A plain earl and a restricted demon

One of the fun things about butterflies is the names. It is so easy to conjure up a tale of the fantastic with just two sightings: one of a small butterfly called the Restricted Demon (Notocrypta curvifascia) and the other of a middle-sized one called a Plain Earl (Tanaecia jahnu).

As we checked out of the hotel in Naukuchiatal, I spotted the Restricted Demon sunning itself on the leaf of a potted plant. The larva feeds on a variety of useful plants: ginger, turmeric, plantains. So the demon part of the name is easy to understand. The restricted part may come from the fact that it needs a temperate climate, and cannot be found in every place in South and South-eastern Asia. As I took the featured photo, I wondered which plant this demon had destroyed earlier in its life.

We’d decided to spend our last day in the hills walking about the Sat Tals, before leaving Kumaon in the evening. The Sat Tal area was full of smoke from forest fires. As we walked around a lake, the light was strange, filtered through a haze of smoke. I was glad that my mask could filter out most of the pollution as I bent and squatted repeatedly to take photos of butterflies and insects. The ground was strewn with oak leaves and pine needles. They formed an interesting background when I took the photo of the Plain Earl that you see above. I suppose the subtle shadings in the castes of Britain (colonial Britain had no life peers) loomed large in the minds of the colonial naturalists who named them.

Two roads diverged

We had to park the car at the center of the little village of Mukteshwar. The road beyond this was under repair. We walked past a few shops and a post office. This was just a dusty cross roads, not a yellow wood, but our roads diverged here. The Family took the high road, up towards the Shiva temple and Chauli ki Jali, a rock face which is locally famous because it has become a favourite of rapellers (and no, that’s not an Anglicization of rapelleurs). I took the other, which was just as fair, because it was grassy and wanted wear. Late on a smoky morning was not the best time for either, but each of us enjoyed it.

The road I had taken wound above a wooded region called Kholiya. This is supposed to be a wonderful place for bird watching earlier in the morning. I stopped above a dense cluster of colonial era buildings. The air was full of bird calls. I’m not very good at identifying them, but a short message away are two experts. I recorded some of the sounds and sent them off. I had no luck at spotting birds at all, and I moved along soon.

The Family had found Chauli ki Jali, left completely to its own in this second pandemic year. The view would have been nice, she said, if there was less smoke in the air. She clambered about some of the rocks, got a few selfies against the bland gray smoke, while avoiding the fair bit of maskless tourists near the temple. The second wave was beginning to swell, and such tourists were to be given a wide berth.

A couple of hundred meters below, I had just walked past the cars parked on the side of the road by those same maskless tourists and found my morning’s muse: a crowd of Pachliopta aristolochiae, a swallow-tailed butterfly more well known as the common rose. This late in the morning they are extremely active and hard to photograph, so chasing them took up quite a bit of my time and energy, without producing anything useful. Photography is a nice and strenuous pastime, wouldn’t you say? When we got back together at the cross roads, both parties had stretched our legs adequately, and were ready to go look for lunch.

Three butterflies

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.

Pieris canidia indica, Indian cabbage white (subspecies Himalayan)

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.

Aglais cashmiriensis, Indian tortoiseshell

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.

Two confusing butterflies

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.

Against the light

The warm mid-morning sunlight and the cool air of the garden made me lazy. There were butterflies fluttering around the edges of the lawn, but I did not want to get up to photograph them. “I have a monster zoom,” I told myself, “let me use it.” Easier said than done. These marvelously bright and colourful creatures can disappear into the background when they want to. I saw a common pierrot (Castalius rosimon) flying around a tree, but every time it sat down I would lose sight of it. Eventually I managed to figure out where it was going back to sit each time, and focused on those leaves. After I got the photos (one is featured) I realized that it was disappearing into the bright light reflected from the surface of the leaf. The bright patterns on its wing broke up its outline very effectively, exactly like the camouflaging stripes on a tiger’s skin. You cannot imagine a tiger being unspottable when you see it in photos, but when you are trying to spot one in the dappled sunlight of the jungle it is very hard to see. The common pierrot is similar.

I’ve usually been extremely lucky with the lemon pansy (Junonia lemonias). I’ve often caught this butterfly with its beautiful black and white spots on tan forewings, the four eye spots bright, sitting with its wings stretched out on a sunny leaf. This time it was fluttering around a hedge, coming down in the open and suddenly vanishing. I followed it with my eyes for a while, and then looked through the camera. The camouflage was incredible. It would disappear on the open lawn. As it came to rest on blades of grass, the pattern would fool the eye into seeing it as little bits and pieces of brown earth. The eye spots serve a different purpose: distraction. When a predator, such as a bird pounces on it, it can be fooled into thinking that these spots are eyes, and bite at that part of the wing. You may have seen butterflies without part of their wings. That’s often due to birds misjudging where to strike. Losing a portion of the hind-wing does slow down a butterfly, but it can still manage a slightly slower flight. Laziness taught me something that morning!

A champion

My only sighting of a Himalayan Birdwing (Troides aeacus) came one evening in the Mizo hills area of Tripura. A very large black and yellow butterfly flew past overhead, headed straight for flowers at the top of a nearby tree. I took a couple of photos, but it was sitting edge on to me, and in silhouette I could no longer see the attractive colours. We talked about the then record-holder amongst Indian butterflies, the Southern Birdwing (Troides Minos), of which one specimen collected in 1932 had a wingspan of 190 mm (7.5 inches). I’d not seen one then, and I still haven’t. The butterfly we had just seen was easily as large as a sparrow, perhaps larger. But the photo was not very good, and I put it away.

This March a new champion emerged. One specimen of the Himalayan Birdwing turned out have a wingspan of 194 mm, beating its southern cousin by a whisker! When I read that paper, by Shristee Panthee and Peter Smetacek in Bionotes (Bhimtal), I had to dig out the featured photo. It is not a good photo at all, but if you look carefully, you can see that the hindwing is yellow and the forewing is black, with some streaks of white or yellow. When you have only one photo of a champ you are proud of it, even if he is not seen at his best.

Outdoor, indoor

The seasons keep changing. Varsha, sharad, hemant… How gender imbalanced! Four seasons give names to men: Sharad, Hemant, Shishir, Vasant. One to women, Varsha. And no one names their babies Grishma. Anyway, the pandemic which started in vasant has now lasted till the change between sharad and hemant.

This is the time of the year when this night-flying butterfly makes an appearance. Like all its cousins, the moths, it is lured indoor by our lights. You would have a hard time telling this wet-season morph outdoor at its normal perch among rotting leaves on the ground. The dry season morph is equally invisible among fallen dry leaves. I suppose it is the humidity during pupation that determines which morph emerges from the chrysalis.

But mostly this is a time when moths fill your house. In recent times in Mumbai I’ve been seeing a lot of the underwing moths, their drab upper wings closing over bright orange hind wings as they come to rest. But here are three beauties which I haven’t been able to identify. They are all small, between half a centimeter and half an inch! The photos show their sizes relative to each other accurately. You need magnifying glasses or a macro lens to examine them, but it pays off.

How is your life under lockdown?

As I read an article with the same title as this post, I realized that the premise was quite right. The four authors had looked at tweets from Melbourne to see how the quality of your life under lockdown depends on the neighbourhood that you live in. Do you reveal your moods on social media? I haven’t been reading tweets, but the blogs I read do reveal the ups and downs of our moods during lockdown.

Now that restrictions are being lifted, and we are able to leave home, it seems to be a good time to take stock of the last seven months. You will remember that there was a lot of despair at the beginning of the pandemic, at a time when the number of cases was small, but growing rapidly. That didn’t last too long. Very soon I could see people reacting quite individually.

It was interesting how people reacted to the claustrophobia of strict lockdowns. The Family was never terribly interested in cooking, but, like a lot of people around the world, she dived into it. And found that she was good at it. Like many of you, we rediscovered our families, and had frequent chats on phone and video calls with far-flung family members.

“What kept us sane?” I asked The Family. She thought for a while. “The trees and gardens around us”, she eventually said. That’s what I was thinking. Waking in the mornings to bird calls, looking out at a sea of green (we live just above the canopy of the trees which surround us), the open views of the sky and the sea. “If it was not for that,” she said, “I think we might have been bickering all the time.” Niece Moja told us several times about how widespread domestic violence had become during this time. She said that the fraction of her clients that suffered from this had increased sharply. I could agree with The Family; we were lucky with our surroundings. But we also talked through a division of work in the house right at the beginning, and decided to keep fixed hours. I think that also worked for us. We could arrange our day to suit us.

The article that I had read also talked about the availability of amenities. We were lucky with that too. A bhajiwala and a store inside our complex kept open all through the two months of strict lockdowns. There may not have been a lot to eat, or greatly fresh vegetables, but we didn’t run out of food. Our help, who were locked up in their houses were unable to locate stores with sufficient food. Our security staff helped us to talk to the police and arrange for us to give them basic supplies once a month. This kind of relatively easy connection to the police and municipal services also helped us to stay sane.

Is this the first time in history that the middle class across the world has had almost exactly the same experience, and known that for a fact? All of us lived, and are still living, through a bad epidemic, closed in at home, totally dependent on small supplies, reading and watching the same news, the same entertainment, sharing our experiences through this new medium, which has suddenly become so central to our lives that we are more conscious of how it exploits us. What a difference between the global middle class and the poor. We know now that around 400 million people in India walked away from cities to their villages, crossing the subcontinent on foot. This distress is perhaps less visible in other countries, but it must be there. And that is another difference: I can read about your feelings and experiences and see how closely they mirrored mine, but I have little idea about the inner world of the poorer people around me.

These gardens were my hideaway for two months, while the human world went to seed. Now, as the garden goes to seed, the world around me does not exactly show signs of recovery. What was the most interesting thing that happened to me in the Anthropause? The sudden end to human noise in the sea brought a pod of curious dolphins to Backbay. They came, they looked, they played, for the first time in recorded history. Curiosity satisfied, they went back to the deeper waters in the Arabian Sea where they are normally found. That was a reminder that there are other intelligences in the world.

Scalewinged

Our gardeners have decided to put in beds of lantana and tuberoses in a sunny patch at the back of the building. Late in the morning this is a magnet for butterflies. For a few days now I’ve been waiting for the scaly-winged fliers after 10 in the morning.

In an earlier post I’d described how hard it is to take a photo of a tailed Jay (Graphium agamemnon). This attractive flier, with bright green spots on a dark background is so active that you can barely ever get it sitting on a flower. When it settles for a few seconds, its wings move too fast to capture in detail. Now I decided to change my strategy and catch it in flight just before it descends on flowers. I focused on a bunch of flowers and waited for it to descend. The braking maneuver as it lands makes it slow its wing beats. In this bright sunlight I could get a few clear shots, as you can see here. I’m happy to have this new technique under my belt. I’ll have to work on it.

Another common visitor in this patch is the very common skipper called a small branded swift (Pelopidas mathias). It prefers tuberoses to lantana; must be something to do with the anatomy of its proboscis. The caterpillar of this species is one of the major pests which feed on rice (a few of these otherwise unrelated species are rolled into a group called rice leaf bundlers, for their habit of rolling leaves into a bundle before feeding). I wonder which of the garden plants they feed on.

The common baron (Euthalia aconthea) is another butterfly I saw here often. It is pretty nondescript when you see it in the shade, the colour of dust with marked out in grey soot. Here, in the bright sun, it glows with colour, the brown and olive markings coming alive with brightness. I suppose its caterpillars and pupae must infest the mango tree around the corner of the building.

A butterfly and a flower

Just because I am not out in the Sahyadri mountains this year doesn’t mean that the usual things you see in late August have disappeared. I’m sure there are several million people now looking at the flower of the kalmashi shrub (also called karambol, binomial Justicia procumbens). For several years, I didn’t realize that the cylinder is an inflorescence and the individual flowers usually bloom at different times. I would think that I came on it late in the season when the petals had fallen off. The genus is widespread in tropical regions of the world, and has possibly the largest number of species in the Acanthaceae family. This particular species has attracted some attention recently because of a chemical isolated from it which could be useful in treating tumours. I like them for a different reason: they attract butterflies.

Equally common at this time is the butterfly called the common crow (Euploea core). I think this photo, taken almost exactly thirteen years ago, could be my first one of this species. It was taken in the same hour as the photo of the kalmashi, in Matheran. I used to see the common crow everywhere in Mumbai before insecticides began to be used widely. Now one hardly sees butterflies in the city.