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Confessions of a Butterfly Hunter (Wudeep Lo)

March 9, 2019

Of the things a blog does it to humanize the blogger/author. For as long as I can remember I’ve been interested in butterflies. That interest has taken me to Hong Kong, main land China, Nan Ao Island, and to the British Virgin Islands to study the biodiversity of butterflies.


In 1995 I was asked to join the conservation Agency of Jamestown, Rhode Island as a field associate as part of their ongoing biodiversity study of Hong Kong and its surrounding islands. One of the main study sites was Shek Kwu Chau Island. Since few butterfly records existed, my task was to add to the existing records, which I did.  

 

My years of collecting on Shek Kwu Chau resulted in a paper published in 2000 about the butterflies of the island. The paper does not show the year by year tables for the species caught. The paper lacked photographs. In the photograph the island appears to barren--it isn't.  It's full of life.


I was the first field biologist to spend a long periods of time on the island, which is now the site of the largest trash incinerator in Asia. Regrettably, none of butterfly records or any other records of the island’s species prevented the incinerator from being built at a cost of 31 billion dollars. Heartbreaking. Shek Kwu is a little paradise.  


For the last several years I have been doing a survey of the butterflies at Myrtle Beach State Park. From the catch records I have maintained climate change is real and has impacted the numbers of butterflies at the park over the last 3 years.


Ironically, I will probably be known for my butterfly work than my writing. The paper I wrote about the butterflies of Shek Kwu Island is nowhere as technical as was the article I co-authored about Guana Island and the butterfly I was the first to catch. Hope you enjoy reading about the butterflies.  


My novella “Iron Butterfly” is set on the island and available on amazon, Kobo, Barnes&Noble, Scribd and Apple.

 

 


Lepidoptera News June 2000, No. 2


THE BUTTERFLIES OF SHEK KWU CHAU ISLAND, HONG KONG

 

By

Richard Lutman


 Close up, Hong Kong is a jumble of brightly colored signs, most of which are written in Chinese, streets that are always full of rushing people, and the sound of jackhammers tearing down and building up.  It is a noisy, congested city always in motion and always exciting.  The crowded tenements and concrete canyons bustle with life and the urgent need to make money.  It is hard to imagine that this ultimate capitalistic society is home to some rare and unique animal species, many of which are found on the outlying islands with their unspoiled beauty.


    One such place is Shek Kwu Chau (Stone Drum Island), a granitoid outcropping located 18 km south of Hong Kong island (Fig. 1). Shek Kwu Chau is small, about 1 by ½ km in size, and 185 meters at its highest point.  It is steep and hot, much like many of the scrub islands in the area.  From a distance, Shek Kwu Chau looks barren and uninhabitable, not at all like the collector's paradise it is.  It is also a scientific anomaly.


     In 1961 the island was burned entirely over so construction could begin for the private drug rehabilitation center; the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts (SARDA).  The recovery of life from this event has been remarkable.  Records for butterflies show over 70 species, some of which are well established on the island.  Snakes number 17, two of which have never been seen anywhere else in the world (Ahaetulla and Dendrelaphis; Lazell and Lu, 1991), several good specimens of whip scorpions (Thelyphonida; Lazell, 1996), and many large centipedes, for which the island is famous.  A possible explanation for the island's rebound could be the deep boulder ravines in which life-sustaining conditions could have been maintained during the massive burn over.


    The best time to collect is from about 7-11 AM before it gets too hot.  The temperature can easily reach 32 degrees centigrade, and the humidity often exceeds 90% during the summer months from May to October.  The most productive area so far has been the southern part of the contour trail, which partially rings the island (Fig. 2).  The flora along the trail is a mix of grass, shrubs, shade and exposed areas.  


    In the early morning, one can smell the spicy odors of cooking food wafting upward from the buildings below.  Loud music sometimes blares through the island's many loudspeakers, which do not seem to bother the butterflies.  There are times I think they may be secretly dancing to the sounds.  The afternoon collecting begins at about 3:30 PM when the temperature and humidity are less.   Although the numbers of visible butterflies are less, it does not make any difference because the beauty of the island continually changes and there are always new specimens to catch.  If lucky, you may even see a sea eagle flying below the cliffs at the island's northern end.


    George Walthew, of Hong Kong University, has recorded 225 species of butterflies. Most of the butterflies fly all year round and can have many different seasonal markings, which makes their identification challenging.


    The status and species breakdown upon the amount of time spent on the island and the weather conditions.  It should also be taken into consideration that adults may be fast-flying, far-ranging and may be sighted in areas other than those of host plants.  As more information is gathered about the environment of this island, a list of plants will be compiled and examined concerning the butterflies that have been caught.  For several years the fauna has been intensely investigated by an American and Chinese team;  Dr. Lu Wenhua from The Conservation Agency and professors Chen Dingru and Li Zhen Chang from the Department of Biology, South China Normal University, Guangzhou.   Their findings indicate that the major vegetation types on the island are grassland, secondary forest, shrubs, and tree plantation.  They have also recorded a total of 275 indigenous vascular plants and determined that widespread tropical and subtropical elements are dominant (Chen et al., 1996).  


    What follows is a summary of these beautiful and fascinating species and some of the ones caught on Shek Kwu Chau.  The primary identification sources used for this study are Io (1994), Johnston and Johnston (1980), and Bascombe et al. (1999). In the 6 years that I have been actively collecting in this environment, over 400 butterfly specimens have been caught, all of which have been sent to the Allyn Museum in Sarasota, Florida. Other specimens caught in 1990 have also been sent to the museum.
A number of the species on Shek Kwu Chau are very localized in distribution, while others are not.  The catch records for 1997 are remarkable because of the extremely rainy conditions, which were the worst I have seen since I have been visiting the island.  


     The status and species breakdown for the tabulation of the butterfly records, as tabulated in Table 1, was determined using Walthew (1997). His frequency of occurrence parameters are as follows:
"was determined by using 170 one-kilometer grid squares from the New Territories, Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island, Lamma Island d Peng Chau Island.  The latter three islands are within a few miles of Shek Kwu Chau.  These were surveyed between 1989 and 1996.  If the species was found in more than 33% of the squares, then it is described as being very common; if found in 11% to 33%, then common; if found in 1% to 3%, then rare; and if found in less than 1% then very rare."


      On September 16th, 1999 Hong Kong was hit by the biggest typhoon in 16 years, which caused much devastation and appeared to have significantly impacted the butterfly population on three of the islands I visited.   For specific information on the damage, this typhoon caused see the January issue of Porcupine!, the Newsletter of the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, Hong Kong University.  The numbers of very common species such as Euploeas and Ideopsis similis were hard to find.  Despite the devastation, 5 new species were added to the Shek Kwu Chau checklist and 30 species were recorded in June and July of 2000.

  
    THE DUFFER AND THE FAUN (Amathusiidae)
  Only two members of this large family occur in Hong Kong.  The Great Duffer (Discophora sondaica  (Boisduval), is a very timid butterfly living amid bamboo thickets.  It is considered to be uncommon.  Although only one specimen has been caught on Shek Kwu Chau, a caterpillar was photographed in 1997 feeding on Hedge bamboo, Bambusa multiplex (Gramineae). The slow flying Common Faun (Faunis eumeus. (Drury) is found everywhere, lives in wooded areas, settles frequently and is very easy to catch.  It is fond of rotting fruit and tree sap.  It is not unusual to find several of these handsome brown and yellow butterflies in a group on the ground where they look like they are falling over.  They seem to be particularly drawn to a damp shady area below the Big Bungalow where I stay with the other field associates from The Conservation Agency of Jamestown, Rhode Island.  They are always easy to catch and are rarely seen in the same numbers north of the soccer field, which marks the approximate center of the island. 


    TIGERS AND CROWS (Danaidae)
These are large butterflies, resilient and very tough, with a slow gliding flight which can change when pursued.  Hong Kong has 14 species recorded. 
    The Tigers (Danaus) are handsome butterflies divided into two groups.  Dark Veined and Plain Tigers, which look very much like Monarchs, are mainly orange and have triangular darker patches at the forewing tips on which there are distinct white markings.  So far I have yet to see any of these beauties on Shek Kwu Chau.  Glassy Tigers  Ideopis similis (Linnaeus) have bluish markings and are everywhere throughout the island.  It is a common sight to see several of these butterflies pushing and shoving for position on the same flower.  The Golden Dewdrops bush, Duranta repens  (Verbenaceae) by the radio station is usually full of these lovely specimens.  On many occasions, I have been able to net as many as six at once.
The Crows (Euploea):  these striking butterflies are velvety blackish brown with white or blue spots. The Blue-Spotted Crow, (Euploea midamus midamus. (Linnaeus), has a beautiful blue sheen on its forewings. The males have a fluffy feather like organ called the hair pencil which is pushed out from the tail when caught.  The E. midamus is nearly as common as Ideopis similis.  A favorite spot for them is the windy flower patch by the helicopter pad near the top of the island.  Again, it is not uncommon to find several crowded together on one flower where they rock back and forth in the strong wind that sweeps the northern end of the island.  


    SKIPPERS (Hesperiidae)
Hong Kong has 49 species, active mainly at dusk and dawn. They like basking in the sun.  A lot of them are very rare.  The southern end of the island was home to a robust localized population of Astictopterus jama chinensis (Leech), a small velvety black species.   Although common, I have not seen them elsewhere in the same numbers, nor have I yet to catch one of these anywhere north of the soccer field. This once very common skipper has only been caught once since 1997.  The dominant skipper now appears to be Saustus gremius gremius (Fabricius),  which has been caught throughout much of the same habitat but is more widespread throughout the island than A. j. chinensis.   The highlight of the 1995 expedition was the recording of the rare Bibasis oedipodea (Swainson), a plump pink-colored skipper.   It was caught in the mixed shrubland at the top of the stairs above the bungalow in mixed shrub.  


    BLUES (Lycaenidae)
Hong Kong has 49 species.  Some are common, while others are classified as being very rare. Many have delicate little tails.  Some are sun lovers, while others exist in the undergrowth. These butterflies are small or very small and fly along the ground.  Most of the males have blue on the upper surface of their wings and dark borders around the edges.  However, of the males, two have large orange patches instead of blue. The Pseudozizeeria maha serica (C. Felder) is another very common butterfly.  Large numbers of them are visible in the morning with the highest concentrations once again on the southern end of the island.  Sometimes they are so thick along the first part of the contour trail they look like swirling blue snowflakes.


    NYMPHS (Nymphalidae)
Hong Kong has 63 species recorded. The flight pattern of these butterflies is fast and jerky, flying forward with 3 or 4 brisk flaps, then coasting.  The fastest is the Tawny Rajah which soars over the tops of trees, then dives steeply toward the ground.  The slower fliers like the Pansies (Precis) usually stay close to the ground, settling frequently.  The family is generally striking, attractive and of medium size. They love to bask in the sun with their wings outstretched oblivious to my presence and their surroundings.  None of these species have been seen or caught on Shek Kwu Chau.  My favorite is the Angled Castor (Ariadne ariadne alternus. (Moore), a deep salmon-colored beauty so far found nectaring only on the flowers around the soccer field in the center of the island.  Although no specimens were recorded in 1996 or 1997, or 2000, a caterpillar was photographed feeding on the castor-oil plant (Ricinus communis) in 1997. 


    SWALLOWTAILS (Papilionidae)
The 19 Hong Kong species of this family include the most abundant, most beautiful and most conspicuous of the butterflies. They move swiftly and with sudden turns down patches of wooded areas or dive down to drink from flowers, their upper wings quivering rapidly for support. They are hard to catch, zooming off at the slightest disturbance.  Sometimes called Kite Swallowtails they have wingspans from 37-140mm.  The Birdwing Troides helena  (Linnaeus) is the most striking and is not often seen because it frequents isolated places, particularly in the New Territories where it is protected. Although I have recorded one near the Po Lin monastery on Lantau, a neighboring island, none have yet been seen on Shek Kwu Chau. The Common Mormon (Papilio polytes polytes  (Linnaeus) is most in evidence and is distributed evenly throughout the island.  The Red Helen Papilio helenus helenus (Linnaeus) is another common swallowtail with much the same distribution as the Papilio p. polytes. The Paris Peacock Papilio paris paris  (Linnaeus) has spectacular blue markings on its lower wings.  In the last 3 years, this butterfly has become more visible than ever and has several distinct flight paths throughout the island. Another papilio, the Papilio d. demoleus (Linnaeus), prefers the higher, more open areas of the island.  The papilios here seem to be fun loving.  I have spent many an hour watching one or more ride the wind currents outside the bungalow.  All of these butterflies are common or very common. 

 

THE WHITES AND YELLOWS (Pieridae)
Hong Kong has 23 of these pierids. These butterflies are small or medium in size and love the sun. Some fly very fast; others flutter just above the grass.  The commonest is the Grass Yellow Eurema Hecabe (Linnaeus).  The strongest flier is the Great Orange Tip Hebomoia g. glaucippe  (Linnaeus), which zooms along at treetop level, and even when close is hard to catch.  Although it is sighted frequently, only 5 have been caught.  The Grass Yellow appears to be evenly dispersed throughout the island and in greater abundance than I have seen on other islands I have been on.
         The commonest White is the cabbage white Pieris rapae (Linnaeus), yet it is not at all common or as widely distributed on Shek Kwu Chau as the Eurema hecabe (Linnaeus).  One of the most attractive is the Black Jezebel Delias pasithoe pasithoe  (Linnaeus), which has red patches on the underside of its wings where they meet the body.  This species is more common than it was three years ago when none were sighted or caught on the island.  All the captured specimens were nectaring on the Golden Dewdrops.  

     
JUDYS AND PUNCHES (Riodinidae)
These butterflies have wet and dry season forms.  Only 3 fly in Hong Kong, of which 2, the Plum Judy Abisara e. echerius (Stoll) and the Punchinello Zemeros flegyas (Cramer) are very common on the edges of woodland.  The wet season form of the Punchinello features prominent pale spots on the upper side, while in the dry season form the pale patches are on the upper wing near its apex. The Abisara e. echerius is quite common on the southern part of the contour trail, but less so elsewhere on the island. They seldom sun, preferring to flit from leaf to leaf executing a hop, skip, and pirouette much like a skipper. When at rest, they mimic the skipper’s dorsal basking, by spreading their hindwing more forward than their forewing. 


BROWNS AND SATYRS (Satyridae)
Hong Kong has 17 of these attractive butterflies. They have an odd Hopalong flight, seldom rising much above the level of grass at edges of woodland they inhabit.  There are 5 species of ring butterflies (Ypthima), but only 2, the Straight Six Ring and Common Six Ring Ypthima lisandra  (Cramer) and Ypthima baldus  (Fabricius) are common.  A third, the four ring (Ypthima praenubila  (Leech) is common in localized areas both in the New Territories and on the Hong Kong islands. This species is most prevalent from the end of May to the end of June, but none have yet been caught on Shek Kwu Chau. These common English names come from the number of rings or eyes on the underside of the hindwings.  
    Two of the Bush Browns Mycalesis mineus (Linnaeus) and Mcalesis zonata.  (Matsumura) fly almost everywhere.   Although recorded throughout Shek Kwu Chau, the majority have been caught at the southern end of the island. The third Bush Brown Mycalesis perseus (Fabricius) is rare. It has the same habitat as the Ypthima but is more substantial.  It also has a wet and dry form.  The wet season markings are characterized by distinctive eye spots and a vertical cream band on its underside.  The dry form has none.  A member of the Lethe genus called the Bamboo Brown it lives in wooded areas and seldom comes into the sun.
           The two Evening Browns Melanitis leda  (Linnaeus) and M. phedimal  Cramer) are common in wooded areas. The females rest with their wings up.  Although not present in large numbers, specimens of Ypthima lisandra, Y. baldus,  Melanitis leda, Mycalesis mineus, and Lethe confusa  (Aurivillius) have all been caught on Shek Kwu Chau in about the same distribution as other common species.


SUMMARY
The most common species are: Astictopterus jama chinesis (Hesperiidae), Ariadne ariadne altera (Nymphalidae), Cepora n. nerissa (Pieridae), Ideopsis similis (Danaidae), Eurema hecabe (Pieridae), Euploea midamus (Danaidae), Faunis eumeus (Amathusiidae), Papilio polytes (Papilionidae), and Pseudozizeeria maha serica (Lycaenidae).   Rare specimens include: Bibasis oedipodea, Telicota ancilla horisha, Deudorix epijarbas, Hybolimnas bolina kezia, Mahathala ameria, and Eurema blanda.  
A complete list of the specimens caught on Shek Kwu Chau with their abundance is provided in Table I. The table also includes the abundance of the species based on George Walthew’s 1997 survey.
   About 30% of the known species of Hong Kong butterflies have been caught on Shek Kwu Chau, which is a much higher number than on other islands I have studied in the Hong Kong group.   
    There are about 200,000 species of Lepidoptera in the world.  Although there have been many species that have been lost forever due to habitat destruction, pollution, or intrusion by exotic species, for many there may still be hope for survival on islands such as Shek Kwu Chau.  We hold their future in our hands.
Acknowledgments
The following are thanked for all their help: The Allyn Museum of Entomology (Sarasota, Florida), The Conservation Agency (Jamestown, Rhode Island) and Peter Lynch (Shoreham, Vermont), and in Hong Kong. Dr. Barry Hollinrake, Dr. Jacqueline Lee, Dr. Michael Bascombe, and my friends, Anja and Alexa Pearson, Walter Ochs, Adam Young, Jonathan Kolby, Shannon Corliss, and the others who on occasion grabbed a net.


Literature Cited
Bascombe, M.J., G. Johnston and F.S. Bascombe
1999.     The Butterflies of Hong Kong. London: Academic Press. 422pp.

Chen Dingru, Zhuang Xueying, Li Zhenchang,  and Lu Wenhua
1996.     Vegetation and Biodiversity of Shek Kwu Chau, Hong Kong.  Journal of South China    
            Normal University (Natural Science).  (Canton, China). pages 68-73. 

Professor Dr. Chou Io: Chief Editor 
1994.     Monograhia Rhopalocerorum Sinensium (Monograph of Chinese Butterflies). 
            Zhingzhou, Henan, China. China.Scientific and Technological Publishing House.     
            Two volumes.

Gweneth and Bernard Johnston
1980.     This is Hong Kong: Butterflies. Hong Kong.  Hong Kong Government Publication.
            224 pages.

Walthew, George
 1997.   The Status and Flight Periods of Hong Kong Butterflies
            Porcupine! Newsletter of the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, 
            Hong Kong University.  Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre HKU, Lam Kam Road,  
            Yuen Long, New Territories.  (Hong Kong).  July.  Number 16.

Richard Corlett, Lawrence Chau, Billy Hau, and Ken So
 1999.   Typhoon York Scores Direct Hit
           Porcupine! Newsletter of the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity, 
           Hong Kong University.  Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre HKU, Lam Kam Road,  
           Yuen Long, New Territories.  (Hong Kong).  January.  Number 20.

           Lazelle, J.
1996     Hong Kong’s thelyphnoid: what is it? Porcupine (Hong Kong)/ Mar. 1996 (14):30.

           Lazell, J and W. Lu
1990.    Four Remarkable Reptiles from the South China Sea Islands, Hong Kong Territory.    
          Asiatic Herpetological Research 3:64-66.


M.J. Bascombe, G. Johnston, and F.S. Bascombe
1999.  The Butterflies of Hong Kong.  London.  Academic Press.  422 pages.

 

 

 

 

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