Some trekkers come to Nepal solely to see the majestic Himalayan mountains. Often they do not realise that there is so much else to be seen, ranging from historical cultural monuments and idyllic villages to the obvious and less obvious representatives of the native flora and fauna. Butterflies are often overlooked, but there is an amazing variety of them, occurring from the hot and sweaty Terai to the alpine mountain slopes of over 5,000 meters.
Walking up the trail to Syauli Bazar on my first trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary I noticed from the corner of my eye a flash of orange and blue. When I looked straight at the spot, it seemed to have vanished. But then a dry oak leaf suddenly moved and showed the brilliant colours of its upper wings. Most trekkers would not have seen this Orange Oakleaf. Many will notice the large and colourful butterflies that slowly flutter by, apparently without a worry in the world. In fact, most butterflies are very busy keeping their species going. They live for just a few weeks in which time they need to mate and produce fertile eggs.
Ten years later in 2015, I went back to the Annapurna Sanctuary. The mountains were as spectacular as before, although a lot more snow had melted. Due to lack of fuel the common rooms in the guesthouses were very cold, so I left soon and spent a few warn days in Birethanti to chase butterflies. The first day I took pictures of some 30 species, including what I thought to be a Tailed Judy (Abisara neophron). The second, sunnier, day I identified 60 species, including a Tailed Judy. A week later when looking at Judies on a website of Indian butterflies, I noticed that there was a Judy that resembled the Tailed Judy. My first Judy appeared to be this Spot Judy (Abisara chela). It was not listed in the checklist of Nepal’s butterflies. I showed my pictures to Colin Smith aka Putali Baje (Butterfly Granddad), who has studied butterflies in Nepal for almost 50 years. He checked his reference books and confirmed that it was Abisara chela and a new species for Nepal.
With this Judy, Nepal has some 660 butterfly species. Specimens of most of them have been collected in the Pokhara butterfly museum also known as the Annapurna Natural History Museum. Some of the rare species have not been seen since they were first reported or collected, but many more common species can be identified by amateur butterfly watchers. The ridges around Pokhara, including the Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge and the Astam Annapurna Eco-village are excellent places to watch butterflies. At Tiger Mountain 250 species have been recorded. Godavari near Kathmandu is another prime area. The Terai sees butterflies throughout the year, but in alpine areas they only fly during the summer. Due to environmental changes butterflies may extend or contract their home ranges. Some species such as the Common Palmfly used to be very rare in Pokhara, though nowadays it is common.
Nepal’s butterflies belong to five families: swallowtails, whites, blues, nymphalids (or brushy-footed butterflies) and skippers. Butterflies differ from moths in that they have clubbed antennae, while moths have pointed or feathered antennae. Butterflies are usually more colourful and mostly fly during the day, although a few are crepuscular: they fly at dawn or dusk. Moths are often more hairy and mostly fly at night.
Many of the swallowtails have, as the name suggests, tails like swallows. They are relatively large and live longer than the average butterfly. The Yellow Swallowtail and the tailless Apollos are found at high altitudes. Many swallowtails are big and black such as the Windmills, Mormons and Peacocks. The latter are recognized by their bright blue spots. Krishna Peacock has been proposed as the national butterfly of Nepal, but politicians have more rewarding things to spend their time on.
The whites are mostly white, including the well know Cabbage Whites, and yellow, such as the Common Brimstone. The latter is according to some, to blame for the English name ‘butterfly’, which is claimed to be derived from butter-coloured or butter-stealing fly. However, others claim it is a change of the original name “flutter-by”. The Dutch “vlinder” and the French “papillon” both point in this direction.
The blues are usually small, but not all of them are blue. Some are reddish, others brown, white or green. Many are so similar that even experts need to dissect their genitalia to determine which species it is. However, this is not very helpful for an amateur field “butterflyer”. The iridescent colours of many of the males make them stand out. Some, such as the Fluffy Tit, have long tails that birds sometimes mistake for antennae, making them attack the wrong end of the butterfly. The judies are lumped in with the blues, but are a bit larger and not as colourful.
The nymphalid family is very large and variable and includes the Orange Oakleaf, but also the world’s most wide-spread butterfly, the Painted Lady. The very similar Indian Red Admiral is a close relative of the British Red Admiral. They are not related to the Red Baron, who was a German war pilot, but the Grey Count and the Gaudy Baron are family members.
Tigers also belong to the nymphalids. Some of them are slow flying and sailing butterflies which give the impression of a carefree species that is just hanging out. The Common Tiger has, like its mammalian counterpart, stripes, but is a lot easier and less dangerous to spot. The Plain Tiger is mimicked by the female Danaid Eggfly. Birds cannot see the difference and leave both of them alone, but only the Plain Tiger is poisonous, due to its caterpillars feeding on poisonous plants. The male Danaid Eggfly looks very different and more often ends up in the stomach of a bird. But then females are more important than males to keep a species going.
A large group of boring brown butterflies also belongs to the nymphalids. They are mostly forest butterflies that hide in low bushes and among fallen leaves where their drab colours help them blend in.
The skippers form a very different family. Their antennae end in a club with an apiculus, a pointed hook. A lot of the skippers rest with their upper wings closed and the hind wings opened. Many of them are small, brown and hard to notice.
For those interested in Nepal’s butterflies, the “Illustrated Checklist of Butterflies of Nepal” by Colin Smith is for sale in many of the bookstores in Kathmandu and Pokhara. A new edition of the “Pictorial Guide to Butterflies of Nepal” by the same author is expected to be published in 2016.
Piet is a natural resources manager, conservationist and amateur lepidopterist. He published a booklet on butterflies of Nepal. He has lost count of the number of times he visited Nepal. He has trekked and cycled all over the Nepal in search of peace and quiet, nature and butterflies.
By Piet van der Poel