On sunny days in late spring and early summer on Highfield Farm, it’s common to find yourself in a kaleidoscope. Yes, a kaleidoscope!

You see, one of the collective nouns for a large number of butterflies in one place is called just that – a kaleidoscope. Cute, hey?

The fluttering cloud you will see on Highfield Farm is produced by the Common Brown Butterfly, and at this time of the year (summer), they are all male. Every single one.

Some people, on seeing them at Highfield, think they are Monarchs, but while the Common Brown and the Monarch are both orange-brown, they look very different.

An Australian Native

The Common Brown is a native to Australia, whereas the Monarch is a blow-in – literally. The Monarch is native to North America, and there is a theory that it came to Australia by being blown in from New Caledonia.

Image of Australian male common brown buttery

Male Common Brown – note the ‘eyes’ on each wing. Photo Australian Museum

 

The Monarch Butterfly – note the white spotted edges to its wings. Photo Australian Museum

En masse, even a ‘common brown’ can steal your breath away and cause you to exclaim in amazement. For some reason, we often see them on rising slopes like the rise up to the old sheep camp, the climb up the hill in ‘the Triangle’ and on the gentle hill heading towards our house from the conservation area.

Common they may be, but Common Browns have extraordinary lives.

Both male and female Common Browns emerge in spring, but you only ever see the males flying in this season. The females stay low in the grasses and undergrowth, essentially resting during the hot summer months.

Once mated, the males die, and for a time, the ground is sprinkled with their shed wings, evidence of their life-concluding reproduction. The death of the male Common Brown comes at a fantastic time. Their juicy bodies provide easy and plentiful food for the nestlings of insectivorous birds in hidden nests everywhere.

Small silver box with butterfly wings

I collect the shed wings of the Common Brown. When you stay at Kestrel Nest you will find my little stash. Photo: Eliska Sharp

The females get a much longer but sleepy life. After being mated, they ‘hibernate’ or aestivate (which is hibernating in summer). Only reviving to lay their eggs sometime after the first autumn rains fall when the grass that will feed their caterpillars starts to grow again after the heat of the summer has passed.

Kaleidoscope in Autumn

Autumn is the time of the year when you see a kaleidoscope of butterflies again – but this time, they are all females, out laying their eggs on the freshly emerging grasses. As soon as she lays her eggs, she will die.

Female Common Brown – Note she still has ‘eyes’ on her wings, but her top wings have large patches of white to creamy yellow.  Image: Australian Botanic Garden

Native grasslands are particularly important for this butterfly.

The female lays her eggs on many different grasses, but Kangaroo Grass and Microlaena are particular favourites. Highfield Farm has large swards of both these grasses. The caterpillars will eat these grasses and form their pupae, ready to start the cycle all over again.

Did you know that Native Grasslands support some 19 species of native butterfly?

And in the temperate zone of Australia, Native Grasslands only exist in 1% of their former range. At Highfield Farm, we are working to continually enhance and spread our native grasses. Take a read of our Native Perennial Grasslands blog to learn more.

More reading:

How the Monarch colonised Australia

 

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