30 March 2009

Autumn butterfly

One of the most distinctive butterflies of Table Mountain in autumn is the Cape Autumn Widow, Dira clytus clytus. I photographed this one along the Woodcutter's Trail, just as you come out of the forest into the newly cleared area above the Newlands Forest car park. André Claassens kindly confirmed my identification and added that it looks like a female with its larger abdomen and more rounded wings. He says they are very common during April.

The family Satyriinae or browns (which includes the Table Mountain Beauty) are grass feeders, but have been successful in colonizing the grass-poor fynbos. Their diet of grass means they are not poisonous, so theoretically they cannot afford to be highly visible (tell that to the Table Mountain Beauty!) and they rely on camouflage to escape detection. By far the most common here in the Cape is the Cape Autumn Widow or Cape Autumn Brown, Dira clytus clytus which appears everywhere on the mountain during late summer and autumn sometimes in congregations of several thousand individuals (according to Anton Pauw and Steven Johnson in their wonderful book Table Mountain: A Natural History). They have eyespots on their wings which are thought to confer some protection against predatory birds. Seldom do you see them on flowers, but females are often seen flying low over grass tussocks in which they scatter their eggs.
The Table Mountian Beauty. Photographed on Constantiaberg by Alice Notten.

A few years ago, I met legendary butterfly man, André Claassens, who has contributed many articles on butterfly/plant interactions, which usually involve other goggas like ants, to Veld & Flora. André has an encyclopaedic knowledge of butterflies and moths, and has observed, bred and written about them for years. He has written two books, one of which I carry with me on any hike on Table Mountain (Butterflies of the Cape Peninsula: A comprehensive Guide).
Most websites and guides just identify the butterfly, but contribute little else - nothing about their lifecycles, what they eat, not even what the larvae look like, and moths hardly get a look-in, so books like Andre's two, and Mike Pickers Field Guide to Insects of South Africa are just fantastic for nosy parkers like me.
I bought Field Guide to Insects from the BotSoc's bookshop on Saturday, and the lady serving burst into laughter to think that a whole book should be devoted to insects. "Its not like they are like wild animals, or something" she remarked. I must be a bit odd in the head then but I can spend hours trying to find out about a speckled moth on my bathroom window, or what antlions turn into.

1 comment:

LaLa said...

Hi..thanks for the photos.
I'm trying to identify a butterfly I saw in Bend, Oregon last fall. It was large & brown with rounded wings and fleshy peach spots.
Any clue??