Monday, 15 March 2021

Finding a Rare Butterfly - Butterfly & Moth Citizen Science

In September 2020 I read "Finding Forest Ringlets" in Forest and Bird magazine. I'd not heard of Forest Ringlet butterflies before, but was intrigued by the article. I never imagined I'd see such a rare butterfly. The article says "It's estimated that fewer than 100 people have seen and identified the butterfly in the wild." 

At Risk - Forest Ringlet Butterfly

When I'm tramping in the bush, I'm always on the lookout for interesting things, berries on the forest floor, unusual fungi and so on. When I walk along the coast, I keep an eye out for copper butterflies. Now I added looking for butterflies in the forest. I was looking for a glimpse of fluttering orange - but the first butterfly I spotted in the bush was a red admiral. On another tramp I caught a glimpse of orange but the butterfly was gone before I could identify it. 

Then in January while tramping in a remote part of Remutaka Forest Park, I came across a forest ringlet! Again it was the fluttering glimpse of orange that I saw, luckily it settled on a stem right in front of me and I was able to take the photograph you see at the top of the blog. I wasn't quite sure it was a forest ringlet until I got home and looked it up - with its wings closed it looked different from my memory of the Wanted poster. 

Poster asking for reports of forest ringlet butterflies

I was excited to be able to report this sighting to the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust who are undertaking research into the forest ringlet. While the butterfly appears to be among Astelia leaves, the forest ringlet expert, Norm Twigge, confirmed that there were also Gahnia leaves in the photo (the host for its caterpillars) and the butterfly was most likely laying eggs.

The forest ringlet is New Zealand's only forest butterfly. The butterflies appear in January or February. Threats are thought to be loss of habitat, predatory wasps, flies and introduced birds. 

Sadly despite being At Risk these butterflies are not protected from collectors who buy and sell dead butterflies. 

Did you know you can take action to help our native butterflies and moths? Most people know that we need to take action to help our native birds, but butterflies and moths aren't often thought about as animals that need conserving. Yet our native butterflies and moths play an important role in our ecosystems, as pollinators and as part of the food web. New Zealand has around 1800 different species of butterflies and moths, most of them moths. Some are listed as threatened and at risk, such as the forest ringlet butterfly. 

Pūriri moth - pepetuna 

Pūriri moths are New Zealand's largest moths with a wingspan of up to 15 cm, they are only found in the North Island. I've blogged about them before, but was delighted to come across some last spring in the bush. This is a female. The males are generally smaller with white markings rather than black.

New Zealand red admiral - kahukura, looking rather battered

New Zealand red admirals can overwinter and lay eggs in the spring. I imagine that might be why this one looks so battered?

What can we do to help? One of the problems is that scientists don't have enough information about some species, especially those that live in remote places. This is where Citizen Science Projects are helpful.

Butterfly Counts

Just like the Garden Bird Survey, counting butterflies every year is encouraged. It's good to do counts like this at the same time each year. The Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust suggest counting in November. Follow this link to find out more: Big Backyard Butterfly Count.

Scientists use transects (marked or unmarked lines) to do counts, so that they survey the same place each year and can compare data from year to year. You can find out more about how to do this on Science Learn. The results would then be reported on the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust website.

Maui's copper butterfly

Any butterfly count I do along the coast always features copper butterflies. There are many different species of copper butterfly, including Rauparaha's copper and Maui's copper and it's hard to tell them apart except from examining photos. I've blogged about telling the difference between them here. Despite the excitement of finding the forest ringlet, these are still my favourite butterflies.

Reporting Butterfly and Moth sightings

When I have photographs of butterflies and moths I upload them onto iNaturalist . This is a great place to report sightings and get help with ID. I've joined two projects 'NZ Moths and their caterpillars' and 'NZ Butterflies and their caterpillars'. Unfortunately some of my photos aren't sharp enough to get more than a general ID. It's good to take photos from different angles too. I found this unusual-looking native Plume Moth which I thought might be Amblyptilia repletalis. 

Plume moth 

But the expert helping with ID had this to say about my photo, which was the second one I'd put up hoping it was clearer. 

So clearly I have a way to go with my moth photography!

Creating a Butterfly Garden

I'm not sure that creating a butterfly garden quite counts as citizen science, but it's still a great thing to do. Here are some tips of what to plant to attract native butterflies in the garden. You might be surprised to see nettles on the list! That's because our native admirals lay their eggs on nettles, and they are a great food source for the caterpillars. It's important to consider both food sources for caterpillars as well as for the butterflies. It's tempting to plant non-natives but it's always a good idea to check with Weedbusters as to whether a non-native is an invasive weed. For example, Buddleia is known as the butterfly bush, but it is an invasive weed in many parts of New Zealand.

Yellow admiral - kahu kowhai feeding on tauhinu

Yellow admiral butterflies introduced themselves to New Zealand around the mid 1800s, they prefer to use introduced nettles for their caterpillars, unlike the native red admiral that uses onga onga.

Monarch butterfly - kahuku

Monarch butterflies introduced themselves to New Zealand around the 1870s. It's thought they were introduced to New Caledonia from where they travelled to Australia and New Zealand. Because they introduced themselves they are described as native.

More information

ID guides

  • An Exquisite Legacy: the life and work of New Zealand naturalist G. V. Hudson by George Gibbs Potton & Burton 2020
  • The Monarch Butterfly in New Zealand by George Gibbs, Entomological Society of New Zealand 2013, available from the Moths and Butterflies of New Zealand Trust.
Organisations and interest groups
Related blogposts
Pūriri moths - finding caterpillar holes
Copper butterflies - the difference between Maui and Rauparaha butterflies 
Nature Heroes - some of the material in this blogpost is included in this one aimed at teenagers over on my Nature Heroes site

No comments:

Post a Comment