2012 season Part 1. Butterflies

by Richard Raby on September 10, 2012

With reduced demand for Birding tours for this season (probably reflecting the global economic crisis) I decided to apply myself to something that I’d been putting off for YEARS …. A serious study of the local Marica Lepidoptera fauna.

Armed with my “new” 70-180mm Nikkor macro zoom lens and my trusty D300 Nikon camera  I proceeded to spend the months of September thru February photographing and adding to my studies of the local butterflies.

Things took off with a bang, right from on my arrival, when I immediately found that most butterflies were congregating around the very few available damp patches, It had been a dry spring and swarms of Ithomnidae /Glasswings  were hatched and collected in the shade and next to the semi-dry stream beds apparently awaiting the rains to return. Studying the photographic  results I obtained, I proceeded to identify at least 6 different species. These stream-bed Ithomnidae congregations continued until the first real rains arrived in late October and after this as the climate dampened  they dispersed into the surrounding forests.

The October rains also heralded the hatching of a wealth of seasonal Swallowtail species. I had expected maybe half a dozen varieties here at the most as the local Marica forests are seasonally very dry. I was sure that more humid forest, found further West and also to the north, inland, must contain the greater number of species? So my hopes were limited for my local dry forests. But  I was about to get a very pleasant surprise. …..

Immediately after these rains I came across an example of one of my very favourite swallowtail families, the large sabre-tailed White-Kite swallowtail. The butterfly was flying along a long dirt-track on the edge of the forest and obviously looking to settle and drink water(they seem to confuse dirt tracks with dry  stream beds?). The Kite Swallowtails are high and fast flyers, they are Exotic, they are white, variably striped with black, and with a further  red line on the under- wing, the white areas are opalescent in fresh specimens. These butterflies they only hatch once or twice a year with the late spring rains? There are a number of species, all rather similar. I was SO pleased to see just  one of these species at Marica (which turned out to be Protesilaus stenodesmus). Over the next few days I came across numbers of these fantastic white Kite swallowtails, drinking from damp sand, always around the midday period, and on hot & sunny days.

A couple of days later I discovered a second species of White Kite swallowtail P.protesilaus nigrecornis at another jungle locality,  and then when I returned to the original discovery spot I found a third White Kite Swallowtail species drinking alongside the first species.  All of these were photographed and photographed well with my brilliant new Macro lens, These “Kites” are timid Insects and they have a habit of jumping -up and flying off at perceiving the slightest movement.  As they drink they pump water through their bodies absorbing nutrients and probably cooling themselves down at the same time? I must admit that I had great fun and dirtied at least one pair of clothes crawling up to a close point to take the photographs that now grace my rapidly expanding archive of species.

Also upon arrival in September I had observed another “favourite” butterfly family, An Anaea  Sp?. Anaea are members of the world-wide Charaxinae  family, they are highly evolved Nymphalidae and are extremely strongly muscled, they are another fast and high-flying family. These Anaea  were feeding on some Leguminous  seedpods that were hanging from the canopy of a tall but leafless tree. This was one of the very few interesting  butterfly species to be seen away from the shady dry stream beds at this time. As I was equipped with binoculars, I managed to observe a most distinctive under-wing pattern on the settled insects, it was a chocolate brown underside marked with a contrasting half-moon buffy “thumb-mark” at the wing apex. Upon referral to my reference books I found that this could only be a Memphis polyxo,  known from the Rio de Janeiro region  but apparently highly localised and quite rare? Although I’m familiar with the family this represents  a wonderful new discovery and a new species for me.

I had constructed a couple of fruit baited traps and the Anaea group  are known for their occasional fruit feeding habits, so I returned to this area and set the traps, hoping to catch one to get close enough to photograph. I finally had success and caught a perfect male M. polyxo  on the 4th of  January, 2012 almost 5 months after the first sightings! This must have represented another generation of the butterfly but it appeared identical in all respects (some species have distinct wet season and dry season forms) and confirmed my distant, treetop observations of  September.

You may be realising by now that I had had some previous experience with South American butterflies?  30 years ago I spent a most memorable 18 months in Trinidad & Tobago. Whilst there I was coached by the resident butterfly experts, they taught me the basic butterfly families and their distinctive traits, I learned how to construct and use butterfly traps, how to rear wild-found larvae and also how to collect and identify specimens.  As there was virtually no macro photography back in those days, everyone kept collections. I basically stopped following my interest in butterflies due to the need to kill, keep and maintain a collection. That was before my interest was reawakened recently with the advent of Digital Macro photography……

As the season continued more and more interesting species were encountered in and around Marica.  I discovered a beautiful blue species of Metal mark (Ionotus alector) that appears to be very restricted in range, another black and orange Metalmark that has such ridiculously long “tails” that I had doubted it  was actually a butterfly at all! (Barbicornis sp) , and then I encountered another large Swallowtail with an interesting  story. …..

When I first arrived in Brazil in 1987 I made friends with the local professor of entomology at the university of Rio museum. In the wealth of information passed over by him to me at the time was the story of a very rare black and yellow (true Papilio)) swallowtail, a swallowtail on the verge of extinction (H. himerous). It looked very similar to the commonest species H. thoas, but this one only lived in hot low-level jungles near the coast and instead of having plain black “tails” this rare one had yellow scallops to the sides of the black tails. Although historically know from Rio state this species was only known to survive in the next state north, Espirito Santo( where there are two large protected areas). Prof. Otero had been searching but to no avail at historical sites in Rio state (where the area was found to be now completely deforested).

I found and photographed my first H. himerous just inside Rio state on a birding trip to the Espirito Santo boaders (in December 2006), unfortunately this was a couple of years after Prof. Luis Otero had passed away.

This last December (2011) I netted a large Yellow and Black Swallowtail at my favourite  Marica mountain Ridge. It was captured on the wing, flying low across a clearing that I had just opened-up on a peak, and as it was taken out of my net I was absolutely amazed to discover that this was my second encounter with the ultra-rare and highly endangered Heraclides himerous  butterfly. This capture represents another “first” for my Marica study area and another large, showy, rare and endangered species that I’ve discovered here!

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