Contributed by Ken Dorey, Big Scrub Landcare
Dingy Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio anactus). Image provided courtesy of James Dorey.
Butterflies do their best to get our attention but they seem doomed to be overshadowed by birds.
Birds are bigger and louder but butterflies do have some advantages when it comes to identification. For a start, there are only 400 species of butterflies compared to over 800 birds and, obligingly, male and female butterflies share a relatively similar appearance, never mind changing into ‘breeding’ plumages as many birds do.
My most-thumbed book is Butterflies of Australia by Common and Waterhouse. It’s more of a textbook than a field guide so apart from drawings of all Australian butterflies it has great chapters on morphology, distribution, life history and host plants. Its biggest drawbacks are that the drawings are on ‘plate’ pages separate from the text and the author’s determination to use Latin. There seem to be plenty of used versions for sale online but searches mostly come up with Butterflies of Australia by Michael Braby or The Complete Guide to Butterflies of Australia by the same author. I don’t have a butterfly field guide so I’ve ordered Braby’s field guide ($49.95).
An easier way to get your head around butterflies is to get a simpler, glossy picture book of the common species like Discovering Australian Butterflies by Vanessa Bugg ($30).
If you’re still keen to identify a particular butterfly then the photos on Garry Sankowsky’s website, Australian Butterflies and Moths are a good place to browse or, easier still, is to post a picture on the Australian Butterfly and Moth Enthusiast’s facebook page.
There are a few Big Scrub butterflies that are particularly interesting;
Richmond Birdwings are arguably Australia’s most beautiful butterfly. They’ve gone from being common to possible extinction because their host vine has been cleared with the forest. You can learn about this butterfly at BSL’s Species in Profile and how to help it recover by planting its host vine at the Richmond Birdwing Conservation Network’s facebook page.
Caper White butterflies are periodically seen in large numbers in coastal areas. You can read more about their migration from the Australian Museum website. Caper Whites’ host plant is the Brush Caper Berry, a thorn shrub, that is well worth including in your Big Scrub plantings.
Regent Skippers are no longer common because the two species of the shrub Wilkea have disappeared with the rainforest. If you can find a Wilkea, then chewed leaves and two leaves ‘stuck’ together are signs that the caterpillars are present. Ask your nursery for Wilkeas and, if you find one in fruit I have had success by direct seeding the black ‘jelly-bean’ like dupes throughout my remnant. Regent Skippers are interesting to science as the male is the only butterfly that locks its wings together, like moths, with a bristle-like structure called a frenulum.
Wanderers are a common orange and black butterfly. Introduced from American, where it is called the Monarch, its numbers are dropping. Happily, the Wanderer only feeds on the introduced milkweed plant so it is one invasive species we can enjoy.