30 May 2020

The COVID-19 Effect

The COVID-19 Effect
A National Lockdown, Wildflowers and Butterflies

It is hard to read any news portal or watch a TV broadcast today and avoid the dreaded C-word. The pandemic is a global phenomenon, and I cannot imagine that anyone in the world has not heard of COVID-19/Coronavirus, unless he or she has been hiding in some cave for the past 6 months. This is an unprecedented moment in history where the entire world is facing the same 'storm' that has affected lives and livelihoods.

A Peacock Pansy feeding on the flowers of the Common Vernonia (Cyanthillium cinereum) an urban weed

Over here in Singapore, we are at the tail end of our "circuit breaker" or our version of a modified national lock-down that started nearly 2 months ago. As the residents look forward to a more normal life, the authorities have announced that any changes will not be abrupt and things will have to take a cautious stepped approach as the economy is resuscitated.

An open grass field covered with Coat Button flowers, fronting a HDB residential apartment in the background.  Due to the lockdown, grass cutters have left many such grassy areas without any maintenance or grass cutting, allowing these "weeds" to grow wild.

So, what has the COVID-19, a circuit-breaker, wildflowers and butterflies have in common? Observant residents have noticed that Singapore's manicured roadside verges and grassy patches are overgrown with "weeds" and pretty wildflowers. This is a result of the lockdown and reduction of non-essential activities like cutting grass, plus the reduction of the availability of the migrant worker population due to a sudden rise in COVID-19 infections amongst these workers who live in their assigned dormitories all around the island.

Another pretty weed that has grown wild is the Touch-Me-Not plant (Mimosa pudica).  Whilst its flowers do not usually attract butterflies, their leaves are the host plant for the caterpillars of the Lesser Grass Blue. However, this thorny low-growing weed is unwelcome in our managed and manicured greenscapes in the city.

The appearance of wildflowers has attracted our urban insects like bees and butterflies to feed on them. In recent weeks, there was an increase in sightings of urban species of butterflies amongst these temporarily unkempt greenery. Taking a quick look around my housing estate where I have my daily exercise routine, it was indeed the case, as the nectar-laden wildflowers offered a delectable buffet to our winged friends.

The Striped Albatross (top : female, bottom : male) was also observed in numbers over the past two months, usually feeding on the flowers of the Coat Button.  Their host plant, Purple Cleome (Cleome rutidosperma) also grows wild along roadside grass verges and open fields during the "circuit breaker" period.

But what are these wildflowers and what butterfly species have been spotted across many urban areas across the island? Taking a walk around my residential area and checking on social media and the snippets of commentaries from nature lovers and enthusiasts, the urbanscape's wildflowers are pretty limited to a handful of species. Of these, the top few are :

Coat Buttons (Tridax procumbens)
Touch-Me-Not plant (Mimosa pudica)
White Weed (Ageratum conyzoides)
Common Vernonia (Cyanthillium cinereum)
Cupid's Shaving Brush (Emilia sonchifolia)
Purple Cleome (Cleome rutidosperma)

A solitary Tawny Coster enjoys a buffet of nectar from the abundant Coat Button flowers at a residential area

The explosion of these flowering weeds and nectaring sources has a trickle-down effect on butterflies, especially the urban species like :

Striped Albatross (Appias olferna olferna)
Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis lampa)
Pygmy Grass Blue (Zizula hylax pygmea)
Blue Pansy (Junonia orithya wallacei)
Chocolate Pansy (Junonia hedonia ida)
Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore)
Common Grass Yellow (Eurema hecabe contubernalis)

A Lesser Grass Blue feeding on the flower of the Coat Buttons

A Pygmy Grass Blue feeding on the flower of the Common Vernonia

These butterflies are sighted more frequently over the past 2 months, feeding at the wildflowers in our urban residential estates. The diminutive Lesser Grass Blue and its related Pygmy Grass Blue (Zizula hylax pygmea) can sometimes even be abundant, with 20 or more individuals fluttering amongst the wildflowers. The same can be said of the Striped Albatross (Appias olferna olferna) which is more regularly seen in numbers over the past few weeks.

A Common Grass Yellow feeding on the flower of the Coat Buttons

The blooming of these wildflowers and areas which were left unmaintained by landscaping contractors and the town councils sparked off some debates as to whether there should be areas which could be left "wild" for the biodiversity to thrive. Comments that there is "beauty" in these wildflower meadows that add a different perspective to our urban greenery, are counterbalanced with opposing views that these unkempt areas may attract snakes, mosquitoes and other undesirable vermin.

A field of wild-growing Coat Buttons with residential apartments in the background

However, government agencies in charge of the maintenance of our landscaped greenery across the island have indicated that "operations include preventive tree pruning and landscape works such as grass cutting for vector control, and the prevention of vegetation fires in parks and gardens. Grass cutting is also carried out on road verges." It would logically be assumed that any grass cutting would obviously take out these wildflower "weeds" as well.

An open field of White Weed (Ageratum conyzoides) growing in abundance with no grass cutters in sight over the past two months

A Lesser Grass Blue feeding on the flower of the Common Vernonia

To further quote the article, "Assistant Professor John Ascher from the National University of Singapore's biological sciences department is among those in favour of the island's new rustic look, saying that "overzealous" removal of weeds may have led to low bee numbers at many managed sites in Singapore, including nature parks. Weeds are a food resource for bees, he said. "I suppose I am in the minority to be happy if more weeds lead to more 'bugs', at least with respect to wild bees, butterflies, flower flies and other attractive or beneficial species," added Prof Ascher."

Blue Pansy feeding on the flower of the Coat Buttons

Butterfly conservationists will know that even if there are a lot of wildflowers, the ecosystem also needs to support adequate caterpillar host plants of these species. Otherwise the number of butterflies will be limited by the availability of their host plants. Hence other "weeds" like Chinese Violet (for the Blue Pansy), Purple Cleome (for the Striped Albatross), Mimosa (for the Grass Blues), Stinking Passionflower (for the Tawny Coster) and so on, must be allowed to grow, to complement the wildflower nectaring sources.

A Tawny Coster feeding on the flower of a Coat Buttons in an urban residential estate

It is encouraging that we see so many butterflies out and about when these wildflowers provide nectar for them. Other urban resident insects like bees, flies and others will also benefit. Perhaps, in the management of our urban spaces, NParks could create "wild miles" or "wild squares" that are left to grow naturally with minimal grass-cutting and pruning? These can complement the pristine and manicured areas so that there is a balance between biodiversity conservation and aesthetics/safety for human parks users.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Khew SK, Michael Khor, Jonathan Soong, Horace Tan, Jacob Tan and Pauline Tan

Further Reading / Reference Articles :

24 May 2020

Butterfly Photography - Part 2

Butterfly Photography
My Digital Journey - 2011-2020

A Fivebar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates itamputi) puddling. Taken with the Nikon D3S and Tamron 180mm macro

My butterfly digital photography journey continues into the next 10 years from 2011 to present day. Previously, in Part 1, I ended 2010 with the Nikon D3S, and generally happy with the outputs that I was getting from Nikon's top-of-the-line camera which I bought in June 2010. The camera was as robust as it was reliable, in capturing butterflies in all sorts of habitats and environments. Focusing was fast, and the metering for exposure was spot-on most of the time.

2011 - 2013

Photos taken with the Nikon D3S

The D3S continued to be my "weapon" of choice for butterfly photography for the next couple of years. Weighing in at 1,428g, the camera is no lightweight to lug around. Add in the flash, a macro lens and so on, the set-up can weigh up to 3kg! I prefer to do my butterfly photography hand-held so the overall weight makes a difference between a sharp shot and one with motion blur due to camera shake. Nevertheless, the D3S is certainly a capable camera and accompanied me on many butterfly trips to various parts of Malaysia and Thailand.

The 36.6Mp Nikon D800

Images taken with the D800

Some time in mid-2012, I was given an opportunity to "test-drive" the newly-launched Nikon D800. At the time of the launch, the full-framed D800 packed a megapixel count of 36.3Mp, one of the highest amongst the DSLRs then. I tested the camera on a couple of outings, but wasn't too happy with the performance. At 4fps, it was slower than the D3S. The noise handling was not as good, considering the 3x density of Mp on the sensor, compared with the D3S. So I gave it a miss.

The full-frame 24Mp Nikon D600 was a "problem child" with serious sensor dust issue that required a recall by Nikon to replace the shutter assembly

I was still hoping for a butterfly shooting set-up that was a tad lighter than the D3S combo and always on the look out for a newer semi-pro full-frame body. In Sep 2012, Nikon launched the D600. Targeted at the "professional amateurs" the D600 had a 24Mp sensor that was double that of the D3S. It was much lighter and compact weighing in at 850g (or about 60% of the D3S' weight). A lower 5.5fps was a compromise that I could try to live with.

A Yamfly (Loxura atymnus fuconius) taken with the D600.  A lot of time was needed at post-processing stage to remove "dust bunnies" caused by the D600's sensor problem

I put the camera through its paces on many outings, and the results were quite acceptable. However, the D600 was plagued with a sensor dust issue. It was so bad that Nikon offered a free replacement of the shutter assembly on the D600. Some lucky friends in Singapore who bought the D600 had a free upgrade to the D610, which was hastily launched in Oct 2013 to solve the D600's ill reputation.

After the shutter replacement on my unit, the D600 performed satisfactorily and it was a good backup to the D3S on my butterfly outings, especially when I wanted to travel light. It was also a good "general purpose" DSLR that was compact enough for social gatherings and did well as a tourist camera on overseas family trips.


Two northern Thailand species, shot with the Nikon D3S and Tamron 180mm

I continued to tag-team the D3S and D600 duo on various outings for most of 2014. And for the first time, our group also made a foray into Northern Thailand for our butterfly "fix". The diversity and numbers of butterflies in Chiangmai and Chiangdao were absolutely amazing! We also saw species that are beyond the range of West Malaysia and Singapore, and it was an exciting time when we were there on our maiden trip in April 2014.

A Banded Peacock (Papilio palinurus palinurus) puddling.  Shot with the D3S at Gua Tempurung, Perak, Malaysia

There were no problems using both DSLRs overseas and both worked fine. In fact 2014 was a unique year where our group made 4 overseas butterfly trips. After a short trip to Gua Tempurung, Kuala Woh and Lata Kinjang in the West Malaysian state of Perak in July, we made another weekend trip to Penang Hill in August. But the pull of Chiangmai had us planning to make the post-wet season period in Oct - our 2nd trip to Thailand in the year!

The flip screen was the first on the Nikon D750 © DPReview

In the meantime, Nikon launched yet another mid-level full-frame DSLR in Sep 2014. This was the D750. The feature that got my attention was the flip-screen LCD back panel, which I was curious to try out on puddling butterflies. Theoretically, it could help those low-level shots where we had to prone on the ground to get. Other than a higher shooting rate of 6.5fps compared to the D600, the 24 Mp full-frame sensor was similar, though the AF module was touted to have faster response time.

Butterflies of Chiangmai, shot with the D750

I got this latest Nikon DSLR just in time for our Oct outing to Chiangmai, and used the D750 exclusively throughout the trip. The outputs from the camera did not disappoint and we continued on our quest to shoot as many species as possible on the 6 day trip. The only thing that did not quite work out as I had hoped for, was the use of the flip-screen LCD for puddling shots. It was cumbersome to use for butterflies that are constantly moving most of the time, and in bright sunshine, had limited opportunities to shoot with.


More samples of butterfly photos with the Nikon D750 coupled with the Sigma 180mm macro 

The D750 was the main camera body that accompanied me on the majority of my outings in 2015. It was also a time when I had switched over to the massive Sigma 180mm OS f/2.8 macro as my main butterfly shooting lens, and the weight of the combo was important on long outings with a fully hand-held set up.

Some butterflies puddling in Chiang Dao Nature Reserve.  All shot with the D750

It was also another "Chiangmai" year, where we made two trips up north in March and September to capture the species that made their seasonal appearances over the different months in northern Thailand. The D750 worked like a charm throughout the year and there was no need to consider other DSLRs that Nikon launched that year.


The APS sized Nikon D500 with a 20.7Mp CMOS sensor.  The crop factor on the D500 allows for a better working distance for macro photography

Early in 2016, Nikon launched their new generation professional camera body, the D5. Sporting a new 20.8 Mp full frame sensor with 153 AF points, and a blazing 12fps continuous shooting, it was another state-of-the-art DSLR in the market. However, I was no longer considering the heavy pro-level DSLRs. For those photographers who may not be aware, the integrated vertical hand-grip on professional DSLRs is an unwelcomed obstruction when going down low to shoot puddling butterflies.

However, together with the new D5, Nikon also launched its "little brother", the APS sized sensor D500. This 20.7Mp sensor DSLR has many of the features of the D5, like its 153 point AF module with 99 cross-type points, metering system and is able to shoot at a blazing 10fps. Its robust body is one of the few new semi-pro DSLRs that does not have a built-in flash, suggesting that it is aimed at a higher-end target users.

Some of the shots from the D500 taken at Fraser's Hill

I managed to get a D500 just in time for a trip to Fraser's Hill in Malaysia. It was a maiden trip for the D500 and despite using the camera for the first time, I had little trouble handling it. By now, I was quite used to the Nikon DSLR controls and most of the functions of the D500 were in locations that I was quite familiar with. It worked seamlessly with the Sigma 180mm, and with the cropped sensor, it gave me the equivalent focal length of a "270mm" macro lens.

The D500 is a capable DSLR and the AF is fast and accurate

The D500 became my sole DSLR body for most of 2016 and 2017, and I used the D750 quite sparingly and for the times I needed a full-frame advantage when I shoot. The noise control of the D500 is pretty decent for its APS sized sensor with the advantage of better working distance. It was also interesting to note that Nikon launched only 3 cameras in 2017, compared to its heyday in 2012 when it launched 22 different camera models!


My current primary DSLR for butterfly photography, the full-frame 45.7Mp Nikon D850

Amongst the cameras Nikon introduced in 2017 was the full frame D850 with a 45.7Mp CMOS sensor - Nikon's highest Mp DSLR to date. Around that time, I managed to sell off the D750 to another butterfly photographer and decided to get the D850 in Feb 2018 as a full-frame replacement body for the D750. I have been using the D850 as my main DSLR ever since.

Puddling butterflies shot with the Nikon D850 and Sigma 180mm macro

The D850 performed up to expectations. It was good to get back to full-frame again, but the very shallow depth of field meant having to discard more shots that didn't have satisfactory edge-to-edge sharpness on the butterflies that I shot. The 153 AF point focusing system is fast and accurate and the metering was more consistent than the D750. And the ability to shoot at 7fps helped in some extreme situations when there was a strong breeze moving the subject.

Meanwhile, Nikon, Sony and Canon have come out with their rather impressive mirrorless cameras. One of the very tempting features in the new Nikon Z6 and Z7 that I will be looking forward to, is the in-camera vibration reduction technology. But I will wait for the next generation of the mirrorless models from Nikon and for them to iron out several issues, before deciding if it is worthwhile to 'upgrade' again or not.

Some Malaysian butterflies shot with the Nikon D850

In the meantime, the combination of the D500 and D850 is optimal for my butterfly photography needs The compromise between a more compact camera body and performance is just right for these two DSLRs. The rapid technological development of DSLRs in the market took us to where we are today, on the threshold of mirrorless DSLRs. I started with a 3Mp point-and-shoot camera in 2001 and progressed over a 20-year journey till today, with a 45.7Mp full-frame DSLR. What beckons in the next decade, will be another story for another time...

Text and Photos by Khew SK