IN PURSUIT OF THE ORANGE TIP
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). In pursuit of the Orange Tip. Serendipity. May 2004. Page 8.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne goes in search of the Orange Tip Butterfly
“What on earth is that?” exclaimed Wicky Wickremesekera, one of our or naturalist chauffeur guides. A white butterfly with a crimson tip to the wing had flown over and settled on a Lantana. It looked so different and striking, it seemed to shine across like a beacon. The arrival of the Crimson Tip was most fortuitous as it was another species I needed to get. I had seen it a few times before in and around Yala National Park. But it had evaded my efforts to capture it on film. This was my last chance before I closed off the capture of images for a booklet I was working on the Birds, Butterflies and Dragonflies of Sri Lanka. The project had already taken a year more than I had anticipated and kept spilling over from one week end to another, as I sought to get more and more images to illustrate the book. Assisting me with the butterflies were Michael and Nancy van der Poorten who now reside in Canada. I had relied heavily on their expertise to assist me with the identification of the tricky species, of which there are many, and also to write short accounts on their habitat and range.
We had stopped by the main road from Mannar to Talaimannar because we had spied another of my target species, the Orange Tip Butterfly. This is not a rare butterfly, and I had had several sightings around the country. But it is so well camouflaged on the underside, it becomes invisible as soon as it alights and closes its wings. Our visit to Mannar was primarily a scouting trip before the birding season began. But photographing the butterflies were also high on my list of priorities.
By now everyone had clambered out of the vehicle to admire the Crimson Tip which was sipping nectar from a Lantana shrub. The Lantana is an invasive species which is creating problems all over Sri Lanka. The only thing in its favour is that it is popular with butterflies. The Crimson Tip was about ten feet away, through a tangle of Lantana. A close approach risked disturbing all the butterflies as I would have to push my way through. I decided on a cautious strategy of taking some safety shots from where we were. I had barely taken a few, before it sailed away from view. My attention turned to the other butterflies on the Lantana. A few Orange Tips came and went, barely pausing and allowing me chance of photographing the. I decided to stalk along the road. Orange Tips kept flying past busily, without pause. I returned to the Lantana bushes and photographed a Blue Tiger. A Common Tiger and a Plain Tiger also joined the flock of butterflies.
The Tigers are an interesting group of butterflies. The caterpillars feed on plants from which they absorb poisonous alkaloids. These are retained in the butterfly into which the caterpillars metamorphose. These make the butterflies distastetuful to predators such as birds. By sharing a common pattern of strikingly marked veins in the wings, they signal their lack of palatability to their predators. Different species reinforce this message by sharing a common generic signal. This is termed Mullerian Mimicry by biologists. Some palatable butterfly species take advantage of this and cheat by pretending that they too are poisonous. The Common Mime for example mimics the Blue Tiger and the female of the Danaid Eggfly mimics the Plain Tiger. This form of mimicry is termed Batesian Mimicry.
Another Orange Tip flashed by and I pursued it along the road. I was lucky, it briefly paused to sip nectar on a flowering bush and I captured its image. On the whole, the visit to Mannar was quite fruitful for butterflies. One of the stars was a Striped Pierrot. A dainty butterfly patterned in black and white. It is very similar to the Common Pierrot, but the wing patterns are subtly different. It is confined to the coastal area around Mannar. The Large Salmon Arab was another species that I was lucky to photograph. A roadside verge in Nochchiyagama turned out to be very good for the widespread and commoner Small Salmon Arab.
Butterflies are in some ways even harder than birds. Some species are difficult to tell apart unless they are examined in the hand. The absence of a photographic guide makes even some of the commoner species difficult to identify under field conditions. A butterfly with out stretched wings photographed in a specimen tray looks very different to a wild one, in the field. Ironically I was learning my butterflies through my attempt to do a book on them for the benefit of a wider audience. As one ornithological writer put it, it is only when you begin to write a book for others, that you begin to learn for yourself.
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