Anecdotally, our butterfly populations and their diversity have dropped significantly compared to, say, twenty years ago. Whether this is because of increased urbanisation, more zealous mowing/slashing or some other cause – we can’t be sure. It is a concern because butterflies, being pollinators having a short life span, are considered to be early warning systems for the health of an environment. One thing we do know is that we need to have the right food sources for the butterfly caterpillars (larvae).
In 1986/87, naturalist Alan Reid conducted a butterfly survey of Blackburn including the Creeklands, which was publicized in the local newspaper. Then Laburnum Primary School Grade 5 student, Martin Short, was inspired to record the butterflies that he saw in the Creeklands in 1986/87. Here is his list:
- Cabbage White: most common – sadly, an introduced species
- Common Brown: second most common
- Painted Lady: relatively common
- Australian Admiral
- Meadow Argus
- Symmomus Skipper
- Imperial White or Imperial Jezebel.
- White Grass Dart
- Caper White
- Klug’s or Marbled Xenica
- Ringed Xenica: Dull also, often found flying with Common Brown
- Banks Brown.
The food plants for the two Xenicas and Banks’ Brown (grasses) do occur in the Creeklands. However, these days, those species are less common and are easily mistaken for the Common Brown. On the other hand, there are another two missing from Martin’s list: the Spotted Sedge Skipper and another is the Imperial Blue we see on our wattles.
Let’s take a look at them! We include photos where we have them – otherwise we rely on Martin Short’s text and hand-coloured illustrations from the 1980s. Our other main source of information is “Butterflies: Identification and Life History” by Ross P. Field, published by Museum Victoria.
- Cabbage White (Pieris rapae)
An introduced pest – its caterpillar feeds on a variety of introduced plants, including vegetable crops (yes – including cabbages!). Very common.
- Common Brown (Heteronympha merope)
Its caterpillar feeds on indigenous grasses and weeds that occur in the Creeklands. Revegetating the Creeklands with indigenous grasses including Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides) and Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra), provides habitat for this species.
- Australian Painted Lady (Vanessa kershawi)
Its caterpillar feeds on native and introduced daisies.
- Australian Admiral (Vanessa itea)
Caterpillar feeds on native and introduced nettles. This species is a very active butterfly. Elderly butterflies are more likely to sit still long enough for a photo, but are usually a bit ragged — like this one.
- Meadow Argus (Junonia villida)
Caterpillar feeds on a variety of native & introduced plants, including the weed, Ribwort Plantain. Not being a fussy eater is one reason why the Meadow Argus is common in urban areas.
- Symmomus Skipper (Trapezites symmomus)
Caterpillar feeds on indigenous Spiny-headed Mat-rush, which is common in the Creeklands.
- Imperial Blue
Colonies of the caterpillar can be seen feeding on Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii) in the Creeklands in summer, attended by ants (see photo below).
In an interesting symbiotic relationship, ants swarm over the butterfly larvae collecting secretions as food. In return, the larvae receive some protection from predators and parasites.
- Imperial White or Imperial Jezebel (Delias harpalyce)
Caterpillar feeds on mistletoes. Recorded in 1986/87, but there is no longer any mistletoe in the Creeklands, hence no butterflies. The alternative names for this butterfly give us a clue to an interesting aspect of this species – from above, the males are a greyish white while the females are darker with yellow/green tinges – but underneath, they have obvious red spots on the hindwing and yellow spots/flashes on the forewing.
- White(-banded) Grass Dart (Taractrocera papyria)
Caterpillar feeds on indigenous grasses and weeds that occur in the Creeklands, including Wallaby Grass (Austrodanthonia species) and Weeping Grass (Microlaena stipoides).
- Spotted Sedge Skipper (Hersperilla ornata)
Caterpillar feeds on remnant Thatch Saw-sedge in the Creeklands. This butterfly tends to hide during the day.
- Caper White (Belenois java)
Caper Whites only occur in Melbourne when strong winds blow them in from NSW or SA, usually in Spring. The food plants for that species do not occur in Victoria, let alone the Creeklands. They are easily confused with Cabbage Whites.
- Klug’s Xenica or Marbled Xenica (Geitoneura klugii)
Caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses including Slender Tussock Grass (Poa tenera) and Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra).
- Ringed Xenica (Geitoneura acantha)
Caterpillars feed on a variety of grasses including Slender Tussock Grass (Poa tenera).
- Banks Brown (Heteronympha banksii)
Caterpillars feed on soft grasses (poas).