Archive for the ‘North Bengal’ category

Close encounter of the Banded kind!

3 February 2009

It was dark when I received a call from my Subedar Major, ‘Sahab, we have caught a …Crackle, crackle, crackle… at the quarter guard. We have placed him in a …crackle, crackle…..Would you like to come there? ’
The internal telephones were acting up again. One lightning bolt and your battalion exchange is never the same again!
Since the global threat to terrorism emerged, we have become extremely security conscious so I suspected that the troops had rounded up a ‘suspicious’ individual. I decided that the matter needed immediate investigation and proceeded to the battalion location.

I was surprised to find a rather unmilitary gathering on the quarter guard verandah peering into a lunchbox container about one foot in diameter. Everyone immediately fell back to give me a glimpse at the apprehended individual – which turned out to be a beautiful 4 ft long shiny snake with black and gold bands.

Hello there!

Hello there!

I had just met my first poisonous snake in the wild -‘‘Bungarus fasciatus’’, the Banded Krait!

The quarter guard sentry detail knowing their CO’s penchant for all things natural went overboard and apprehended the poor innocent krait making his way across the quarter guard garden from the hockey field to the marshes next door. The duty sentry placed a lunch box bin inverted on top of him, used a stick to push his coils in, slid a piece of plywood under and flipped the box over, inadvertantly using a safe way to catch this beautiful but venomous snake!

Naturally, the jawans expected a ‘shabashi’ and I proceeded to give them one,  but only after a rocket for catching a unidentified snake which could be, and in this case was, poisonous. That done, I got down to the business of examining the snake. Fortunately I had had two ‘snake-sticks’ made, of different sizes, for safer handling of snakes.

The triangular body with distinctive ridge.

The triangular body with distinctive ridge.

The Banded Krait was curled up in the small bin with his head placed under his coils. It was difficult to find his head and pin it, so out he had to come. First, I moved the people well away with sticks to block off his retreat. I armed Sapper Deshmukh, the soldier who caught him and myself with the crooks after which we placed ourselves on opposite sides of the bin. Deshmukh was unfamiliar with how to use the crook, so a short lesson followed. Then, lifting the impromptu plywood lid, I hooked a coil and hoisted the snake up and onto the floor.

As soon as he hit the floor, the snake started swerving widely. The smooth floor did not give him much of a grip. His dashes to each side scattered the people watching though they were quite far out of reach. He proved hard to pin down, because a banded krait has a triangular, muscular body and shiny slippery scales. There were a number of exciting moments as I was in shorts and sneakers. My heart is racing, the temperature high and the humidity great. Water flowed in streams down my forehead and clouded my vision. It was vital that I pin him down soon or let him go without getting our hyper excited audience bitten. When pinned down, I had to make sure that our lovely krait was immobilised because this venomous snake does not have a specific anti-venin and I did not want to make history as the first recorded bite of ‘Bungarus fasciatus’ in India.

A firm grip behind the arrowhead is a must. (Careful not to choke the animal!)

A firm grip behind the arrowhead is a must. (Careful not to choke the animal!)

Soon, I got his head pinned on the floor with Deshmukh’s crook pinning him mid-body. At the same time, I had to ensure he wasn’t throttled in the process. Gingerly, I pressed my foot down on his tail and my second foot on his head behind the crook and reached down and grabbed him just behind the head with fingers jutting into the sides of the head so that he had no chance of biting me. Now I had him in my hands – but how was I to wipe my face and my spectacles, much less take photographs. So ‘ram-bharose’ I told Deshmukh to take the camera and shoot away. Some images were taken, but due to the dark and Deshmukh’s inexpertise with a digital camera, I decided that I needed to keep the snake overnight and take snaps tomorrow.

Slippery with sweat but with snake safely held!

Slippery with sweat but with snake safely held!

What to do? I remembered a Steve Irwin episode where he had placed a snake in a sack, so a sack was called for and Mr Bungarus swiftly and deftly thrown into it before he realised what had happened. This sack was now placed in a large three foot high plastic waste bucket with a fitting lid and strict instructions of none to handle before I came forth next morning.

The job kept me busy till noon. I had the plastic box brought to the ground floor patio of the office where Deshmukh and myself were located to cut off his escape routes. The audience were reduced to a minimum, which just means that everyone who was ordered away sneaked back the moment my back was turned. Giving up on the futility of this, I reached in with the stick and brought the snake out. Mr Bungarus did not disappoint and proceeded to move towards me with great speed as this time his belly scales could grip the rougher surface. Deshmukh, a good Bombay Sapper, had practiced assiduously at night and pinned the snake down speedily and accurately allowing me enough chance to pin down the neck and immobilise the snake. Now I had him!

Fetching the reluctant warrior!

Fetching the reluctant warrior!

Raising the snake high brought a murmur of appreciation from the crowd. It was beautiful! From above, the head is with black shiny scales, rounded mouth and a beautiful yellow arrow-mark; the body is triangular in profile with glossy bands a couple of inches wide, glossy black and gold. The snake is muscular, handling it one feels the power of the sleek muscles. It wraps its tail slowly around my left arm. And glossy, so glossy – the scales shine so powerfully that its really difficult to get photos without the sheen showing.

The gloriously beautiful and glossy Banded Krait.

The gloriously beautiful and glossy Banded Krait.

Contrary to what you may think, the Banded Krait is the most docile of kraits, a fact known to snake-charmers of the East. Its bite is thought not to be lethal, but that’s because no bite has been officially recorded in history. Of course, no snake likes to be handled or incarcerated and the banded krait can at times be as vigorous as any other snake, as our visitor had proven.

After getting a couple of snaps taken, I handed the snake to Sapper Deshmukh, the proud captor, very deliberately and carefully so that I could get a few photos of him with the snake.

Sapper Deshmukh proudly holds the wondrous snake!

Sapper Deshmukh proudly holds the wondrous snake!

The troops were fascinated with the banded krait. They had a barrage of questions many of which alas reflect our blind beliefs about snakes. This was a good opportunity to educate them and also open their eyes to this wonder of nature.

No, the tail does not sting!

No, the tail does not sting

After taking photos and measuring the snake (he turned out to be 1.11m long), he now had to be released. Deshmukh was feeling tired holding on, so I took the snake back.

The krait being measured.

The krait being measured.

We moved to the basketball court about 50 metres away, close to the marshy nullah on the unit boundary. I dropped the snake on to the court.

The krait being released.

The krait being released.

The sun had warmed the court and the snake felt uncomfortable so he headed for the shadow of the basketball post. He stayed there awhile before moving off – back towards our HQ building! There was a wave of uproar from the troops.Now I could not afford him in the midst of my eight hundred odd troops so I was constrained to pick up him with the fork and keeping him at a safe distance transported him about 30 metres or so that he was now in the shadow of the hedgerow bordering the nullah.

This way home, my friend!

This way home, my friend!

After some time the banded krait crawled away in a stately manner, leaving me with a profound sense of gratitude and happiness that I had had the good fortune of encoun-tering the golden snake. The banded krait is an uncommon and beautiful, albeit deadly, snake of India. It is one of those forms of life which are in danger of becoming extinct long before we are able to study the animal and its natural history satisfactorily.

Going home...

Going home...

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.

A Paris Peacock by the Chel River

11 May 2007

Chel River bridge

The most beautiful approach to Kalimpong is not via the direct route from Siliguri via Sevoke and Teesta, but by a quaint winding hill road from Damdim to the newly emerging hillstation of Labha and the sleepy hamlet of Algarah which overlooks Kalimpong from the ridgetop to the NorthEast. We chose this backdoor access for getting to Kalimpong – our first stop enroute to North Sikkim.

Now one doesnt really need to go to Kalimpong to go to North Sikkim but a night halt is preferable because of the long journey from Binnaguri. Kalimpong is more conveniently placed than Gangtok which would require an extra day or more and require you to head much further East than you need. You get the same kind of atmosphere, much better scenic beauty enroute, a shorter trip, and for those interested in plants, many nurseries growing exotic plants. Gangtok has a charm and appeal of its own and is best visited separately, perhaps in combination with the border pass of Nathu La.

For that, one goes halfway towards Tiger bridge till Damdim,  and then you turn right or Northwards. You now leave behind the tea garden, betel-nut, fish-pond and jute type of atmosphere prevalent in the lowlands of the Siliguri corridor. Almost immediately, you pass through Gorubatthan and come to the scenic hamlet of Paparkheti. Paparkheti gives you that old world feeling one associates with sleepy forgotten hill stations. Now, the villages are of Gurkha and Lepcha people living in quaint bamboo houses on stilts. These houses are embellished by masses of wild and cultivated flowers in pots, small strips of garden and in their verandahs. You feel really good, and often the sweet smell of a honeysuckle is encountered as you slow down on a turn. The ubiquitous Tea gardens still co-exists but here they cling to dizzying slopes which have stands of cardamom that give them an exotic look. Far below, a river flows with old-fashioned Bailey bridges to take people to the other side. Wooden log huts now can be seen amidst colourful patches of garden. You cross the Chel river, (actually a fast-flowing rocky stream) by an RCC bridge next to a huge boulder used locally for rappelling. And now you are in fabulous butterfly country.

Spot PuffinJust 500 metres ahead of the Chel river is a small grocery-cum-tea stall-cum-hardware store of the kind found in the hills. A year ago, I had stopped here for a cup of tea enroute to Rhenok.  It borders another mountain stream which is crossed by a small RCC bridge just adjacent to the store. The trees on both sides are very high here, the sun alighting the uppermost branches – high above butterflies can be seen flying about – I wonder what they are? A white which is leisurely opening and closing its wings in the shade turns out to be a Spot Puffin. On the roadside, Common Sailers pose still as statues with wings placed flat.

As I waited for the tea to be prepared, my eyes were suddenly dazzled by a blue and black butterfly flying high in the trees opposite. It was a Peacock, and my first thought was ‘Is this butterfly beautiful, or what?’.  Strong swift wingstrokes across the hillside brought it next to the stream flowing across the road, where it hovered with a rhythmic slow wingbeat and dipped  its large black proboscis into the water. For a few minutes, it kept weaving between the same puddles back and forth, permitting some photography.

Paris Peacock 1
Paris Peacock2The four Himalayan species of Papilio Peacocks are amongst the most colourful butterflies in India. The butterfly hypnotises you into just admiring its bues, greens and maroon-purple peacock-eyes. The mind struggles to understand the pattern of these shimmering colours which keep changing location as the butterfly moves. This is why I find it so difficult to recognise the exact species of Peacock butterfly on the wings. From the photographs I later identified it as a Paris Peacock.

Paris peacock 3On the wing, the butterfly gives different visual treat than it does as a specimen, in the hand or as a photograph. The forewings slide easily over the bright blue patch on its hindwings. The butterfly is instantly transformed into something relatively nondescript and you need to refocus to discern the creature once more. Should the butterfly halt a little longer, more details emerge for appreciation….the beautiful spatulate tails, the green glitter spangle on its wings, a thin green band on the upper forewing which tapers towards the apex. The tragedy with having such beautiful butterflies is, that you can never get enough of them – you see them too infrequently, and you dont get enough time with them when you do.

This place has other dainties too. I wander further away from the roadside towards an abandoned bridge site. A delicate blue damselfly perched on a nettle allows me to approach quite close to admire its beauty.

Damsel fly

The rippling brook invites you by its musical babbling. Suddenly I saw a small white bird bobbing on one of the stones in midstream – it was a Forktail. Tantalisingly, it would allow me to approach close but fly off out of sight a few meters away further upstream. I could glimpse it through the fronds of fern, but by the time I laboured to get in view, it was off again.

Yellow MothA beautiful fat yellow moth is in front of me on an Ageratum bush. It allows me to pick it up and gently examine it. It has a beautiful red upper abdomen which is completely hidden by the wings. Its forelegs are partly red and partly black. It exudes a few yellow drops on my fingers as I place it back unharmed on the leaves. Later, I learn that the moth belongs to the Spilosoma genus of Arctiidae, the Tiger Moth family.

All good things must come to an end – its time to be off again with a memory of Peacocks – on to Labha, Algarah and Kalimpong.
Yellow Moth 2

The ubiquitous Tortoiseshell

24 April 2007


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.