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!

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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.

Some Himachali butterflies

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. The mountain tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae, in the featured photo) 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 forewing 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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

Butterflies before breakfast

I was trying to trace a persistent error message in my camera and eventually found that it was due to a lost set of photos taken two years ago. I’d taken them during an early morning walk to look for birds inside Nameri national park, on the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. On the way back we saw a large number of butterflies in a space of about 15 minutes. I managed to photograph a few of them. This is what biodiversity means!

Hunting butterflies in a museum

There’s a clutch of very famous 17th century Dutch painters whose paintings we usually take to define the style. You can walk through a gallery of paintings from this period pausing only at the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Hals. But this time and place also produced a set of very skilled still-life painters. Walking through the galleries in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, I was reminded of this. The names Ambrosius Bosschaert or Balthasar van der Ast were not familiar to me, but when I stopped in front of their canvases (detail from van der Ast’s just below, from Bosschaert’s in the featured photo and the last one in this post) I was immediately drawn into their world.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Ambrosius Bosschaert 1607

The Thyssen-Bornemisza is one of Madrid’s Golden Triangle, the others being The Prado and the Reina Sofia Museum. This was the private collection of the Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza, who started by buying up the collections of American millionaires who had fallen on hard times during the Great Depression. I decided to spend half a day in this museum because it was extremely hot outside, and I had half a day between checking out of my hotel and catching my flight back home.

Madrid: Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum: Blathasar van der Ast 1628

With these three examples of the many butterflies I followed in this part of the collection, I thought I’d managed to spend one of the hours in this museum quite fruitfully. In slow stages I moved on to the abstractions of the early 20th century. This museum is the missing link between the collections of the Prado and the Reina Sofia, so it was an afternoon well spent.