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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