Jewels on the wing 2010.05.29

The rains have finally come and after such a particularly severe dry season the country as a whole can breathe a sigh of relief. Our reservoirs are slowly refilling, our hills are clad in greenery again and smoke no longer obscures the horizon. On the other hand extensive flooding has already taken place in several districts in Central and North Trinidad, the rains in this case bringing financial and emotional hardship. South Trinidad seems to have been spared the worst of it so far (On a recent trip to Icacos I was surprised to find  the south-west peninsular was still very dry). The South Oropouche Lagoon is coming along very nicely; the combination of vegetation loss (from fire) and floodwater (from the rains) have resulted in large areas of open water. This is very good for water-birds and if conditions hold I expect this area to be very productive this year. But for now my focus has turned to another yearly bounty; butterflies.

With the onset of the first rains after the dry season, butterflies emerge in their thousands all over the island. This then begs an obvious question. “Where were they all this time?” Many people may not be aware of the details of a butterfly’s life-cycle. The truth is that the majority of a butterfly’s life is spent in the larval stage where they remain (as a caterpillar), gorging on vegetation, molting and eventually forming a chrysalis. A real miracle happens in the chrysalis as the entire caterpillar breaks-down and then reassembles itself as a winged butterfly. No easy feat for a simple organism and one that takes time. And this is the answer to our question. Many will stay for months in this mode and may deliberately extend their stay until a rise in humidity and lowering of light levels signal that the time is right to emerge. This timing of course coincides with the regrowth of vegetation, providing fresh leaves for caterpillars and the nectar of which adult butterflies feed on. Having avoided the worst of the dry season the newly minted butterfly will live for only a few weeks, many dying when they are simply unable to sustain flight on tattered wings, shredded by predators and abrasion. They now feed only to fuel their flight and live only to reproduce.

Unidentified caterpillar

And you can find them almost anywhere -wasteland, forest, gardens, swamps and even at the seaside. Of course once you grow accustomed to the common species in an area, a visit to a new area is often necessary to reveal new species. At my home there is a surprising lack of species in my parent’s ever-blooming garden so it is fortunate that I have recently gained access to a rarely visited wilderness – the Rousillac Swamp. With the landowner’s permission I am free to explore the “bush” surrounding the swamp and the mangrove forest itself but with the swamp currently flooded, I have an excuse to sideline bird-watching for a moment and indulge in butterflies.

Rousillac Swamp, Trinidad and Tobago

In the open areas of the swamp, on the edge of the reed beds, sun loving species fed on Black Sage (Cordia curassavica). These sun-lovers usually begin to feed around 9:00 am as the temperature rises. Some, like this Banded Banner (Pyrrhogyra neaerea), are quick to fly off and are difficult to approach.

Banded Banner (Pyrrhogyra neaerea)

It often settles on vegetation just out of reach several feet off the ground, adding to the difficulty. Others, like this Claudina Crescent (Tegosa claudina), are easy to approach and will rest with open wings inviting a photograph.

Claudina Crescent (Tegosa claudina)

A more familiar butterfly is the Soldier (Danaus eresimus), relative to the famous Monarch. A robust flier, it frequently zigzagged over the open reeds.

Soldier (Danaus eresimus)

Perhaps the commonest butterfly of all, the Scarlet Peacock (Anartia amathea), flitted between the shrubs.

Scarlet Peacock (Anartia amathea)

Easily overlooked on account of its sheer abundance, it is nonetheless beautiful.

As the rising sun becomes unbearable I retreat to the tree line. In the mangroves I have previously seen the beautiful Lysippus Metalmark (Riodina lysippus),

Lysippus Metalmark (Riodina Lysippus)

a species I have also seen on the edge of the Icacos Swamps and I wonder what new species are in the mangroves now, just out of reach until later in the year. For now I am content to explore a strip of secondary forest.

Here shade lovers, like this Gold-bordered Hairstreak (Rekoa Palegon), rest on leaves or play in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the trees.

Gold-bordered Hairstreak (Rekoa palegon)

Many hairstreaks  have a surprisingly stunning metallic blue inner-wing in contrast to their sometimes dull under-wing. You can barely detect it as one flies off. More obvious is the dazzling blue of the well known Emperor or Common Morpho (Morpho helenor).

Common Morpho (Morpho helenor)

Frequently seen flying in the gloom of forests with their characteristic dipping flight, they also have stunning undersides with large owl-eyes to frighten predators. Morphos feed on the juices of fruits instead of flowers. So too does this Orange Banner (Temenis laothoe) which when at rest I have always seen with one wing slightly out of line with the other.

Orange Banner (Temenis laothoe)

But for my favorite butterfly, also a fruit juice-sucker, I would have to wait until later in the day. In the evening the Satyrs emerge. They love dark and damp areas, staying close to the ground and are mostly brown and unattractive. However amongst this group is the Hyalinus Pierella (Pierella Hyalinus).

Hyalinus Pierella (Pierella Hyalinus)

Its uniquely extended lower wing and slow flight gives it a ghostly appearance in the gloom of evening. But the delicate marking on its under-wing masks its true beauty – a stunning iridescent inner wing, visible for a second as it alights on the ground (though not as blue as it appears in this photo).

Hyalinus Pierella (Pierella Hyalinus)

I doubt the residents of Rousillac would have ever thought that such jewels exist in the small strip of bush circling the swamp. Frequently burnt, polluted and hunted, it is a phenomena repeated throughout Trinidad and Tobago. But the expressions of surprise I hear from people; “You find THAT in the swamp?” tells of the potential in us all to really learn to appreciate what we have here on our islands if given the opportunity.

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