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.


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.

The six seasons: 6

Shishir, the season of dew, winter, is mild over most of India. In places you might want to bring out a sweater or two. In others, a tee would keep you warm. I’m not talking about the Himalayas, the pictursque towns in valleys, or the foothills, where winters can be severe, with snowstorms cutting off passes for weeks, and roads impassable due to snow. Nor am I talking of recent disruptions in the world’s atmosphere, which causes the polar vortex to come down to the mid-latitudes and brings weeks of awfully cold weather to the tropics. Otherwise, this remains the mildest and most enjoyable of times. You sit in gardens full of flowers in the mild winter sun, eating oranges, sipping tea, socializing through weekends. Enjoy the sight of colourful butterflies, like that Painted Jezebel (Delias hyparete) in the featured photo, sipping lazily at a marigold.

This is the best time of the year for quick weekend vacations. You can indulge yourself in the fudge and chocolates that are a cottage industry in the hill towns of the Western ghats. You can buy enormous quantities of strawberries, peaches, or grapes, to eat or to convert to jams and preserves. And you can do all this without putting on the kilos, because the weather is finally right for strenuous physical exercise: walking in the mountains, or beaches. Climbing, swimming in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, or the Indian Ocean. This is the perfect time to spend a couple of weeks on the beach, living in the mild sun, collecting scallop shells (photo above), or cowries, or sea snails, or cuttlefish bones,

For me this is the season of travel, chasing after large breeding colonies of local birds like the Gujarati flamingos in the photos above, or the last individuals of once common species, like the Great Indian Bustard which I saw again a couple of years back in the grasslands around the Thar desert. But mostly, this is the time of the numerous migrants: from the large ones like the Dalmatian pelicans that I saw last year in Ranthambhore (Rajasthan), or the unforgettable sight and sound of my first view of the Siberian ruby throat a few years ago in Nameri National Park (Assam). Winter is a great time to travel around the country, enjoying the sheer diversity of geography, wildlife, and culture, but united by the weather.

Life in Sohra, remembered

Five years ago we spent a single night in Sohra, and regretted that we hadn’t planned a longer stay. The town was a small and charming place, and the single hotel was a traditional cottage perched at the edge of a cliff overlooking a village and a valley below that. A walk to the nearest living bridge would take us through the village.

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When engineered structures are living objects, it was appropriate that the place was teeming with life. In one night I probably saw more species of moths, beetles, and other insects than I remembered seeing in the rest of my life. The most interesting was the stick insect, the first I’d ever seen. I had a hard time figuring out where the third pair of legs of this insect was. Note how often a moth has a substantially smaller insect nearby. I wished I had a microscope attachment to look at these millimeter sized living creatures. The insects that I photographed were strange and beautiful. I’m sure that stranger and equally beautiful things would emerge if we could zoom into these smaller beings.

The post has the word “remembered”, because I went back now to a place I was enchanted by. There is construction all across Sohra. I saw no moths this time around. This ties in with a recent report of a worldwide decline in insects. It is shocking because Meghalaya is at the edge of one of the most biodiverse regions of the world. A decline in insect population drives a collapse in plants, and animals higher in the food chain.

Utterly common butterflies

When you spend a weekend walking through ruins overgrown with wild flowers and creepers, you are bound to come across a few of the commonest of butterflies. I saw Pioneers (Belenois aurota) in large numbers. The Indian cabbage white is often also found in similar places, so I needed to take a closer look at the brown markings on the wings to make sure which one I’m looking at. The pattern that you see in the featured photo marks this out very clearly as a Pioneer. The cabbage brown would have smudges of brown at the edges of the wings, without the enclosed white dots. The Pioneer is found in a wide geographical arc from South Africa to India, including Madagascar and Sri Lanka.

I passed through a garden where a sunny patch had attracted a large number of the Common Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe). Their colours are extremely variable, ranging from chalky white to a pale green; nor do they have any clear markings for identification. This bunch was pale green to my eyes, but the camera seems to have caught a different colour. A butterfly’s colour has more to do with the diffraction of light rather than pigments. The difference between the photo and what my eyes saw is a wonderful reminder of this fact.

Perhaps the commonest of the butterflies that I took a photo of is the common grass yellow (Eurema hecabe). I’ve seen these small and bright yellow butterflies flying between cars on roads when verges or dividers have grass. Sometimes they appear as unbilled extras in movie sequences shot in grassy meadows. The underside of the wing has the more muted colour. Like the Pioneer there are distinct wet and dry season forms with different colours and p[atterns. Since a butterfly lives for less than a month, the seasonal changes are due to environmental factors changing during the development of the butterfly. These are such wonderful systems in which to study the question of nature versus nurture!

Some Assamese Butterflies

I have posted earlier about some of the butterflies and moths which I saw in the Hollongapar Gibbon Sanctuary. There were many more which I saw. Here are some of the others. I recognize several of them, but I’ve not managed to identify two. They are also thrown in here, in case you feel up to helping me out.