Archive for the ‘Nymphalidae’ 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!

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.

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.