Townsville is still waiting for the rain – all we’ve had is a 12mm teaser nearly a week ago – but the garden is coming to life anyway. I spotted this mating pair of shield bugs (aka stink bugs, Poecilometis sp., Hemiptera, Pentatomidae) a few days ago, and they are not alone. Hawk moth caterpillars are stripping our pentas plants and madonna lilies (I wonder why they like those two in particular?) and we often see courting pairs of Cairns Birdwing butterflies. Other butterfly numbers are building up, too, especially the Pale Triangle and the Clearwing Swallowtail.
The Dainty Swallowtail, Papilio anactus, is one of the smallest members of the swallowtail family but still a large and attractive butterfly.
This overview page shows the other members of the family but not all to the same scale. In reality, the birdwings are clearly the largest species at about 110 mm wingspan, followed by the Ulysses and the Orchard Swallowtail, and so on down to the Graphium species, the Clearwing and the Dainty at about 70 mm. Most of Australia’s 17 species of swallowtail live in North-east Queensland and many of them are common (but still special) in our gardens.
I photographed this particular Dainty Swallowtail beside Ross Creek a couple of weeks ago. There weren’t many other butterflies around at the time and most of them were Migrants:
I posted this photo of it because it’s such a good demonstration of the way these light yellow butterflies vanish amongst bright green leaves; even knowing it was right in the middle of my photo, I have looked straight past it several times. What happens, I think, is that the pale yellow reflects the green of the leaves around it, helping it to blend invisibly into the foliage and offering it some protection from hungry birds.
We have four species of Migrant here (Catopsilia spp.). They are all very similar – pale yellowish with some darker markings and a wingspan around 60 mm – and they show seasonal variation and gender differences which complicate identification, but I am fairly sure this one is a Lemon Migrant, Catopsilia pomona.
The spectacular Ulysses butterflies (Papilio ulysses) pass through our garden quite frequently but rarely stop to rest or feed. With a wingspan of just over 100mm they are as big as the Orchard Swallowtail and bigger than any of our other butterflies apart from the Cairns Birdwing. Their flight is fast and erratic and the brilliant iridescent blue flash of their upper wings is irresistible.
But they hide it when they rest, obviously to avoid predators’ attention. The best chance of photographing the upper wings comes when they hover as they feed. As the writer at Wild Wings & Swampy Things, a blog about wildlife in the Daintree region north of Cairns, says, “Flashes of their brilliant blue amongst the flowers are hard to capture but it’s fun trying!”
The results of a basic image search, however, are overwhelmingly of wings-open specimens. How? I think people cheat or, if that’s too harsh, stage their photos: butterflies lethargic with cold, or dead specimens, are put in position for a studio shot; or existing images are combined in Photoshop. That’s not to deny the occasional lucky shot of a hovering butterfly, of course, but just to say that the photographs don’t honestly reflect the reality. The same is true, although to a lesser extent, of images of our Cairns Birdwing, which is equally paranoid about showing its gaudy upper wings in real life but flashes them at all and sundry in photos.
The Dainty Swallowtail, Papilio anactus, is apparently the smallest of our swallowtail butterflies but it is still quite large – much bigger than the Crow, Common Eggfly or Chocolate Soldier that I think of as ‘normal’ butterfly size.
Its closest relations,* other members of the genus Papilio, include the Orchard, Fuscous, Chequered and the magnificent electric-blue Ulysses (sad pic) Swallowtails. But ‘Swallowtails’ is a family (Papilionidae) which includes other genera and therefore includes the biggest of all our butterflies, the Cairns Birdwing, the smaller Clearwing Swallowtail and a few others (see them all here). Several of them look similar enough to be confused for one another – in particular, the female Orchard, the Clearwing and the Dainty.
I caught this one feeding on a shrub in the carpark at the top of Castle Hill a couple of days ago, having gone up there for the second time in a week. The first time I went up was for a photo of Queens Gardens from above, which I wanted for a photographic competition (wish me luck!), but I saw lots of insects and had to return for more. Some of them are on Flickr already. e.g. bee-fly, bigger bee-fly, bee-eating wasp, black and gold wasp.
I don’t know any of them from my own garden, which of course is why it was worth going back. Then again, the micro-habitat on top of a huge granite outcrop is vastly different from a well-watered suburban garden.
* This section edited for completeness a day after first posting.