Tuesday 29th November 2011

“That’s it!”

Today the dream, and all the effort that I and my many friends and helpers here in Guatemala have been putting in, came to fruition: WE FOUND DRUCINA CHAMPIONI!!!

The day started with Matthew Ryan Hartell, of Old Town Outfitters, arriving outside my hotel at 08.00 AM on the dot, followed by Luisa and her mother, who drew up immediately afterwards. We were ready to set out on our very special mission.

Matt has been busy constructing and preparing a series of mountain bike trails through the high altitude forests on the south side of the Volcán de Agua, and as such has privileged access to a private finca that is not normally open to the public. In addition, his Toyota Landcruiser was to come in handy as the area is definitely only reachable by tough 4-wheel drive vehicles with a high clearance.

We headed off down the valley that has by now become so familiar to me (and which was also very familiar to my great grandfather George Charles Champion in 1879/1880), the Volcán de Agua towering into the blue sky on the left, and the twin peaks of Acatenango and the smoking Fuego on the right. We passed the entrance to the Finca El Capetillo, one of GCC’s bases, and then further down noted the entrance road leading to El Zapote, where he also spent much time insect collecting.

On the way in the car, Luisa set to work constructing an extra net, using a gauze anti-mosquito net that was stored in the flap of my Trekmates hat, combined with a coat hanger! The result was remarkably satisfactory!

Luisa constructing the net in the car

The finished result

We then headed back up a short distance on the toll highway towards Guatemala City, where we met up with José Monzón, one of only three people alive whom I believe had seen the butterfly Drucina championi in the flesh. José had very kindly agreed to accompany us and advise us on how to locate this supposedly shy and elusive species.

Fuego and Acatenango seen from the way up Agua

I transferred into his Mazda Pickup, and we were on our way again, soon passing through the gates of the finca, from where the road immediately became steep and rough. Up and up we bumped, until finally we entered the bamboo zone. Amusingly, Luisa attempted to trawl for butterflies from the moving Landcruiser, to no avail….but suddenly, the vehicle lurched to a halt. Luisa jumped out, took a swipe at a butterfly that I had not even seen, caught it, and without even realising what it was (she thought it was probably a Morpho), came to me for me to identify it. Somehow, while she was walking towards our vehicle, something told me a momentous event had happened…and so it was: Luisa, as the first butterfly she had caught using her improvised net, which had no handle, had trapped a Drucina championi. The only words I could utter were “That’s it!”.

Self holding a Drucina, showing the blue marks on the upper hindwing

Completely stunned, we piled out of the vehicles, and it was not long before we spotted another, sailing with a remarkably elegant flight, gliding with its wings held up diagonally. The mission was to try to obtain good photographs of this beautiful and surprisingly large butterfly, but each time it settled, it only held its wings open for less than a split second, showing the row of wonderful iridescent blue spots on the upper surface of the hind wings, before it snapped its wings closed, and we could only observe the cryptically coloured under surface of the wings.

Drucina championi underside

We walked slowly on up the track, and managed to see several more of these splendid insects, named after their discoverer, my great grandfather G C Champion, who first located the species here in Guatemala in 1880. How strange it was to think that he had first found it 131 years ago, and here was I, his great grandson, setting eyes on this very special creature, so restricted in its habitat and distribution, 131 years later. Luisa’s mother commented on how happy GCC would be to know that I was observing his namesake butterfly – suddenly, a text message signal rang from my phone…was it GCC texting to congratulate us?! Sadly not, but the idea was nice! One Drucina, after we had let it go, even sat on Matt’s rucksack!

A Drucina that landed on Matt's backpack

To cut a long story short, we finally ended up seeing at least ten Drucinas, all between 1800 and 2300 metres above sea level (Matthew’s altimeter came in very handy here), and all in the bamboo zone. It was comforting to know that here in this private finca, their habitat is relatively safe…and Matt will be able to keep an eye on these precious butterflies when he is guiding his mountain bike groups here in the future.

A Drucina we found higher up, at around 2300 m

Finally, by about 13.00, the majority of the butterflies had disappeared, although the weather was still bright and sunny (they seem to hide away in the afternoons here), and we began the long and rough descent, absolutely content with our success, and full of the feeling of a mission accomplished.

The Drucinas would not sit with their wings open, but here the colour can be seen

My thanks go especially to Luisa, who caught the first Drucina in her newly-made net, as well as accompanying me through virtually the entire process of hunting Drucina since late August/early September, to Matt for driving us to this remarkable and wonderfully pristine place, to José for sharing so much of his knowledge of this little-known species, and to Luisa’s mother Sandra, for her boundless enthusiasm – the look of happiness on her face when she caught her first butterfly, a Heliconius hortense, in the improvised net, had almost to be seen to be believed!

Sandra having caught her first butterfly

Finding Drucina does not mean I have no more goals…later this week I am due to head back to the Finca Las Nubes, the place where GCC first found the butterfly – I would like to locate it there too. Then there is the female to find, and maybe even the early stages…..and then I would love to see the sister species, Drucina leonata, in Panama in a few weeks’ time. No time to sit back on my laurels, the quest continues! But for a short while, the warm feeling of success will be coursing through my veins….and Luisa will remember her moment of glory for the rest of her life, I am sure!

The Drucina team - Matt, Sandra, Luisa and Jose

“We gladly avail ourselves of this opportunity of naming this fine species after its discoverer, Mr Champion, whose successful industry has added vastly to our knowledge of the insect fauna of Guatemala.”

Biologia Centrali-Americana, Lepidoptera Rhopalocera, Volume 1, Page 113, June 1881

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Monday 28th November 2011

¡Tepezcuintle endrucinado con salsa de championi!

Today’s diary entry title is a spoof dish in a restaurant, incorporating the generic and specific names of our so dearly-wished-for butterfly, Drucina championi, combined with the delightful name of a rodent that is sometimes eaten here in Guatemala, the tepezcuintle, or paca (Endrucinated paca (an edible rodent) with championi sauce).

Today was intended to be another desperate Drucina-search, but we ended up at the wonderful coffee finca and bird reserve of Los Tarrales, in the lower foothills of the Pacific slope – too low for Drucina, which probably only occurs above 1500 metres; Los Tarrales is situated at only 800 metres. Nonetheless, despite the absence of Drucina, we saw plenty of other spectacular butterfly species, as well as some impressive birds.

This episode actually begins yesterday, when Luisa and I set off from Antigua in the trusty (and by now very dusty!) Nissan Sentra, dropping first down into the tropical Pacific lowlands, before heading up again from the busy and chaotic junction of Cocales, where seemingly innumerable roadside vendors try to sell coconuts to passing travellers. Our route took us through the even more chaotic, dirty and ugly town of Patulul, where we were absolutely deafened by a van advertising a circus, with its message blaring out into our faces. This aural onslaught only served to confirm my dislike of circuses!

Shortly after we had finally escaped the horrors of Patulul, we turned off the main road into the private reserve and coffee plantation of Los Tarrales, where we made inquiries about the possibility of engaging a guide to take us high up into Drucina territory this morning. Unfortunately, we were informed that all the guides would already be busy with other groups today, so we continued on our way up towards Lake Atitlán, where we intended to stay the night.

This time, we did not stay on the north side of the lake, but rather turned off the road into the less touristy town of San Lucas Toliman, in the south-east corner of the lake, and from where my great grandfather took a canoe across the lake to Panajachel in December 1880. We had not reserved accommodation, but soon found the Hotel Toliman, with its attractive gardens and lake view, where we checked in and immediately ordered a very late and much needed lunch on the terrace of the restaurant, which commands a panoramic view of the gardens, at treetop height. It was not long before birds appeared, including a flock of Yellow-winged Tanagers, a Tropical Kingbird and a Lesser Goldfinch in the same bare tree, and a cobalt-blue Red-legged Honeycreeper, which particularly impressed Luisa.

After “lunch” (it was already 16.00), we walked along the lakeshore to the east, passing a somewhat polluted bay in which an old lady was washing her clothes with soap, leaving a bluish cloud in the lake’s waters – Atitlán is still clean compared to the truly filthy Lake Amatitlan, but they will have to work hard to keep it so.

During this walk, Luisa set about organising a guide for us for today, and after a few calls, it was arranged that Juan Diego would meet us at the hotel at 08.00 this morning, and that we would try to hunt for Drucina.

This morning, after a minor panic when Luisa lost the key to her hotel room (I was secretly delighted, as she had joined the club started by Jacqueline and me!), but then found it in the lock, we set off. Ironically, we started at almost the correct altitude for Drucina, but we were informed by Juan Diego that attempting to hike up the Volcán Atitlán from that angle would be unwise – he himself, together with the children of the owners of the hotel Casa del Mundo, where we had stayed a few days ago, had been assaulted and robbed on the volcano in this area, so we decided against tempting fate.

The only viable alternative we could think of was to descend to Los Tarrales, and to try to walk up from there. We started driving down the hill again, the temperature rising perceptibly as we dropped. At one point we stopped at an amazing place, the “Paso misterioso”. Here, an optical illusion gives you the impression that you are going uphill, but if you switch off the engine and let the car go, in fact you roll forwards, because in reality you are going downhill. An exactly similar phenomenon, known as “The electric brae” can be experienced near Maybole, in Ayrshire, Scotland, not far from our home. We tested it, and indeed it worked!

Finally, we reached Los Tarrales, and despite the fact that we had not reserved, the staff there arranged a birding guide, Aron (Aaron?), who would accompany us and show us the trails. Sadly, we were informed that it would not be possible to hike up to the right altitude for Drucina…but with the help of Aron’s excellent spotting skills, we nevertheless ended up seeing a great number of interesting things.

We started off by visiting a huge pile of fermenting coffee husks, some of which we collected as extra bait to add to the beer, anchovies, sardines and tinned mussels, plus over-ripe pineapple, that we had already obtained, in the hope of using it to lure Drucina championi, a species that does not visit flowers, but rather sucks moisture and minerals from foul-smelling objects such as dung, dead animals and other such delights – all Champions have good taste!

From here we started walking along the track leading gradually up towards the volcano, which towered above us, but sadly out of reach. Many butterflies were flying, but it was when we reached a stream that I saw to my horror that the only means of crossing was by balancing one’s way across on a log that had been positioned to act as a bridge – I hate that kind of bridge, and I immediately feel unsteady. Here, however, because there were several interesting-looking butterflies on the far side, I did not seem to find it difficult, and in fact I ended up crossing back and forth more than eight times without giving it a second thought.

Rusty-tipped Page, Siproeta epaphus

Feeding on the moisture at the edge of the stream was the lovely butterfly the Rusty-tipped Page, Siproeta epaphus, which we admired for a while, but our attention was soon drawn to an incredibly fast-flying grey and white “butterfly” that kept shooting by, landing briefly and then shooting away again. I made a few attempts to catch this insect, which flew like a butterfly, had clubbed antennae (one of the main features separating butterflies from moths), and generally had a butterfly-like “jizz” (a word used by birdwatchers meaning a combination of shape, habits, posture, and various other features that combine to aid in identification, but which one cannot easily put one’s finger on). Finally, one landed and I was able to swipe it with the net. We took it out to photograph and examine it, and compared it with everything we could think of in the butterfly book, but there was nothing even remotely resembling such a creature. It was only this evening, coincidentally using the illustrations from the Biologia Centrali-Americana, the multi-volume work of which my great grandfather George Charles Champion was Chief Editor, that I managed to identify it as a moth, Castniomera atymnius futilis, from the family Castniidae. This amazing insect is an illustration of just how closely allied butterflies and moths can be – this moth could so easily be mistaken for a butterfly.

Castniomera atymnius futilis, an increbibly butterfly-like moth

Although it was hard to drag ourselves away from this very productive spot, we eventually wandered on, passing through groves of enormous bamboo; this was sadly not the species that is linked to Drucina, and anyway we were too low. We continued our walk, the temperature at this low altitude quite warm and the mosquitoes becoming more and more active as we went. Finally, we reached the finca’s private hydro-electric plant, from where we turned and retraced our steps.

Suddenly, among the ever-present circling Black, and to a lesser extent, Turkey Vultures, Aron managed to spot and point out a larger black and white bird with an apparently red head – a King Vulture. This bird, now rare in Guatemala, was a first for Luisa and Juan Diego (who was really developing an enthusiasm for both birds and butterflies), and a new species for my Guatemalan list, and we admired it circling effortlessly with its smaller cousins.

Elated at this success, we moved slowly back along the trail, until at one point a long-tailed bird shot across the path, and disappeared into thick undergrowth below the track. Blue-crowned Motmot, announced Aron, and incredibly, he managed to relocate it, sitting quietly on a low branch, hiding in the thick vegetation. Finally, I managed to get it into the telescope view, and we were all able to observe it, and to even see its incredibly long, partly bare-shafted tail feathers with the spoon-shaped lobes on the end – nobody knows even to this day whether motmots create these lobed spoons at the end of their tails, perhaps by plucking the filaments off on the upper parts of the feathers, or whether they grow naturally.

Juan Diego, Aron and Luisa, my 3 guides!!

As we re-approached the stream, Aron suddenly beckoned to us to join him in the stream bed, just below the fallen log bridge. It turned out that he had spotted another amazing butterfly, also a Siproeta, this time Siproeta stelenes, a truly gorgeous insect with semi-transparent green patches on its wings. I caught it by sweeping the net through, following Aron’s instructions; I could not see the butterfly as it was concealed under a leaf. We extracted it from the net, and with me holding it very gently, we were able to examine it great detail – both Aron and Juan Diego, neither of whom had really paid any attention to butterflies before, were amazed to be able to see such a beautiful creature in the hand, and it was nice to able to fire up an enthusiasm in them, and then to be able to let the butterfly go, unharmed.

Malachite, Siproeta stelenes

We also caught a Morpho helenor, one of that truly marvellous family of large, shimmering blue Neotropical butterflies, but it was a much smaller creature that really caught my imagination. This butterfly, taxonomically a member of the family Lycaenidae (the Hairstreaks, Coppers and Blues), yet one would never guess it, turned out to be a Mexican Cycadian, Eumaeus toxea, an entirely new species for me.

Mexican Cycadian, Eumaeus toxea

Finally, we returned to the main central area of the finca, from where we headed up another trail, but apart from a superb Bat Falcon perched high in a tree, we did not see as much on this track. We laid out a few of our odiferous offerings on a bank, in the hope of attracting some butterflies, but although it was more than 40 minutes before we passed by again on our way down, nothing interesting had been lured.

And so ended a truly memorable day at Los Torrales. My thanks go of course to Luisa, but also to our two excellent local guides, Aron and Juan Diego, both of whom made great efforts….and I think Juan Diego learned a lot.

We made our way back to Antigua, passing below the smoking Volcan de Fuego, plus the magnificent Acatenango and Agua, with the also active Pacaya showing unusually well slightly further away to the east.

Pacaya in the distance

Smoke emerging from Fuego, with Acatenango behind

Fuego in action

Volcan de Agua

The only down-side to the day is that I am now erupting with swellings, each one looking like the volcanoes Fuego AND Pacaya combined, as I react seemingly ever more violently to insect bites…how ironic to be so enthusiastic and passionate about some types of insect, and yet to be the victim of attacks by others!

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Thursday 24th November 2011

Bamboozled in the bamboo!

Today has been our most intensive Drucina hunt yet…we started off from Quetzaltenango at around 09.00, and then drove down the valley towards Zunil, where we turned off on a back road towards the thermal baths of Fuentes Georginas. Strangely, although I had never visited this location before, somehow it seemed familiar to me. When I first learned about the butterfly Drucina championi, which my great grandfather George Charles Champion discovered on the slopes of the Cerro Zunil in 1880, I searched for information about Zunil, and I found images of the town, but also descriptions of the thermal baths and the road leading to them. Perhaps these images and descriptions gave me this feeling of déjà-vu I felt as we drove up the switchback road to the thermal baths, with the Volcán Santa Maria towering above the valley on the opposite side.

The rather messy town of Zunil

Santa Maria from the road up to Fuentes Georginas

When we arrived at the entrance of the thermal baths, we parked up the trusty Nissan Sentra, and both of us thought it best to visit the toilets before starting our Drucina quest….but interestingly, both Luisa and I found unusual moths in the Ladies and the Gents toilets! We visited each other’s respective facilities in order to photograph these nocturnal insects; perhaps the most unusual was a newly-described Tiger-moth that was hiding behind the paper towel dispenser in the Ladies. I have just been informed of its identity by José Monzón Sierra, who saw the photograph a few moments ago (Saturday 26th November). Luckily no other potential toilet users were in the vicinity!

Homoeocera georginas, a species of Tiger-moth only named last year, by Michel Laguerre

We then set off along the path, above the cabins that are for rent here, towards the baths themselves. Here we admired the reconstruction work that has gone on since last year’s storms washed most of the installations away. The overall standard of reconstruction was excellent, although the network of white plastic pipes snaking their way along the stream just below the baths could perhaps have been better concealed.

The hot springs of Fuentes Georginas

Our route took us through the bathing area, across a bridge over the stream, and then onto a switchback trail, extremely steep, in places with wooden steps but elsewhere just rock and earth – and despite the steepness, I seemed to have benefited from the recent volcano-climbing I have been doing; I hardly noticed the fact that this was a long and steep path.

Self on the ascent through the bamboo forest

Some areas of forest were exposed to the sun, and here there were large numbers of butterflies, and as this area was absolutely full of bamboo, our hopes of finding Drucina were high. Never have I seen so many Oxeoschistus hilara, the species of Satyrid butterfly that we believe associates with Drucina, in any one place. All the bamboo clumps that were exposed to the sun had at least three or four Oxeoschistus flying around them, plus there were several other species of Satyrid. Initially my hopes were raised when I saw through my binoculars two apparently pointed-winged Satyrids with what looked like a row of greenish spots along the outer margin of the forewings…but I did not see any sign of the tell-tale blue splashes on the hindwings.

On and up we trekked, until we eventually reached the ridge, beyond which the upper slopes of the Pico Zunil could be seen. We walked a little to the left (East), and almost immediately came into contact with a workman who was busy maintaining the trail. We immediately showed him our Drucina photographs, and asked him if he had ever seen such a butterfly. He sat down, and very slowly introduced himself, with something of a chastisement to us for not having been polite enough to do the same. He then proceeded to tell us that, yes, he had seen this species….IN THE TOILET BLOCK down at Fuentes Georginas!! He informed us that such “butterflies” always appear after 18.00, attracted by the lights. No matter how hard we tried to convince him that our butterfly was a diurnal species, and not a nocturnal moth, he was not having it!! Nonetheless, he meant well, and he did make one very telling and valid point: he said that many U.S. and European researchers come along, expect logistical support from local people in Guatemala, and then the results of their research is never seen here. How true – I can see it with my own students in Wageningen University, most of whose PhD theses are published and never seen again.

We finally managed to extract ourselves from this conversation, and Luisa suggested we visit a viewpoint from where a magnificent view of Santa Maria could be had. So began a real adventure – the trail had become totally overgrown since she had last visited, and we literally had to force our way through thick vines, ferns, bushes and even small trees – real “bush-whacking”. After perhaps 20 minutes of stooping down to get through beneath the vegetation, we finally emerged at the very extreme end of this ridge, and what a view presented itself, with the volcano towering into the blue sky on the other side of the valley.

Santa Maria from the viewpoint

This ridge top was being used by many butterflies, some of which were engaged in “hill-topping”, whereby the males take up territories on the tops of hills, and patrol these territories, chasing off any other intruding males, and hoping to attract passing females. Sadly though, no Drucina males were to be seen.

Having admired the view and the butterflies for some time, we started our return bash through the jungle…at one point we lost the trail altogether, and it took some time for us to relocate it. Finally, however, we emerged, covered with leaves, fern spores, branches and twigs, and we then took the more established main trail along the ridge the other way, towards the Pico Zunil, stopping wherever we could see suitable, sunny patches among the extensive stands of mature bamboo…but NO DRUCINA.

Luisa in the jungle

We found a good spot for our picnic lunch, again overlooking a suitable-looking bamboo grove, but no sign at all, although again Oxeoschistus hilara was much in evidence. Shortly afterwards, the clouds began to build up, the sun disappeared, and we started to wend our way back, somewhat at a loss as to how to search further for the clearly highly elusive Drucina championi. At one point on the ridge, we passed a grave of someone who had died here in 1981. Without meaning to cause anyone any offence at all, we attached our picture of the Drucina to the cross for a photograph, as we somehow felt that this was perhaps symbolic of our hunt for Drucina…does it still exist, or has it become extinct?

The grave of Drucina - no offence intended

A dejected-looking Luisa

Last night I contacted Roberto de la Maza, one of the few biologists, along with his brother Javier, who have actually seen this species alive. Roberto immediately suggested that we try to attract the butterflies using a stinky mix of molasses, old beer, rotten bananas, and other horrors! Perhaps that will work. We shall see.

Clouds building up in front of the Pico Zunil

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