and other than the usual common Lycaenids and a few Skippers, the area was still pretty quiet. We had the place to ourselves, and it was certainly a peaceful environment to chill and meditate.

Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus cybistia)

As the sun rose, we moved back to the main forest trail and encountered a few Nymphalidae puddling. Some animal poo attracted a few carrion-feeding species and a Tawny Rajah (Charaxes bernardus cybistia) kept us busy trying to shoot it. After a bit of feeding, it stopped at some sunlit spots amongst the leaves and opened its wings to sunbathe.

A variety of puddlers

A number of Staff Sergeants (Athyma selenophora amhara) were puddling and testing our patience with their skittish habits. A couple of other "Flats" - a Banded Angle (Odontoptilum pygela) and a Malayan White Flat (Siseria affinis) also came down to puddle with the other species.

White Banded Palmfly (Elymnias dara dara)

Whilst we were all busy with the puddlers, I noticed a black and white butterfly fluttering in the distance. A couple of shots from some distance away, it quickly fluttered off. A check subsequently showed that it was a White Banded Palmfly (Elymnias dara dara). A pity that it did not stay longer for a better shot.

Vagrant (Vagrans egista creaghana)

The endemic Bornean Sawtooth (Prioneris cornelia)

Chocolate Royal (Remelana jangala huberta) face off with a bee

On the mossy parapet wall along the forested trail, there was also quite a bit of activity. A hungry Vagrant (Vagrans egista creaghana) stayed long enough to pose for everyone. Meanwhile, along the path, Jonathan stumbled on another endemic, a Bornean Sawtooth (Prioneris cornelia), puddling. Nearby on another mossy area, a Chocolate Royal (Remelana jangala huberta) fed quietly at the side until a bee flew into it and scared it off.

How many butterflies can you count in this photo?

The endemic Kinabalu Swordtail

After we had our fill of the puddling butterflies in this area, we headed back up to the waterfall. By this time, Jonathan had met and nailed the Kinabalu Swordtail that appeared. The warm sunshine at the puddling area brought quite a number of species and a big congregation of the Kinabalu Bluebottles and Dark Mapwings. A few Red Helens also came down to join them.

Plain Puffin (Appias indra aemilia)

Lesser Zebra (Graphium macareus macaristus)

Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae antiphus)

We headed back out to the puddling ground in the early afternoon to see if there were any other new species to shoot. A Plain Puffin (Appias indra aemilia) was puddling, as was a mimic, a rather large Lesser Zebra (Graphium macareus macaristus) puddled for a short while before taking off into the forests. A Crow also came down to puddle amongst the other commoners that we have already shot previously. A Common Rose (Pachliopta aristolochiae antiphus) was also amongst the puddlers.

Wanderer (Pareronia valeria lutescens)

The dark clouds hovered ominously above and it threatened to rain, but other than the overcast skies, and probably a very light drizzle, the area continued to be spared from any rains. The lack of bright sunshine affected butterfly activity and there weren't many species up and about by 3 pm. A walk around the dormitory area turned up a rapidly flying male Wanderer (Pareronia valeria lutescens) that suddenly stopped to feed on a flower.

A Common Three Ring (Ypthima pandocus sertorius).  This species was the most common butterfly that we encountered in the Mahua area.  In patches of open areas, there will be several individuals fluttering around amongst the shrubbery.

By about 4pm, we were ready to finish for the day, washed up, and it was back to Tambunan town for dinner again. Maybe we were famished, but the simple "chye sim" vegetables tasted fresher and more delicious than I can remember. The 'home cooked' food satisfied our hunger and we headed back to our dormitories after our usual stock up of groceries for the next day.

Day 5 (Wed 3 Apr) - Mahua Waterfall

Hard boiled egg, anyone?  Breakfast time at our dormitory

We were up bright and early again on this final full day of shooting at Mahua. Correction, Mei Yee was up and about early. She made enough noise to shake Jonathan and I out of our slumber. Thankfully, the smell of freshly-made coffee was enough to get me out of bed and raring to go. After a quick, but by now boring, breakfast of buns, biscuits and hard-boiled eggs, we headed out to the waterfall. The sky was a cloudless deep blue!

Just a few metres into the trail, Jonathan spotted a Red Harlequin which kept us busy. As usual with this species, it seems to know where to stop just to irritate us photographers. As with the previous days, the cool early morning temperature up to about 9:00am didn't facilitate much butterfly activity. But once the sunshine streams in and warms up the environment, the butterflies will be out in action!

A Common Tree Nymph flies high amongst the tree tops

In the meantime, a Common Tree Nymph (Idea stolli alcine) glides gracefully overhead and into the tree canopy. Whilst we saw this species on several occasions, they were always at the treetops and never stopping to feed or anything. Appearing like floating pieces of paper the Tree Nymph glides for long periods of time without even flapping its wings, probably using the thermal lift of the warming air in the forests to keep it adrift.

Underside and upperside of the Kinabalu Swordtail.  It was regularly seen at Mahua

It was just past 9:30am in the morning when we reached the waterfall. The sun was already warming up the area and there was much more activity today. Besides the common puddling Lycaenids, the iconic and endemic Kinabalu Swordtail came down with its entourage of Kinabalu Bluebottles, Red Helens, Dark Mapwings and the Bornean Mormons. Very soon, it was pretty busy at the puddling grounds and we chose our different favourite areas to shoot.

The Malayan Oakleaf

Bornean Mormon with spread-open wings

Two Bornean Mormons, a Malayan Zebra amongst a group of Kinabalu Bluebottles

Malayan Zebra (Graphium delessertii delessertii

A pristine Malayan Oakleaf came warily down to puddle, although usually staying away from the main crowd of Papilionidaes and Pieridaes. At nearby location, a lone Malayan Zebra (Graphium delessertii delessertii) joined the group to puddle. Later it joined in the main bunch of Papilionidae with the Kinabalu Bluebottles and Bornean Mormons.

The Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana)

Butterflies segregating themselves by taxonomic families? Papilionidae to the left, Nymphalidae to the right

Back at the forest trail, another congregation of Papilionidae was puddling. The awesome Rajah Brooke's Birdwing (Trogonoptera brookiana brookiana), the nominate subspecies from Borneo that was described by Alfred Russell Wallace in 1855, came down to the puddling area as well.

On the way out from the forest trail, this Red Giant Flying Squirrel (Petaurista petaurista) dropped down from the tree nearby with a loud thud. It managed to crawl back up a tree to safety. The Squirrel has a membrane of skin between its legs, which is used to glide between trees. It is characterised by its dark red colouring and large eyes.

A Red Giant Flying Squirrel

When compared to other species of squirrels, this species is large, being on average 422mm long. Its entire body dark reddish except for black on nose, chin, eye-ring, behind the ears, feet and tail tip. Whilst not a butterfly, it created a short distraction for me in this Bornean forest.

Blue Begum (Prothoe franck borneensis)

About an hour past noon, a lone Blue Begum (Prothoe franck borneensis) fluttered along the shady forest trail and stopped to feed at a mossy rock. When disturbed, it flew off to a nearby tree trunk and exhibited the typical behaviour of this species - where it stopped with its wings folded upright with its head pointing downwards. After awhile it continued to puddle on the forest path and went back to the mossy rock.

By mid-afternoon, it was overcast again, as the sun was completely blocked out by rain clouds. Having had our fill of shooting some of the iconic endemic species at Mahua, we called it a day on this final outing of this trip. Dinner was back in Tambunan town, and it drizzled along the way and the road was wet indicating that it had rained earlier in Tambunan.

Our trusty white steed, a 1.5 litre Honda City that was our transportation for our Bornean adventures

The next day, after breakfast, we finished our packing and checked out of the Mahua Rainforest Paradise. At a rate of RM75 per night, the spartan and simple accommodation was adequate for us and we would not mind staying at this place again if we come back the next time. A final check and we loaded everything into our trusty little Honda City SAB 1175 R for the journey back to Kota Kinabalu.

A final picture for the memories' album

We took a final group mugshot at the Crocker Range Park main signboard as a memento of our trip to this exquisite forest park where many interesting endemic butterflies call home. Our trip back to Kota Kinabalu International Airport took slightly less than 2 hours due to much lighter traffic than anticipated, and we headed home to Singapore, happy and contented at our fruitful butterfly-hunting trip.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Loh MY and Jonathan Soong.

A Bornean Adventure : Part 1