March 15, 2009

Butterfly Morning in Mollem

If it wasn’t for the frog that I was chasing across the stream with my camera we might never have discovered the tiny sandbank hidden from view by trees along the turn the stream took before cutting through the wildlife sanctuary at Mollem, 56 kms. off Panaji and bordering Karnataka State to the east. And we wouldn’t have seen the Common Map Butterfly (Cyrestis thyodamas).

Much of the stream along the course it took in the stretch visible to us was shaded by trees lining the banks. In the few patches where sunlight streamed through canopies it lit up stones in the shallow water, a few protruding above the waterline. On one such stone a frog basking in the Sun caught my attention. Sensing my approach it quickly leapt back into the water and swam towards another stone, then yet another as it led me on a merry chase down stream. The water was cool to the skin and I moved carefully lest I slip and land the camera in the water. In the canopies that rose on the banks birdcalls sounded at steady intervals. In the silence of the jungle it is the tiniest creatures that sound the loudest.

I disappeared round the bend, leaving Philip behind scanning the trees for birds with his binoculars.

At 240 sq. kms., the Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary in the Western Ghats mountain ranges abuts the town of Mollem in Sanguem taluka in the State of Goa, and is the largest of Goa’s wildlife sanctuaries. The National Highway 4A passing through it on its way to Belgaum in Karnataka cuts the wildlife sanctuary into two and poses the most serious threat yet by facilitating transportation of manganese and iron ore from surface mining sites that ring the wildlife sanctuary.

I soon lost the frog. Turning around to retrace my steps I caught sight of the small sandbank to my left. For a moment I was startled to see a perfectly formed sandbank, an uncommon sight in the wildlife sanctuary. Water had splashed upto my knees. I was wearing light trousers and in the October heat it would take less than twenty minutes to dry once we got back on the trail in the Sun. I called out to Philip to come have a look at the sandbank.

The Bhagwan Mahavir Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the leopard, and the bison among other mammals, and to the Cobra, the Krait, and the Vipers – the Russels, and the Saw Scaled, among other species of snakes. Birdlife in the wildlife sanctuary is said to number over 200 species of birds. I’ve logged over 90 species in the sanctuary myself on my treks over the years.

But it was butterflies I was seeking that October morning last year, and anything ‘interesting’ along the way.

As we prepared to make our way across the stream to the other side I paused to photograph shoots sprouting on the trunk of a large tree. A hint of Sun that made it through the canopy lit up the tender green of the sprouting plant in an ethereal glow as if in a halo around a divine event. Much else was hidden in deep shade, and contrasted sharply in the glow of the Sun meeting the tender shoots on the trunk. At times few sights in the jungle can match the interplay of the sun and the shadows.

It was about then that Philip caught the Sun glinting off the back of the frog sunbathing on a stone mid-stream and I went chasing it before eventually losing it downstream.

As Philip made his way to the tiny sandbank I settled down in the sand more for feeling the sand underneath than for resting. We drank water from the bottle and settled down to soak in the quietude. We had walked two hours before coming upon the stream. Our voices will have been carried downstream, alerting the jungle to our presence. Jungle eyes miss nothing, least of all human voices.

At first I didn’t notice the Common Map Butterfly among the stones, not until it shifted position, seeking a stone in a moist patch to bask on before leaving it for a patch of moist sand.

Its wings matched the pale white of the sand, camouflaging it well in its environs. Unlike some butterflies, most notably the Grass Yellow and the Pansy (Lemon, Grey, Blue, and the Peacock) among a few others, the Common Map Butterfly showed little on no inclination to lead me on fruitless chases in the Sun. It barely moved while I photographed it.

Over the years I’ve come to favour butterflies that seek damp places if for nothing else than for the fact that unlike other butterflies that make photographing them a backbreaking effort in the Sun, water-course loving butterflies wouldn’t be bothered much with human presence unless one got very close,

Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon) is the other species I’ve had better luck photographing. I first came upon Common Bluebottles while we were tracking a leopard along a riverbank, following its pugmarks in the sand when we happened upon a delightful group of Common Bluebottles mud-puddling in the sand, their greenish-blue bands running prominently along the length of their wings on the outside and setting off the pale sand in a burst of colour. I went on my knees with my camera and for close to ten minutes they barely moved, engrossed in mud-puddling. The males among the butterflies are known to mud-puddle along riverbanks and are said to ingest dissolved minerals.

The Common Map Butterfly is rarely to be found away from water courses in the forest and belongs to the Nymphalidae, the butterfly family that accounts for most butterfly species found in India.

As we left the sandbank to pick up our original trail a movement in a leafy branch overhanging the path revealed a butterfly that I thought looked like the Common Indian Crow (Euploea core), among the more commonly found butterflies in the wildlife sanctuary. It looks similar to the female of the Great Eggfly (Hypolimnus bolina) and can be mistaken for one. I’ll remember the Common India Crow for a memorable sighting one summer day in the sanctuary a few years ago.

While on our way to Collem through the sanctuary, Philip and I ran into hundreds of Common Crows migrating through the forest, easily numbering over five hundred and pushing on seemingly determinedly. As they flitted across our path we stood in silence watching them move on. Neither of us had a camera on us that day, and never have I needed a camera as badly ever since!

On long trails flowers break the monotony of the landscape. Here they are not to be found in abundance in the lower reaches of the sanctuary, in marked contrast as one ascends the hills in the vicinity. However Ixora (Ixora coccinea) blooms in the sanctuary all round the year, drawing attention with its bright red petals contrasting sharply against the grey of its surroundings in the summer. Ixora belongs to the Coffee family.

When I started out I had expected to see more of Grey Pansy (Junonia atlites) and was surprised with how few there actually were on the trail. I cannot be sure if it was the time of day that was responsible for so few numbers or if it was the time of year. Whatever the case may be I was delighted to have a Grey Pansy fly over to me and settle on my trousers. Trust makes for delightful company on jungle trails, more so when trails goes quiet in the afternoons.

Teak grows aplenty in the wildlife sanctuary and so does Kindal. Silk Cotton and Flame of the Forest blaze away in early summer while Ficus trees attract birds in droves and together they feast on figs in relative peace. And they feast long. Once I spent over an hour watching a pair of Grey Hornbills oblivious to my presence while they feasted on the figs for the entire duration.

As we walked along more flowers graced our trail, a welcome sprinkling of colour and a reason to pause and take them in before moving on. The Bicolour Persian Violet (Exacum tetragonum) above lent the dry earth promise. Like many flowers in deciduous forests, the Persian Violet flowers in September-December. They were few and far between on our trail.

We dodged Common Grass Yellows (Eurema hecabe) flitting about on the narrow path in the direction of Nandran Mol. Watching pairs of Grass Yellows zig zag along the path it was easy to assume they were courting pairs, it seemed proper to do so, and having done that they acquired a renewed interest in my eyes, and in their every twist and turn I sought a pattern I could then interpret. There was none I could notice though. On occasions the Grass Yellows (Family Pieridae) would feed on flowers before taking off. They added urgency to the quiet afternoon, rarely flying higher than waist level and sticking to the open area of the jungle path. With the Sun beating down on my back one of them eventually perched on a flower long enough for me to release the shutter several times.

In a clearing the forest department had effected along the path not far from where it forks into two directions, one leading to the Vasant Bhandhara, the other up the hill to the highest point in the wildlife sanctuary, a lone male Danaid Eggfly warmed up on the embankment burnt hard by the Sun, closing and opening its wings in slow motion. I crossed over the embankment to get closer to the butterfly.

While returning I was alerted to a rustling in the plants clustered around a tree and which I had brushed on my way back. A menacing looking centipede emerged from the cluster of plants and hurried up the tree at admirable pace.

It was past noon. At a time when one would expect the rarer among the sightings to have retreated into the shade deep inside the jungle, the Grey Count (Tanaecia lepidea) surprised me by making an appearance. Not content with merely making an appearance it flew over to me and settled on my instep and I was loath to move lest it take wings. Moments like these warm the trails in ways that only acceptance by another can. To have it happen to me the second time in a little over an hour and half must mean someone was helping bring things together. I cannot recollect the last time I spotted the Grey Count. Its characteristic white band resembles an upturned mustache. The languorous flight as it took off and settled among low lying vegetation and the easy familiarity it displayed in settling on my instep redeemed the trail in no small measure.

It is never easy to identify the Common Sailor (Neptis hylas) from the Common Sergeant (Athyma perius), more so given how quickly they move about but Common Lascar (Pantoporia hordonia) was easy given their orange markings as against the white of the Sailor and the Sergeant.

Lemon Pansy (Junonia lemonias) matched the Grass Yellow in numbers. Unlike the Grey Pansy, the Lemon Pansy has striking markings on its wings. The two pairs of eye-spots display prominently on the wings. However I was baffled seeing several of the species flying around with broken wings, too many for one trail. I wonder if those eye-spots on the Lemon Pansy had attracted predators into making a grab for their wings. I'll never know.

It’s never easy to overlook a bright and cheerful butterfly with broken wings and move on, and so many!

But I had to!

Note: Thank you for supporting Windy Skies in the ongoing Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards 2009. The voting continues till March 20, 2009.

If you’ve enjoyed the travelogues here and wish to extend your support please do spare a few moments to vote for Windy Skies in the Best Travelogue category. Your support is valued. Thank you.


Cynthia said...

Beautiful photos, Anil...especially the lovely white and purple flowers. <3

Lori ann said... the silence of the jungle it's the tiniest creatures that sound the loudest...

i think perhaps it is because you are such a good listener/observer. Thank you for taking us along, I enjoyed this very much!

marja-leena said...

Fabulous photos of these elusive and beautiful butterflies, lucky captures!

Amber Star said...

Sometimes we have to turn around to notice the beauty behind us.

Lovely pictures and story, too. Still wondering what you would do if you had found the tiger you were tracking.

Anonymous said...

how lovely they are captured only on a digital landscape!

bobbie said...

Anil, your photos are always beautiful. I particularly enjoy the butterflies, and the flowers you found along the way. Thank you so much.

sallymandy said...

Beautiful writing and photos. I appreciate your willingness to slow down and record the details of the small, quiet occurrences in a natural place. We are so disconnected from them. I felt I was there, reading your post.

Kaustubh said...

A quote by Rabindranath tagore "The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough!"

Time enough to fill the life with colours and joy around us. Happy Butterfly watching!

kiran said...

Really liked your writing a lot and i've just voted for your blog on the Lonely Planet website. It would be great if you had one of your lovely photos as part of your blog header image too. Reading your post, for some moments, one is so lost in listening to your story that its awful when it ends and you realise you are only looking at a computer screen! Thanks for doing such a great travelogue!!

Taraana said...

Love the pictures. This has been one of the most enjoyable posts. I am an animal lover and hence I absolutely love this post and the butterflies are just so beautiful.

Mahim is said to be the hub for butterflies in Mumbai. Although I haven't seen too many here, I did spot a huge black butterfly a while back. A friend captured it on camera but it's true beauty could only be viewed by the eye. I must say again, it was a huge one. Almost the size of a mango leaf.

SloganMurugan said...

Mollem and Polem. The entry points into Goa from Karnataka. And each time I have crossed the border I could smell Goa. A different scent. Now I know why.

Anjuli said...

lovely pics!

Roxie said...

I feel as if I've been in the jungle with you. Thank you. Your writing and photography is so engaging! Best of luck on the Lonely Planet.

sundar said...


Another superb one from you with attractive images...

Loved it

Anil P said...

Cynthia: Thank you.

Lori Ann: Thank you. It's always a pleasure.

Maybe that's their way of drawing attention to themselves, or maybe that's nature's way of compensating them for their small size or maybe they would've found it difficult to look for a mate if not for the vocals.

It's the 'maybes' that make jungle trails so fascinating.

Marja-leena: Thank you. If I had hit the trail early I might've been able to spot more species of butterflies. Around 7:30 a.m., just when the Sun begins its ascent in the sky would've been ideal.

Amber Star: Absolutely, we only need to turn around and pause a bit to see it.

We were on the trail of a leopard that day, mostly one with cubs, for we were tracking three sets of pugmarks of which two pairs were clearly not adult.

Face to face, I would've stood still and done nothing that might've been construed as threatening.

On a trail with a friend I've been face to face with a leopard growling at us from behind a clump of bamboos. We froze, then retreated slowly.

The Things We Carried: Thank you.

Bobbie: Thank you. Nature has an ethereal quality to it.

Sallymandy: Thank you. It's so important to connect with fellow life, more so now than ever before, for in their marginalisation we stand to lose our own context in the scheme of the planet, a very lonely planet!

Kaustub: Thank you.

Kiran: I was touched by your comment, very much so.

Thank you for suggesting it, I was planning to use one of my pictures for the header, hopefully I will sooner than later.

Thank you for the vote.

Taraana: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know enjoyed reading the post.

It is still possible to see an occasional butterfly in Bombay, I saw one fluttering in front of a shop in Matunga not too long ago.

Slogan Murugan: Thank you.

Anjuli: Thank you.

Roxie: Thank you. Thanks for your wishes in the Lonely Planet voting.

Sundar: Thank you. It's encouraging to know you enjoyed reading it.

Smi said...

I dont want to comment on this post of yours because I am scared of Butterflies,though they are innocent.

But here is my vote ..
All the best


Joyce said...

I love butterflies. They hold a special place in my heart. Beautiful photos!

joared said...

Seeing your photos and reading your descriptive narrative is almost as good as being there. The butterflies are lovely.

We have a colorful Monarch Butterfly that migrates from South America to a location along North America's California western coast.

Thanks for your comments about your experience meeting other bloggers.

kenju said...

I like all your photos, Anil, but these nature shots are really beautiful. That centipede must be poisonous, since he is so brightly colored.


Good one with great pictures of the butterflies.

Good show at the nominations. Wish you the best for the finals.

N said...

to say ur a good photographer is an understatement. this particular set of work - awesome!

Saurav said...

Marvelous description as usual!! Are you by any chance changing your profession and dedicating your life to Entomology??

Sarah Laurence said...

Cool map butterfly – it looks like a torn balloon. Fun to see these nature shots. I feel like I’m walking along beside you. That centipede is amazing. So much diversity!

Anil P said...

Smi: Thank you :-)

Joyce: Thank you. They're fragile and very pretty.

Joared: Thank you. That's one of the most mysterious of nature stories, the migration from Sounth America, the entire distance. I can only marvel about it.

Kenju: Thank you. It suspect it mut have a nasty sting.

Raji Muthukrishnan: Thank you for the wishes.

N: Thank you :-)

Saurav: Thank you. Not at all, even if I would it might only be restricted to butterflies :-)

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. I found the pattern on the Map butterfly's wings quite unique.

V said...

A really nice post ... Mollem is especially special to us since my dad has a rubber plantation there I have been to Mollem several times and even to the wild life sanctuary.I have always enjoyed going there. But seeing it through your eyes has indeed been very wonderful. I wish I wish we had taken more of those wildlife trips together back when we all had all the time in the world.

Thankyou again for taking me back in time .. to a time I really cherish to this day... :)

karen said...

So much information in one post - I had to re-read it! Beautiful, it sounds just like the sort of place and type of outing that we love. Teak trees, figs, and grey hornbills all sound very similar to what we have here, and I do enjoy learning about all those gorgeous and unfamiliar flowers and butterflies over there. Thanks!