Butterflies at Changi

Airports are not nice places. They are people-processing facilities par excellence, designed for maximum efficiency, maximum control of the hordes of people who pass through them. “Getting stuck at the airport” is an acknowledged hazard of travelling by air, and no-one ever says they “had a great time at the airport” or visited an airport just for fun. That said, not all airports are equally soul-destroying. Singapore’s Changi, in fact, is not bad at all: if I had to get stuck at an airport, it would be my first choice. In fact, it was my first choice, since I picked it as our stop-over between here and Europe last month after comparing it against others endured on previous trips.

Why? In the first place, the background colour is not grim steel-and-concrete grey but a warm sandstone. In the second, they have gone to a lot of trouble to bring the natural world indoors. There is a whole wall of greenery in a large atrium and seven themed gardens (bamboo, Heliconia, cactus, sunflower, ferns and orchids), koi ponds and (the clincher for me) a two-storey-high tropical butterfly garden with its very own six-metre waterfall.

Click on these thumbnails for larger images.

Butterfly on feeder
Butterflies on feeder
waterfall in butterfly house
The waterfall in the butterfly house
Butterfly and maintenance team
Butterfly on staghorn, maintenance team in background
butterflies on feeder
Butterflies feeding on pineapple slices
pink orchids
Pitcher plants
Pitcher plants in the butterfly house

Spotted doves

pair of birds on branch
Spotted Doves, Streptopelia chinensis, high in our paperbark tree

I have been trying for about a year to note all the species of birds in our garden and I am still adding new ones to my list. I saw these two doves fly into the branches of our paperbark tree, only just within reach of my telephoto lens, yesterday. Slater’s Field Guide tells me they are Spotted Turtle-doves and that the species is introduced, not native, and is now a “common resident around cities and large towns … spreading into natural bushland”. The distribution map shows them east and south of the Great Dividing Range from about Cairns to Adelaide, but I don’t think they can (yet) be very common here.

This couple were sidling up to each other like these two amorous Peaceful Doves but they just preened for a while and flew off again. They are, incidentally, quite a lot larger than Peaceful Doves – Slater’s says 27-28cm compared to the Peaceful Doves’ 19-21cm.

Speaking of doves, the dove orchids just outside this room have flowered this morning. I knew without even looking, because I smelt them when I opened the window – a lovely smell but quite strong. These orchids are supposed to predict rain but I have just checked and the other two clumps are not at all interested in flowering. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

Dove Orchids

Local lore has it that the our common Dove Orchids flower ten days before rain. It is approximately correct on all points.

Just so we know what we’re talking about, here is the flower:

a spray of Dove orchids
Dove orchids

The flowers are quite small, about 5 cm across, but are abundant and have a lovely scent. Sometimes we walk into the garden, take a deep breath and realise the orchids are out before we see them. The flowers do only last for a couple of days, unfortunately, but they are very pretty for that time. Between flowerings, the plant is easily overlooked – a messy tangle of stems, roots and leaves, especially if it has been there for a while. The dull green leaves are 6 – 7 cm long and 2 – 2.5 cm wide.

messy orchid plant
The orchid after flowering. This one has been on its palm trunk for several years.

Now, about all those partial truths:

  • Dove orchids are not quite local. They are native to a broad area of southern Asia (from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam to the Phillipines and China) but not, apparently, northern Australia. New Guinea and Christmas Island, yes; Australian mainland, no. But they are well established in gardens around Townsville, growing and propagating happily with no attention at all. If wouldn’t surprise me if they have gone feral along our tropical coast.
  • ‘Dove orchid’ is the only common name used for them locally, and it is quite appropriate because the buds are shaped like little white birds; some people see a resemblance between the open blossom and a dove in flight, too. But ‘Dove Orchid’ is used for a quite different flower in Central America and some sources call ours the ‘Pigeon Orchid’. The scientific name is unambiguous, of course: Dendrobium crumenatum.
  • How could a plant ‘know’ that it is going to rain? It can’t, of course. We thought for a long time that our orchids were responding to an increase in humidity but it turns out that flowering is triggered by a sudden drop in temperature (Orchids Wiki suggests ‘at least 5.5 C’ is needed) and all the flowers will open together nine days later, not ten, according to my sources. The temperature drop often precedes the onset of rain, so once again, a partial truth.

All of our dove orchids – four clumps of them in various trees and shrubs – flowered together last Friday. Let’s see if it pours rain tomorrow or Monday!

Friday 11 November: the results are …

Townsville got 3.8 mm of rain on Monday 7th, none at all in the week before that day and none in the following two days, according to the BoM stats.

The Monday was the tenth day after the orchids flowered, so it looks like local lore is vindicated. On the other hand, those rainfall figures are for the airport and we may not have had even that much of a shower – and 3.8 mm hardly qualifies as ‘rain’ anyway!

In the immortal words of the last paragraph of every scientific paper written in the last fifty years, ‘more research is required.’

Orchid – fly – spider

Spray of purple orchids
The flowers

While we’re on spiders, and particularly flower spiders, here’s another – in a setting which neatly demonstrates cause and effect in the food chain.

Our golden orchids flowered a few weeks ago and a purple one followed suit last week. The golden orchids are almost scentless (as far as I’m concerned, anyway) but the purple ones have a strong, sweet perfume which obviously attracts our (in)famous Queensland Fruit Fly, Bactrocera tryoni. There were always a dozen or more of these on the orchid spray, and they came to it last year as well although I don’t usually see them around the garden at all.

A careful look at the orchids revealed another kind of creature on them – flower spiders, there for the fruit flies. The brown one pictured was the bigger of two that I found; the other was the same species as the Flower Spider which caught the wasp, but a smaller individual. Both belong to the same family, Thomisidae, commonly known as ‘Flower Spiders’ and, perhaps mystifyingly, as ‘Crab Spiders’ but I haven’t got a more specific identity for the brown one yet.

Queensland fruit fly on orchid
The fly
Brown and white spider on orchid
The spider
Spider and fly on orchid
Relative sizes

Here’s the Thomisidae family description from Ron Atkinson’s Find-a-spider Guide, which incidentally explains the origin of the common names:

The body is small to moderate in size. The abdomen is somewhat large and more variable in shape than the cephalothorax. The legs are visibly spiny, especially the first two pairs which are very robust and curve forwards in crab-like fashion. The body colour may be white, green or brown to match the colour of the surfaces on which the spider is most likely to be found. The usual habitats are on leaves, in flowers or on/under bark. In the last of these habitats the spider’s surfaces are roughened to improve the camouflage.