With the Locals – And Not

Click on any image to enlarge.

Christmas Day, 2008: Nativity Scene

From climbing Diamond Head, with painted ladies and Xuthus Swallowtails hilltopping the summit, to shoveling snow in Portland, was a rude transition. Christmas morning with grandson Francis & his folks made up for it, and in any case, I’ll be in the Florida Keys in a few hours.

So, how should I regard a Xuthus Swallowtail on Diamond Head? A pale yellow and black-banded insect indigenous to Asia, it was first recorded in Hawai’i in 1971. Of the seventeen species of butterflies known in Hawai’i, only five are likely to have arrived there under their own steam, including the Monarch (after milkweeds became established) and one or two of the widespread genus Vanessa (the Ladies). Two species are autochthonous — having evolved in place from prior immigrants, and thus endemic (occurring only there). Of these, we saw lots of Blackburns Bluet, but missed the hot magma-colored Kamehameha Butterfly.

Of course the introduced, or exotic, species count in my tally, being resident members of the United States butterfly fauna. But ought one to enjoy them? I know great, principled biologists in Hawai’i who seem unable to take pleasure in any of the islands’ introduced species, bird, butterfly, toad, or posy. Many of the exotics are somewhat or immensely injurious to the indigenous elements, many of which are endangered, so such an attitude is entirely understandable. Yet I’ve always been able to enjoy individual animals and plants out of context — a common waxbill with its pink breast that looks berry-stained from the livid beak, a big swallowtail circling high above the vast mess of Waikiki. This ability may be a weakness in a conservationist; but it makes life in the world as we get it more fun, more interesting. More lively.

While in Hawai’i, Thea and I had the opportunity (or serendipity) to take part in this issue directly. Last March, Honolulu photographer and lepidopterist Jim Snyder found a butterfly in Waikiki that had never been recorded previously in the Hawai’ian Islands. We visited the site with Jim and Denise and found hundreds of little blue flickers on the wing. The animal, obviously spreading, is called the Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis). But as things happened, Thea and I had already made its acquaintance. Several days before we went out with the Snyders, we shopped for a pineapple and some papayas at a Farmers’ Market in Lihue. Waiting for the market to open, we were taking a walk, when Thea spotted a tiny blue flicker. It turned out to be a Zizina — one of many present — right there beside the K-Mart parking lot: the first record from Kauai!

How did these fragile and minute creatures make it to what biogeographers consider to be the most remote islands in the world? They feed, as larvae, on sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) — a diminutive pink powder-puff of a lawn weed that thrives under mowing & grazing over much of the tropical world. The butterfly has followed the plant across a wide range, from China to New Zealand to the Siwa Oasis in western Egypt. Perhaps larvae on walkabout pupate in containers, or gravid females hitchhike on shipboard; or do the azurite mites ride the Trades on high, to fall-out wherever they may?

As a biogeographer, I am interested by such questions; and as a wandering naturalist, I am interested in all plants and animals, native or not. Oh, I’d push the button in a heartbeat to restore the Hawai’ian flora & fauna — but pre-Polynesian, or not? Are humans just agents of biotic expansion after all? Perhaps we are the tools of the Lesser Grass Blues. Happily, Hawai’ian Blues survive too. Merry Christmas!

Hawai’i was pretty much like this for me. I’m the one on the right. Portland, Oregon, 24 Dec 08

Mark Twain, without having been here, called it the Grand Canyon of Hawai’i.” They both feature impressive red terraces and strata, but this one is volcanic and boasts feral pigs, goats, & chickens. The other is mixed geology and has a lot more upright primates. After the heavy rains we experienced, the waterfalls were many and in spate. Beyond lies the great wild of the Alakai Swamp!

Hiking into the tributaries of the Waimea, one realizes the origin of the Kaua’i catchwords “red dirt”: fall on your butt here and survive (as I did) and you’ll be “red” from here on out.

This extraordinary topography was mostly lost to fog and rain during our visit, but finally came out in full. Even better, white-tailed tropic birds wheeled among the cliffs, and Blackburn’s Bluets (aka Hawaiian Blue, or Koa Butterfly) haunted the rim, nectaring on the red bursts of Ohia blossom. In former times, native organisms were much more common — and more known, used, and appreciated.


  1. Thank you Robert; thank you hosts, guides, and scouts; thank you, Orion Magazine and Xerces Society, for this year of repeated and richly dramatic opportunities to attend the multiplicitous glories of “the infinite in the small.”

    Gazing at the profound integrity of the Satyrium tetra eggs (and the intricate understructure of the leaves on which they are so precisely placed), agog at the blazing colours of those Lilliputian Rio Grande grandeurs — one so wishes to share the world that brought them into being, rather than continue in the present vein . . .

    Thank you all for helping our eyes to newly see reality,
    Barbara and Barry Deutsch

    p.s. Please explain “vinegaroon”; — and note correct spelling of Lillie Langtry’s given name (I can still hear the dazzle my father gave it when he spoke of her!)

Commenting on this item is closed.