Charismatic mammals and birds, even reptiles, tend to get the attention, but the world of the little critters is equally fascinating. Join Steve Woodhall on butterfly watch.
In the traditional Big Five reserves, unless you go on a guided trail, you’re confined to a car or a picnic site so it’s often not that easy to see butterflies. But some species, such as the guinea fowl Hamanumida daedalus (50 mm) are easy to spot because they like to sit on dirt roads. They rest with their wings open, slowly opening and closing them, and flit away when you approach too closely.
Butterflies may seem fast flying, shy and elusive, but if you’re careful you can get close to them. Avoid sudden movements and throwing a shadow over them. If they do fly away, remember they are territorial and a butterfly may well return to where you first saw it. It’s possible to habituate butterflies by patiently sitting still and slowly moving closer each time you see the same insect. They eventually get used to your presence.
Digital photography is a great way to record your butterfly sightings. Modern cameras allow you to shoot the insect fairly small in the frame, crop away all the extra background, and still have a usable image. Also, macro binoculars are now available, which can be close focused on even small butterflies, making identification much easier.
Table Mountain beauty Aeropetes tulbaghia male
Where to spot butterflies
Hilltops: These are ‘lekking’ sites for many butterflies [places used by males for courtship display – Ed.] and some of the best are found where a picnic site is on a hill. Look out for the giant emperor Charaxes castor flavifasciatus (100 mm+) and the small but glorious common fig-tree blue Myrina silenus ficedula (20 mm).
Flowers: Butterflies such the bushveld orange tip Colotis pallene (20 mm) simply cannot resist the blooms of Vernonia centauroides. This flower is very common in dry areas of Kruger and at the right time of the year they teem with butterflies, which allows you to get close up. The spotted joker Byblia ilithyia (25 mm) is another butterfly easy to find on flowers.
Fermenting fruit and sap: Many butterflies are fond of a tipple, so allowing fruit to rot on the ground will attract them. Big spectacular emperors and foresters love to get drunk on fallen fruit and fermenting sap leaking from wounds on trees.
Mud puddles: Mud soaked in urine, old bones and animal droppings attract butterflies to the salts in these animal leavings. They are vegetarian and their diet (plants for caterpillars, nectar for adults) lacks salt so, like antelope, they go looking for it.
Forests: Lowland forests, as found in Mkhuze, Ndumu, Tembe Elephant Park and Kosi Bay, are great places to look for butterflies. If you can do so on foot, so much the better. In the far northeast of KwaZulu-Natal it’s not difficult to find the large, spectacular gold-banded forester Euphaedra neophron neophron (75 mm) under the forest canopy, flitting around close to the ground.
This tiny black pie Tuxentius melaena melaena is drinking salt-rich liquid from a muddy patch.
Best time to spot butterflies
In the hot bushveld and forests, spring (September to November) and late summer/autumn (February to May) are best. Easter is an ideal time to look for butterflies in these areas.
In the higher grassland reserves such as uKhahlamba, midsummer is best. Then you may be fortunate to see what has been proposed as South Africa’s national butterfly, Table Mountain beauty, Aeropetes tulbaghia (80 mm). They are particularly keen on red and orange flowers – especially red-hot pokers Kniphofia sp., and are the sole pollinator of the red disa orchid Disa uniflora.
In the lower altitude grasslands, fynbos and Karoo areas, early spring (August to October) is often very good, with numbers falling off in the heat of summer. A second peak occurs in late summer and autumn (February to May) with many species not found in spring.
Guinea fowl Hamanumida daedalus
Did you know?
- South Africa has more than 660 butterfly species of which over 300 are endemic.
- Our largest butterfly is the emperor swallowtail Papilio ophidicephalus, up to 150 mm across.
- There is an atlassing project for butterflies, called the South African Butterfly Conservation Assessment (SABCA), run by the Animal Demographic Unit of the University of Cape Town and the Lepidopterists’ Society of Africa. It has a virtual museum, linked from the website http://sabca.adu.org.za, where you can upload digital photos and have them identified by experts.
- You can join the Lepidopterists Society of Africa at www.lepsoc.org.za.
This article was published in the spring issue of Wild 2012.