Sunday 18th March 2018

Luehdorfia at last!

Yesterday was one of those days that will stick in my mind for years to come. I had been put in touch with a team of volunteers who are working to raise awareness about a butterfly that I had longed to see ever since I lived in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but which I had never managed to connect with all those years ago.

Although neither of the two Luehdorfia species that occur in Japan can be found here in China, a very similar and closely allied species can, the appropriately named Luehdorfia chinensis. These remarkable butterflies belong to the swallowtail family, but they are much daintier than the true swallowtails in the genus Papilio, and they only emerge in the early spring. Their habitat is open woodland, and I knew they must provide a striking sight in the leafless forests, with their bright yellow ground colour, boldly striped with black bars and enhanced by a row of scarlet and blue spots on the hindwings.

When I heard from one of my birdwatching friends about the team of volunteers who were working to protect these very special butterflies, and he offered to put me in touch with them, I jumped at the chance, and it was not long before I had received an invitation to join an excursion into the butterfly’s habitat with a bunch of children and their mothers, together with the volunteers, who gave what seemed to be an inspiring talk to the assembled group, and then handed them over to another team member.

The children certainly seemed to be interested in their introductory talk by Zhang Yanning

It was good to see so many interested people

Although the weather had been cold and overcast in the morning, the volunteers had already done one excursion in the morning. I met the team just as they were coming down the trail, and after our initial greetings, they told me that during a brief gleam of sunshine, they had just managed to see and photograph two Luehdorfias. We shot up the path, led by Cai Runzhi, the young son of one of the volunteers,Zhang Yanning, and almost at once we spotted one Luehdorfia sailing through the trees, and to my delight, it landed on the steep edge of the path. However, I was not to manage to get any shots, as by the time I had very precariously eased myself into position, and then struggled with the autofocus not focusing, the butterfly had gone!

Luehdorfia chinensis, by Zhang Yanning

A close-up of the Luehdorfia, photographed by Zhang Yanning just before I arrived

We went on to see another two individuals, neither of which settled, but in an open area at the end of the trail, I was treated to fine views of another new species for my life list, the dazzling Anthocharis bambusarum (which was named by my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s close friend René Oberthür in 1875). Similar to the familiar Orange-tip, Anthocharis cardamines, this one has entirely orange forewings, whereas the Orange-tip has only half the forewing orange. I absolutely reveled in the sight of the glowing orange on this gem of a butterfly.

Anthocharis bambusarum was a new species for me

The entirely orange forewing separates Anthocharis bambusarum from its more familiar relative, the Orange-tip, A. cardamines

Later we walked a short distance to another area where Luehdorfias occur, in a vain attempt to find more butterflies as well as the foodplant. It was a little eerie here as we were searching in an abandoned graveyard, and many of the graves had caved in, revealing deep pits and large earthenware urns in which the ashes of the deceased must have been interred.

An uncovered burial urn can be seen as we search for the foodplant

The team searching for the foodplant of the Luehdorfia

As we were unable to find anything much here, we returned to the original area, but the weather had turned cold again. However, we were informed by the leader of the children’s group that they had found a foodplant with 12 eggs on a leaf, so we were eager to see them, and after a little searching, he managed to relocate the plant.

On our way back to the earlier Luehdorfia site

The larval foodplant of the Luehdorfia is Wild Ginger, Asarum forbesii. This is perhaps its undoing: the plant is mercilessly harvested everywhere it is found by people who believe it has medicinal qualities….I wonder if there is any plant or creature that the Chinese do not exploit in the belief that it has medicinal value. Anyway, we did in fact find several of these inconspicuous plants, with their extraordinary stemless flowers hidden beneath the oval leaves, they themselves half-concealed by last year’s dry leaves.

The eggs of the Luehdorfia were concealed beneath a Wild Ginger leaf

Luehdorfia eggs are usually laid in batches

Luehdorfia chinensis foodplant, Asarum forbesii

The discreet flowers of Asarum forbesii are well concealed

And so ended a truly great day. I thank my new friends (especially to Hu Shuyi, to whom I extend my sincere thanks for inviting me and for looking after me so kindly, and to Zhang Yanning, for allowing me to use her wonderful Luehdorfia photographs). I wish them every success in their quest to protect that beautiful butterfly, Luehdorfia chinensis.

It was an honour for me to join the Luehdorfia protectors

Luehdorfia chinensis, by Zhang Yanning