Butterfly clouds

Shows Yellow admiral butterfly, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Yellow Admiral, showing signs of predation

There is a range of butterflies that make the Reserve their home, along with moths. It’s not always possible to capture them with a camera, though.

Here is a small selection found over the summer.

These are from the Nymphalidae family, which is 25% of butterflies in Australia. This group has four functional legs, and two others they keep close to their thorax.

The browns

The Common Brown, Klug’s Xenica and the Swordgrass Brown are members of the subfamily Satyrinae- the browns.

These tend to be brown and orange in colour and tend to have wing eye rings. These butterflies have a shorter proboscis which means they can feed on natives such as the tea-tree flower but not from exotics. They tend to produce one generation a year in Victoria and their caterpillars are camouflaged in browns and greens, taking around a year to develop.

Common Brown butterfly

Butterflies are a common sight in the Reserve, although it is the Common Brown (Heteronympha merope) that has the longest season. It’s a lovely experience to be surrounded by butterflies as they fly up from the tracks well into autumn.

The habitat of the Common Brown ranges from open to wooded habitats. Male butterflies tend to emerge just before females in November and December, and mating occurs in early adulthood. Numbers reach a peak in December and January, although females aestivate (become dormant) during the heat of summer, so it is mainly males flying then. Males maintain small territories, awaiting receptive female butterflies. By February and March there are a few worn males and females are more common. Females can live up to eight months.

Females begin to emerge from their resting places from cool gullies, under logs, burrows in ground – when, it is speculated, the temperature changes and day length shortens – to lay eggs in the more favourable conditions for caterpillars. Rain brings new growth in grasses and the caterpillars develop over winter. These feed mainly at night, resting during the day.

The ability of this butterfly’s caterpillar to eat introduced grasses along with its preferred natives (poas, Microlaena stipoides and will eat from Gahnia sieberian) has allowed its successful adaptation to suburbanisation. The butterfly feeds on Sweet Bursaria, Burgan, Black Wattle as well as eucalyptus sap flows.

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Klug’s Xenica

This butterfly, Geitoneura klugii, looks quite similar to the Common Brown with its brown and orange colouring. There are differences in terms of the ‘eyes’ of the wings as well as the placement of the orange colouring. These butterflies – the Klug’s and Common Brown – can be found flying together and more Klug’s can be found when Common Brown females are aestivating.

Shows Klug's Xenica butterfly, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Klug’s Xenica

Like the Common Brown, this butterfly tends to stay in one place.

This butterfly prefers drier and more open sunlit areas with some shade by overstorey eucalypts and is found across southern Australia.

Adults emerge in early December, males before females. The flight period extends to April, with numbers peaking around January and February. Males claim territory by perching, driving off other males, and courting passing females. While the Common Brown delays egg-laying, the females of Klug’s lay eggs through summer and the caterpillars emerge between three and five months later. As for the Common Brown, the timing is thought to be synchronous with new growth and to avoid summer drought.

The males of this butterfly ‘hill-top’, where they congregate at hilltops or other prominent landmarks. While other butterflies do this, awaiting receptive females to visit when they are ready to mate, it is unclear why the Klug’s do because it is at the end of the season, after females have already mated and are unlikely to travel uphill.

Unlike the Common Brown, the caterpillar of this butterfly feeds during the day, on poas and wallaby grass as well as introduced fescues, and is well camouflaged. Adults are not known to feed from flowers but do from eucalypt and acacia sap flows. Males also ‘mud-puddle’: drinking from mud puddles is thought to be an important source of salts, needed to sustain their energy.

Swordgrass Brown

This kind of butterfly is known only in Australia and the caterpillars tends to feed on gahnia species – native sword grasses. The Tisiphone abeona albifascia is one of a subspecies that show marked geographic differences.

Shows Sword -grass brown butterfly, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Sword -Grass Brown

The adults of this butterfly emerge in November in Victoria, the females just before the males – unlike those of the Common Brown and Klug’s Xenica. They mate soon after and eggs laid in spring tend to reach pupa stage in three to five months, whilst those laid in autumn take five to eight months.

Males patrol more open areas and tend to hill-top in the mornings. Adults fly during sunshine, with a slow, graceful flight within a metre of the ground. During overcast conditions or showers, they tend to settle, and can roost overnight in small numbers. Their flight time extends to autumn.

The caterpillars feed during the early morning when young, then early evening as they grow older, hiding by day at the base of the leaf of the plant they feed from.

The nymphs

The following two butterflies are members of the Nymphalinae subfamily – the nymphs. This group is international, strongly mobile, flies during sunny periods and lives in a range of habitats. They are more colourful than the browns, feeding from low-growing plants, and some breed in Australia while others migrate.

The caterpillars of the two butterflies below are night feeders, like the Common Brown butterfly, but unlike the other two above.

Australian Painted Lady

Like those butterflies above, the Vanessa kershawi has orange colouring but with differences in wing eye placement and the pattering of white and brown.

Shows Yellow painted lady butterfly, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Yellow Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi)

This butterfly is widespread in Australia, flying most of the year except in June and July, and generally more abundant in spring. These butterflies will perch in one position while in colder times and places, absorbing the sunlight for warmth. Migration starts mid-August to late November and tends southward. Large numbers reach Victoria in some springs, and it is thought this coincides with above-average rainfall in previous months.

When they settle in an area, the males defend small territories. There can be several generations in a year. Eggs are laid on a variety of plants including native everlastings and daisies, as well as capeweed and scotch thistle. The caterpillar is drab coloured and shelters in a tube of rolled leaves during the day.

Yellow Admiral

The Yellow Admiral (Vanessa itea) has adapted well to suburbia, like the Common Brown.

Like the Australian Painted Lady, this butterfly occurs throughout the year, although note is made of its habit of passing winter as a caterpillar in cold places like Ballarat. It is a rapid flyer and perches to absorb sunlight for warmth. Males regularly hill-top, gathering mid or late afternoon – in winter after 3pm, late spring after 5pm – and establishing a territory.

Its caterpillar feeds initially during the night from its roll of leaves but as it gets older, it begins to eat during the day, feeding from the nettle family. The adults feed on flowers and also tree sap, sometimes congregating at eucalypt sap flows. It has a habit of feeding and resting head down.

It is a migrating butterfly, often accompanying Vanessa kershawi, although little is known about its habits in this regard. It is thought to follow its food source and will disperse when its food sources are not available.

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A moth

Moths also feature in the Reserve.

The following one, found near the end of its life on the track, is a Mistletoe Moth (Comocrus behri). Gorgeously patterned in strongly contrasting black, white and deep orange, this moth is a day flyer. Feeding off mistletoe when a caterpillar, the adult moth feeds from eucalypt flowers.

This moth also hill-tops, like some of the butterflies above.

See Nature of Gippsland for a great image of an intact Mistletoe Moth.

Shows Mistletoe Moth, Edward Hunter Heritage Bush Reserve

Mistletoe Moth (Comocrus behri)

References and resources

Braby, M.F. & New, T.R. (1999) The Xenicas, Geitoneura klugii and G.acantha (Nymphalidae: Satyrinae), in Kitching, R.L.(Ed.)  Biology of Australian Butterflies. CSIRO Publishing: Collingwood, pp227 – 238.

Braby, M.F. (2000) Butterflies of Australia: Their identification, biology & distribution. CSIRO: Collingwood

Common, I.F.B. (1990) Moths of Australia, Brown Prior Anderson: Burwood.

Orr, A. & Kitching, R. (2010) The Butterflies of Australia. Jacana Books: Crows Nest.


2 responses to “Butterfly clouds

  1. Great post, Seems like it has been quite a busy summer where I am a bit further south with common browns everywhere. Very hard to photograph as you say. Around February there seemed to be a different species around here (not Tarra Bulga). They looked similar to Common Brown’s but quite a bit smaller, I didn’t get a good photos. Any Ideas?

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