What wings dare

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

The Tyger (1794) William Blake

Milkweed butterflies, like common crows (Euploea core) and common tigers (Danaus genutia), lay eggs on trees full of toxins. The newly hatched caterpillars then feed on the leaves of these plants and concentrate the toxins in their bodies. The toxins remain through their metamorphosis into butterflies, and make them undesirable prey. I’d assumed that just as they lay eggs on different plants, the adults must take nectar from different plants. I was surprised to find many individuals from both species feeding on one plant. I suppose that there are species of plants whose nectar attracts one or the other, but not both, species of butterflies. Otherwise the crows and tigers would be in competition. There’s nothing wrong with competition, but one eventually wins, and the other has to find a less desirable range. There is no evidence for that happening to one of these species.

A rich ecosystem is full of creatures utilizing every resource, and individuals of one species are a resource for another. The caterpillars are parasites on their host plants, but the adults have reached a sexual mutualism with nectar yielding plants. The plants require butterflies for fertlization, and the butterflies are unable to lay eggs without the sugar that the plants supply. These butterflies have their own parasites: tiny flies (tachinids) and wasps (chalcids). They lay their eggs in caterpillars. The parasitic maggots hatch and eat their hosts from inside. Although I haven’t seen the parasites yet I remain hopeful and ready with my camera; the adult flies and wasps are big enough that I could photograph them. On the other hand, the only symbiotes of these two which have been studied are really tiny: bacteria from a genus called Wolbachia which live entirely inside the cells of the butterflies and influence their reproductive strategies. There is no chance that my camera will ever catch these.

The jungle was full of such lovely small things. The photo of the spider web that you see was taken on a path called thandi sadak (cool road). It was surrounded by fields full of this plant that some would recognize immediately; they grow wild across the hills and are a target for foragers. The spider itself was too small to be seen. There’s a lot of literature on how cannabinoids influence spiders. You can actually see a typical example here: some of the space between the spokes have not been filled in. I’m not sure that spiders munch leaves, but they could be eating insects which have taken up toxins from the plant. Although chital (Axis axis, spotted deer) grazed in neighbouring patches of grass, they did not venture into fields of Grass.

Less spectacular than the crows and tigers, but equally abundant, were these common sailors (Neptis hylas). They have an interesting flight: a couple of wing beats and then a long glide, then again a wing beat or two. I would like to weigh them, because the flight pattern could mean that the wings are large compared to the weight, like a glider’s. They are not milkweed butterflies, and there is no record of them being distasteful or poisonous. That’s why it puzzles me that there are so many of them in the jungle, and there seem to be no predators. A low body weight could also imply that they are too small a portion to be worthwhile for birds to hunt. Perhaps also their fecundity, eggs hatch multiple times a year, keep their numbers high although they are edible.

A dark shape flew into the leaf-litter below the where the sailor was sunning itself. The moment it stopped moving it disappeared. I searched the ground and couldn’t see anything. Then there was a tiny movement in the ground, and I could focus on it. This was a Prosotas butterfly, possibly the common lineblue (Prosotas nora). I always have to look at the lineblues carefully to figure out the species, and the strong sunlight with dark shadows, and the odd angle I was looking at it prevents me from making a firm identification. But this is was a happy sighting: here was a non-poisonous butterfly which took good care to camouflage itself. Even in the photo, you could mistake it for a dried leaf if you just glance across it quickly.

The buffer zones of these protected forests are set up to attract large numbers of eco-tourists, so that residents have a stake in keeping the jungle protected. But since the average person is interested only in large animals, tigers or elephants and deer, there is little opportunity for those interested in small things like insects to observe them. From the back of a jeep I saw only the small creatures that I already knew. Seeing the familiar in a new setting can always show you new behaviour and raise new questions. So I found myself happy even with these limited opportunities.

Crow

Late mornings are times when you can sit in a garden and watch butterflies. They are not early risers, they would have woken and stretched their wings to the sun while you have breakfast, and will be out late in the morning for a few sips of nectar. The common crow (Euploea core) is one of the easiest to photograph. It is disdained by predators because the plants that it has fed on as a caterpillar fill it with distasteful chemicals. As a result it can afford to fly slow and sit on a flower for long times.

Even though it is so dark, pay attention. When it sits on a flower in bright sunlight you can see its glossy wings reflect the flower. I was very happy when it decided to land on marigolds. As I’d expected, at one point it turned. and I could capture the reflection of the marigold in its wing. If you can see it from India east and south all the way to Australia, but not on the islands of the Philippines, Borneo, or Papua and New Guinea. There must be an interesting story to follow up there another time, when I have another photo of the crow.

Strolling in the rain

By the time we reached the luxury tents by the side of Vaitarna lake, it was well past mid day. As we took in the breeze by the infinity lake, we met a group of young doctors who were unwinding after a year of hard work. Never an easy life, and certainly not in the last months. Lunch, then settle our stuff into a tent, and by the time we were ready to go out again, a drizzle had set in. The doctors were in and around the pool, two bottles of wine open on a nearby table, glasses in hands. They called out to us, but we wanted a walk. The scenery was spectacular after all.

There was a choice of extremely muddy tracks or a black-topped road. We’d had a bit of discussion about what to wear. Expecting really heavy rain, I’d opted for shorts and a tee, and flip flops. The rain is not cold, so this works. “No point getting trekking shoes soggy,” I’d said to The Family. She had taken normal, everyday shoes and a poncho. Also good. But our choice of footwear meant we couldn’t take muddy tracks down slopes. So the yellow-brick road it was.

Clouds were massing overhead. We didn’t know yet that the next three days would be so stormy that we wouldn’t feel like going out to the pool. There was a high-pitched call overhead. I looked up to see a black winged kite (Elanus caeruleus) hovering overhead. I missed my long lenses. A macro lens or phones are just enough to remind you of a sighting like this, but not to show what we saw. The kite hovered and dived down to the lake. “I didn’t know it eats fish,” The Family said. We moved on to watch it as it soared and stooped again. It wasn’t breaking the water. So probably it was scooping up large insects. Dragonflies?

Walking in the middle of farmlands you expect to see cattle. Sure enough, there were water buffaloes grazing in an open field near the path. This must be a wonderful time for them. Pools of muddy water form during these weeks of storms, and take many weeks to dry. The animals don’t have to move far between forage and wallow. There were a couple of very heavy showers as we walked. There was little cover. We could huddle behind bushes or under stunted thorn trees, or we could keep walking. We decided to turn our backs to the wind and walk.

When it became a little light, I took out my waterproof camera, and started taking photos of wildflowers. The Family sometimes gets a little impatient when I do this, but today there were enough things to see that she was happy walking at my uncertain pace. She pointed out a butterfly. Again I missed my long lens. Fortunately my camera has enough pixels that I could crop a long shot. This is a common crow (Euploea core), one of the commonest butterflies in the Sahyadris, especially at this time of the year. My flip flops worked better than soggy shoes would have. We compromised on a walking distance between my footwear and The Family’s, and decided that it was about time to walk back.

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.

Moldy midweek

I woke up to the cascading sound of heavy rain and the whistling of wind through ventilators. The tide was beginning to recede, but it was still high enough that the rain water was not able to drain out of the lawns. There has been a flood alert down the coast. In the city it will be worst at high tide. Pent up at home this week, I began to look through my photos of past Augusts, and selected a few from the first year of the decade.

The jungle babblers are the quintessential angry birds, scolding each other in the low branches of trees and hopping about in the undergrowth. I haven’t heard them in my neck of the woods. They used to be common earlier. Have they moved away? It is quite likely that they are ecological refugees driven away by the recent heavy use of pesticides which has killed their source of food. Maybe I need to explore other parts of my neighbourhood next week. Perhaps a group or two still survives.

Butterflies are other sacrifices to the altar of the new insectivorous gods. A few years ago the gardens around me were full of butterflies, like the glossy specimen of the common crow (Euploea core) you see in this photo. This season I’ve seen a few flitting about, but they are not at the densities I was used to once. A twenty minute walk in the garden would give me twenty good photos of butterflies a decade ago, and good sightings of rarer ones like the blue in the featured photo which I haven’t identified yet. It is unfortunate that a knee-jerk response to viruses is to spray against insects. This is what man-animal conflict looks like.

Life in an overgrown garden

When you walk around a ruined medieval citadel you are likely to come across much more than humans. In the sporadically maintained garden of Mandu we came across many of the wonderful creatures we share the earth with. I wrote about some of the birds earlier, but I’d missed one. A peacock displayed its wonderful feathers to a peahen. The peahen looked up once and then sauntered away. I and The Family were the only others in the scene, and we paid him more attention than the object of his love. C’est la vie.

Where there are plants and birds, there will also be the creatures which link these into a web of ecology: the insects. The most noticeable were the butterflies: the common emigrant, the common crow, the common tiger and the common lime (in the photos above). There were many moths too, but I’ve said before how bad I’m at identifying moths. I won’t even try now.

The little pools of water had some water lilies. I stood and admired a small pool with these pink lilies. I saw some motion there, and looked closer to find a bee exploring the flower. What an industrious fellow, I thought to myself.

Another pool had lotus. No bees here. I took some photos and was about to walk away, when I noticed this jumping spider in one of the blooms. These predators often hide inside flowers, waiting for an unwary insect to come in search of dinner, only to become someone else’s dinner instead.

I’m always happy to find creatures like this grasshopper. I don’t see them very often, but there must be many of them around. I guess I’ll just have to make a trip with an entomologist to figure out what tricks I’m missing. I suspect the main trick is to look closely. There’s life everywhere you look, unless people have been spraying insecticide.