Ulysses Swallowtail butterfly

Ulysses Swallowtail hovering to feed on Pentas
Ulysses Swallowtail hovering to feed on Pentas

Cairns Birdwing butterflies are, to be sure, impressively large and colourful but they still don’t deserve quite as much of the limelight as they have been getting here lately. The Ulysses (Papilio ulysses), for instance, is nearly as large and is arguably more spectacular in flight since the intense electric blue of the wings flickers like lightning.

They are a real challenge to the photographer since their flight is very fast and erratic and when they do settle, which happens rarely, they fold their wings and we see only the brown undersides.  (Any photo of a Ulysses resting with wings outspread has been staged to some extent – they don’t normally do it in real life for the very good reason that they would be fatally obvious to predators.)

Both of these photos, which show two different individuals visiting my garden yesterday morning, were taken while the butterflies hovered to feed from Pentas flowers; a fast shutter speed eliminates most of the blur, and taking lots of photos means that one or two will show the wings reasonably well.

Pentas (Pentas lanceolata), by the way, are our best year-round butterfly feeding plant, since they flower constantly and all species seem to appreciate the nectar. Oddly, the leaves are loved to death by the Hawk-moth caterpillars but not favoured by any of the butterfly caterpillars.

Ulysses Swallowtail feeding on Pentas
Ulysses Swallowtail

The spectacular Ulysses Swallowtail

Ulysses butterfly perching on flower
Ulysses resting on a begonia flower

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.