There’s just something irresistible about Ant-blues in general, and the Golden Ant-blue (Acrodipsas aurata) in particular. They are small butterflies and even I could hardly describe them as spectacular, yet every time I see one I find myself snapping away with my camera. I’m by no means the only butterflyer to have fallen under their spell; plenty of collectors seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time visiting hilltops in the hope of finding Acros.
No doubt their elusiveness is part of the appeal. You are unlikely to serendipitously come across an Ant-blue whilst walking around the bush; you have go looking for them in the right places. It took almost 5 years of butterflying for me to see my first Acros, despite innumerable attempts to find them, and then another two years passed before I finally saw and photographed aurata.
A very special Christmas present
It was Christmas Day 2010; the weather at the time was not too promising but the 25th was supposed to be a beautiful sunny day, so I caught the train to Katoomba and walked the 3.5kms to Cahill’s Lookout. I’d been to Cahill’s a few times with mixed results; it was one of those frustrating sites where interesting butterflies do show up… but only sometimes. I’d spent 8 hours there without seeing anything more than a couple of Cabbage Whites, but it was also the spot where I was able to get lovely close-up macro shots of Moonlight Jewels (Hypochrysops delicia), despite the appearance of a large and extremely noisy group of Chinese tourists. Even on the good days, Cahill’s Lookout tended to be devoid of butterflies much of the time, with sudden bursts of activity as delicia and/or Ogyris olane swirled about and engaged in territorial dogfights, before vanishing as suddenly as they had arrived.
Immediately upon arrival I had a pleasant surprise as my mate Al was there, having also seen the weather forecast for the Christmas period. Even better, he’d already seen some aurata, and pointed to the Casuarina bushes that were playing host to 3 or 4 of them. Sadly for me, these were about 4 metres tall, which was far from ideal for me given that aurata only has a wingspan of about 22mm, or half that when they perch with their wings closed.
I removed my macro lens and attached the 300mm prime lens to my camera, so at least the butterflies appeared as slightly more than brownish specks in the viewfinder. I took dozens of photos, but the angle was against me as I had to stand almost directly underneath the butterflies otherwise they would be obscured by the foliage. The aurata all seemed to be old, tatty specimens but I didn’t mind too much as I’d been searching for this species for so long.
As I worked at filling up my camera’s memory card, I noticed an altogether more colourful specimen fly around the Casuarinas and then perch slightly lower down on a different shrub. He was a lovely fresh specimen, but was rather feisty and preferred flying around looking for a fight than sitting to pose for photos, so I only managed to get a couple of shots of him.
…and a female too!
My good fortune continued when I spotted a female aurata landing on the trunk of the main tree at the Lookout. As with many hilltopping species, female Ant-blues are not seen all that often. The males spend most of their adult lives hanging about on hilltops, battling to maintain territories they hope will prove attractive to females. The females also make a beeline for the hilltop soon after emerging from their pupa, but typically they quickly find a male, mate, depart and are never seen near a hilltop again. This hilltopping strategy is very important for species which live at a low population density, as if the butterflies didn’t congregate on hilltops the chances of males and females actually finding each other might be slim, given that butterflies don’t have smartphones and so are unable to use Tinder like the rest of us.
This particular female had clearly had a hard life; she was sufficiently worn that I could only see a hint of her blue colour, and a bird strike had removed a big chunk from her hind wings. She spent a couple of minutes walking about the tree trunk, trailing her abdomen across the bark in a way that suggested she was looking to lay eggs, though I don’t think she actually did. I still had the long lens on my camera, which was a shame as she was at chest-height which would have been ideal for macro shots. After grabbing some photos I decided to switch lenses; when I looked up again she’d gone.
The Golden Ant-blue had been a very welcome and rather appropriate Christmas present. Although I didn’t have any luck finding the Frankincense or Myrrh Ant-blues that day, I was delighted to have finally photographed this elusive butterfly.
As often seems to happen, having finally found aurata I kept on finding them, including on hills where I’d previously searched several times to no avail. Exactly one week later, on New Year’s Day 2011, I saw about half a dozen of them on Hat Hill near Blackheath. I had heard this was an Acro hilltop, so I had eagerly visited it on a number of occasions without seeing any sign whatsoever of any Ant-blues (or much else of great interest either).
This time there were two Bronze Ant-blues (Acrodipsas brisbanensis) stubbornly remaining at the top of the highest tree at the crown of the hill, along with the much better-behaved aurata that almost always settled below head height. Getting close enough for photos was still problematical, however, as there was a gap between the rocks I could stand on and the leaves upon which the aurata were settling. A gap with a sheer drop of 10 or 15 feet. The sort of gap which a clutz like me is all too likely to fall down whilst leaning forward trying to take close-ups of little butterflies.
The following weekend I encountered a couple of beautiful specimens on another hilltop at Blackheath, which again had been free of Ant-blues on all my previous visits. There were no worries about tall trees or falling over a cliff edge here. This hilltop was very exposed and had no tall trees at all, presumably as a result of lightning strikes.
I spent several hours watching these Ant-blues flying at waist height, providing perfect views of their golden colour shining in the sunlight. I’d arrived quite early in the morning, and while it was still reasonably cool the aurata sometimes settled with their wings partially open, allowing me to take the photo at the top of this post. As the temperature rose they became more frisky, and though they still did settle often it was generally with their wings closed, giving me the perfect opportunity to photograph their undersides :
I’ve since found aurata on another hill near Blackheath and have seen them, sometimes in good numbers, on a couple of hills near Bell. I know it also occurs on hills around Canberra including Mount Ainslie, though I unsuccessfully looked for it there on 3 or 4 occasions. It turns out I was looking on the wrong part of the hill.
I’ve noticed that when several aurata are present a small number of them seem to join in the territorial battling for the best perches, whilst non-combatants can be found draped upon the bushes around the area, often just sitting in the same spot for long periods of time. The individuals who do battle can be difficult to photograph, because within a few seconds of landing some other butterfly comes too close and has to be chased away. The peaceniks, however, tend to be extremely easy to approach and they rarely take exception to me sticking the end of my macro lens in their faces, for which I am very grateful.
The hilltopping instinct appears to be extremely strong. Once when I was at Blackheath two males were disputing the ownership of the shrub at the very peak of the hill; one was a fresh specimen in perfect condition whilst the other had a chip missing from a forewing. I was trying to get shots of the perfect specimen, but the other guy was more aggressive and always won the battles for perching rights. After I while I caught him in a specimen jar and tucked him into my backpack, to keep him out of the way for a while whilst I got my shots of his opponent. When I released my captive he flew off like a bat out of hell – a very small, golden bat – for about 100 metres. He then hung a right and flew in a wide circle, returning to the top of the hill and settling back on the exact leaf where I’d captured him.
I go to the Blue Mountains several times each season, often specifically to look for Ant-blues. I don’t always find them, but of the 3 species I’ve photographed on those hills aurata is easily the most reliable, with brisbanensis and particularly myrmecophila being less likely to turn up. I have taken a hell of a lot of shots of Golden Ant-blues, far more than I really need for this website. I just can’t help myself; it’s a good thing someone invented digital cameras so I don’t have to pay the film and development costs for all those Acro photos.
As expected, virtually all my photos are of hilltopping males, indeed it wasn’t until December 2018 that I photographed another female – a gap of 8 years. She appeared on a hill at Blackheath and just sat there quietly, clinging onto her perch in the face of a fairly stiff breeze. She only opened her wings a fraction, not enough to reveal any blue on her upperside, and her abdomen wasn’t visible. The ground colour of her undersides was darker than the males, she was fractionally larger, and she did give a glimpse of the dark brown that covers most of the upperside; no sign of the golden colour here. It was great to finally get shots of a fresh female specimen, though I clearly need to keep looking for aurata in order to get shots of the upperside. At the very least it’ll give me an excuse to keep on photographing one of my favourite species.
Golden Ant-blues (Acrodipsas aurata) from Al Hopkinson’s collection. The photo of the male doesn’t really capture his lovely golden colour, which is only seen to its full advantage in sunshine. The female’s blue is clearly visible; one day I’m going to get a photo that shows it as well as this…