21 October 2017

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks - Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks
Featuring : Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park

A larger-than-life Common Tiger greets visitors to the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park

I recall that, some time back in 2012, I was approached by two very enthusiastic and intelligent boys from Raffles Institution, asking for help to set up a butterfly habitat at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. At that time, the park was just newly upgraded under the Public Utilities Board's ABC programme to feature a natural stream running through the 62-Hectare park. A concrete canal was demolished and a naturalised meandering stream with lush banks of wildflowers and other water plants took its place.

The Butterfly Habitat is a narrow linear butterfly garden situated next to a paved path

Today, the park is popular with the local residents in the vicinity, and is well-utilised as an outdoor exercise amenity - complete with a dog run, cycling and jogging trails, water features, event lawns, water sensitive urban design features like bioswales and cleansing biotopes. Commercial activities like a spa and F&B outlets complete the public-friendly amenities that can be found at this park, making a weekend outing convenient and enjoyable.

A sign sponsored by April Group, describing the history of how the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park started

Back to the two boys from RI - Zeng Tianchen and Ernest Aw, and their plans to set up a butterfly garden at Bishan-AMK Park. I was impressed by their systematic and organised plans to persuade the authorities to set aside a small plot of land in the sprawling park for a small butterfly garden. They crafted an entire business plan on how they envisioned the butterfly garden could work, and even scouted out for alternative sites to propose to NParks.

Ample interpretative signs help to educate interested visitors to the plants and butterflies of the Butterfly Habitat.  Signs also carry QR codes where visitors can scan and be brought to even more information on the internet.

Given my busy travelling schedule then, I was only able to spare a couple of weekends to give some advice and link them up with the parks manager of Bishan-AMK Park to get approval for the site to create the butterfly garden. They also organised a talk for the community to encourage the residents to volunteer to maintain the butterfly garden. Their enthusiasm gained momentum, and with the support of their teachers in RI and the community, the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park was born.

A narrow gravel path leads the visitor into the Butterfly Habitat

NParks even organised an event and got the reputable producer of pulp and paper, April Group to sponsor an event and a series of interpretative signages at the Butterfly Habitat. Today, these signages help visitors and enthusiasts to the Butterfly Habitat to understand the plants and related butterfly species that they can find at the site. NParks also added useful educational signages to share more information about the plants that are cultivated at the Butterfly Habitat.

The Butterfly Habitat is a short linear butterfly-friendly garden, featuring many host and nectaring plants for butterflies. On a good day, one can find at least 10 species of butterflies fluttering amongst the flowers and shrubbery. A community-based team maintains the Butterfly Habitat with volunteers helping to keep the plants in healthy condition. Some of the volunteers also help to breed caterpillars and then release the adult butterflies at the Habitat.

Lush host and nectaring plants found at the Butterfly Habitat

The two talented RI boys went on to pursue their tertiary education, and the maintenance and upkeep of the Butterfly Habitat fell on the shoulders of NParks and a community of volunteers under the capable chairmanship of Tian HM, who is from the landscaping industry.

Typically, the more common urban species can be found at the Butterfly Habitat. Amongst the Papilionidae, one can regularly spot the Lime Butterfly and Common Mormon. Occasionally, the fast-flying Common Bluebottle and Tailed Jay can be observed zipping by to check out the nectaring plants.

The Plain Tiger is almost a daily feature at the Butterfly Habitat. Its caterpillar host plants the Crown Flower and Blood Flower can be found at the site, and if you look hard enough, you should be able to see some caterpillars chewing on the leaves of their host plants. Other Danainae caterpillar host plants can also be found here, and the occasional Tiger or Crow can be spotted at the Butterfly Habitat.

The Painted Jezebels visit the nectar-rich flowers at the Butterfly Habitat, and the availability of the caterpillar host plants of the Emigrant species - primarily Lemon and Mottled, ensures that these butterflies are regularly around at the Butterfly Habitat. The Common Grass Yellow makes its appearance at the Butterfly Habitat once in a while, fluttering restlessly amongst the plants, stopping to feed and then goes on its way elsewhere.

On hot sunny days, look for the Blue and Peacock Pansy butterflies. Whilst skittish, they may be approached more easily when feeding on flowers. The Tawny Coster, featured prominently on the main signage of the Butterfly Habitat, makes a seasonal appearance at the site, depending on the availability of its caterpillar host plants nearby.

Amongst the smaller Lycaenidae, keep a sharp look out for the Pea Blue, Grass Blues, Peacock Royal and other tailed beauties. The Skippers also visit the flowers and are usually more active in the early morning hours of the day. All in all, about 30-40 species of butterflies have been spotted at the Butterfly Habitat @ Bishan-AMK Park.

The planting design at the Butterfly Habitat should allow more space between the clusters of plants to avoid human-butterfly interaction that is a bit too close for comfort (for the butterflies)

The very busy park with many visitors moving around near the Butterfly Habitat does affect the butterfly activity at the site. The linear design that places the plants too close to the main footpaths tend to scare off the more skittish species as people walk or jog past.

Within the Butterfly Habitat itself, the very compact placement of plants and the narrow trails amongst the plants also reduce the opportunities for butterflies to stop and feed without being alarmed by visitors walking nearby. As the design brings human movement much too close to the plants and flowers, butterflies tend to look for "safer" areas to feed without fear of encounters with predators. Human movements are also interpreted as predatory behaviour which scares off the butterflies.

Amongst the more successful butterfly gardens, there are always open areas around the planters where the butterflies can beat a hasty retreat if any predatory movements are spotted. The design should also allow for some stand-off distance between the plants and footpaths so that the proximity of observers is outside the 'circle of fear' of many butterfly species. Otherwise the butterflies will be alarmed and fly off.

The open areas beside the stream could do with some clusters of butterfly-attracting plants in a more 'private' area for butterflies without too much human movements nearby

The area near the stream adjacent to the Butterfly Habitat should also be made use of, to create quieter sanctuaries where butterflies can feed without any disturbance from human interactions. The arrangement of butterfly-attracting host and nectaring plants should also be spread further apart and allow wider spaces in between them.

The Butterfly Habitat is not too far from the nature reserves at Lower Peirce Reservoir Park and the Central Catchment Reserves. The proximity to these nature areas should be an advantage over the more urban butterfly gardens. Hopefully, with some re-design of the planting clusters and a wider choice of plants, the Butterfly Habitat can see a greater diversity of butterfly species in future.

Text and Photos by Khew SK

15 October 2017

Favourite Nectaring Plants #14

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plants #14
The Golden Dewdrop (Duranta erecta)

A male Plain Tiger feeding on the attractive purple flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

Our fourteenth butterfly nectaring plant in this series is an attractive flowering bush, the Golden Dewdrop (Duranta erecta). This plant, with its lush green leaves, purple flowers and golden yellow fruits, is often cultivated in many parks and gardens in Singapore as hedge or as a colourful accent to the horticultural palette in landscape design.

The Golden Dewdrop is certainly not considered a "weed" or a wildflower, unlike the last couple of plants featured in our Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring plants series of articles. Often preferred by gardeners for its showy terminal clusters of purple flowers - known as racemes, the Golden Dewdrop is also unique in that its clusters of yellow globular fruits are also featured as part of the aesthetic value of the plant.

A flowering Golden Dewdrop bush at an urban garden

The genus name of this plant is in honour of Castore Durante da Gualdo, a fifteenth-century physician, botanist and poet of the Italian Renaissance. Amongst Castore Durante's major botanical works were the Herbario Nuovo, published in 1585, which is a description of medicinal plants from Europe and the Indies (East and West) and Il Tesoro della Sanità, published in 1586, is a collection of folk-medicine remedies for the family, with practical rules for hygiene and dietary suggestions.

The specific epithet erecta means "upright" in Latin. The plant is also known as D. repens, from the Latin for "creeping". The latter name was originally used to identify smaller-leaved varieties of the species. In some literature, the Golden Dewdrop is also called D. plumieri. However, in contemporary botanical references, the name Duranta erecta has been the most widely accepted taxonomic name for this plant.

It is considered an exotic plant in Singapore, but is common and found in many public and private gardens. Interestingly, the Golden Dewdrop is registered as an invasive weed by many councils of Australia. It is considered a fast growing weed that is spread by birds from domestic areas to natural reserves. It was introduced and marketed as a hedge plant by commercial nurseries in Australia. Many people now fight to keep this thorny pest under control. It is highly ranked in the most invasive weeds in Australia.

Plant Biodata:
Family: Verbenaceae
Synonyms:Duranta repens, D. plumieri
Country/Region of Origin: Tropical America
English Common Names: Golden Dew-Drop, Lilac-flowered Golden Dewdrop, Pigeon Berry, Sky Flower, Brazilian Sky Flower
Other Local Names: Kachang Puteh, 金露花, 假连翘, 小本苦林盘

The Golden Dewdrop is a sprawling evergreen shrub and can even grow into a small tree of up to 6 m tall and can spread to an equal width. The shrub is usually well-leafed and used as boundary hedges or even for topiary in themed gardens. A mature plant has thick woody stems growing erect from the ground but new leaves grow prolifically and spreads rapidly. There are a wide variety of cultivars available, including 'alba', 'aurea', 'Aussie Gold', 'Gold Mound', 'Geisha Girl', 'sapphire showers', and 'variegata'.

The serrated-edged mature leaves of the Golden Dewdrop

The leaves are light green, elliptic to ovate, opposite with serrate or entire leave margins, and grow up to 7.5 cm long and 3.5 cm broad, with a 1.5 cm petiole. The leaves are soft when immature, but becomes a darker shade of green with thicker lamina when mature. Foliar venation is net-veined and each leaf ends in a sharp tip.

Axillary thorns along the stems.  Danger! Keep away from these sharp needle-like thorns!

Mature specimens possess axillary thorns, which are often absent on younger specimens. These thin, needle-like thorns are particularly sharp, and a photographer who is unaware of this "vicious" weapon on the plant, can suffer some particularly painful encounters. It should also be highlighted that the leaves of the plant is toxic, and combined with the thorns, it is best to be cautious around this plant.

Flower buds and flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

The bisexual flowers are light-blue or lavender, produced in tight clusters located on terminal and axillary stems referred to as racemes. The flowers bloom almost all year long. The plant grows best in full sun, where it blooms abundantly, but also tolerates semi-shaded locations. It should be pruned regularly to encourage new growth.

Fruit cluster of the Golden Dewdrop

The fruit of the Golden Dewdrop is a small globose yellow or orange berry, up to 11 mm in diameter and containing several seeds. These berries of the plant contains toxins, and are confirmed to have killed children, dogs and cats. However, it appears that some birds eat the fruit without ill effects, and indeed the seeds are dispersed by birds.

The golden yellow fruit of the Golden Dewdrop which probably gave its common name to the plant.  Pretty, but poisonous!

The berries may look pretty and almost delicious, but they are certainly to be avoided. Phytochemical analysis of fruits yielded alkaloids, glycoside, saponins, and tannins and poisoning is consistent with alkaloid-type reactions. When the fruits ripen, they turn black and shriveled. The seeds are contained within the fruit and are usually dispersed by birds that ingest them.

A selection of Swallowtails feeding on the flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

Now we move over to our butterflies. The Golden Dewdrop is a reasonably attractive butterfly nectaring plant, particularly in the urban parks and gardens. When the purple flowers are in full bloom, and where the garden is butterfly-friendly, many species are usually attracted to the flowers to feed. The larger Papilionidae love the flowers, and amongst the urban dwellers, we have seen the Common Mormon, Common Rose, Lime Butterfly, Common Mime and even the speedy Common Bluebottle feeding on the Golden Dewdrop flowers.

Some Pieridae butterfly species that like the Golden Dewdrop flowers

The Pieridaes also like the flowers for nectar, and the fast flyers amongst the Emigrants are often seen stopping to feed on the purple flowers. Striped Albatross is also a frequent visitor - both males and females, and the ubiquitous Common Grass Yellow. The high-flying Painted Jezebel drops down from its aerial acrobatics to refuel at the Golden Dewdrop flowers.

Many species of Crows and Tigers are attracted to the flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

The large Crows and Tigers are regularly seen feeding on the Golden Dewdrop flowers. Amongst those city residents seen are the Plain and Common Tigers, Dark and Blue Glassy Tigers and even the odd King Crow and Striped Blue Crow. Up north in Malaysia, the Dark Blue Tiger and Yellow Glassy Tiger (both of which are recorded as seasonal migrants in Singapore) have also been observed at the purple flowers of this plant.

Some Nymphalid butterflies that love the purple flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

The urbanite Nymphalidaes also take to the flowers of the Golden Dewdrop, and amongst them, we have observed the Tawny Coster, Blue/Peacock/Chocolate Pansy and Leopard at the flowers of this plant.

Amongst the Lycaenidae, I have only seen the Grass Blues stopping to feed at the Golden Dewdrop flowers, although it is a mystery why more urban species like the Common Tit, Peacock Royal and Cycad Blue, all of which have been seen flying in the vicinity of the plant, do not quite prefer the flowers as a nectaring source. Perhaps other observers who have photograph these Lycaenidae feeding on the purple flowers can share your encounters here.

Small skippers that feed on the flowers of the Golden Dewdrop

Finally, amongst the skippers found in our local parks and gardens, the most common species found at the purple flowers of the Golden Dewdrop is the Small Branded Swift. Other species observed feeding are the Lesser Dart, Palm Bob and one or two of the Awls.

So the next time you are out enjoying yourself at a community garden or a butterfly garden where the Golden Dewdrop is cultivated, do keep a keen eye on the pretty purple flowers of this plant and watch out for the butterflies that stop and feed at this favourite nectaring source.

Text by Khew SK : Photos by Chng CK, Foo JL, Huang CJ, Khew SK, Lee KH, Loke PF and Cindy Yeo.

Butterflies' Favourite Nectaring Plant #13 : Coat Buttons