The Butterfly Hunters

There is an old saying that “Birds of a feather, flock together” but this saying omits another dimension in the realm of aerial creatures.

Often when we’ve visited Australia’s offshore territories looking for rare species of birds, we’ve encountered other people with a similar affliction, just with a slightly different twist. They are usually easy to identify as they wield cameras, nectar pots and large nets on long poles. Butterfly hunters or researchers often end up in the same places as bird people, probably because both animals share similar food sources and the people that follow them seem to be obsessed with flight and beauty.

Trekking around the island paths of Duaun Island in the western part of the Torres Straits, we encountered a small group of people looking for rare species of butterflies in this impossibly beautiful place. New species of butterflies for Australia turn up on Duaun quite regularly, probably given the island’s proximity to mainland Papua New Guinea. The lead researcher was a gent whose vitality was an inspiration. In the muggy humidity of Duaun, walking around looking for anything takes a supreme amount of effort. We met him twice on our walks and the second time he apologised for intruding upon our quiet space, that he was getting a bit tired and didn’t move as fast as he used to. All of us didn’t mind. Trudging around forests in the smaller latitudes of our planet is a very demanding physical jaunt to say the least. “Well I am 82 now and I’m getting a bit slower” exclaimed the lead butterfly researcher. Before I could even think about it, I said “Well if I’m doing HALF of what you are up to at the age of 82 I’ll be really happy”.

People who spend a lot of time in nature seem to be endlessly curious. You can instantly tell a person who spends a lot of time outdoors by the way they observe. Some people go powering through a forest, distracted by their kids, chattering, for the exercise or just to say they’ve ‘done’ a particular trek or route up a mountain. There isn’t anything wrong with any of those reasons for getting outside. However, true nature people notice so much more when they walk. They might notice the pair of Logrunners scratching around in the bush while chatty trekkers steam past or espy a tiny skink, peering out at noisy children from its hide in a layer of bark. Butterfly and bird people often stand united in this endless curiosity. Just watching throws up so many questions – why do they eat at that particular flower? Where do they go to breed? What drives them across the sea?

While our survey for birds had us scouring the skies and canopies in search of elusive migratory animals, the search for butterflies took the hunters infinitely closer to the ground. Their targets were animals with dainty, fluttering names like Birdwings, Jezebels, Glasswings, Nymphs and Cruisers.

It’s not hard to see why Duaun attracts Butterfly watchers and researchers. The island’s skies are a caleidoscope of different, tiny, rainbow coloured wings. Even on the boat trip to the island, it was possible to see ocean going butterflies drifting their way on sea breezes from New Guinea across a desolate stretch of water on the off chance they might hit an island with food. Or maybe the perfumed gardens of Duaun toss their fragrance several kilometres into the wind northward, providing an irresistible allure for butterflies, who take flight over disproportionately large distances following their curled probosces in search of food.

As I walked along a suburban street, a black and white Swamp Tiger alighted on to the foliage separating a local house from the road. I stopped and watched it clinging to the tendrils of passionfruit vine while it sought out an available food source. It espied a yellow blossom nearby then took off with a flutter on the next breath of air.

The local people on Duaun plant several species of Ixora in their gardens. From a distance they look like one great big flower but on closer inspection, they are actually clusters of red, yellow or pink blossoms packed tightly together like a mosh pit. On other islands I’ve watched children pick Ixora flowers on their way home from school and suck on the sugary nectar at the stalk end of each tiny flower. Oddly the children on Duaun don’t seem to do this, which means the butterflies that visit the island have full and exclusive access to this energy filled food source. I spotted a vivid, scarlet coloured Ixora growing on the street of the local school and just as I went over to look at it, a large, female Orchard Swallowtail landed right in front of me, uncurled her long proboscis like tongue and probed to the very bottom of each straw shaped blossom, taking gentle sips of sweetness from each.

Wandering between gardens and outcrops of palms hemmed in by gargantuan granite boulders we also spotted other butterfly species including Skippers and Crows.

From a distance Duaun really looks like a lost world. Its rugged, rocky and mountainous appearance is an incongruence to the dainty, harmless creatures that migrate over the seas to explore the island’s myriad of habitats and resident gardens. To people it looks formidable but to a butterfly it must seem like Nirvana.

During our visit to Duaun, the researchers were trying to identify at least three new species that they had encountered there. I haven’t been able to learn the outcomes of their investigations and I’m happy to wait until their paper is published to find out more. In the meantime, my memory of Duaun will be perfumed by the smells of Ixora and Papaya flowers that were visited by creatures of whimsy who joined us on our walks.

Written by Inger Vandyke


I think the butterfly below could be one of the rarest in Australia.  Forgive me, my butterfly expert friends, but is this a Wide-brand Crow (Euploea netscheri)?


Duaun Island seen from the air.


The lead butterfly researcher from the team we met on Duaun.


The children of Duaun grow up in a stunningly beautiful place filled with birds and butterflies.


Frangipanis on Duaun.


A male New Guinea Birdwing (Ornithoptera priamus)


A Swamp Tiger (Danaus affinis) spreads its wings in delight at the discovery of food.


Desert Roses growing on Duaun.


A male Yellow-bellied Sunbird (Cynniris jugularis)


The outer wing of a Swamp Tiger (Danaus affinis)


Birders on one of Duaun’s streets.  It was a nice place to hold ‘office’ for a day on 20 April 2012.