Zhuangzi: “I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”
Butterflies are widely regarded as amongst the most loved creatures the world has to offer, so many of them being very beautiful. We in Hong Kong are blessed with a rich variety of butterflies, since we have around 270 different species. Just to give a bit of comparison, despite being a great deal larger in area, the United Kingdom has around 60 species. The United States has around 750, so tiny Hong Kong has more than a third as many species as that vast country. Of course, butterflies are seasonal. The best times to view them in Hong Kong are April to June and September to December. Summer can be too hot for some species, and unsurprisingly they are relatively few to be seen in Winter. Naturally one is more likely to see them on a day without rain or other inclement weather.
Butterflies are close at hand:
One doesn’t need to make a special effort to see butterflies in our city, since they can be encountered even in the urban areas. I’ve seen several on the streets near my home in Sheung Wan, for instance, but obviously one will stand a better chance of viewing them in one of our urban parks.
I In Pic: A Paris Peacock Swallowtail, seen on Queen’s Road West in Sheung Wan, 13 March 2018
On Hong Kong Island both Hong Kong Park and the Zoological and Botanical Gardens are spots where one has a very good chance of seeing them (with 48 species and 19 species being recorded respectively in these two locations). There are plenty of plants in both those places which attract butterflies, but there is an area in the Botanical Gardens that has been deliberately planted as a ‘Pollinator’s Garden’ and thus is particularly attractive to them (https://www.hkzbg.gov.hk/en/plants/thematic/pollinator.html). Other parks in Hong Kong are also good spots for butterfly watching, and there is a government website that helps identify these locations: https://www.lcsd.gov.hk/en/green/butterfly/butterfly_watching.html.
Of course, our Country Parks are also great places to spot butterflies, although the hiking season and the butterfly-spotting season don’t altogether overlap, and it is also very variable what one will see in particular places so I find it hard to recommend particular hikes with the specific goal of seeing this insect. I have seen many butterflies up at The Peak, however, as well as coming down from there using Hatton Road (or, alternately, by going down to the Pokfulam Reservoir, partly following the first sections of the Hong Kong Trail).
In Pic: A Common Mapwing, seen on Hatton Road, 8 April 2022.
Special places for spotting butterflies:
For those who want to go somewhere with a high likelihood of seeing butterflies I would recommend day trips to the New Territories to visit Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (https://www.kfbg.org/en/general-information) and the Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve (https://www.fungyuen.org/en/%E5%A6%82%E4%BD%95%E5%89%8D%E5%BE%80). The former has many other attractions in addition to its butterfly garden, but the latter is for butterflies alone and I would suggest it is possibly the best spot in Hong Kong for seeing them. In one visit there last Autumn I recorded more than a hundred sightings in or around the reserve on just a single day.
In Pic: A Water Snow Flat, seen in the Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve, 18 November 2022
In both these locations the butterflies come and go as they wish (unlike the exotic creatures kept in some ‘Nature Reserves’ around the world), but they seem happy to be there, and one is highly likely to see species one cannot hope to encounter in the urban areas. The White Dragontail and the Water Snow Flat are two that I have spotted more than once at the Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve but have never seen anywhere else.
Both these locations charge for entry, but the fee is extremely moderate, and they can both be easily reached by public transport. The Fung Yuen Butterfly Reserve is fairly compact and easily walkable, but at Kadoorie one would need to buy a shuttle bus ticket to get up to the butterfly garden – there are other interesting stops before that, and one is given a chance to explore at each stop before the bus continues. I would suggest leaving the bus at the butterfly garden stop, though, to allow enough time to explore for butterflies. Since it is one of the last stops one wouldn’t miss out too much by doing that, and one could easily walk back down, with a good chance of seeing butterflies in other locations than the butterfly garden itself.
Identifying butterfly species:
Naturally, one would get a lot more pleasure out of spotting butterflies if one was able to identify them. A cheap book available from the Hong Kong Lepidopterists’ Society (along with various other publications) is their Photographic Handbook of Hong Kong Butterflies (5th edition), which contains colour photos of almost all the butterflies that can be found in Hong Kong. http://www.hkls.org/?page_id=26 I say ‘almost all’ since there are various new species appearing in Hong Kong over time. https://www.thestandard.com.hk/breaking-news/section/4/184645/Seven-butterfly-species-found-in-Hong-Kong-for-the-first-time. Amongst newly documented species in Hong Kong that I have personally observed are Fluffy Tit (seen at both Fung Yuen and Kadoorie in Autumn 2022) and Five-bar Swordtail (seen at both The Peak and Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park in Spring 2022, and in Hong Kong Park at the end of April 2023).
In Pic: A Five-bar Swordtail, seen in the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park, Sheung Wan, 26 March 2022.
As well as the arrival of new species there is also very variable appearance of even more common ones over time. At one point the Red-based Jezebel was the Hong Kong butterfly species I had seen the most examples of, but from early May 2022 to late April 2023 there was only one day (in October 2022) on which I saw this butterfly. On 27 April 2023, however, I again saw some of these butterflies in the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. This was a particularly interesting sighting since there were several of them together on a Sweet Viburnum tree – they had obviously just emerged into this final phase of their lives and were as yet unable to fly. They were waiting there immobile on the tree while their new wings dried out. On the same tree there were also some that were still in the chrysalis phase, and one that was still a caterpillar – so three of the four phases of the butterfly life cycle were visible side by side (the fourth being of course the first, the egg).
In Pic: Several newly-emerged Red-based Jezebels on a Sweet Viburnum tree in the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, waiting for their wings to dry out so they can begin life as flying creatures. A chrysalis and a caterpillar can also be seen. 27 April 2023
Butterflies of any species were for some reason a lot less noticeable in urban parks during March and April this year than the equivalent period in 2022, and I am not clear why this should be.
Recording what you’ve seen (and even making a small contribution to science!):
Of course, even with a handbook containing illustrations it can still be hard to identify a butterfly precisely, no matter how good a look one has been able to have. There are several families of butterflies (Papilionidae – commonly called swallowtails; Herperiidae – commonly referred to as skippers; Pieridae – often white, yellow or orange in colour; Riodinidae – sometimes called ‘metalmarks’; Lycaenidae – also called ‘gossamer-winged butterflies’; and Nymphalidae - also called ‘brush-footed butterflies’), but quite a few members of specific families can look rather similar. One way to find out what you have seen is to take a photo (always helpful even for checking against a handbook illustration) and then upload that photo to the INaturalist website (along with data about where and when that butterfly was spotted). https://www.inaturalist.org/home. Experts will then usually quickly identify it for you. This website is free to access, and the data uploaded to it becomes a resource for scientists to use. One can upload images of any plant or animal - not just butterflies. Even if one doesn’t upload images one can use INaturalist to discover what has been seen in one’s vicinity.
Butterflies and me:
Personally, I only upload sightings of butterflies and moths to INaturalist (except for a few comparative sightings of other flying insects). I now have more than 1700 sightings uploaded, almost all from Hong Kong.
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?place_id=any&user_id=davidjclarke&verifiable=any. Even not very good quality photographs get uploaded, since I have discovered that the experts can still often offer identifications from such images. In fact I am very interested in photography in general and am not specifically a wildlife photographer. My obsession with photography of butterflies dates to the Covid period, when much social and cultural life closed down, and thus other topics I liked to cover with my camera were not available. My art photography has been exhibited in many exhibitions, both in Hong Kong and elsewhere, and my documentary photography of Hong Kong from a whole quarter century is freely available on a dedicated website, Hong Kong in Transition, 1995-2020. https://arthistory.hku.hk/HKinTransition/. This website can be searched by date or by keyword – and butterflies have a keyword there along with many other topics!
David Clarke is an art historian and an artist. He has lived in Hong Kong since the mid-1980s, and is an Honorary Professor at the University of Hong Kong, where he was employed till 2017. More information about Clarke’s scholarship, artistic activities and public service roles can be found in a sequence of video interviews on the website of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council’s Oral History and Archives project at https://artsoralhistory.hk/en/interviewee-details/r0548807D2I/interview-video/r0548807D2I. Information about some of his publications and exhibitions can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_J._Clarke.