Revisiting Nagla Block

Nagla Block (wikimapia) is the northern range of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), separated from the main park by Vasai Creek. It is one of my favourite destinations around Mumbai (read the 2009 article here). This article is about my visits to Nagla Block in year 2007, when my camera was a month old and my blog yet nonexistent. Let’s revisit this place and look at the pristine forest of Mumbai that is a hot destination of naturalists and photographers.
A Common Cerulean, Jamides celeno rests against early morning sunlight
It is only a small portion of SGNP, but it is of prime importance to the wildlife of Mumbai and the surrounding areas. It is the only corridor joining SGNP with other Protected Areas to the north. If you take a look at the map of SGNP, south is a dead-end to all of wildlife, and it is here that many man-animal conflicts, especially with leopards, occur. The east and west of SGNP are also arrested by urbanization, and it is here that encroachment is most concerning. This leaves Nagla Block, the north-end of SGNP as the only escapade for wildlife, especially for large mammals. Further north lay Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary (which I covered in my first article in 2008) – another pristine protected area of northern Western Ghats. And beyond Tungareshwar lie many fragmented patches of forestland.

Nagla Block has been in news for a few reasons, once for a supposed tiger sighting as well as countless other leopard sightings, but it is more sought after by naturalists for its bird and insect diversity. This part of the park has only one legal entrance into the forest, and it is almost always guarded, hence seeking entry without permission can be difficult. Many naturalists find this outrageous, because they’re only going into the forest to observe nature, but then there are those who enter the park to drink and to litter, which is one of the reasons why the guards don’t entertain any people without permission. But don’t get me wrong, these guards, who always come to the guardhouse later in the noon for their own reasons, are very friendly.

Being closer to the creek, the fringes of Nagla Block are rich wetlands consisting of freshwater streams and brackish waters. It is here that the diversity is at its best, for the deciduous forests mix with mangrove wetlands, rich in soil and plant matter. Nature walks here usually last for most of the day, as the paths tread through teak woods and sporadic bamboo patches probably planted in the past, to the wetlands full of natural activity. On these trails, I was the one who always had his head down, exploring the leaf litter and thickets for insects and spiders. And in this lush green forest, in the month of December, I found butterflies and saw spiders that I had never seen before.

It is here that naturalists have discovered rare butterflies for Mumbai region, such as the Redspot (the paper can be accessed here) along with the White Tufted Royal and birds like Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (a recent sighting of Common Tinsel, a lycaenid has also been recorded). While I haven’t been fortunate to observe these rarities, it was amazing to observe butterflies in huge numbers, with the species count going well over 70 in a day!
Common Emigrant, Catopsilia pomona butterflies puddling on the banks
As many Pierids were busy gaining minerals from the damp ground such as these Common Emigrant butterflies, Nymphalids like the beautiful Gaudy Baron occasionally visited wet patches for their share. The entire butterfly and most moth families are known to engage in mud-puddling, where they obtain minerals and amino acids required for reproduction that cannot be acquired from a nectar diet. It is mostly conducted only by males, and the males present it to the females as a nuptial gift. This is a great strategy probably because a mud-puddling butterfly is very easy to prey upon, hence females which have to spend energy nurturing and laying eggs, would rather not risk being vulnerable to predators, and thereby succeed in continuing with the progeny.
A female (left) and a male (right) Gaudy Baron, Euthalia lubentina
One of my favorite butterflies is the Gaudy Baron. Although common in SGNP, Nagla Block is the best place to observe it. It was here that I first observed it, and haven’t been lucky since to get a decent photograph.
Tawny Rajah, Charaxes bernardus on a dry stream bed
There are also other Nymphalids that zoom across the stream or occasionally swoop down on the banks for a sip or two of the nutrient rich soils – these superfast fliers are the Leafwings – the Charaxes and the Polyura (read the article about Chraxes here). Nagla Block is again the best place to observe these Nymphalids in Mumbai. My first ever sighting of a Common Nawab was obscured by many plants, as it preferred perching high in the canopy, but one day while exploring the creek side, we were visited by a thirsty Common Nawab as well as a Tawny Rajah – a blessing for any amateur butterfly watcher!
Common Mime, Papilio clytia, dissimilis form
Amongst other Nymphalids, the most common were the Tigers and Pansies. And as I happened to be stalking a Blue Tiger butterfly, I saw a rather larger specimen fluttering over Eranthemum flowers. It was not hard to tell that it was a Common Mime, dissimilis form, a mimic of the Blue Tiger, which is not so common in the dry season.
Peacock Pansy, Junonia almana blends in with the undergrowth
The Pansies are one the first few butterflies learnt by any budding naturalist, and this is the place where you can observe most of them within a few minutes of entering the forest. They are the perfect example of coordinated showy upper-wings with contrasting dull under-wings – as is shown by this Peacock Pansy that is well known for its bright orange upper-wings with large beady eyes. In the dry season, the colours on the under-wings match the dried vegetation perfectly. There are other cryptic butterflies such as the Bamboo treebrown that prefer to rest on the dried leaf litter – a perfect camouflage, and there were those that would prefer to flaunt their colours in the same habitat – such as the Common Baronet and the Commander.
Yamfly, Loxura atymnus
Besides Nymphalids, that were the most abundant, there were many Lycaenids that would join in for mud-puddling as well. One of my favourites – the one which I have only seen at Nagla Block is the Yamfly. It is probably the most brightly coloured Blues of Mumbai. With a brilliant orange under-wing coat and a splendid tail, it has deep red upper-wings, which it only rarely opens – such as while basking in the early morning sun. The specimen we saw was tattered, but a beauty none the less. Thanks to my minimal photography skills, I could manage a record photograph, and keep hoping to come across one again ever since. Lycaenids such as Grass blues are very common throughout Nagla Block, but the best place to observe them has to be near a water body. We stumbled across many Lycaenid species along small streams than anywhere in the forest. From butterflies like the Guava Blue and Leaf blue, to large Oak blues and the Cupids such as Plains Cupid and Indian Cupid, Nagla Block was probably the place to hit to party if you were a Lycaenid too!
Common Awl, Hasora badra laying eggs
And how can I forget my most favourite family – the Hesperiidae. Since we were out in December, much later after the Hesperiid season, we were surprised by a tiny Common Awl that decided to lay eggs on a plant, probably Pongamia sp. (visit Butterflies of Singapore to see its lifecycle). Although ‘common’ in its name, this is a not-so-common species of Mumbai. There were very few Skippers around, but the commonest of all was the Spotted Small Flat.
Handmaiden moth, Euchromia sp. pair
Some of the most eye-catching bugs around were the day-flying moths – Euchromia sp. (polymnea or elegantissima?), commonly called Handmaiden moth. I don’t know the reason for such a common name, but it has several other names – such as day-flying moth because they’re out and about throughout the day, or Wasp moth – because of their superficial likeness to a wasp, something observed in many species in the family Arctiidae. There were many individual moths feeding on flowers alongside butterflies, as well as some mating in large numbers. It is a common moth of SGNP, along with several of its cousins (Amata sp.) belonging to the same family.
A Broad-headed bug nymph that mimics an ant
Although I observed very few other insects and could photograph only a fraction of them, there were several bugs such as the ant-mimicking Alydidae nymphs and well camouflaged Katydids in their dry season colouration. It is very interesting to observe the impact of weather on the survival of the insects. In the case of Hemipterans, many species sporting a green-colour occur commonly during monsoon, most likely because of fresh foliage around. As the drier season follows, many of these green-coloured bugs may have finished their lifecycle by laying eggs that will hatch only during next monsoon. During this dry season, many brown-coloured bugs become more common than the green ones. This synchronous cycle of bugs not only helps them hide better and therefore survive, but also reduces the competition between multiple species. While many animals do synchronize their lifecycle with several other plants or animals, some, such as the Orthopterans – Grasshoppers, Crickets and Katydids change their colour to match with the surrounding. Hence, a single species will show a brilliant green, to golden yellow, to dark brown colouration depending upon the season. What’s great about such behavioural observations is that they can be made over several years in any forested areas, and we can probably study a trend, or a change, perhaps linked to human-induced climate change.
Emerald Spreadwing, Lestes sp.
Since there was an abundance of the many plant-feeding insects as well as parasitic mosquitoes around, there were those who would gladly feast on them, add a bit of stagnant water ponds, and the Odonates will be happy as ever in the dry season. The most common Odonate of Nagla Block was – and still is – the Emerald Spreadwing – Lestes sp. These rather large damselflies are surprisingly common than dragonflies even during the dry season. These Spreadwings, although common throughout Mumbai, are only common locally. For example, one is bound to see them in vast numbers at Nagla Block than at the southern part of SGNP. I don’t know the reason why, but considering their numbers, they easily hold a similar niche of being at top of an insect food pyramid at Nagla Block as a dragonfly holds anywhere else.
Neurothemis sp. (intermedia?)
The only dragonfly that I came across was most likely a Neurothemis sp. (intermedia?) that preferred to rest on the forest path close to a small Oriental Garden Lizard, Calotes versicolour. Although I have not observed Odonates at Nagla Block, given its pristine habitat and availability of water, I expect a healthy number of species, probably more than those in the main park.
Ant mimicking spider, Myrmarachne sp.
Spiders are also very common at Nagla Block. With thorny Lynx spiders hiding under leaf surfaces – probably hiding from the intense sunlight, there are others rather active spiders lurking in the bushes and the forest floor. These are the Wolf spiders and Jumping spiders, and we’re looking at a special Jumping spider, the one the closely mimics in looks as well as movement, an Arboreal bi-coloured ant – Tetraponera rufonigra. This individual was a female, easily identifiable by the absence of large pedipalps in front of the head. We did not witness how she caught the Tiny Grass Blue butterfly, but she seemed to have got hold of only its wing. Sooner, she must have realized that her hunt wasn’t successful, but she wouldn’t have given up so easily.

Nagla Block surprised me with its sheer biodiversity at the dry time of the year, and I can only imagine the treasures it hides high in the canopy and deeper into the woods. If SGNP is the breathing lung of Mumbai, Nagla Block is most definitely the heart that provides a passage for the wildlife to enter and exit SGNP, enabling genetic flow between species, and especially large mammals. Without Nagla Block, I cannot imagine a future for the most beautiful predator of Mumbai – the Leopard. And without Leopards, I cannot see respect in the eyes of those who illegally destroy forests. Recently, a freight railway plan was given a ‘go’ to further fragment the forests at Tungareshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. It is such big projects that are devastating to the wildlife, but as more and more citizens become aware of the importance of this wildlife corridor, I hope to see many more discoveries and conservation measures in the future.

How to Point-and-Shoot: Butterflies!

It all started on a trek when I saw a butterfly flaunting false eyes on its wings. I began the quest of identifying it, and discovered many more intriguing ones. Very soon, butterflies became a passion. As a kid I used to chase butterflies to capture them by hands – overlooking their splendor over sheer joy, but then I developed a hobby of capturing them through lens. This was the beginning of excursions to nearby forests, as me and my friends tried to find and identify butterflies by stalking them cautiously with a field guide in hand.
Sony H7 focusing on a Skipper, photograph courtesy Rajiv Lingayat
Our fascination for butterflies has come a long way. From the medieval poets and artists to naturalists – all have shared a profound passion for butterflies. It was these pioneers who not only described the butterflies right from their wing venation to the length of the proboscis, but also meticulously sketched every detail of the butterflies they observed. Recently, Vladimir Nobokov, who had described and named a number of butterfly species, was credited for his hypothesis he published in 1945 on a group known as the Polymomatus blues, that he believed originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile (Read the full article here). It was vindicated recently, after 50 years since his research, by sequencing the genes of the butterflies he had studied. It is because of such dedicated lepidopterists that we know so much about butterflies.

Today, we might not spend hours sketching every detail of the butterflies we see, but we can photograph them as much as we like, and once you get the hang of it – you’re likely to be addicted. Without further ado, I am going to talk about photographing butterflies using a point-and-shoot camera. To photograph a butterfly, you have to be ready for surprises as well as disappointments. You have to have patience and be persistent at the same time. A butterfly may make you chase after it for hours until it sits prettily on a flower, or just vanish into the canopy.

Many of us cannot resist photographing butterflies if we see one. Often, such photographs only serve the purpose of a memory. Someone may put it up on a wall. If you are a naturalist, your eyes don’t just a see butterfly, but many other features, such as: what is its gender? What is it doing – nectaring, puddling, basking, performing courtship display, mating, laying eggs, migrating, or just fluttering? All of these may be hard to note down, but a single click can serve the purpose. It is in such situations that photography comes to a naturalist’s and a researcher’s rescue.

There are certain terms used in point-and-shoot cameras that need to be looked into, before we talk about photographing butterflies up close. One of them is “macro” photography. Macro means a big (macro) picture of a small (micro) object. The lenses used in point-and-shoot cameras mention “macro” as an option, but it is a misnomer for “close-up” photography. Macro is ideally used for SLR lenses, some of which allow a highly magnified image, where the insect eyes can be captured in great detail. A point-and-shoot merely closes in into the subject and does not offer the explicit details in a photograph. For instance, a photograph of a small butterfly is a close-up shot (taken by a point-and-shoot or a non-macro SLR lens), but a photograph of its eyes is a macro photograph, considering it is a full frame image without cropping or editing. Hence, photographing butterflies by a point-and-shoot is close-up photography. Latest point-and-shoots come with more megapixels that allow capturing better details, but it is still considered a close-up. For more on the difference in close-up and macro photography, visit here and here.

As a photographer, you must consider all the ways in which you can photograph a butterfly. Let’s take a look at a few important things to consider while photographing them. First and foremost, a photographer is also an artist and the camera is his/her tool. And as Ansel Adams, a well known photographer and an environmentalist once said, you don’t take a photograph, you make it. Nature photography is an art. You can think of many compositions, but ultimately it is up to the subject’s will to make it happen. Yet, artistic photographs of butterflies are what most photographers strive for and to achieve it, you must consider various factors that might make or ruin an image. Such images are possible by getting a butterfly in various poses as they carry on with their daily activities – all you have to do is be in the right place at the right time.

If you are not a mere photographer but a naturalist, you must consider photographing butterflies primarily from two angles: the upper-side of the wings (with wings open) and the under-side of the wings (with wings closed), this helps in identification as well as serves the purpose of a record (as in Picture 1). Although this is not always possible for some butterflies, it is easier to see one with wings open while basking. Some butterflies come in many colour variations depending upon the season. Generally, there are two seasonal morphs– the Dry Season Form, and the Wet Season Form. There are also many transitional morphs, with some species known to have more than three seasonal morphs. Photographs of such butterflies are very important in research. In 2008, I photographed a butterfly called Plains Cupid at Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, and the image was used as a record for a research paper “The Polymmatine wing pattern elements and seasonal polyphenism of the Indian Chilades pandava butterfly (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae) by K. Kunte and A. Tiple” (read it here). This shows how important it is to photograph butterflies from a naturalist’s perspective. It is not just a photograph, but a visual evidence for research.
1. Plains Cupid, Chilades pandava
Exif: 1/1250sec F3.2 ISO80 at 12.9mm
But before you go for the shot, you should be on your toes to get close to one. Butterflies are quite sensitive to movement, hence always be slow in approach. If a butterfly flies off and lands again, don’t rush to where it landed, give it some time to settle – it might open its wings to bask in the sun, or start nectaring. Then carefully approach it. While stalking butterflies basking in the sun, try to avoid shadowing the butterfly, because it will quickly fly to find another sunny spot. Always approach from the side or even from the front. There is no skill as such required to photograph them, but if you follow these basic rules, you’ll get pretty close to any butterfly. Yet there are some that are just impossible to photograph. These butterflies are mostly well fed and well energized. It is these butterflies that can tire you out. For such hyperactive ones, make use of the zoom on your point-and-shoot. I have managed to photograph decent images of small Skippers to large Swallowtails using 15x zoom – all you need is stable hands and quick reflexes to follow wherever the butterfly flies and settles, and a considerable distance – not too far, nor too close to the butterfly. Ideally I keep a distance of 10 to 15 feet while photographing such butterflies at 15x zoom.

One must also have the knowledge of when to photograph a butterfly. Time plays an important role in getting a good photograph. Rather, time decides whether you will see a butterfly at all! Like many insects, butterflies need a daily dose of sun’s energy to get their daily activities going, hence, you are bound to see more butterflies on a sunny morning than on a cloudy one. If the day is going to be clear, early morning till noon is the ideal time to photograph butterflies. As the day gets hotter, butterflies become very active, and may not pose late in the day as they would in the morning. This is because they prefer basking in direct sunlight during morning hours. By noon they become quite active, hence finding one then becomes tougher. Although it is not impossible to photograph a butterfly later in afternoon hours, it is quite easy to photograph them early. By evening, most butterflies retire in thickets or in the canopy. If the day is dull in the morning, the butterflies will come out to bask a little later. On an excursion in India during monsoon, I was quite disappointed for seeing absolutely no butterflies. The day was dark and it had rained all night. But just as the clouds cleared the way for sun, many butterflies just appeared out of nowhere.

It is not only the daily schedule of butterflies that is worth noting, but seasons play an even important role in butterfly watching. If you are out to photograph butterflies in the deciduous forests of India in the month of May, you’re likely to see none. But if you visit the same place in the month of March, or from June to October, you’ll be astonished by the sheer number of butterflies fluttering around. In Canada, butterfly diversity is at its peak during summer, starting from April, peaking in July and August, lasting till September. Therefore, if you ever plan out an excursion, make sure you reach early in the morning in the right season. Besides season, the habitat is also important. For instance, you will see very few butterflies in central India compared to Southern Western Ghats, or Northeastern India. In fact, even small distances show a great difference in sightings. I have visited northern Western Ghats in May, and have seen very few butterflies. In the same month in Southern Western Ghats, you’re bound to see several species a day! All these environmental factors make butterfly photography even more challenging and exciting.

Once you’re in the right place at the right time, you should consider the following points to make your picture look better:
P Point-and-shoots work well under natural conditions, but if there is enough light on the butterfly and not on the surrounding plants or ground, the background looks blotchy with dark and light patches. This is because the camera auto-adjusts the light reaching the sensor, giving a strong contrast between light and shadow (as in Picture 1). Hence, unless the light is too harsh – as during afternoon – always use flash. Although natural light is ideal to bring out colours, a flash can bring out more details; in fact, with the use of flash you will be able to see tiny scales on the wings. There are chances that the flash might over-expose the image, hence use the flash at a lower intensity with an ISO of 80 or 200. Some butterflies are sensitive to flash, but after few attempts they get used to it. If not, try to photograph with the flash turned off.

P Butterfly photography can be quite challenging because of the wings. When photographing one with wings closed, try to get the entire body in focus (as in Picture 3). This can be achieved by aligning the plane of the lens to the plane of the butterfly and by increasing the F-number, but you need to be careful, because a higher F-number will create a busy background. I usually keep the aperture around F5 and then adjust the shutter speed and flash intensity. If the butterfly is sitting with wings open, try the same technique, but if the wings are at a slight angle, always focus on the abdomen and the head region. This will keep the camera from focusing only on the outer edges of the wings which may blur the main body.
2. European Skipper, Thymelicus lineola
Exif: 10/2500sec F4.5 ISO100 at 4.5mm
P This brings the laws of photography into consideration. In any photograph, an image with the face in focus is always visually desired to one with only the body in focus. For example, an image of a bird whose neck is in focus instead of the head is not so appealing. Similarly for butterflies, if you see one sitting at an angle, always try to focus on the head region (eyes). This increases the beauty of the image, because a viewer is always drawn to a face in a photograph. As the head is a narrow region in the frame, increase the F-number in order to get a larger area into focus (as in Picture 2). Yet, this law can be broken if you’re going for an abstract, artistic shot of the butterfly, by focusing only on the wing tips or on the proboscis.
3. Black Rajah, Charaxes solon
Exif: 10/2000sec F3.2 ISO80 at 10.00mm
P A plain background is always preferred over a busy one. Although this is hard to achieve using a point-and-shoot camera, we can do every effort to attain a near-plain background. If you are very close to a butterfly (about 5 cm or closer) try and zoom just a notch – about 0.5x or until the butterfly stays in focus. My camera can zoom up to 2x for a close-up image, beyond 2x it goes out of focus. This zooms into the object that is close to the lens and blurs the surrounding (as in Picture 3). Unfortunately, this trick doesn’t work on all point-and-shoot cameras. The trick to achieve a smooth background is to keep minimum distance between you and the butterfly, and a larger distance between the butterfly and the background clutter.

P A close-up photograph taken in the above mentioned way will yield a decent background as well as a butterfly that is well in focus. Another way to photograph butterflies is to move away from the butterfly and zooming in. This is not a close-up but a tele-photo. To achieve this, try to keep the plane of lens parallel to the plane of butterfly, in the sense, a tele-photo image with only the head in focus will not yield a sharp image; hence instead of focusing only on the head, try to focus on the entire body of the butterfly (as in Picture 4). This technique can be used for small or large butterflies. Although the background will be considerably blurred, some of the small details of butterfly will be lost due to lower sensitivity of point-and-shoot sensors.
4. Common Nawab, Polyura athamas
Exif: 10/2500sec F4.5 ISO80 at 78.00mm
As you start photographing more and more butterflies, you will come across many opportunities for action photographs, such as a butterfly feeding on a flower without actually landing on it, engaging in courtship display or laying eggs. Such images are not only excellent records, but they tell a story. Always aim for such images. If you see a butterfly that was laying eggs fly away, stalk it from a distance to see it if lays eggs again – this is a great opportunity to photograph one in action. Some butterflies are especially friendly, and will even sit on you. They are only seeking salts on our skin, but it is a great opportunity to photograph them up close (as in Picture 5). If you come across a school of butterflies mud-puddling on damp ground, set the camera on the ground, or lay flat to be eye-level with the butterflies and take a tele-photo shot as mentioned above – this will make a better composition compared to taking a photograph from a height. There are some easy artistic ways in which you can photograph butterflies. It is quite hard to photograph a butterfly in flight using a point-and-shoot, but by composing images such as a backlit butterfly or in the setting sun adds some value to an otherwise usual shot.

As a naturalist, someone who is keen about a butterfly is also keen on its lifecycle, hence photographs of caterpillars and their host plants might help you cover the entire life cycle of a butterfly – from mating, laying of eggs to caterpillars pupating and metamorphosing.

While butterflies are abundant during their season as discussed previously, they are quite widespread, hence you might have to cover a large distance if you aim to photograph several a day, but there is a trick to attract butterflies to us – by luring them in. Butterfly baits are much like bird feeders. The most basic is to plant native plants that attract butterflies to feed on flowers or to lay eggs. Another way is by putting out decomposing fruits such as bananas, pears and so on. Some butterflies might just be interested in damp grounds, or some on slightly sprinkled liquor! These are some of the basic ways in which to attract butterflies. It is completely safe to do so, and a great opportunity to photograph them.
5. Silvery Blue, Glaucopsyche lygdamus
Exif: 10/4000sec F4.5 ISO80 at 10.40mm
Many ask why I photograph butterflies. Besides nature photography as a hobby, there are many more reasons. Butterflies are a symbol of beauty and peace, but more importantly, they are the indicators of a healthy ecosystem. Documenting them through photographs is not only important for a photographer or a researcher, but it is a way to share the knowledge through imagery with others. It is a great tool to inspire people, especially kids, to make them aware of a butterfly’s importance to plants and to us. It is a way to educate them about the threats faced by the butterflies that are rapidly disappearing from our urban backyards.

Enjoy chasing butterflies, for your photograph might inspire someone to connect with wildlife and conservation!