Butterfly season has begun, and there is excitement among naturalists this year, as a wave of rare sightings surface along peninsular India
Recently, the Branded Royal, rarely seen in India, made news when it fluttered through the Nilgiris after a gap of over 130 years.
“It was last recorded in 1888 by British entomologist GF Hampson,” says Vinod Sriramulu. A trustee of the Wynter-Blyth Association (WBA) that comprises conservationists who document butterfly species in the Nilgiris, Vinod photographed the Branded Royal during a butterfly walk along the Kotagiri slopes. The four-year-old WBA has over 800 members.
Butterfly season usually begins with the onset of the South-West monsoon; and the buzz tends to continue post-monsoon, well into February. “Now is the best time to watch them as they flit about in good numbers looking for nectar from tender greenery that springs up after the rains,” says P Mohan Prasath, founder of Act for Butterflies, the butterfly conservation NGO.
This year, especially, many rare species have been sighted across the country. The Blue Mormon, a black-coloured velvet-winged butterfly, a species endemic to the Western Ghats, showed up in Patna. Another rare species, the Spotted Angle butterfly, has been sighted in the reserve forests of Chhattisgarh. The Liliac Silverline, a protected species whose only known breeding population is in Bengaluru, was sighted for the first time in the Aravalli range of Rajasthan.
Mohan remarks, “Common Onyx showed up in the Western Ghats. It hides itself under canopies of mango trees, its host plant, and is rarely seen on the ground. All these sightings point towards a range extension of the habitat, or may be more people are observing unexplored habitats, home gardens and backyards especially during the COVID-19 lockdown.”
Rarer than Halley’s Comet
Adding that species like Common Birdwing, Common Jester, Painted Jezebel and Vagrant have made an appearance at Telangana in the Eastern Ghats, much to the excitement of naturalists, he says, “Of the 1,339 species of butterflies in India, over 900 are seen in Arunachal Pradesh. Maybe, they are trickling down and this is indicative of climate change.”
A recent study done by researchers Appanna Saragada, E Ramakrishna and Ramana Bhusala in the Eastern Ghats in Visakhapatnam district, documents a number of species recorded in the region for the first time. These include the African Marbled Skipper, the Tree Flitter, the Chestnut Angle, the Chestnut Bob, the Fluffy Tit, the Colour Sergeant and the Double-branded Crow. “We hope that the findings will help mobilise conservation research, action and attention for the Eastern Ghats forest habitats,” says Rahul Pandey, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), Andhra Pradesh.
Forest Section Officer (Visakhapatnam Division) Ramana Bhusala, who manages the Butterfly Park at Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, says that some of these sightings were particularly special, like the Orange-tailed Awl. “I spotted it at Kambalakonda forests during my regular visits. When I checked the records, I found it was a rare sighting, since it was never recorded before from this region,” says Ramana. The Orange-tailed Awl usually seen in the Western Ghats including The Nilgiris, Kodagu, Kanara, and the Himalayas.
Another special sighting was the Large Guava Blue. Saying there have been just three sightings in Tamil Nadu over the last six years, Sharan Venkatesh, a keen watcher adds, “It feeds on wild fruits such as figs, or common fruits like pomegranate and guava.”
Isaac Kehimkar, the butterfly man of India, calls the winged creatures ‘fussy’. “They are sensitive to weather and habitat. They won’t settle for anything less. When the habitat is polluted, they abandon it. Once the habitat shrinks, the populations come out,” says Isaac. He considers catching a glimpse of the Northern Jungle Queen in Sikkim and the endangered Bhutan Glory in Arunachal Pradesh as a real treats. “The Bhutan Glory is endangered and protected under Wildlife Protection Act like tigers and elephants.” Some of the species like Fluff Silverline, Club Silverline, and Painted lezebel that have been spotted along coastal Andhra, are common species of the north east, he adds. “It’s a trickle down effect from eastern India towards Orissa, Andhra and parts of Tamil Nadu. The Common Birdwing comes from the north east, Himalayas and South East Asia.”
Butterflies are habitat specific and rarely wander off, he adds. For example, the Southern Birdwing, which can only be seen in South India. It comes up to the southern tip of Maharasthra, but never stops by in Mumbai. Says Isaac, “We have the Sanjay Gandhi National Park but perhaps that is not good enough. Habitats restrict butterflies. That is why they are called bio-indicators.”
With inputs from Nivedita Ganguly