A few minutes

Doesn’t everyone need exactly what they don’t have? During normal times I would be so wrapped up in busy-work all day that I had no time to think outside the box. In a life crammed with not-so-necessary meetings, unending traffic, pointless face-to-faces, a holiday was a time to unwind. You wanted the most picturesque. Now, in a time of travel restrictions, any get away is good enough. We are lucky to have spectacular destinations a short drive away. These are destinations that we neglected in the past. Now the idea of wading through seasonal streams in beds of volcanic basalt is wonderful. Everything outside your eyeballs is a source of inspiration. As your body exerts itself, your mind becomes alert. You see new things.

We came to a point where the stream ran below a low bridge. We were forced to cross the road. We weren’t the only ones. A land crab scuttled across the blacktop. I’d never seen a land crab walk before, and I’d expected the same ten-footed sideways gait as sea crabs. This one walked sideways on two feet! Bipedal land crabs should be easy to identify. Unfortunately I have no field manual. So I’ll leave it as belonging to the family Gecarcinidae and move on. I have to move faster than The Family when I’m taking photos, because she gets a little testy sometimes about my frequent photo stops.

Clambering over stones at the edge of the road I saw a mass of pulsating red. A closer look showed me the original inhabitants of India. These were centipedes (class Chilopoda). They have one pair of legs in each segment of the body. This distinguishes them from millipedes, which have two pairs of legs per segment. It seems that their ancestors lived in the Indian landmass 80 to 100 million years ago. The oldest signs of humans here are no older than 1.5 million years ago. I gave these unfriendly ancient natives of India a wide berth, and moved on.

The flooding water had moved loose stones on to the road. These scattered stones now stood in the way of the water still flowing over the road. I looked at the criss-cross of braided flow that resulted. Quite an interesting pattern. Worth a shot, isn’t it?

As we climbed proceeded along the stream on the other side of the road, more inspiration waited to strike. My strides disturbed a leap of grasshoppers (infraorder Acrididae). They jumped from the low grass on to stones. Most of them jumped away immediately into grass again. A few stragglers gave me an opportunity to take photos. Stubby little bodies, light green in colour. Huge hind legs, which could unfold at the knee to allow them to jump many times their body lengths. I saw this species again a couple of times. I should spend some time trying to identify them.

Just ahead, a small caterpillar on a rock in the middle of the stream posed a mystery. What is a caterpillar doing on a bare rock in the middle of flowing water? A mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot, I believe. There were rice fields ahead. This stream led there. Perhaps a clue to the origin of the caterpillar? My little grey cells tickled. I walked on.

Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the primitive animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I guess that this was the larva of a Geometrid moth.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: “I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected.”

Beasts of Kaas

Since this post is about creatures fairly high up on the food chain of the Kaas plateau, I could start with the top predator I saw: the funnel-weaving spider (family Agelindae) you see in the featured photo. This one had laid down a huge sheet of a web covering several Topli Karvi bushes, and was waiting for food to fall out of the sky. When an insect lands on the web, it usually runs very fast to it and engulfs it in silk. Now, with rain drops falling intermittently on the web, I’m sure this guy had his work cut out, trying to distinguish rain from food. Other insectivores on the plateau are plants: sundews and bladderworts. I’ve written about them elsewhere.

Snail on the Kaas plateau

This snail is about the largest animal I took a photo of on the plateau. There are birds; the Crested Lark (Galerida crestata) had put in a hazy appearance in the morning mist. After it started raining we saw no birds. The rain does not stop a snail, as it munches the roots of Topli Karvi bushes. This was on its way from one bush to another, when I saw it. It didn’t seem to move as I took the photo, meaning it would take an age and half to get to the next busg. The western ghats harbour a large variety of land snails; I’m not sure which species this is. Any expert comments?

Startled grasshopper

One of the more common animals which inhabit these parts are grasshoppers. Judging by where it was sitting, this one probably feeds on the leaves of Topli Karvi. It has a silly startled look, as it turns its head slightly to take a look at the relatively large camera lens looking at it. I couldn’t get a shot of the three eyes it has on top of its head. Again, I have no idea what species this is, and have to depend on the kindness of an expert to provide the answer.

Plant borer seen in Kaas

A very strange animal was this leaf piercer. It stood on this leaf for a long while as people tried to photograph it. The early photos show a little spot of sap on its long snout. By the time the last photos had been taken the sap had disappeared: it had done its version of licking its chops. I have no further idea about the classification of this beautiful and strange beast.

Tiny moth seen in Kaas

Interestingly, none of these animals are pollinators. This tiny moth which flew on to a Topli Karvi leaf while I watched is also unlikely to be a pollinator. It is quite likely to be another herbivore. Interestingly, the leaf it is sitting on already has been attacked. Usually true bugs (order Hemipteran) attack plants in this way. Unfortunately I didn’t see any.

Caterpillar munching grass

I didn’t see a single butterfly in my few hours in the Kaas plateau. It was raining, and butterflies don’t like to get their wings wet. More likely, the butterflies had not pupated yet. I had evidence for this soon afterwards when we arrived at a grassy meadow full of caterpillars. I don’t know which butterfly they will metamorphose into, but the complete fearlessness with which they crawled across the ground, and the absence of predators, probably means that they are toxic.

I’m sure I missed a very large number of insects. It was raining hard, so most of them were probably hidden under leaves. Since it was muddy, I was not intent of kneeling or sitting to peer under the low leaves of the Karvi. So I’ll have to leave the job of talking about more beasts of the plateau to someone else.

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