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Watching Butterflies – Field Lessons from Rishi Valley

Blue Tiger Butterfly at Rishi Valley School

Every time I visit Rishi Valley School, I forget that I’m there as a visiting parent. I become a student all over again, and it’s poignant how the school’s environment welcomes me to learn, regardless of how old I am. Be it the shards of wisdom I glean from my conversations with teachers and students, or the mute but fulsome exchanges I have with the trees and the rocks, or just by watching nature at work while the children go about their lessons and chores, I feel rewarded on every visit. The immensity of this institution’s legacy sits lightly on its stakeholders, and they bear it without being burdened by it. Everyone and everything is a teacher. One doesn’t merely learn the facts of life — as the cliché goes — from the birds and the bees; one takes delight in the subtlety of the seasons, and one thrives as one absorbs these lessons just as butterflies soak up the sun and live out their brief and eventful lives.

On my last visit at the end of 2017, I discovered that the school had shaped my daughter into a full-blown butterfly enthusiast. It fills me with great joy and satisfaction to report this, because I had tried in vain to get the little city-slicker to even take notice of nature during the years she spent in our dusty Bangalore suburb with its traffic-strangled roads. But here, amidst the speaking stones and teaching trees of Rishi Valley where she has spent the last seven months, a change has come about her. Going to school at Rishi Valley has awakened an instinct that was otherwise numbed in this city-born and city-bred child.

Blue Tiger Butterfly at Rishi Valley School
A Blue Tiger butterfly at rest on an overhead cable
Watching Butterflies in Rishi Valley
A Lesser Grass Blue stops just long enough to be photographed. These tiny butterflies appear pale to dark blue when their wings are opened out

On the day she was born, nearly ten years ago, a Common Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) had alighted on her crib, unfurled its wings and remained there for many hours before taking flight, unnoticed. Anitha and I named our daughter Tittili, Hindi for butterfly. Growing up in Bangalore, Tittili was frightened of anything that stirred. Of things that crawled or fluttered, she was terrified. It pained me and embarrassed me to see my daughter become the complete antithesis of what I thought I stood for, to see her become a “normal city child” with a deep mistrust of things born of nature. However, this last visit filled me with new pride and new hope. And while that has been happening incrementally as I observe the changes in her attitude towards nature, it was finally confirmed on a butterfly walk with my daughter and her house parent. My wife and my nephew joined us — both doing something of this sort for the first time in their lives — and it was enriching for all of us.

We spent a good part of the late morning before lunch time strolling about the school campus looking for butterflies. They were not hard to find. Mini Akka, my daughter’s house parent, is an indefatigable and intrepid nature lover with a passion for birds and butterflies. She has great field skills and unlimited curiosity, and I’m very grateful that my child is in her care. “You’ve named your daughter right,” she quipped on seeing Tittili’s infectious enthusiasm for identifying butterflies.

Tawny Coster at Rishi Valley School
This Tawny Coster, which appears to be freshly emerged from its chrysalis, was the first butterfly we spotted on our walk
Oriental Forget-Me-Not at Rishi Valley
An Oriental Forget-Me-Not spotted at Rishi Valley
Watching Butterflies in Rishi Valley
Lemon Pansies are common even in the city, but photographing one is always a joy

Within minutes, we started spotting butterflies. It’s hard enough to photograph birds, but photographing butterflies can be harder. And it’s crazier when your field skills are not sharp. By this I mean that I am more familiar with birds than with butterflies, and in the field I can to an extent predict how they will behave when approached. Butterflies that look outwardly similar may have different flight speeds and flight patterns — some zip by like drivers fleeing a hit-and-run, some make straight sallies and others make erratic sorties, and some others sashay past like slightly tipsy dancers on an off-day. Some can never sit still, and some can’t be seen until they are almost stepped upon.

I started watching birds when I was about seven, but I started watching butterflies in my adult life, and therefore both my field skills and my identification skills are very fresh, very raw and very prone to error. I began watching butterflies with a passion only a few years ago and it’s only in the last year that I became obsessive about it. When my daughter came home in November on her term vacation, I discovered that she had acquired a deep curiosity for those winged things with which she shared a name. Delighted, I plunged into the hobby myself and we spent hours immersed in field guides, making mental journeys into butterfly paradise. And whenever we had the time to step outside, we took delight in watching butterflies and comparing notes on our walks together.

Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
The Dry Season Form of the Pioneer White, a very elegant butterfly
Red Pierrot Watching Butterflies Rishi Valley
Red Pierrot, a common but striking small butterfly that makes for a great photographic subject
Watching Butterflies in Rishi Valley
The Dry Season Form (DSF) of a Common Bushbrown. This intriguing butterfly was hidden in the grass

Butterflies popped up at every step. The first one we spotted was a Tawny Coster (Acraea terpsicore), a relatively easy start to the walk, and then came an Indian Jezebel (Delias eucharis) that drew a whoop of recognition from my daughter. Grass Yellows (Eurema hecabe) and Common Crows (Euploea core) were in abundance. Blue Tigers (Tirumala limniace) emerged from hiding, and we exchanged notes on how this species can be confused with Dark Blue Tigers (Tirumala septentrionis), though I haven’t quite got the hang of the field characteristics yet. After a few missed calls, I got a clear shot of a Pioneer (Belenois aurota aurota), a butterfly that is highly variable in appearance across its range, which extends from Africa to South Asia. A Lesser Grass Blue (Zizina otis indica) stopped just long enough for a photograph. We almost stepped upon a Common Bushbrown (Mycalesis perseus) before it darted off to another hiding place where we observed it without disturbing it. A pair of Common Mormons (Papilio polytes) and a solitary Blue Mormon (Papilio polymnestor) made an appearance, and an Indian Wanderer (Pareronia hippia) shot by in a blur of pale bluish white. Some butterflies were hard to identify on the fly. Among these were a Mottled Emigrant (Catopsilia pyranthe), which I photographed and looked up later. Also in this category were a Lemon Emigrant (Catopsilia pomona) and an Oriental Forget-me-not (Catochrysops strabo), which I identified later from a photograph.

From the dazzling flicker of tiny Hedge Blues (Acytolepis puspa) to the ragged and swift helter-skelter flight of Great Orange Tips (Hebomoia glaucippe), to the intoxicated loopy dance of the Psyche (Leptosia nina), we observed and we learned and we marvelled. A butterfly’s world often exists in microcosm, and this is especially true of the smaller butterflies. Studying the shadow-stippled ground, we came across a few Common Pierrots (Castalius rosimon) and finally a great many Red Pierrots (Talicada nyseus) drawing nectar from the seemingly insignificant shrub flowers that grew close to the ground. These used to be my favourite butterflies. As a child of seven or eight, I’d crouch in the garden of my parents’ home in Bangalore, pressing my nose to the ground to get a good look at these striking butterflies. They were small, perfect and richly sought-after for the insect collection I maintained at the back of the house. They fared poorly in captivity, of course, perishing within hours. Little did I know then that butterflies needed to keep feeding and that they had tragically short lifespans.

Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
I couldn’t identify this one and had to look it up later. Turns out that it is a Mottled Emigrant
Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
Possibly a Lemon Emigrant, this large yellow butterfly was not easy to photograph
Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
The Common Crow is not camera-shy and is one of the easiest butterflies to photograph

Trying to identify butterflies correctly in the field can be challenging and frustrating, and I have great admiration for those who have worked on their field skills. There’s a lot to learn once you scratch the surface. Like birds, male and female butterflies may look different. Then there are wet season forms (WSF) and dry season forms (DSF) of the same species. If you think this is confusing enough, wait till you start exploring the cavernous depths of mimicry in butterflies. It’s not enough that some species (known as mimics) resemble other species (their models), there are different kinds of mimicry, namely Batesian mimicry and Müllerian mimicry. Simply put — and you had better Google this later or you’ll end up abandoning this page — Batesian mimicry is when an animal that is edible to its predators is protected by its resemblance to one that predators usually avoid, knowing them to be toxic or unpalatable. In Müllerian mimicry, two or more unpalatable species develop similar defences by resembling each other. Fascinating in theory, but with quite crazy consequences in the field.

For help with identifying butterflies, I usually turn to two Facebook groups (Butterflies of India and ButterflyIndia) besides the iNaturalist app on my smartphone. Of course, to use these resources you need to have at least a record shot. In the absence of photographic records, one has to consult field guides. Until recently, there wasn’t a comprehensive photographic field guide available for Indian butterflies, but one very handy guide (not literally, for it is fairly bulky) is The Book of Indian Butterflies by Isaac Kehimkar. The Indian Foundation for Butterflies supported by NCBS maintains a very good online resource that augments the checklist of Indian butterflies by adding new species periodically, described with a multitude of photographs, along with references for larval stages and host plants.

As the day got warmer, the butterflies became more active, but the children began to run out of steam. The lunch bell sounded, and we left the butterflies to their business and rushed to attend to ours.

Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
A Grass Yellow butterfly photographed in its understorey habitat
Watching Butterflies at Rishi Valley
A Common Pierrot butterfly squints at the sun — or was that me?

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