The Bright Copper (Paralucia aurifera) is a common and very colourful butterfly, yet it is so easily overlooked that I doubt many Australians who venture into bushland areas have even noticed it.
Bright Coppers are to be found in bushland where its thorny foodplant Bursaria spinosa grows; Cumberland Plain Woodland is ideal habitat. This type of community used to cover huge swathes of the Sydney basin; much of it has fallen under the bulldozer, but pockets still remain in bushland areas even within Sydney suburbs. However, even in if you know their general location the Coppers can take a bit of finding, as they live in colonies rather than spreading throughout the bushland. I’ve frequently found them only in certain small patches amidst a much larger area of suitable-looking habitat.
Spotting the butterflies can also be difficult because of their size and behaviour. Bright Coppers are small, with a span of only about 24mm when sitting with its wings fully spread (which rarely happens). As with many species the males are more easily found as they need to display themselves in order to attract a female. Male aurifera usually establish territories close to the Bursaria foodplants – I’ve mostly found them doing so along tracks or other more open areas next to the bush. They are very rapid fliers, and despite the bright orange colour they generally just appear as a small, dark blur as they zip around. Unless disturbed they often perch for long periods, usually between ground level and a height of about 2 metres, making them good subjects for photography. However, they are very territorial indeed, and will try to chase off just about anything that encroaches on their patch. They don’t just try to dogfight other Bright Coppers – I’ve seen them chase much larger butterflies and dragonflies, in fact I’ve even had them try to see me off! There’s something very endearing in seeing this tiny – but very feisty – butterfly chase off a Monarch that’s several times his size.
I’ve mostly found females to be less cooperative. They don’t usually fly at any great speed – they’re more commonly seen fluttering slowly low down around the Bursaria bushes, but as they don’t defend territories they don’t feel the need to show off like the males seem to. Females do settle frequently, but I’ve often found them quite difficult to approach closely. Every now and then, however, one deigns to sit with her wings open to display the striking colours. The females are more rounded in shape than the pointy-winged males; they also have larger blue spots on the upperside of the hind wing.
Both sexes can be hard to spot when they settle with their wings closed, as their undersides blend in very well with the background. I’ve found the males to be rather variable, both in the extent and pattern of the speckling and in the ground colour (which can be anything from light brown to dark grey). I haven’t seen so much variation in the females, though that may be partly because I have seen fewer specimens.
Where and when to find them
My most reliable site for Bright Coppers is Ingleburn Reserve, an area of bushland for which I must post a Site Report some time soon as I’ve seen some interesting butterflies there in the past. I usually go there in August – still during Sydney’s winter – to whet my appetite for the season to come. For some reason I always seem to find aurifera flying earlier at that site than elsewhere; I’ve even photographed them in late July. August and September are usually good here, as are March and April. This was the first place I ever found this species way back in early April 2004; I was following a Meadow Argus (Junonia villida) when a small, dark shape appeared out of nowhere and chased it away.
Another good Sydney site is the Old Great Western Highway Track at Emu Plains, which I mentioned in a previous blog post. I’ve frequently seen them taking nectar from the Lantana flowers, especially beneath the power lines a few hundred metres south of the carpark.
Both of these sites are also home to the similar and closely-related Dull Copper (Paralucia pyrodiscus), though in both places I’ve always found the colonies of the two species to be separated, if only by a short distance.
I’m sure there are plenty of other sites in the Sydney area, though as I go to Ingleburn each year specifically to photograph this species I haven’t needed to spend much time looking for it elsewhere. I have seen it in quite a few locations, for example at Deerubben Reserve at Mooney Mooney, a grassy bank next to a carpark at the Jenolan Caves, and I even saw a solitary female on a Blackheath hilltop on Australia Day 2010 (when it was 40 degrees Celsius and there was nothing else on the wing).
Any bushland in aurifera’s range (see the map on the Atlas of Living Australia) that houses a substantial amount of Bursaria is worth checking out. I’d particularly suggest looking around any relatively damp areas, as this species tends to prefer those whereas the Dull Copper is more likely to be found in drier spots. I think Bright Coppers are well worth seeking out; this is one of my favourite butterfly species and seeing them always brings a smile to my face.