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.

Truth and the camera

What is truth? I can’t pretend to answer this in its complex philosophical entirety, but I could try to talk about my memories of a walk at sunset. I did this walk alone. I did not meet anyone at all. I carried a camera. If I hadn’t used it, the only truth would be my memory of the walk. The core of that truth is that my mind was roiling when I started, and at peace when I finished. The truth of the images from my camera should then capture the events that changed my mind. It was the sunset and my attempt to capture that fading light. The deliberate concentration on a problem I could solve was what settled my mind.

The mind is very fickle, turbulent, strong, and obstinate. It is like the wind, impossible to control. … When all desires vanish in a state of thoughtfulness, when the inner self is satisfied within itself, then one is a master of a stable mind.

Dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna, Bhagwat Gita

If you had little time, you could be satisfied with the simplest part of the truth, that a walk during a nice sunset put my mind at rest. The featured image would be enough. Nice lake, wooded path, colourful sunset. Restful. But that story hides a further truth. The image did not appear by itself. I worked at it. First, by selecting a viewpoint: have I got enough of the water? No, move a few steps. Now? Yes. But the colours in the camera are not what I see. So I’ll have to recreate them in post-processing. The featured photo is both memory and process. That is a larger truth.

Uncovering the image inside the shadows is hard. The inset in the image on the right shows what I could do quickly. Doing better than this might require a lot more time than I’m willing to spend.

But there is more to it, of course. The idea of capturing the reflection of the sunset in the lake came out of an idea which would not work. I took a photo of the fiery sky, the one which you see above. I meant to bring out the details from the darkness in software. That works often enough, but I realized that might not work here. So I would need the back up that you saw. I was right, and my earlier experiences taught me the necessity of the backup. I was completely immersed in the sunset I was participating in. So much so that I had dragged a part of my past into this sunset, forced the larger me to take part in that.

The truth that capturing what my eye saw required more than the software in the camera came a little earlier. As the sun set, the last lights fell on leaves high above me. My camera could not capture what I saw. If I zoomed into the leaves, the background became black. If I took a wider shot, then the dazzle of backlit leaves disappeared. So I decided to take the wider shot (the one on the right), then crop and edit it to get what I really saw (the shot on the left). The truth is the entirety of these photos: that it was concentration on what I saw, being in the moment, while being anchored in the continuity of myself that settled my mind.

But why was my mind unsettled to begin with? Because I had spent the golden hour of the day looking out on a brilliant landscape through the windows of a moving car. Separated from the world around me in this way, being able to connect only through random shots taken with my phone, I had been reduced to the role of an automaton. Was I merely a CCTV camera, programmed to record what came into view? A photograph is not just a record of what is in front of you, but a result of constant evaluation of many possibilities, discarding most, and capturing what is the truth in the mind’s eye. A photo requires a still mind in knowledge of itself, and a seeking towards an expression of that knowledge. That’s a zen truth, isn’t it?

Sulphur cicada

Before I took this photo I used to think that all cicadas are brown and ugly looking. Cicada watching is popular in East Asia. In Japan it seems that almost no child grows up without some familiarity with them. Each month of spring or summer has a particular cicada’s sound associated with it. So much so that a manga only has to put that sound in a panel to tell you the time of year in which the story takes place. Growing up in India, my friends and I never had much to do with cicadas. When I heard them in our hotel in Naukuchiatal, I only registered their sound as a peaceful background noise. I saw a large yellowish and black insect flying above the canopy of trees around us a couple of times, and wondered whether it could be Golden Birdwing butterfly, before dismissing the thought because the insect was not large enough. On our last morning I saw several over a nearby tree, pointed my camera at them, and captured the photo above. What a surprise! It was a cicada, the brightest that I’ve ever seen. A Sulphogaeana sulphurea. It has been reported from much higher elevations in Uttarakhand. This may be the first report of it at these lower elevations!


Our last morning in Naukuchiatal was the kind that made us want to stay on. For the first time on this trip I saw a woodpecker. It came and sat down on a tree in sunlight in front me while I was standing with a camera in hand. I’m sure I’ve seen the Greater Yellownape (Chrysophlegma flavinucha after 2008, earlier Picus flavinucha) before, perhaps even in Kumaon. This is one of the larger woodpeckers in these sub-Himalayan forests, and prefers to forage in the lower parts of trees, and so is more easily visible to the casual watcher. But I’ve never seen it so close and clearly.

We were on the deck overlooking the lake in our hotel in Naukuchiatal. Just as I turned from my previous subject to face the lake the bird flew to perch on the limb of a large tree in front of us. The mellow light of the morning fell on the broken bark of the tree, and on the deep moss covering parts of the limb. The green back of the woodpecker was the same colour as the moss, and the yellow nape was a bright flash against it.

The bird circled the limb quickly, pecking at the bark rapidly. It didn’t drill; it was more intent at poking into the holes in the wood. I was fortunate to catch a photo just as it found its prey. Unfortunately, I can’t make out what it has in the beak. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen a list of its prey species, so I don’t even have an educated guess. All I figured from this is that the next time I’m in such forests I’ll carry a macro lens and look more closely at broken bark for insects.

Slow Fade

We’d wasted the best hours of the late afternoon puttering down a nondescript mountain road. I was silently raging at this waste of a wonderfully clear golden hour. Now that we were close to home, I decided to get off and walk around Naukuchiatal to the hotel. There would be no spectacular sights here, but I would get to exercise my camera. The last light lit up the sky to the west. It would soon fade.

At one spot on the path I stopped to take this photo. I thought the day was now not totally wasted, but I wished I’d had a walk on one of the high meadows bordering an oak and deodar forest. I’d sat down on a rock, taken a photo of a beetle, and watched a laughing thrush. An hour there would have been wonderful, perhaps giving me more birds and insects. This was tame, but better to carpe the remains of the diem, than to carp about the most recent afternoon of my mis-spent life.

Now there was a wall between me and the lake. Not so bad, I thought, this gives me a different set of subjects. Quick, before the light fades, take the gold shining through dry leaves and grass. Not spectacular, but an image that I enjoy.

Red-orange bougainvilleas are not the most common, and backlit with the golden light they are made for the camera. I was happy enough with this shot. But the sun had dipped behind the curve of the turning earth. The light would fade from now on.

I was standing behind a retired colonel’s house, looking into his garden. Two dogs voiced their displeasure. I heard the voice of the master quieten them. In the last of the fading gold light I caught the other bougainvillea in his garden.

The fading light is actually ideal for this delicate purple-pink rose. I photographed a bunch which was on the other side of the bush and saw that the slightly better light bleached the colours off them. This is better. I’ve met this variety earlier, but I don’t know what it is called. I wished the colonel would come around and tell me. No luck. He’d probably settled down with his whisky and soda, dogs at this feet, watching the sun set over the lake.

I came to a part of the road next to a deep woods. This is supposed to be a good place for birds. We never managed to come here during our vacation. But right next to the road I saw this white-cheeked bulbul (Pycnonotus leucogenys, aka Himayalan bulbul). The light was still good enough to see its white cheek, but in any case its stylish quiff is almost enough to identify it by. I did manage to record its call too.

The hills are alive with the sound of barbets. And I’m sure they have been for a thousand years. I got a glimpse of a Great barbet (Psilopogon virens) in silhouette. By now the light was so bad that the final identification could only be done by its call. Strangely, although I heard its call all the time for the whole week, I never got a good view of one. At least not good enough for a better photo.

But the day had one more present waiting for me. I was inside the grounds of the hotel now and stopped to try to figure out a strange bird call I’d heard. Could it be a nightjar? When it didn’t call again, I looked at the rapidly darkening lake on my right. Just above me an unlit light-bulb caught the last pink gold light of the day, lensing the forest around it. One last shot before I went in to order a sundowner.

On the lake

Naukuchia Tal means the lake with nine corners. The odd shape of the lake gives rise to the story that you cannot see the whole lake from any point on the bank. This could well be true, but I did not walk around the lake, like The Family did one morning, to check out the story. She reports it as being correct, and I take her word for it. Instead I sat on the deck outside the lake and stared out at it. The jetty I could see on a nearby corner made me think that perhaps one could do a little bit of boating on the lake.

“Duh,” The Family said when I told her. “Look across. There are about five families out on the lake.” Sure enough, even down by the pier at our resort there was a canopied boat all set up for a ride. I’ve usually seen these hulls with an outboard motor fitted to it. But Naukuchiatal has finally put in place regulations which forbid motors. The water quality of these lakes have been deteriorating for a while, and this will at least slow the process until someone begins to implement a clean up.

Next to the restaurant I found a stack of these oars. The kayaks were pulled up on the banks of the lake. I considered trying it out. I’ve never done any Kayaking, and I’m sure the first attempt would result in me turning in circles until I capsized. It’s something I would like to try out sometime, but I was feeling lazy. I set off for a spot of bird watching in the woods behind the hotel instead.

Colour or black and white?

On our first morning in Naukuchiatal I saw a butterfly sunning itself on the terrace next to the lake. This was the first butterfly I’d seen since our walk in Binsar. Presumably the forest fires in the northern parts of Kumaon were not too good for butterflies. From the markings this looked like either a sailer or a sergeant. These are two species complexes, a group of very similar looking butterflies. The sailers belong to the genus Neptis, and the sergeants to genus Athyma. The white scallops at the edge of the wing (called costal markings) and the shape of the club on the antenna led me to think that it was a Neptis. There are still 50 species of Neptis, and it is not so easy to drill down to species. Eventually I decided that it was probably from quite a different genus, a Neptis mimic, the Short-banded Sailer (Phaedyma columella). I could be wrong. Butterflies are not easy to identify, especially if they come from a species complex which has many mimics.

Within seconds a very colourful analogue of this butterfly settled near me. Simple, I thought, one of the yellow sailers. But now I don’t think I was right. You can see a little tail on the hindwing. This is not a Neptis. I don’t have an ID for this, not even tentative. Sad.

Note added: Not so sad any longer, since people responded to my request for help. Peter Smetacek of the Butterfly Museum in Bhimtal supplied the ID first. This is a Symbrenthia lilaea, more colloquially called a common Jester. Thanks also to Deb of Call of the Wild for supplying the same ID independently.

The lake district

The sun had not yet set when we reached Naukuchiatal. The smell of smoke which had hounded us through our journey through the northern part of Kumaon was gone. The lake district of Kumaon is within a day’s drive of Delhi, and normally sees lots of tourists. There is a series of these old glacial lakes in this region, and I prefer the one furthest from Naini Tal, because it has less weekend tourists. In any case, now, with the beginning of a resurgence of the epidemic, crowds had thinned. We had the hotel’s terrace overlooking the lake all to ourselves. A chai in hand, I sat and looked at the sun go down over the hills. A great barbet’s call filled the air. As it got darker, that sound was drowned out by the call of cicadas. Peace at last.


Naukuchiatal is a terribly short drive from Bhimtal. The sky was still pink when we climbed past the kitschy Hanuman mandir and the Club Mahindra resort on to our B&B. We were greeted by two dogs: Sherry and Brandy. A third, named Tarzan, opened an eye and inspected us from its comfortable place on the rug when we entered the living room.

There was a nice big deck overlooking the lake. Naukuchiatal means the nine-cornered lake. The local belief is that if you see all nine corners from one spot you are going to be specially lucky. With a little craning of necks we thought we could see more than half the corners: semi-lucky us. The Lotus plopped down on one of the chairs on the deck and stretched out his legs. We had the second tea of the evening, and The Family brought out the cakes and biscuits she’d got from the bakery in Haldwani.

We sat there in the cool silence, watching the sky turn dark and little lights spring up all over the hills. The crickets kept chirping as mosquitos in large numbers tried to trade our blood for a soporific. The cook had prepared a wonderfully heavy dinner designed to knock us out. The Family supplemented this with local chocolates she had found in Haldwani.


We took a little walk after dinner. The road was pitch dark. People sleep early in the hills. The only place open was this restaurant which also did duty as a taxi rental and travel agency. Our driver passed us on his way to a pre-dinner tipple; he and the cook had agreed to eat late. We made our way back by starlight and phone.


In the morning we found that the stairs by the deck led all the way down a jetty on the lake. The water looked crystal clear. On later reading I discovered the enormous effort that goes into keeping the lake waters fairly unpolluted. We appreciate now that the battle is slowly being lost, but on that morning we were happy. Almost the first thing we saw in the morning was the bright blue of a Kingfisher; you can see it sitting on the rope near the boat house in the photo above.

As we climbed back up we saw a brightly coloured bird in front of us: bright orange breast and a brilliant blue top, colours like a Kanjeevaram silk saree. We had never seen anything like this before. It hopped around from tree to tree, defeating my camera. It was a blue-fronted redstart.


We had not given ourselves a lot of time in Naukuchiatal, which is great for birding. We saw a familiar sight near the water: a white-capped water redstart. We could hear the maddening cry of a whistling thrush, recognizable as a lovely tune which is cut off abruptly. A gray-backed shrike put in an appearance. As we had tea on the deck of the house, we saw a Himalayan bulbul and a yellow-breasted tit. We walked along the lake again and saw a tribe of monkeys grooming each other.


The lake district is around 1900 meters high. We planned to go a little higher. Our destination near Almora was not far off, but the road would be slow. At breakfast we realized we had crossed over to the country of alu parathas. We had to leave in a hurry because we had an appointment with Peter Smetacek. His book on the butterflies of the Kumaon is a much-needed addition to the small canon of nature writing in India. Peter runs a small but very good butterfly museum out of his home in Bhimtal; it is well sign-posted and easy to find. He turned out to be a very articulate man, passionate about nature. We had an instructive hour-long conversation with him. Then we were on our way.

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