Archdukes, Counts and Popinjays

The late 19th century British military men who had the leisure to turn into naturalists seemed to spend their days assigning “common names” to butterflies which had been described in the preceding centuries. As a result, the plains and hills of India are populated by exotic British nobles and their hangers on. We know these names from Charles Bingham’s monographs on the butterflies of India, but I wonder whether the idiosyncracies are his alone. The Dark Archduke (Lexias dirtea) was far from rare in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. I kept noticing the brightly spotted females (see the featured photo) in clearings and along tracks in the jungle, as they came briefly to rest on the ground.

I had a harder time spotting the male. The one time I was certain was when I saw the specimen in the photo above. The brown spotted one is the male L. dirtea. The brightly striped one is a Common Lascar (another example of the idiosyncratic British naming system). I saw several butterflies perched just above head height on bushes around the tracks that I followed, which could be the male.

The photo that you see above is of a Popinjay (Stibochiona nicea). The archaic 19th century word describes a vain and colourfully dressed person from a middle English word for parrot, descended from Arabic through Spanish and French. This name also comes to us from Charles Bingham’s famous monographs on the butterflies of India. There were a couple of times when I was not sure that a similar looking butterfly was really the Popinjay; it could have been the male Dark Archduke. The spots at the wing edges of a Popinjay extend over both fore and hind wings, but on the male Dark Archduke similar decorations occur only on the hindwing. Information on the Popinjay is scarce; all I could find were descriptions. Nothing seems to be recorded about its caterpillars, and what they feed on, nor about its caterpillar and pupa.

The pupa that someone found on a dry leaf (photo above) was very likely to be of a Dark Archduke. I wish I’d managed to see one of its caterpillars. The photos that I saw of the later moults of the Dark Archduke’s caterpillars are spectacular.

So many archdukes and only one count! I saw this single Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) basking in the last light of the day. Interestingly, this is more widespread in India, being found all along the foothills of the Himalayas east of Uttarakhand, and in the Western Ghats. I may have seen this before in the nearby reserve forest of Nameri, north of the Brahmaputra, but I don’t recall seeing it in other parts of India. I did not see the caterpillars of this species, nor the pupa. Descriptions and photos of these earlier stages of its life-cycle make me believe that I’m missing something spectacular.

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An orange oakleaf

While walking through the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary, I kept seeing a bright orange, blue and black butterfly flitting just under the lower canopy. It was a good flyer, and kept disappearing into the darkness beyond the paths we were following. Mandar claims that he doesn’t know butterflies, but he manages to give a good imitation of an expert. He said immediately that this was an Orange Oakleaf (Kallima inachus).

This was my first sighting of this widespread flyer. Its range extends from Jammu and Kashmir east to Arunachal Pradesh and the other states of north-eastern India along the foothills of the Himalayas. It is also found in central India and the Western Ghats. Mandar was keeping a close look at one while it flew, and so noticed when it came to rest on the trunk of a tree. At rest it is perfectly camouflaged as a leaf. A bird had clearly taken a bite out of the wings of this one.

Very few things can fly with half of its wings gone. If you look at a butterfly carefully, you’ll see that its muscles drive only the front wings; the back wings are usually just loosely attached to the pair in front. The larger surface area of the paired wings allows the maneuverability needed to evade predators. Laboratory studies have shown that butterflies can continue to fly without their hindwings; they just become a little slower. This study also has an interesting bit of speculation about why day-flying butterflies and moths are often brightly coloured.

I haven’t seen a butterfly which is missing bits out of its front wings. I suppose they just can’t fly without them. If a bird gets a bite out of the forewing, then the butterfly just falls out of the air and the bird can just pick it up. It would be interesting to keep watch for a photo of a butterfly with part of its forewings gone.

Malkohas, Coucals and Cuckoos

The featured photo is not spectacular, but I’m really fond of it. Until now it’s the only time I’ve seen a Malkoha sitting in the open. All my previous sightings have been of these birds skulking in deep shadows, or breaking out momentarily as it flits from one hide to another. This is the green-billed Malkoha (Phaenicophaeus tristis), a lifer for me. The photo does not show the patch of bright colour around its eyes. The Wikipedia page on this bird contains a wonderful photo, so I have hope that one day I will be able to get a better photo.

A day before I took that shot, we stopped as one of my companions thought that she had seen a Malkoha. I took a few shots of the bird hunkered down behind a lot of criss-crossing branches. After looking at it carefully, we concluded that it was really an Indian cuckoo (Cuculus micropterus). This is not an unusual error. Malkohas (genus Phaenicophaeus) belong to the family Cuculidae, which also includes cuckoos. Many of them are skulkers and hard to photograph.

Earlier in the second day I’d had a hard time trying to photograph another member of this family: the Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis). This is widespread, seen even in Mumbai, but I’ve only managed a couple of good photos of it. This time around I got the rust coloured wings and the long tail which gives it the alternate name crow pheasant, but not its dark coat and bright red eyes. The Lotos had stopped us to photograph this bird because she’d never managed to get a good photo; I hope she got something better than mine.

These birds can drive you cuckoo.

The real chicken

All the chicken that you eat has probably descended from this colourful bird found in all jungles that I have visited. The red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) was domesticated in India about 7000 years ago, and the wave of domestication spread east and west from the Ganges basin. It is likely that the yellow legs of domesticated chicken were derived from a hybridization with another wild species called the gray jungle fowl.

I haven’t often seen one of these birds on a tree. So this one on a tree in good light was definitely something to be photographed. Its glossy black tail showed highlights of green and purple in the light. Note the gray legs; that sets it apart from domesticated variety. The domestic variety is also smaller and less brightly coloured. As I watched, this bird flapped its way down from the tree. Its flight is so ungainly that I wondered how it got up there in the first place.

Purple sapphire

I saw this small but extremely attractive butterfly flutter down on to a fallen leaf. It preened in the sun, and I got off a shot showing the iridescence in its dark upper wing: you can see the purple colour in the featured photo. Notice the thin tails at the edges of the hindwings? This feature made me think of it as a hairstreak butterfly, and I wasted time looking for an identification. It is actually a copper. It sat on a dry leaf for a short while but opened its wings only briefly. Most of the time it held its wings closed to show the yellow and red underside (photo below).

After I figured that it is the appropriately named Purple Sapphire (Heliophorus epicles) I recalled that I’d seen it a decade ago in the Burapahar range of Kaziranga. Then, as now, I’d seen it resting very low down. It seems to be a widespread resident in the north-east of India, but its Wikipedia article records it from as far west as Himachal Pradesh. I’ve now encountered it twice, in April and May, both times at altitudes of less than 100 meters, far below those mentioned in its Wikipedia article. This article says that it is common in disturbed habitats at the edges of forests, which is in complete agreement with my own few sightings.

Two turtles

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool. –Richard Feynman

Watching turtles is a little frustrating. Although there’s a large variety in India, there are few guidebooks or websites which tell you how to identify what you saw. We stopped to see a few of these large turtles on our first sortie into Kaziranga. I didn’t know what they were when I took the featured photo. I have a tentative identification of it being the Indian black turtle (Melanochelys trijuga) through its size and colour. The hind edge of the shell is deeply serrated, as you can see. I’m sure that this should be an aid in identification, but it does not seem to be mentioned in any guide. If it is indeed the Indian black turtle, then it is near-threatened. This means that it could still be fairly common inside a sanctuary, so there is a good chance that this is what I saw. But you can always fool yourself.

The common Indian roofed turtles (Pangshura tecta) are relatively small turtles which love to climb out of the water and bask in the sun. It took me some time to decide whether the photos above are of P. tecta or the endangered Assam roofed turtles (Pangshura sylhetensis). Both are found in forest streams. The reptile database is pretty useless as an identification tool because its photos are not curated by experts. Eventually it was Wikipedia which convinced me that I’d seen the rarer variety. The article on P. sylhetensis says that its shell is serrated at the hind edge, as these are. The upper shell of this species is also darker. It is so nice to be able to see an endangered species that you want to believe that you have. So I’ll have to wait a little longer for some experts to tell me whether or not I have. Given the rarity of P. sylhetensis, (the IUCN page claims that only a few specimens have ever been seen) the chances are that I’m fooling myself.

Sailers and Lascars

Many of the butterflies of India were given their English common names by Charles Bingham, a career military officer in British India, who took up entomology as a very serious hobby after being posted to Burma in 1877. The butterfly genera called Lascars and Sailers were given their English common names by him, in the idiosyncratic manner of the 19th century British in India. Eastern Indian sailors on British vessels were called lascars; the names throw light on British society of that time.

The common lascar (Pantoporia hordonia), one of which you see in the featured photo, was described in 1790. But a common name was given by Bingham in his books on the butterflies of India, published in 1905 and 1907, when he settled in England after his retirement. The sullied sailer (Neptis clinia), which you see in the photo below, has the same overall shape and markings, albeit in different colours.

The sailers and lascars were very common in early April in the Hollongapar forest. They flew at about shoulder and head height. Their flight is weak; every flap of the wing is followed by an interval of gliding, and they easily alight on a sunny leaf, or descend to the ground. Still, they fly up very quickly when they are disturbed.

I used the common names for the whole genus, because there are several species of each, distinguished by slightly different wing markings. You can see a whole lot of similar looking species in the web pages for Neptis, Pantoporia and Phaedyma in the IFoundButterflies web site. You find them all over India, and once upon a time I’d managed to chase down a fair fraction of them. In April I was happy to photograph just the two you see here.

The dark knight rests

The sun was moving down rapidly. In the last light of the day, I had my first sighting of the butterfly called the Knight (Lebadea martha). It was exactly where you might expect to find it: just over a meter from the ground, basking near an open patch of ground. I took a photo of this battle-scarred veteran. I learnt of the interesting eating habits of its caterpillar later. I also found afterwards that Assam in April is when you are most likely to find it in India. Detailed ecological studies are absent in India; they come from elsewhere in south-east Asia.

Amazingly, there is extensive scientific literature on the structure of the Knight’s wings in the field of nanomaterials. It’s almost as if Bruce Wayne was working on his armour. Wings of butterflies are made of a material called chitin, microscopically organized in very cleverly stacked scales. Chemists found that by treating the wings of a Knight, they could make wearable biosensors which could make very sensitive chemical analysis of people’s perspiration. Could a future version of a fitbit made of the wings of this butterfly provide early medical warnings for everyone?

Entering the whirlpool

My introduction to nature came first through the stories by Jim Corbett. These would often feature him sitting in a hide with a goat tied nearby as a lure for tigers. Seeing a goat at an entrance to Kaziranga, I was reminded of this.

The gate was an elaborate affair. We counted off what we’d seen already: rhinos, elephants and wild water buffalo were three of the “big five” here. The gate also showed the elusive swamp deer, barasingha. We had only a little glimpse of one on this trip. Pelicans, shown in flight around the gate posts and holding the sign, are not usually counted among the main attractions. But where was the real big one: the tiger?

It made a brief and almost unnoticed entrance at the bottom of a signboard full of the rules which bind you and protect the forest. If you don’t stand there and read the whole thing you may miss the fact that Kaziranga is also a tiger reserve. In fact it has the highest density of tigers in the world, but they are seldom spotted because of the tall grass that they can hide in. The goat was only a decoy, after all.

The central zone had a less impressive gate: just a boom which could be raised or lowered. But I liked the owls which showed the opening and closing times for visitors. We never did get to see the tiger, but we saw so much here that I didn’t regret the trip at all.

On the forest floor

When I saw this hairy little beast crawling across the floor of the jungle, my first question was “What will it grow into?” Mandar said “I just about know butterflies. I can’t help you with caterpillars.” Indeed, there seems to be no easy way to relate a caterpillar to the adult. All I can say is that a caterpillar is more likely to grow into a moth than a butterfly, simply because there are 10 times more moths in the world than butterflies. Once you notice that a caterpillar is hairy the chance that it will grow into a moth increases even further. Caterpillars of butterflies are rarely hairy.

When I was a child our garden was full of hairy caterpillars which would irritate the skin awfully if you brushed against it. I must have done this several times, because I now have a strong aversion to touching caterpillars. I watched this guy make its way across the forest floor, and thought of all the leaves it was not eating. Ten minutes later I saw the white moth which you see in the photo above, and began to wonder whether this is what the caterpillar would grow into. This is not just idle speculation. The photo seems to be of a tussock moth (subfamily Lymantriinae), whose caterpillars are often hairy and cause itches.