Why did we decide to go birding in the Himalayas in winter? When I think back, I believe the answer must have been that in the heat of May we could not think of the Himalayas as anything but pleasant. So we moved up for our vacation at a time when each and every bird seemed to have migrated in the opposite direction. As a birding trip it was a disaster. But there was compensation. I’ve never had a view of Kanchenjuga as good as that. The featured photo is the view we had from our cabin window on a freezing dawn.
We walked the same trails in and around Lava and Neora valley that we did again early in spring this year. In spring the birds begin to return and you see a lot of activity. In winter that year there was not a single bird to be seen. The ferns were just opening up though, and I had wonderful shots of the fronds unfolding.
It was hardly a good time for moths and butterflies either. We saw the hardy Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis), a perennial sight at these middle heights. I spotted a single specimen of a fabulously patterned moth sitting one morning. I’ve never seen it again, and I can’t identify it. An expert lepidopterist refused to answer my question about it, so I assume she was also not sure of an ID.
We spent the day wandering around paths through the valley. Elsewhere I’ve written about the beautiful houses in this area. The traditional houses are either made of wood, or have a timber frame, filled in with woven mats and then plastered over. I love the beautiful contrasting colours that they paint the doors and windows in. Outside each house is either a small garden, or a row of flowers in planters. These hamlets are small and poor, but look beautiful. Although we saw no birds, it was a wonderful day.
We stayed the night in a homestay in Lachung village. The village is named after the river it is on. In the morning we followed the river to Yumthang valley. We were on a trip to Sikkim, eleven years and eleven days ago. The road took us through a rhododendron sanctuary. I remember colours of rhododendron that I have not seen elsewhere. Purples, light reds, greenish yellow, and funereal white. It is an amazing sight, and one that I was planning to take my niece to see at the beginning of this month. Unfortunate that the country was locked down, and she was infected (she recovered very quickly). It will be another year before we can try to take that trip again.
The road continues to the open valley bordered by high mountains. It was cloudy, and extremely windy. Through the clouds we could see glaciers coming down the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Some people had camped there. I dipped a hand into the river. Cold. I was happy with a night in Lachung. There were trout in a holding pond. You are allowed to fish in the river. Was the trout supposed to be released back into the water?
It was a great place for photos. I wandered around taking in the primula, the irises, the glaciers. There were even butterflies; I got a photo of the Indian Tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmirensis). It was a lovely place, but by late morning I had a feeling that a spot of tea would come in handy. That’s one thing this place did not have. I wished I had thought of carrying a thermos full of tea up here.
They let the Zebra and the Giraffe get up; and Zebra moved away to some little thorn-bushes where the sunlight fell all stripy, and Giraffe moved off to some tallish trees where the shadows fell all blotchy.
‘Now watch,’ said the Zebra and the Giraffe. ‘This is the way it’s done. One—two—three! And where’s your breakfast?’
Leopard stared, and Ethiopian stared, but all they could see were stripy shadows and blotched shadows in the forest, but never a sign of Zebra and Giraffe. They had just walked off and hidden themselves in the shadowy forest.
Rudyard Kipling, in “How the Leopard got His Spots”, Just So Stories
Dotted and striped patterns arise repeatedly in nature: butterflies, flowers, fish, big cats. Kipling’s story seems to be verified by biologists. But what is the genesis of such patterns? In 1952 Alan M. Turing made an observation that people have built on since then. He wrote: “It is suggested that a system of chemical substances, called morphogens, reacting together and diffusing through a tissue, is adequate to account for the main phenomena of morphogenesis. Such a system, although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances.” The featured photo of the river in Yumthang explains what Turing meant. Imagine a tub of perfectly still water. Sunlight falling on it would illuminate the bottom of the uniformly. Now take the random winds that disturb water in a river, and the random placing of obstructions below. The net effect is a series of interlocking ripples which refract the water and give that dotted pattern of shadows on river bottom. Turing realized that patterns in nature could arise in the same way, due to the flow of pigments being disturbed during the early development of the organism. Subsequent authors have studied and begun to understand how these patterns are formed by the actions of genes, and how they are inherited.
Long walks and close views of the high Himalayas are why you would visit Munsiyari (altitude 2200 m). The thick smoke from forest fires meant that walks would be a health risk. Our chances of seeing the Pnachachauli massif close up also seemed to be shot. In addition, I was beginning to be concerned about the pandemic. By now it is well known that exposure to high levels of pollution increases the risk of contracting severe COVID-19. Very few people in Munsiyari were using masks, but we were glad to use them both as protection against pollution and against the disease.
A whole day’s drive had left me feeling like getting out under the sun, or what little filtered through the thick haze. The town of Munsiyari is strung along a winding mountain road. We stopped a little way past the crowded bazaar to look at the tribal heritage museum. My experience of such places in small towns is that they have an interesting collection which is usually displayed and labelled very haphazardly. I couldn’t stand the idea of being inside again. While The Family walked off to the museum with others, I slipped into a little path next to the road.
Immediately, I saw an Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis) sunning itself on the path. Mid-morning is a wonderful time to do a little butterfly spotting. These things have woken from a night’s sleep, the late risers are still sluggish and want to warm themselves, and the early risers are busy at breakfast. I caught sight of a couple of Indian cabbage whites (Pieris canidia). Up here it would be the subspecies Himalayan, P. canidia indica. Around Mumbai it is the other subspecies that we see, the Sahayadri, P. canidia canis. They were extremely agile at this time, but I got off a couple of shots. On a mustard field on the side, I spotted a common copper (Lycaena phlaeas, featured photo).
I was happy, and remained so even when The Family told me that the museum had wonderful pieces, just that she wished there was some explanation. But before I go, let me show you an enlarged photo of the tortoiseshell. I like the fact that the colour and texture of the soil seems to be mirrored in its wings and abdomen. Has it had a dust bath, or are those the scales that give the order Lepidpotera its name? I find it interesting to look at my photos at different magnifications.
My first guess when I see a tortoiseshell butterfly is the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). It is the most widespread of all butterflies, and found on all continents except Antractica. But when you are in the middle heights of the Himalayas, between a thousand and three thousand meters above the sea, you could be wrong. Think instead of the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais caschmiriensis, featured photo), and the less common small or mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae). I’d learnt this on a walk at a height of 3.1 kilometers, when I realized that I need to look at little details on the hind wings to differentiate between them. Now, on a walk in Binsar at 2.4 kilometers of height, I remembered the lesson again.
When I stopped to carefully photograph every butterfly on the trail, The Family decided to walk on at a steady pace. But I was happy to make a record of the relative numbers of the different tortoiseshells I saw. No painted ladies. Many Indian tortoiseshells. And one solitary sighting of the mountain tortoiseshells (above, resting on a bed of dry oak leaves). I count myself lucky at that. It had been a very warm and dry winter, and these butterflies are very sensitive to warm seasons. I’ll have to learn to tell the difference between these butterflies by looking at their hind wings. If I can do that, then I can identify them as I keep pace with The Family on such walks.
Himachal Pradesh rises from the plains into the high Himalayas. On this trip the highest point we reached was Jalori pass, which is a little over 3.1 Kilometers above sea level. At this height I expected to see the butterfly called the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). This is the commonest of temperate butterflies, apparently found on all continents where flowers grow. We could have seen it, but I have no record of it. I keep confusing it with the other tortoiseshell butterflies. They are slippery chaps, seldom settling down long enough in one place for one to take a photo. The mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae, in the featured photo) eventually settled on a flower by the path to Serolsar lake. The Young Niece was pretty excited by the sight of this plant with a butterfly “flower”. True to its descriptions, it flitted from flower to damp ground and back again. This was my first sighting of this species.
It is very slightly different from the Indian tortoiseshell (Aglais cashmiriensis, which you can see in the photo above), and in the field it is very hard to tell them apart. As you can see from the photos, the forewings are almost exactly the same, and only little details in the hindwings distinguish the two. In fact, the otherwise excellent booklet published by the Zoological survey of India on The Butterflies of Himachal Pradesh misses out on A. urticae.
By far the commonest butterfly on this walk was one I’d never seen before: the common satyr (Aulocera swaha). As we walked through the stony path to Serolsar lake, inside the forest of oaks, we saw these butterflies sitting on stones (photo above), or settling on dry leaves on the path. The Young Niece asked me what it was called, and I told her that I did not know, but would have to look it up later. I think these three are all that I noticed near the pass.
Most of our time was spent in the narrow grassy valley around the rocky course of the Falachan river at an altitude of about 2 Kilometers above sea level. This place was full of some of the common butterflies which you also see in the plains. The Indian cabbage white, various grass yellows, and, possibly, some pioneers were common. I must have missed an enormous variety of butterflies here. One I did manage to take a photo of was the plain tiger (Danaus chrysippus, photo above).
The rocky edges of the Falachan river was also good terrain for spotting butterflies. I don’t think I’d seen the common wall (Lasiommata schakra, photo above) ever before. They are found in a range between 1 and 3 Kilometers above sea level, and probably easy to photograph because they settle for longish periods in sunny spots. I think that white streak around the eye-spot in the fore wing indicates that the individual in the photo is a female; the male lacks this feature.
The generally mottled brown and yellow-orange colour of this butterfly in flight first fooled me into thinking that it was a painted lady. But when it settled on a stone, and I took the photo which you see above, it became clear that it was not. It took me some time to figure out that this was the common Punch (Dodona durga). The ZSI pamphlet on the butterflies of Himachal Pradesh says that this has been reported in May from Chamba and Shimla districts, so I’m happy to put on record this sighting in Kullu district.
Lower down, at an altitude of about 1.6 Kilometers above sea level, we started a walk to the gates of the Great Himalayan National Park, near the village of Ropa. Near the beginning of the walk, we came across the flowering tree which you can see in the photo above. There was a cloud of butterflies around it. I mistook them first for the red Helen, which belongs to peninsular India. The correct identification for the butterfly you see in the photo above is the great windmill (Atrophaneura dasarada). Later we saw that they had been joined at this tree by a large number of orange tips.
We had raced through the lower slopes, with a single stop somewhere in the district of Solan where I immediately saw the butterfly whose photo you see above. This is the common Leopard (Phalanta phalantha). I’m sure if one spent even an hour at this lower elevation, below a kilometers, one would be able to spot an enormous variety of butterflies.