Archive for the ‘North Sikkim’ category

A walk by the roadside

10 May 2007
    Tree with fernsWe had had a great trip in North Sikkim. I had enjoyed seeing remarkable mountainscapes, Rhododendrons, Primulas and a host of other wild flowers. We also saw some beautiful birds like snow pigeons, white-capped bush robin, blue flycatchers and the red billed chough! But I had’nt quite had my fill of butterflies. So, on 19 Apr 07, on the way back from Chungthang to Binnaguri, at the first opportunity I suggested that we halt the Gypsy and walk along the road for a kilometer or two.

    The stretch that appealed to me was the deciduous forest between Mayang Chhu and Manul. Warm day, slight breeze, the buzz of insects. The mountainside had a Southern aspect and the Teesta was far below out of sight. Mr Nandan Kalbag (Papa or my father-in-law) was immediately engrossed in this botanical paradise.

    Birds-nest fernUpslope was a collage of bamboo, creepers, grass, herbs, trees with moss- and fern-covered trunks, punctuated by a wide variety of bushes, between which wild palms and bananas peeped at us. Down slope, the sun shone on the treetops and branches. In the nooks of trees, white-flowered orchids grew. From time to time, Papa drew my attention to a ground orchid or a Birds Nest Fern Asplenium nedus Family Polypodiaceae (seen in the picture above). I saw a verditer flycatcher and a woodpecker. For background music, we had a symphony of birdcalls who, like the orchestra, preferred to remain out of sight. It was heavenly!

    Just then,  I saw a beautiful butterfly with dark wings and yellow bands on it – I couldn’t get more than a glance at it , but I instinctly felt that it was a Chumbi Wall. I chased it but it kept getting further and further away and disappeared downhill.

    Purple SapphireThe next butterfly I came across was a beautiful yellow lycaenid sitting with its wings closed on the shade-dappled road in a patch of sunlight. As I crept closer to photograph it, the peculiar mustard yellow colour and red border on its hindwing identified it as a Heliophorus spp, a Sapphire. Later on, I identified the butterfly from the image as a Purple Sapphire Heliophorus epicles, by the diffused red edging to its forewings, which is absent in other members of its genus in the region. The sapphires are beautiful Lycaenids commonly seen in Sikkim where five species occur (Haribal). I was fortunate to record the commonest during this trip – the Golden Sapphire and Purple Sapphire.

    An orchidThere was a very nice slope with lots of orchids. As we reached closer, we found that this was a small natural garden, lovingly made by human hands who planted some domestic flowers and bushes along with wild ground- and picked up some tree-orchids, (such as the Coelogyne corymbosa shown in the image opposite) and artistically arranged in between. The people of the North Bengal and Sikkim have a real love for plants and flowers. All along our journey, we saw neat well-kept homes adorned by large bunches of flowers planted on ledges, flowerpots and strips of garden. This really endeared them to us.

    Himalayam JesterWhile inspecting this simple creative wonder, I suddenly noticed a very large maroon dry leaf on which a butterfly was perched facing downwards. It had an elaborate network of black and white markings. Its wings were damaged and part of the upper forewing was yellow and black. That it was a Nymphalid was certain. I hurriedly took a shot! Since it was enjoying the sunshine, I got a chance to open up Meena Haribal’s tome on Sikkimese butterflies. From the coloured plates, it was identified as a Himalayan Jester Symbrenthia hypselis. This was very exciting. Just this morning I had spotted the Common Jester Symbrenthia lilaea on a stinging nettle at Chungthang! Now I had spotted its other counterpart too! The Himalayan Jester made up for the bad behaviour of the suspected Chumbi Wall. He shifted up and down some dried grass stalks and allowed me to take a number of snaps.

    At a waterfall

    As we moved onto a shadowy turn with a roadside stream and overhang, the fauna changed. Butterflies now flew high above our heads at treetop level. The kids started splashing in  a small roadside waterfall, while my wife and mother-in-law, Mrs Shobha Kalbag, gently strolled in our wake. The Gypsy was told to follow us when the kids were done enjoying.

    Damaged Cabbage whiteOnly common Large Cabbage Whites Pieris brassicae were seen fluttering weakly along the roadside berm. They would flutter onto a blossom or leaves of small herbs, preferably im the sun, andopen their wings. Slowly they would open and close them – a nice way to learn the UP and UN of this common Pierid! One Large Cabbage White had completely lost one hindwing, probably the result of some encounter with a bird. One wonders how long a butterfly with such badly damaged wings can survive!

    Ants nest As we turned the corner, something strange caught our attention – a large round muddy pot, about nine inches across,  fixed onto the trunk of the tree. It was an ants nest! There was a small stream of red and black ants about 8 to 10 mm long on the trunk! Social insects are so fascinating! All throughout North Sikkim we had been seeing many solitary bees, wasps – and now this. Most probably that of Crematogaster, whose nests are predated by Rufous Woodpeckers when feeding their brood.

    The ant

    Common Hedge blueThe next butterfly was a very small light blue Lycaenid, with fine spotting, sitting in a roadside drain. From memory I could make out this kind of pattern represented a Hedgeblue – erstwhile Lycaenopsis, but which one? Later on, I identified it as a Common Hedge Blue Acytolepis puspa.  It allowed me a couple of snaps but angrily flew off when disturbed by a brown butterfly weaving from side to side.

    ForresterThe new butterfly was a satyrid. It sat down on the drain and changed position a couple of times. It was a very handsome Lethe of the Forrester subgroup. It had a short tail and a hint of red at its hindwing tornus – and beautiful rings of the WSF type. It allowed me two snaps before it flew across the road and sat on a culvert. I got a good closeup, but the butterfly’s exact identification eludes me, even today.

    By now, more than an hour had passed, and the Gypsy landed up with the family. It was time to move on. I had my wish – I had seen some memorable butterflies!

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Dark Clouded Yellows amongst the Rhododendrons

7 May 2007

Singba rhododendron sanctuaryLachung is characterised by the high mountains with snow covered slopes bordering both sides of this beautiful Himalayan valley. The snowclad summits give way to dwarf junipers, to bubbling streams amongst rockfalls, large snowbanks where the steepness ends and finally onto Rhododendron covered valleysides. The sun shines crisply, there is a brisk cold breeze and wild flowers of various kinds abound with alpine butterflies.

As you climb up from Lachung town, after three kilometers you come across the Dombang Mod. If you choose to accept this alluring invitation, you follow a winding path amongst large conifers and huge boulders on which are to be found ‘rock gardens’ and which ends in a miniature paradise. We turned resolutely from the inviting detour towards the main road for we were after the Big Fisshh…the Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary. My father-in-law Mr Nandan Kalbag, is a plant person – he loves plants, studies them, both wild and domesticated, and they reward him for his attention and affection with a living. And this is why I have chosen Lachung for our holiday – his first meeting with Rhododendrons.

Singbasanctuary gateYou dont need to carry maps to reach Singba. The road from Lachung goes straight through. After Singba, it leads to the hotsprings, and then to the alpine meadow of Yumthang and terminates in a series of hair-pin bends at Shiv Mandir. Ahead of this, the status of the road is uncertain. There is a kutcha track which leads to the border outposts of the ITBP under the shadow of the majestic Paunhunri massif. Ahead of this is the Chumbi valley, which is part of Tibet and China.

Rhodo 00An arch across the road indicates that you have reached the Singba Rhodo sanctuary. An inviting notice finds you stopping the vehicle to know more about the sanctuary, but sadly, it is the usual govt bureaucratese…Singba is a boulder ridden slope punctuated by wide fastflowing streams. In between the rocks are interspersed the Rhododendrons.

Rhododendrons come in glorious variety. At first glance, you notice nothing but the flower bunches which adorn the bushes and trees. The rich red colour seems to directly nourish the soul and it is difficult to draw your eyes away. After feasting awhile on this sight, you now begin to notice that amidst the red swathes, are  bunches of white, pink, mauve, yellow and purple flowers. You realise that the Rhodos are everywhere – trees, bushes, shrubs and herbs, all with oval dark green leaves of various shapes and size. The trees are well spaced apart, about fifteen feet high at the most. Sunshine and cool breeze wafts through.

Primula with DCY 1We wander around, Papa looking at the flowers, Aashay and Aditi are thrilled at the snow banks which have come onto the road, and they begin throwing snowballs. Amita and Amma lounge by the Gypsy, content to drink in the sights and watch the antics of the children. I wander around to look at the butterflies.

primula with DCY2Between the rhodos, small patches of moss-covered earth harbour rosettes of green leaves from which arise pale-green stalks tipped with beautiful purple globes of Primula denticulata. Here, these are the only flowers to be seen, asides from the reds. Butterflies zoom between them, sometimes basking on a rock or bough or sometimes sipping from these beautiful primulas. There are tortoiseshells, blues which never let me get close and an occassional large cabbage white. And the stars of this place – the Dark Clouded Yellows Colias croceus. You see them first as deep rich patches of yellow which flit from bloom to bloom.

DCY angledThe clouded yellows perch on the primula, show their open wings for awhile, and then fold them. They are wary, do not allow me close, and they are restless, the cold breeze causing them to relocate frequently. They have the quaint habit of high altitude butterflies of perching at an angle. You can see this in the third snap. I noticed this in Nandadevi with other butterflies – dark clouded yellows, tortoiseshells and snow apollos;  all of them did this – why? To get more sunlight? To avoid losing heat? To cater for the wind? It is one of those behavioural problems worthy of investigation.

During the time we were at Singba, the Primulas seemed to attract Dark Clouded Yellows only, the Tortoiseshells prefer to bask on rocks. The blues favoured thin small white flowers of an indistinct herb. The Rhododendrons seem to attract no butterflies at all! Singba is lovely, the Dark Clouded Yellows are lovely! But Pappa has photographed seven varieties of Rhododendron and we have to move on to Yumthang, if we are to be back in time to have lunch in Lachung.

Swallowtails by the roadside

6 May 2007

LachungLachung is the jump off for the beautiful Lachung valley which contains the Singba Rhododendron sanctuary, Yumthang alpine meadow and hot springs, the Dombang vale and the beautiful outpost of Shiv Mandir. The many small quaint bed & breakfast type lodges line both sides of the road in Lachung. Once the Lachung monastery was visible from all over town, but the new found economic boom has resulted in raw, brick and RCC buildings blocking off the view. Lachung is one of the best places to see the high altitude butterflies – even when you are rushed for time.

In the narrow roads, if you are coming from across the Lachung Chhu, the vehicle has to climb up to the main road junction at the State Bank of India and back twice and turn to face Yumthang. Just as our Gypsy turned, a flurry of fast yellow butters flew off from the rd side drain beyond. I was instantly charged up. They looked a little like Lime butterflies but had tails – I could hardly wait for one of them to settle down. When they did, there was no doubt – they were Common Yellow Swallowtails or Papilio machaon. This butterfly is the Common Swallowtail of Europe and the British Isles, and it occurs in our country in the Palearctic zone – the upper part of Himalayas where conifers and rhododendrons are to be found! The swallowtails were sitting on the sandy bottom of the drain and sucking the moisture.

Common Yellow SwallowtailPhotographing them was a trial. They would zoom to a spot, hover for a while and perch enticingly. Just when you line up your camera and get it focussed it moves or flies off. My first snap had no CYS, the second, third and fourth caught it as a blurred figure in flight…. it took ten minutes of patient waiting to get them. But yet they made my life miserable by unpredictably moving forward to find a nicer spot to probe. So one of my shots has the butterfly on edge in the image. Aargh, great viewing but no really good shot before its time to go.

Common Yellow SwallowtailWatching them was a pleasure! There, all of us stood watching the butterflies performing for us.They swooped back and forth to the same spots, hovered awhile, selected a place to alight, probed awhile with wings held half-open. The Swallowtail has a furry body with nice pointed tails, different from the spatulate tips of the Common Mormon and its mimicry models of the plains. The wings are an intricate network of black on yellow-green background. The Swallowtail has a dark band along the termen of the hindwings with a set of black-bordered blue spots and an orange patch on the tornus which are quite catchy to look at. The Swallowtail is not the flashiest of Indian papilionids but I found it growing on me very fast. I found greater pleasure watching its graceful flight than I had found watching the Great Mormon or the Blue Peacocks some months ago!

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

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.