Butterfly spotting is actually easy provided you’re observant. She lists a few interesting facts on these ephemeral creatures
The common emigrant butterfly fluttered over the maddening traffic of Anna Salai as though it were high up on the Western Ghats. It was a bright yellow — a striking contrast to the smog-covered road. I counted over 20 butterflies while riding from Teynampet to Simpsons that morning and almost lost balance once during the process. They were everywhere, it seemed. Or, I was perhaps more observant that day. For, only six days ago, I had tagged along with J. Abraham, a 16-year-old birder who is studying butterflies, for a butterfly-watch at The Theosophical Society.
We spot a pair of common emigrant butterflies (perhaps distant relatives of our Anna Salai friend) the instant we step into the densely wooded campus. The couple plays under mottles of sunlight that filters through the leaves.
Butterfly fact: The insects are daytime creatures. They are cold-blooded and hence like to spread out their wings when the sun is out
Tiny lavender-coloured creatures fly out like miniscule choppers from the green cover along the way. They are the blues. We notice that they keep to the short bushes — they sit on a shoot one moment and flutter away the next.
Fact: They feed on nectar, sap from plants and salt from puddles or even human sweat
A little off a path leading to the Adyar River, we spot a broken section of a butterfly’s wing. It’s the bottom half — it is black and orange with three white stripes. Abraham identifies it as that of the common mormon’s.
Fact: A broken wing almost always means the end of its life
We walk on as dark clouds gather overhead — more blues flutter out of a bush topped with pink flowers. Black common crow butterflies with white dots along their wings are quick to follow them. A sudden gust of wind catches us off-guard, but the light-as-air butterflies fly unaffected.
Fact: They have micro-scales on their wings, similar to those on the body of fish. These scales give them colour through the iridescence effect — the colour changes as per the angle of view. Butterflies fly such that air flows along the direction of the scales.
It begins to rain and we run for cover. Perhaps butterflies do so too. For, from the moment the rain starts to the time it stops half-an-hour later, we see none.
Fact: Wet wings can cause death since they tend to become heavy, making it difficult for the butterflies to fly. They could become prey to insects such as ants. Wings are extremely delicate. The rudimentary heart pumps lymph into the wings as the butterfly emerges from the pupa. The wings expand, much like a balloon does when air is filled.
Once the rain stops, Abraham catches a flash of black and red with his well-tuned birder’s eyes. It’s a lone crimson rose with its magnificent black wings and red patterns.
Fact: Butterflies use colour to woo the opposite sex. The bright colours also ward off predators. Some species exhibit mimicry — in which a species evolves to share the characteristics of another species that enjoys protection from predators.
The after-effects of rain leave our surroundings enveloped in an invisible sheet of moisture. It is then that he comes out like a ghost, an apparition in white. He is smaller than an adult crimson rose, bigger than the blues. We are not able to identify him — he is too swift for us to see the patterns on the wings. We follow him wherever he goes, our slippers crunching the wet undergrowth. But he gives us the slip.
Fact: Not all butterflies display the same speed of flight. While some flutter about lazily, there are others that just flash past. This is their way of adapting themselves to local conditions.
We spot a butterfly clinging to a thin shoot along the way, its wings folded behind. We observe the tiny black-and-white spots on its upper body, perfect in spacing, as though someone had placed them after calculated thought. Along the tip of the orange-coloured wings are perfectly shaped half-moons of white inside black. It’s a tawny coaster, says Abraham. The wings of this guy, in sunshine orange with black spots, are said to be beautiful. We wait and wait, for a sight of its flight. But he denies us the privilege.
Fact: A butterfly’s life is not all that rosy. It has a lot of predators — they are delicacies for birds, especially when in the caterpillar stage. Only a few, from the hundreds of eggs laid, survive. Their metamorphosis from an egg to caterpillar to pupa to butterfly continues to fascinate us. It is enzymes inside the pupa that transform it into a winged beauty. There’s magic in the way their multitude of colours are born.
(Source of facts: Naturalist ‘Poochi’ Venkat)