Monday 10th October 2011

Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper, Antigua

The title of this post, Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper (Vettius onaca), is the name of a butterfly we found yesterday at the Finca Filadelfia, a coffee farm/tourist complex all in one, and I loved the name! In fact, the skipper butterfly is perhaps not all that fantastic, but it was a new species for me, and one that my great grandfather did not find – in fact, it was only described (by that guru of skipper taxonomy Brigadeer W H Evans) in 1955.

Black-spotted Fantastic-Skipper

We are now in Antigua, following the arrival of my friends Natalia and Luis, both of whom I met in Wageningen University in May this year, and both of whom have had a huge impact on this journey of mine. Natalia was a student in a Scientific Writing course I taught, and on the first day of these courses I normally ask the students to interview each other in pairs, get ten interesting facts, and then write a well-structured paragraph about their neighbour. In this particular group, there was an odd number of students, so I teamed up with Natalia. One of the questions I asked her was what her hobbies were, and she replied that she loved birdwatching! What a coincidence, plus she was from Colombia, so as I knew I was coming to Latin America and had not practised much Spanish for a long time, and as she loved birds but had no car and did not know the good birding locations around Wageningen, we quickly arranged for me to take her birdwatching and for us to speak Spanish, a mutually beneficial arrangement!

Natalia soon told me that she had a Guatemalan colleague in her department, and she asked me if I would like to meet him – as I had never met a real live Guatemalan before, of course I said Yes!! And so it was that my first Guatemalan link began….and then Luis introduced me to his girlfriend Brenda, who introduced me to Eduar, Pablo and Jiichiro, plus to Julie, who introduced me to Luisa, etc, etc, all of whom have been hugely helpful to me during this quest, as well as helping to make this such an enjoyable experience. So it is nice to have Natalia and Luis with me, as the two instigators of all this contact-building that has been going on.

On Friday, Natalia and I climbed up the Cerro de la Cruz, the hill overlooking Antigua which I had visited with Jacqueline back in August, and it was interesting to see a number of extra bird species, all North American migrants, that have arrived since then. We admired the view that Muybridge had photographed back in 1875, and then headed into the forest up behind the monument, eventually joining a quiet road leading along a wooded ridge away from Antigua. It was not long, however, before two policemen on a motorbike drew up beside us and warned us that this was a dangerous place to walk, and that we should turn back at once. Disappointed but grateful for this timely advice, we turned back and returned to the safer areas nearer the cross.

An amazing caterpillar we found near the Cerro de la Cruz

The following day, Saturday, we headed out to the Centro Cultural La Azotea, a working coffee plantation with a museum of musical instruments and other artefacts, with a number of trails that can be good for bird/butterfly-watching. Unfortunately, due to me over-sleeping and therefore us arriving late, and the unexpected fact that the finca closes at 14.00 on Saturdays, our observations were curtailed – perhaps no bad thing as the heavens opened just as we left!

Yesterday, Sunday, we took a tuk-tuk to the Finca Filadelfia, which proved to be a very enjoyable experience. We started off by wandering around the coffee plantations close to the centre of the finca, not seeing many birds, but nonetheless seeing several new butterflies for my list, including the Bold Mimic-White (Enantia jethys), the Frosted Mimic-White (Lieinix nemesis) and the Checkered White (Pontia protodice).

At 11.30 we were back at the centre because we had been informed that there was transport provided to a restaurant situated at 7000 feet up in the cloud forest, and that it was free provided one consumed something in the restaurant. This was too good an opportunity to miss, so we climbed into the back of an ancient but beautifully maintained Mercedes truck, and we wended our way up and up through coffee bushes at first, followed by cypress and pine plantations, until we finally reached the restaurant, above which the cloud forest began.

We immediately started up the track marked “Bosque Nuboso”, and we found ourselves, as could be expected considering the fact that we were in the “cloud forest”, in the clouds! Although the visibility was poor, the atmosphere in these humid mountain forests is something quite unique, and it was a pleasure to be away from human sounds and in this wonderful habitat. We soon noticed that we were being discreetly shadowed by an armed guard, but he kept a distance, stopped when we stopped, and he was somehow a comforting presence.

Cloud-forest, Filadelfia

As we climbed, gleams of sunshine appeared through the clouds, and butterflies appeared….including a Dot-banded Oxeo (Oxeoschistus hilara), the Satyrid butterfly that is known to associate with the Holy Grail of all butterflies for me, Drucina championi. Although I have no indication that my great grandfather’s namesake butterfly has ever been recorded here, we were within sight of the Volcán de Agua, where it definitely has been seen, and we were at the right altitude. There was no sign of the extensive stands of bamboo in which the butterfly is said to be found, but there were a number of up-rooted stems of bamboo along the track, so we cannot have been far from a suitable area.

When we reached a particular corner, our shadow approached and told us that he could not accompany us any further, and that we should definitely not continue alone. As the cloud had come down again, this was not too disappointing, and we retraced our footsteps, and settled down to a pleasant meal in the restaurant, after which we descended again in the ancient truck.

Today was another highlight – literally high, as we visited the Volcán Pacaya (my second visit now). Our route this time was slightly different from the one I took on my last visit, and afforded us an even more impressive view, and allowed us access to other fumaroles and areas of the lava-flow than those I visited last time. The long-distance views were not as spectacular due to extensive cloud cover, but the visit was definitely worthwhile nonetheless….and I was pleased to add another impressive butterfly to my list: the Cloud-forest Beauty (Pycina zamba).

Self emerging from the natural sauna, Pacaya

Tomorrow we are heading out of Antigua on another adventure, this time into the lowlands of Petén, which was beyond my great grandfather’s range, and I may be out of internet range for some days.

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