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  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Lantau's Lepidoptera

Springtime along the Olympic Trail requires focus and a watchful eye. One may encounter a Common Leopard, a Large Faun or a flitting Tailed Jay. A hard footfall may uncover a Purple Sapphire or stir up a Southern Chinese Peacock. You may even come face-to-face with a Glassy Tiger! Don’t be alarmed! These creatures on average tip the scale at roughly one gram; basically, the weight of a postage stamp! These amazing group of invertebrates within the class Insecta, are under the order Lepidoptera – butterflies and moths. Since over 50% of Lantau Island has been registered National Park status, it takes a mere ten minutes after exiting the Tung Chung City Center to reach the forested trail. The beginnings of this and much of the trail system on the island were historically used as corridors connecting the local villages; its former name, Tung Mui Ancient Path. My ascent of a narrow stairway into the forest leads to a network of cement tracks; infrastructure that was laid out for access by the local water district. Ascending the mountain slope, the catwalk succumbs to natural rock, leaving the Tung Chung Highway below.

My first encounter, a Banded Tree Brown [Lethe confusa] basks in a patch of sun from under the forest canopy.

The more numerous Punchinello [Zemeros flegyas] manages to keep a step ahead of my gait until an unforeseen demarcation of its territory sends it bobbing back to its home turf. Swallowtail silhouettes cruise above the canopy as avian bulbuls noisily alarm the locals of my presence.

Dollops of sun and shade outline the contours of my body, giving me a greater understanding of how the butterflies’ varied patterns help break the outline of their bodies, like that of the Common Glider [Neptis sappho].

I materialize onto a narrow road, opposite lies a tranquil bay; a brilliant blue kingfisher flushes from the water’s edge; its alarm call alerts several egrets, taking flight, their ghost-like apparitions’ float across the inlet’s placid waters. Shortly, I reach a familiar bridge, “What will the stream host today, a heron or the wagtail? It’s the wagtail!” Passing several private residences, I round the bend where a handful of apartment buildings emerge; within minutes I am back under the cover of forest. “I guess that was Pak Mong Tsuen (Village)!” Post Hurricane Hato reveals more open patches of forest (thankfully the residential structures were spared its fury). The next mile of single lane track meanders thru the pleasant farming plots of Ngau Kwu Long, Tai Ho San and Tin Liu. It’s an idyllic setting: nestled at the base of thickly forested hills with Lin Fa Shan (mountain) dominating the horizon. Strolling thru the Tai Ho Valley, you pass vegetable patches interspersed among various fruit trees with a colorfully-lined trail of flowering lantana, asters, wild ginger plus more butterflies than you can imagine!

The heavily vegetated wetland conceals a pair of Greater coucals, their mournful descending huup,huup,huup calls cannot mellow the butterfly menagerie before me, especially when a Common blue bottle [Graphium sarpedon] jettisons in.

This bundle of energy seems to have had one too many sips from an overly sweetened cup of coffee! It is like attempting to focus on a pinball reverberating amid a field of floral bumpers.

Common Mimes [Papilio clytia] are abundant, their black-and-white markings can be confused with the crows or tigers, especially the Glassy tiger [Parantica aglea], which has thinner black margins with fine black lines in its cells plus the mime is more of a dirty white, not as crisp as the tiger. Also, there is the Paper kite [Idea leuconoe] which is not only larger, but when in flight, it appears to be floating to the whims of the wind. The blitz continues when other Papilio species descend; P. polytes,(Common Mormon) seems to be the most abundant of the black swallowtails. I can not be sure if their game of chase is one with a mate playing hard to catch or a territorial squabble.

It seems such behavior is infectious as dueling Red Helens [P. helenus] follow suit.

The same goes for a couple of Paris peacocks [P. paris].

The difficulty here is that there are many different forms, both mimetic and polymorphic, as well as *sexual/seasonal dimorphism, wet and dry morphs that is prevalent among this genus. (*male and female are physically different in appearance/colors become more subdued between the wet and dry season)

Large, flashing white, hindwing patches allows a quick I.D. of a Red Helen [P. Helenus]; whereas the fluttering wings of iridescent blue on black atop a lantana (L. camara) umbel reveal a Southern Chinese Peacock [P. dialis]. For me, these common names pique the curiosity and grip the imagination. The most flamboyant has to be the Paris peacock [P. paris]; its topside appears to have been sprayed with shards of emerald crystals and splashed onto each hindwing, a large turquoise-blue patch that literally shouts, “I have arrived!”

Not to be outdone, in flies a Common rose [Pachliopta aristolochiae]; rose-red cells outline the white inner cells of velvety black hindwings, its upper wings of powder gray with thick veins of black are held above a thickset body of vermillion red.

Multiple Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia) busily flit about chasing away rivals or to woo a mate. The family Hesperidae are numerous; typically colored in some shade of brown or gold with an occasional spot or two, making a quick I.D. a bit more difficult.

For that reason, I generally take a quick picture before attempting a better composition. This happened with a very worn White-edged blue Baron (Euthalia phemius), thinking it was a skipper.

Shadows recede becoming highly prized real estate; its cooling attributes come into question as the humidity continues to climb, not to mention the crescendo of a cicada symphony. A patch of brown on a healthy leaf appears to be a moth but up close I discover it is a plant hopper called Racania speculum. The next tier up I find an Amata polymita moth, the wasp-like orange body wrapped with concentric rings of black, is another means of deterring predators.

And floating over it all a dazzling False Tiger Moth [Dysiphania militaris]. It alights atop a fern leaf on the forest floor. Its bright colors warning predators, “Bug off! I don’t taste good!”

Under the shadows, a short bridge complete with handrail is an inviting place to have a seat and grab a bite to eat. Several other photo-ops ensue: 1.) a damselfly refuses to relinquish its post, even when I am literally, face-to-face with it!

2.) a metallic wood borer has me mesmerized, not by its colors but for its behavior: skimming upward, downward, side-to-side across the surface of a trunk with such dexterity – as if sliding across a pane of glass. 3.) Crumbs cascading from my sandwich induce a fish feeding frenzy in the waters below. Rejuvenated it is time to reverse direction. It doesn’t take long before I find myself in another ‘stare down,’ this time with a set of bulbous, yellow-green eyes of a carpenter bee (Xylocopa).

“Guess who blinked first?”

However, when a Purple Sapphire alights atop an aster, there is no question as to who has made a stately entrance.

Wings opened or closed, it is a real beauty!

What a pleasant way to finish the day! A visit the year before in April had a lasting impression with such activity, so I was hoping for a repeat performance. I had concerns that May was a bit late but as you can see, “I was not disappointed!”

Location: Lantau Island, Hong Kong - China

Date: May of 2018

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