The twig

“Hey, look what we had missed!” exclaimed our friend. We were on a walk along the muddy path to the bridge which connected the 2 beautiful islands at River Tern Lodge, Bhadra. A walk on a path may sound normal to some, romantic to a few others, routine to the rest. But nature has many a surprise in store and a walk is always interesting and fun. We saw a pair of grasshoppers mating; and they were jumping to different locations while “on the job” 😉 A few meters ahead we found seeds of a tree that had the same fragrance as soap nut; and we passed by a mistletoe tree (you read it right, we passed by it. Rana and I didn’t stand under it then, we had audience ;))

Caterpillar in an earlier moult

Please click on the images for a larger size

It was a rather humid day. We were dripping with sweat, and we were not even walking fast. Along the path, we stopped to see this colorful caterpillar, which would ultimately turn into the Common Mime butterfly. But this one wasn’t there yet. It had some more eating, growing and shedding to do.  When the mother lays eggs, she chooses plants on which the caterpillars can feed (host plant). Different species of butterflies have different host plants.  The caterpillars do complete justice to the feeding! They eat the leaves, munching their way to grow bigger and bigger. In fact, grow is an understatement. They outgrow and shed their skin.  The shedding of the skin is called moulting and the skin left behind is a ‘moult’. This colorful bright one had probably moulted twice or thrice before and was now in this form, all in black and orange, with white patches.

Pre-pupatory caterpillar with moult

We reached the bridge and were about to head back. Seeing the voracious feeder had made us hungry. It was then that we saw what everyone had almost missed – two fat and bright caterpillars. A quick check confirmed that they were indeed what we believed them to be – caterpillars of the Common Mime butterfly, very different from the other one, which was a much ‘younger’ caterpillar.  We found the black-orange-white moult next to one of them. They eat the moults, by the way. If this change was dramatic enough, the transformation to a Common Mime pupa is phenomenal.

Before we get there, let me share a few tidbits about butterflies.They face several threats from predators, parasites and parasitoids. Three main techniques that they use to protect themselves are:

  1. Camouflage (click here for some brilliant examples of insect camouflage)
  2. Unpalatability – some of the butterflies feed on certain ‘toxic’ plants and hence, become distasteful for their predators. If a predator, say a bird, tries to eat an unpalatable butterfly, it experiences strong heart beats and may vomit. The bird won’t forget this and surely, it’ll avoid such a “bitterfly” 😉
  3. Mimicry

Alseodaphne semecarpifolia

The Common Mime butterfly is a ‘harmless’, palatable butterfly, using mimicry for protection. It resembles either the Common Crow or the Blue Tiger, both unpalatable butterflies, and in turn, ‘visually cheats’ its predators.  However, its pupa uses camouflage for protection. We were all set to witness this transformation. The excitement was too much to handle, but we had to wait.

The Common Mime usually chooses saplings with fresh leaves and lays its eggs on the surface. These caterpillars were on the leaves of Alseodaphne semecarpifolia (known as Mashe / Nelthare / Karuvadi in Kannada).  The caterpillars munched on the light green, fresh leaves and got plumper by the day.

Pre-pupatory larva, bent

A few days passed after which the munching seemed to have stopped. They had moved on from the surface of the leaves to rest. One was on a stem and the other was on a twig.  These pre-pupatory caterpillars slowly changed their posture and appeared ‘bent’.

Many hours passed. It was 5:30 in the morning; all of a sudden the transformation was there for us to see. We missed the very first bit, but the rest was no less fantastic. Click here for a short video of the transformation from caterpillar to pupa stage.

Closeup of 'twig on twig'

There, in front of our eyes, was a bright caterpillar, twisting, wriggling, squirming and transforming to a ‘burnt and broken twig’! The pupa stood suspended from the twig with a silk girdle. It was like seeing a graceful trapeze artist hanging.

Camouflage is a widely used survival technique by many adult butterflies. This is one of the cases where a pupa uses camouflage.  It looks like a dead twig with the top broken off irregularly. It is black, brown and blotched all over. To add to the ‘effect’, the bottom segment appears as it is growing out of the branch or twig! A perfect camouflage, one of nature’s many wonders.

Closeup of the 'twig' on a stem

The 'twig' on a stemThe twig

We got to see two moults of the caterpillar and also its transformation to a ‘twig’. It has been one of the most fulfilling experiences in our lives. The sheer genius of the camouflage speaks for itself.

Sugandhi

Link to video: http://youtu.be/E8zjn-UCjoY

Acknowledgements:

Many thanks to Karthik M V, Vijay, Ravi and the staff of River Tern Lodge, Bhadra.

References:

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The Black Bittern

I just returned from the Bhadra Tiger Reserve. Bhadra always springs a surprise or two in sightings. In my case, there were a few more than just two. Hopefully, in the next few months I shall be documenting these wonderful experiences. I will begin with one of the rare sighting at Bhadra, and a first for me.

Have you ever played the game Passing the Password or Chinese Password as a kid? At first, the news came that a Black Pitta was seen. Black Pitta ??! We looked in the Wiki, Google, several editions of field guides and books on birds, just in case any of the Pittas has had a change of name 😉  We went repeatedly in search of this bird and finally found it after a couple of days. The name of the bird had been passed around 3-4 people and by the time we heard about it, the Black Bittern had been rechristened as the Black Pitta !

We saw the Black Bittern, Dupetor flavicollis, standing in a pond. It was there in its typicalClose-up and streaks style, with its neck drawn in and standing with a ‘hunched’ back. The adult is largely black in color. It has a very noticeable yellow cheek patch and the underparts have dark, heavy streaks. It is a solitary bird and prefers to be around dense swamps, inland swamps, overgrown seepage nullas in jungles. It is very shy, skulks around its habitat during the day, and is mostly nocturnal and crepuscular (i.,e active in twilight, like bats). All of these make it very difficult to see a Bittern.

During breeding, it chooses reed beds. The season is typically between June – September and this is when one can Black Bitternhope to hear its loud booming call. Apparently, the call is so loud that one can hear it even a kilometer away! This bird lays 3 – 5 eggs in nests on reed platforms in shrubs, bamboo clumps or sometimes in trees.

Black Bitterns feed on insects, fish and amphibians. When they arBlack Bittern habitate startled or disturbed, they freeze.

In chemistry, bit-tern is a bitter solution remaining in salt-making after the salt has crystallized out of seawater or brine. Most of the Bitterns have a color similar to this solution and hence, they get their name (Ref: Pakshi Prapanchada Vaividhyate-VismayagaLu; Dr. J C Uttangi, Dr. V K Deshpande). This Kannada field guide refers to the Black Bittern as Kari Javugu Pakshi, while another one refers to Bittern as Guppi.

I haven’t had enough of this bird. I hope to see it again and hear its booming call or see its twilight flight. Waiting…. 🙂

Rana

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