Australia has 18 species of Hypochrysops butterflies, commonly known as Jewels, all of which rank somewhere between Very Pretty and Holy Shit That’s Stunning! on the attractiveness scale. The Moonlight Jewel (Hypochrysops delicia) is at the latter end of that scale, and whilst not an easy species to photograph it is most definitely worth expending some effort to see.
As the photo above shows, the underside is beautifully marked with orange-red bands and finely traced with green-blue iridescent lines. The upperside has a black base with extensive areas of iridescent blue, hence its alternative common name “Blue Jewel”.
As with several other interesting species, it took me several years of butterflying before I found delicia. All my visits to hilltopping sites in the Sydney area had proved to be fruitless, and it wasn’t until New Year’s Day 2009 that I finally had some luck. At the time I was on one of my umpteen butterflying visits to Cairns; my late mate Bob Miller had taken me out to Atherton and then Herberton, where we’d had quite a productive day. In the later afternoon we were walking up a hillside near Herberton when I spotted a dark shape on the underside of a leaf on a small Acacia at the side of the track. It just happened to be in in my eyeline; if I’d been walking even a metre to either side I wouldn’t have seen it. I checked it out and saw it was a larva with small attendant ants. Unlike me, Bob was an expert in butterfly life histories, and he quickly identified it as a full-grown delicia larva. Whilst I couldn’t say it was the prettiest grub I’d ever seen it was still my first sighting of delicia, so I naturally took plenty of photos.
As the larva was fully grown I popped it and its leaf into a bag so I could observe its progress. A couple of days later it pupated, allowing me to get photos of another life history stage, and after a couple of weeks a beautiful female butterfly emerged. I set up some foliage in a vase on my coffee table and took a lot of shots of her as she walked around. I prefer not to cheat in this way, as I’d much rather get photos in the wild, but I didn’t want to miss out on seeing my first ever adult Moonlight Jewel. Being from North Queensland she belonged to the northern subspecies Hypochrysops delicia duaringae, which has more extensive blue areas on the upperside than the southern version H. delicia delicia.
Blue Mountains Jewels
I remained very keen to get shots of delicia in the wild, so I resumed hanging around on hilltops in the hope of finding them. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long. In a previous blog post I described seeing my first Chequered Sedge-skipper (Hesperilla mastersi) whilst butterflying with my mate Mick on a hilltop near Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. Later that day we started seeing a few delicia around the hilltop; they would fly through at high speed, showing mainly their dark brick-red underside colours but with the blue occasionally flashing in the sunshine.
Their appearance seemed to disturb the common species hilltopping at the same site, mainly Dusky Blues (Candalides hyacinthinus) and Painted Ladies (Vanessa kershawi). At the first sight of more interesting butterflies – especially delicia and Ogyris genoveva – the common butterflies would immediately fly up to chase them off. I must admit to swearing quite a bit about this, and Mick resorted to catching some of the Candalides and making them take a Time Out by putting them in a jar.
Mick’s improvised Naughty Corner for Jealous Common Butterflies seemed to help. Shortly after, standing next to the shrub at the very top of the hill, I noticed a small butterfly sitting on the underside of a leaf. It was much more unobtrusive than you’d expect from the colour scheme, and I hadn’t seen it fly in to land, so it took me a couple of moments to process what I was looking at. Once realisation hit I called out “Mick! A Jewel! It’s delicia!” before holding my breath and raising my camera. I grabbed two shots before the butterfly flew off, which I think happened because a couple of ants started nibbling at his legs.
Jewels amid chaos at Cahill’s
I finally had a couple of photos of a wild delicia, but naturally I wanted more. 3 weeks later I struck gold at Cahill’s Lookout near Katoomba, the same spot where I was to see my first ever Golden Ant Blues (Acrodipsas aurata) the following year.
My butterflying mate Al Hopkinson had seen delicia at Cahill’s, and had told me that they flew in the later part of the afternoon – expect to see than from 3pm onwards. So naturally I arrived at about 9:30am, and spent several hours hanging around on a hot sunny day with very few butterflies on the wing. Quite a few people came and went, as Cahill’s does provide a good view out over the Megalong Valley, until around 2:30pm I heard what sounded like a a huge crowd coming down the steps towards the lookout. It turned out to be a single coachload of Chinese tourists; they were the loudest group of tourists I’d ever come across, but even they were drowned out by the voice of their tour guide. I doubt she was 5 feet tall, but I think being in charge of that group had been rather a challenge for her and she’d responded by shrieking at about 1000 decibels just to make herself heard.
The main lookout at Cahill’s is only a small area, but with 50 extremely loud tourists milling around the place it became very chaotic. I thought I had no chance of seeing any butterflies until they’d left, but they showed no sign of wanting to leave any time soon. Using my headphones I was listening to a radio broadcast of the Test cricket (Australia not having a very good day against West Indies in Adelaide); I had to turn the volume up to maximum to have any chance of hearing the commentary. At 3pm exactly – I could tell this from the cricket broadcast – a brightly-coloured delicia flew down and landed low down on a Casuarina right next to the tour guide, who was screeching and gesticulating wildly to her group.
It was a beautiful butterfly, dazzling in the bright sunshine; together with the cricket commentary and the deafening tour party it amounted to sensory overload, but I managed to push past the guide – I said “Excuse me” but I doubt she could hear me – and began taking photos. This attracted the attention of the tourists, none of whom seemed to be able to see what I was photographing, presumably because they themselves had come to see the panoramic views. They crowded around me to the point where I was being jostled so much that I couldn’t keep sufficiently still to take more shots. I think the tour guide resented losing the attention of her party, as she soon produced one exceptionally loud squawk upon which they all filed back up the path towards their bus, leaving me in peace with my butterfly.
Unfortunately he seemed to miss the tour group a lot more than I did as he alighted from his perch almost immediately, but for the rest of the afternoon I was treated to the sight of several Moonlight Jewels flashing around and landing in the shrubs. None of them settled as low down as that first guy, so I switched from my Macro to my 300mm lens and proceeded to take as many photos as possible. I got shots of them with their wings open, wings closed, feeding from flowers and just generally looking fabulous. I stayed there until around 7pm; the delicia were becoming ever-more active but I had to go and catch a train home.
I have observed delicia at a few different sites since then, though finding them and photographing them are different things entirely. These butterflies usually settle high up in the trees, which is why I proposed a new common name of “Come-Down-Lower-So-I-Can-Photograph-You Jewel” for the species, though this name has not yet been adopted by other butterflyers. For example, I’ve been to Mount Sugarloaf (near Newcastle) several times and I’ve generally seen several delicia there in the afternoons, but I’ve never been able to get a single worthwhile photo of them at that site. As with a number of hilltopping Lycaenids the trick is finding a hill which has no tall trees but is still used by the butterflies. These sites can be extremely rewarding, and over the past few years I have had a fair bit of luck photographing delicia on my favourite hills at Blackheath and Bell.
Unsurprisingly, if I see delicia settling at a reasonable height I will always try to get some photos. Who could resist taking shots of such a gorgeous insect? As they fly relatively late in the day it’s not unusual for me cap off my day’s butterflying by getting some pictures of these Jewels – doing so certainly makes the walk back to the train station pass more quickly.
Some luck at Bell
In late December 2018 I spent a long, hot day at Bell looking for delicia’s relative the Yellow Jewel (Hypochrysops byzos), a species which is rarely seen on the wing. I’d spent a number of similar days that season looking for it without any luck whatsoever, and on this particular afternoon I could see a storm coming in so I started making my way back towards the train station. One of my favourite hilltops was on the way so I nipped up there to see what might be around, keeping my fingers crossed that the storm would hold off.
At the time the Leptospermum bushes were covered with white flowers, and it being a very hot day a number of butterflies were taking the opportunity to sip nectar from the flowers. This was the first and (so far) only occasion that I saw Ant-blues nectaring, so I took a few shots of that before noticing that they had been joined by a slightly damaged male delicia. I managed to get a few photos of him before he flew off, but a little later on he was replaced by a perfectly fresh specimen that I think was a female. I didn’t get a view of the upperside, but the bands on the underside were a lot thicker than those on males I’ve seen. Although she sat on the flowers for a couple of minutes she didn’t stay still, constantly twisting, turning and walking around, but I was able to get a couple of clear shots of this incredible butterfly.
This hilltop was also the spot where I observed some interesting behaviour, during a day in the company of a couple of other photographers. In an attempt to deter the biting flies I had made liberal use of my Aerogard, before placing the can in the side pocket of my backpack. The lid and top part of the can stuck out, bright blue in colour. During the late afternoon a couple of delicia showed up, mostly just flying about but occasionally landing quite high up. I suspect the Aerogard’s blue can was sufficiently similar to the blue of the delicia upperside, as on 3 or 4 occasions they divebombed my backpack and one of the butterflies briefly settled on the Aerogard lid.
Hilltops are the best places to find Moonlight Jewels though you’ll most likely only see males, and usually not before the later part of the afternoon, but they can show up elsewhere. I’ve heard of delicia being found on Buddleia flowers in gardens, both in the less built-up outer suburbs of Sydney and in the Blue Mountains. However I strongly suspect that this coming summer I’m going to be spending a few hot afternoons standing on hilltops hoping for Moonlight Jewels to appear.