Archive for the ‘Hesperiidae’ category

Pirated pupas of the Common Banded Awl

7 October 2007

On 18 July 2007, I visited Kumargram, a tea-garden, just a handful of kilometers South of the Bhutan border and a few kilometers West of the Sankosh river, the natural feature which separates the West Bengal Dooars from those of Assam.

Nearby was a disused World War II airstrip amidst a tea-garden. I took the opportunity to rummage around during my lunch-break.

While I was there, I noticed a small tree with leaves and branches coming down to my shoulder height. The leaves were jigsaw shaped; something had been at them. Again and again, I found leaves folded to form narrow open tubes held together with a few strands of a fibre.

In each leaf-tube was the remains of a pupa. The pupas were brown, sometimes with green slimy-looking markings. These pupas were more or less heavily covered with a white powder, which I then thought was that of a fungus. The pupas had holes in them – some had large holes at the head indicating the point of exit of a newly hatched butterfly, others with smaller holes at the sides or on the back, the likely exit point of a newly hatched parasite such as a wasp.

I looked around for the butterfly whose pupas it could be, and almost immediately, I saw a handsome robust skipper with large antenna hooked elegantly and ending in sharp points. The head had fine greenish bristles. The forewings were triangular, held straight back and half-covered by well-rounded hindwings. The hindwings had a thin clear white band which was diffused towards the outer side, the distinctive feature of the butterfly. There were four or five of these handsome skippers, buzzing strongly around the bush and settling for short periods of time on exposed leaves or twigs.

I found one perched low, which allowed me to catch him gently between my thumb and forefinger. Knowing that hesperiids require both UP and UN images, I opened its wings for photography, but the best of efforts could not prevent some smearing off of the scales.

Strangely, the UP was a featureless brown. Later on I referred to Wynter-Blyth and Kunte and concluded that it later as the COMMON BANDED AWL, (Hasora chromus). I also found out that the white powder on the pupas was a characteristic of the subfamily Coeliadinae or the Awls.

The butterfly, when released, showed no inclination of flying off, allowing some excellent shots of it on my hairy arm! When I had had my fill of photographing the skipper, I shooed it off my hand. It then resumed flying around, looking, I thought, for some suitable leaves on which, I presumed, to lay eggs.

Now seeing the dismal pupal casts, I looked around for a wasp which could have been the brood-parasite. I soon saw a small, blue-coloured wasp, buzzing lazily along with legs suspended below it.

This I suspected may be the culprit, but I had no net to catch it and it did not settle for me to get a photograph. Anyway, it could have been flying along there by coincidence. The only way to confirm whether this was the wasp predator is by examining parasites emerging from a pupa or by actually observing a wasp piercing a pupa with its ovipositor. I anyway had no more time to spare and reluctantly left the spot.

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