Naturalist’s Bookshelf 2: Braby’s Butterflies

braby butterfliesThe Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia

Michael Braby

Second edition, April 2016,

400 pp., pbk, $49.95

The publisher’s blurb for this book is so accurate and informative that I’m simply going to quote it:

As fascinating as they are beautiful, butterflies are a pleasure to watch and an important group of invertebrates to study. This second edition of the award-winning book The Complete Field Guide to Butterflies of Australia is a fully updated guide to all butterfly species on Australia’s mainland and remote islands.

Written by one of Australia’s leading lepidopterists, the book is stunningly illustrated with colour photographs, many of which are new, of each of the 435 currently recognised species. There is also a distribution map and flight chart for each species on the Australian mainland, together with information on similar species, variation, behaviour, habitat, status and larval food plants.

The introduction to the book covers adult structure, higher classification, distribution and habitats, as well as life cycle and behaviour. A new chapter on collecting and preserving butterflies is included. There is also an updated checklist of all species, a glossary, a bibliography and indexes of common and scientific names.

There isn’t much more that I need to say about this book except to explain its relationship to two others by the same author:

  • Butterflies of Australia (publisher’s page) appeared in 2000 as two substantial large-format hard-cover volumes describing ‘nearly 400’ species and was universally lauded for its completeness and presentation. It is still acknowledged as the standard reference; real copies are becoming harder to obtain but it is readily available as an e-book.
  • The first edition of the the Complete Field Guide (CSIRO 2004) documented 416 species in 352 pp, so the current edition represents a worthwhile step forward.
  • The sequence of the three books reminds us that we’re still discovering new species – about 10% in 16 years.

The bottom line is that if you only want one Australian butterfly book, the new edition of the Complete Field Guide is the one you want. There are other options, of course, but this one is authoritative and comprehensive while still being portable and affordable.

* Naturalists’ Bookshelf 1: Plants is here.

Caper White butterfly and other seasonal wildlife

Caper White, Belenois java
Caper White feeding on coral vine

We still haven’t had any rain to speak of (the Dove Orchids flowering three weeks ago were wrong!) but humidity and temperatures are creeping up and there are showers around, so most living things are beginning to think about hatching, breeding, growing or nesting, according to their natures. We’ve been seeing baby geckos in the house (and one on the poplar gum), the Cape York Lilies have begun to emerge, frangipanis are flowering well, the first gorgeous green Christmas beetles have been seen, and so on – all much as I described the season in 2014.

Caper White, Belenois java
Caper White on coral vine

This year I have seen more Caper White butterflies, Belenois java, than usual – not just along Ross Creek but here in my suburban garden. This one was feeding on our abundantly flowering Coral Vine, Antigonon leptopus. (My extended family, but no-one else, has always called it ‘Maiden’s Blush’). It’s a beautiful creeper and, belying its delicate-looking prettiness, tough as old boots. It grows happily in full NQ sun and survives long periods without water, so it can be a pest.

As I said when talking about the Monarch recently, adult butterflies are not fussy about their food plants but caterpillars often are, so the abundance of Caper Whites this year is probably due to their food plants, the Caper family, having a good season.

Monarch butterfly and Leichhardt tree

Monarch butterfly
Monarch on Leichhardt tree flower – photo: Liz Downes

A friend sent me this photo and the subject has enough points of interest that I asked her permission to publish it here. The (really obvious) questions are mine, of course – the Q&A format is just for fun.

What is that spiky ball? It’s a flower – more accurately, a flower cluster – of the Leichhardt Tree, Nauclea orientalis.

So the butterfly is sipping nectar from it? Yes. Butterflies are not fussy eaters. They think nectar is nectar, and so long as they can reach it with their proboscises they will take advantage of it.

I’ve seen the butterfly before but not that weird flower. I guess the tree is an exotic? Wrong way round, actually: the tree is a native but the butterfly is a foreigner. It is well naturalised by now but is an American species, the Monarch or Wanderer, Danaus plexippus. Back home, they are famous for their mass migrations. Here, they have spread from Sydney (1871) to Southern West Australia and (obviously) North Queensland.

Is there any connection between the butterfly and the flower, then? Yes, but it’s indirect. The Monarch is a Milkweed butterfly (Danainae, a sub-family of Nymphalidae) and their caterpillars do require particular plants.

Let me guess: milkweeds? Yes – well done! And the botanical family is noted for milky white sap, often poisonous. The caterpillars tolerate and absorb toxins from the food plant, making them distasteful to predators. Local plants in the family include oleanders, frangipani and lots of the smaller weedy plants which grow along river banks.

And the tree? It’s not a milkweed, but it likes wet feet so it grows along river banks too. This one was beside Ross River near the Bush Garden.

And that completes the reasoning: the adult butterfly was near the river to lay eggs on the milkweeds; the tree was near the river for the water; and its flower was a convenient snack for the butterfly.

Butterfly Collection

Butterfly numbers around Townsville are creeping up in anticipation of the coming (we hope!) Wet season. This post brings together most of those I have photographed, in my garden or elsewhere, in the three weeks I have been back from Japan. (I still have more to say about Japan, of course, but I don’t want to get too far behind with local wildlife news.) Their size on screen doesn’t bear much relation to their size in real life but my sequence goes from the largest to the smallest.

Swallowtails

Orchard Swallowtails vist us reasonably often. Both sexes are beautiful, but the male is the more dramatic of the two. Wingspan is about 120 mm, noticeably smaller than the female Cairns Birdwing (old photo) but comparable to the Ulysses (old photo) and bigger than almost every other butterfly.

Pale Triangle butterfly
Pale Triangle, Graphium eurypylus

The Pale Triangle is also a Swallowtail (i.e. a member of Papilionidae) but is only half the size of the Orchard so it is closer to the size of our commonest Nymphalidae, the Eggfly (old photos) and Chocolate Soldier (old photo). There are green and yellow forms but this blue form is the commonest in my garden.

Whites and Yellows

These two are Pieridae (Whites and Yellows).  The Caper White is reasonably common and Braby calls the White Migrant ‘common and widespread’ but I have to say it is neither, in my Townsville experience: this is one of the first two I have captured. Every single Migrant in my garden, for years, has been a Lemon Migrant (older photos).

Blues

The Blues (Lycaenidae) are mostly quite small (around 30mm wingspan). The Copper Jewel is very pretty but not at all common (I spotted this one on a mangrove beside Ross Creek) while the Plumbago Blue is not so pretty but extremely common in gardens.