Archive for April 2007

Rang Rang and the Garbage Lover!

28 April 2007

Father and son on Rang Rang bridge Rang Rang is one of my favourite places – not just because of its musical and picturesque name, but because it is one of the most beautiful spots in North Sikkim. Rang Rang is distinguished by its wonderful Bailey Suspension Bridge. A marvel of engineering, it spanned 400 feet across a 100 meter deep chasm. The bridge seems ethereal to those new to suspension bridges as it has a metal framework and, except for the flooring of the bridge, the landscape looks through the bridge at you! My son Aashay and I specially pose here so that you can be here with us!

A view of the TeestaStanding on the bridge, one looks up river at the verdant picturesque valley of the Rang Rang Chhu. Downstream is the meeting point of the RangRang Chhu with the Teesta and an imposing ridgeline crossing your vista. You can see a local suspension bridge on the Teesta, seen from Rang Rang above which gives the Sikkimese villager access to the other side of the valley.

Since we are at just around 4000 ft or so (I think), there is no snow. The vegetation here is more of the rich tropical type with many creepers, orchids, wildflowers, bushes, palms and trees. At the other end of the bridge, the Army had a beautiful wooden refreshment hut with glazed scenic windows and comfortable seating and broad shadowy verandah all around. The cool breeze, warm sun, bright flowers and buzzing carpenter bees make it seem that one has journeyed to the good old days of Sikkim, perhaps just after Hooker had visited it!

Last time in 1997, the first time I came to Rang Rang, I had spotted large numbers of swallowtails drinking from the standing pools of water collected just after a rain; hardly a millimeter thick and soon to disapppear in the ground, the pools were almost films. Why the butterflies should do so, I could not imagine – till I saw one squirt out water from his backside, I felt straight at me! I refused to take this as a matter of his opinion about me and theorised that the earth there may have some salt or mineral that the insect felt the need for. Many butterflies are to be seen, I remember that I saw my first blue crow at RangRang.

The drive to Rang Rang, is always disappointing. From Singtam, one climbs up a dusty road with scarred landscapes where the Jaypees, Gammon and what have you, have scoured the hillside constructing adits, races, and other paraphernelia needed by hydel projects. You come to a hot itchy town, Dikchu, generally at the time when you yearn to stop for something refreshing or cold – but the shops seem unhygienic, or you are behind schedule, or your companions want to press on. So you persist, without a break over the worst stretch of bumpy road – sometimes it is the bumps of disrepair, sometimes it is the sinking road – spectacular bumps, and, sometimes, the avalanche point which litters the road for a hundred metres or so. Just when you are sick of it all, the road clears a crest and comes to a turnstyle – the road from Gangtok meets you. Form here, it plunges down now in twists and turns between trees and boulders till it emerges on the RangRang bridge.

I passed it a number of times that year. Even, though it did or did not show me any new sights, it always invigorated me. So I had great hopes this year too. Rang Rang! The thought enthralled me! Rang Rang – the name held promise and mystery!

Construction work at Rang RangSo I willingly endured Dikchu and its drive – no new developments here! When we turned the corner to the bridge, I found to my horror that the construction companies had beaten me here, too. Next to the old suspension bridge which still stood was all the rubble and jumble of a new RCC bridge under construction. Gone under the rubble was the 50 yard wide spot which had harboured the shallow pools, under the dappled shade of large forest trees. There was hardly a few feet free on both sides of the road. Space is a constraint in mountains and the bridge builders had used all of it! The otherwise idyllic location was now marred with noise and dust.

There is always a small silver lining in any cloud. Suddenly a small brown butterfly flew up from my feet. I glanced down at my feet to find myself standing in a hotch-potch of dust, stones, leaves and trash. Almost immediately the brown butterfly swooped down and alighted just a foot away. Obviously used to the noise and dust it started moving about and probing with its proboscis.

Garbage Lover 2

The butterfly was a beautiful brown – with white transparentish markings and fine black spots. Its aspect and hooked antennae revealed it to be a skipper, probably some kind of Pied Flat. I saw that it had slightly damaged wings. Before I could observe it well, I found that it had started moving. The butterfly crawled into the leaves and twigs and started probing with its proboscis. It especially spent time around an old jarda metallic foil packet. In search of a good spot, it willingly crawled in between the twigs by folding its wings. Most undignified butterfly behaviour!

Garbage LoverThe passing vehicles disturbed it but it flew off and returned time and again, sometimes at the foil, sometimes elsewhere. Again and again it crawled through the maze of twigs, despite the fact that its wings touched and were pulled through these enclosed spaces. All this was so unusual that I was spell bound. I awake from my trance just in time to take a couple of images and a short video clip. The quicktime video clip of 30 MB or so clearly shows this behaviour. Finally it flew off and I had to return to my vehicle.

Rang Rang had done it again!Garbage lover

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The ubiquitous Tortoiseshell

24 April 2007

Tortoiseshell21

Once you cross an imaginary line in the Himalayas – generally the point at which the hot biodiverse foot-hills end and the cooler lower mountainsides appear, a curious thing happens. The hotpot and profusion of tropical butterflies begins to disappear and some other species which are never seen in the plains begin to appear. Not just appear but also to dominate. These are the lepifauna of the temperate zone of the Indian Himalayas. The variety is less, but the butterflies stand out amidst the heavenly wild-flower, mountain peaked and glacial streamed countryside. God’s own country indeed. The three commonest butterflies that I came across in this North Sikkim trip were the Indian Tortoiseshell, the Dark Clouded Yellow and the Indian Cabbage White.In this blog, I shall be rambling about the Indian Tortoiseshell or Aglais cachmiriensis aesis (Kollar, 1844)(Family Nymphalidae).

Kalimpong Officers InstituteMy reacquaintance with Indian Tortoiseshells began on 16 Apr 07 in the Kalimpong Officers Institute, a hundred year old wooden building with an old British style garden – large trees, large lawns, lots of flower beds with profusion of blooms punctuated by very interesting bushes. The first butterfly I saw was a beautiful Painted Lady basking on the lawn – a bit faded from age with ragged wings, but still beautiful in her prime. As I eased up to capture her on camera, she was buzzed by a dark brown fast moving form. Startled, I looked up and found my very old friend – The Indian Tortoiseshell. With a chequered pattern and yellow, red, black and brown, it is quite striking to look at. That evening, there was a host of Tortoiseshells in the garden flitting in the warm sun and despite the stiff breeze in most of the exposed lawns. The breeze did not deter them at all and they zoomed around till sundown, defending their turf vigourously against all other butterflies.

The foodplant of the Tortoiseshell is the Stinging Nettle or Bichhoo booti (Urtica dioica Linnaeus) which is common between 1000 mtrs to 2500 mtrs in the Himalayas. I found stinging nettles at places all along the way to North Sikkim, very common in Chungthang and in the Lachung valley till around 9,000 ft. The nettles are found in profusion as rank undergrowth in the seamier parts of hill towns and also occassionally interspresed in the hedgerows along the road.

Beyond Lachung the vegetation changed and we had moss-covered conifers, rhododendrons of all sizes and colours and beautiful globed purple primulas; yet the Tortoiseshell remained ever-present right upto Shiv Mandir (approx ht 13,000 ft) and also along the Chhaten valley just short of Thhanggu (approx ht 14,000 ft). Beyond that strong prevailing winds really reduce the biodiversity to some lichens, dwarf junipers, snow pigeons and the yellow-billed and red-billed choughs. Unfortunately, there are no high altitude meadows a la Garhwal next to the road where we could see the very special Parnassius or Snow Apollos.

In 1993, when I had been to Nandadevi, I had seen ‘Torties’, as we referred to them, right upto Base Camp (16,000 ft) where they seemed perfectly at home in the glacial moraine, muddy ice and deadly cold ponds. One climber recorded a Torty at Camp II about 19,000 ft, but this is obviously a stray. Now here is something interesting – Torties, as per Haribal occur from 900 mtrs to 4,800 mtrs. Obviously, they feed on more than one hostplant – possibly high altitude Torties are feeding on a related spp of Nettle, Urtica hyperborea Jacquem ex Wedd, ( as per Polunin and Stainton recorded between 4100 and 5100 mtrs on stony high altitude steppes). Are they feeding on some other host plant too, in the middle elevations or are they locally migrating to higher altitudes? They were very common where their hostplants were absent!

Throughout my trip the Tortoiseshells were there in the high altitudes – a comfortable and reassuring motif in North Sikkim, that land of avalanches, flash floods, glacial lake bursts, lightning and snowstorms – a very scenic but potentially deadly terrain.

First Post – The One that troubled me!

21 April 2007

Some butterflies you can never forget. Here is one that made my life quite difficult while trying to photograph it just outside Dikchu, on the Singtam – Mangan road in Sikkim in the late afternoon of 19 Apr 07.
Common Map 002

I first spotted it as a pale Pierid-like butterfly flying smoothly but not powerfully towards the steep hillside covered with bushes, creepers and trees. It vanished overhead under a leaf with wings protruding over the edge. Pale see-through wings, they appeared to me with some jumbled markings on them. The narrow road does not provide a berm or sidewalk, so I squirmed across the steep slope trying to contort my body into a position to photograph it. The butterfly was lying with wings flattened under the leaf; I had to squint against the bright sky. The insect was just far enough for me to not be able to see the finer details. The ominous spines on the leaves of Bichhoo booti (Urtica dioica) (or the Stinging Nettle) successfully dampened any aspirations I had about climbing for a better shooting angle. So I took a shot.

I sensed that this was a butterfly which I had never seen before. It didn’t behave like any Pierid either. Absolutely unhappy with this, I threw a stick at the bush in frustration. This disturbed the creature and it did exactly the same thing. This time it perched higher but I could view it from below with my binoculars. It showed the tell-tale transverse bars against pale white wings of …..should I tell you so soon. Disturbing it again and again it did the same thing every time. It flew under a leaf and perched with its wings flattened. It even closed and opened its wings there. Try as I might I could’nt get a decent photograph over half-an-hour. I had to walk back to the Gypsy where my family waited impatient and hungry. I dared not delay their lunch for fear of being eaten alive in lieu.
Common Map 002

Back in my room, I opened my copy of Meena Haribal’s Butterflies of Sikkim I found that this was the typical behaviour of a Nymphalid…wait for it, here it comes, of the…

….Common Map
Cyrestis thyodamas.