Surrounded by oaks, rhododendrons and deodars lies the hamlet of Devalsari, around 50km from Mussoorie, in Uttarakhand’s Jaunpur region. Chir pines and oaks intermingle at this elevation of 1,000-2,000m. As a moth biologist working both in the higher reaches and the foothills of the western Himalaya, I have experienced the blend of biodiversity in this transition zone. The warmth of the locals in Tehri Garhwal’s Aglar valley and the unique flora and fauna make Devalsari special.
I first came across this hidden natural treasure in 2013, when I went for a trek to the Nag Tibba peak from Untad village. Devalsari is another starting point for the same trek. I went back twice for the Devalsari Titli Utsav, a nature festival organized by the Titli Trust, a Dehradun-based NGO, over three-four days in May-June every year in an attempt spread awareness about the area’s biodiversity and strengthen local livelihoods through nature-based tourism.
Though the pandemic ensured the festival couldn’t be held this year, it offers a window to the stunning diversity of butterflies, moths, birds, animals and plants. When I first met Arun Gour, a resident of the nearby Bangseel village, who heads the local NGO Devalsari Paryavaran Sanrakshan Awam Tekniki Vikas Samiti, he told me, “Aapko kaafi titliyan milengi yahan…din mein bhi, raat mein bhi (You will find many butterflies here…during the day, and at night).” And I did.
An enchanting forest of deodar surrounds the nature camp and the neighbouring Moldhar village, which has a stream running along its periphery. You can watch out for the sun-basking butterflies, cryptic diurnal moths and the nocturnal opportunists. So far, about 150 butterfly and 200 moth species have been recorded in the area, with the Devalsari Paryavaran Sanrakshan Awam Tekniki Vikas Samiti continuing the work through the year.
I have worked in different reaches of the western Himalaya but I found some species only in Devalsari: the Scott’s Green Hawkmoth (Cechetra scotti) and Emerald Green Hawkmoth (Cechenena mirabilis) and many lithosine moths, commonly known as the Lichen/Footmen moths, like Churinga rufifrons (which are often attracted to the light traps in huge numbers) or Miltochrista dharma.
For me, though, the two day-flying Drepanid moths, of the genus Deroca, take the crown.
There is, of course, much more. Look for the stunningly beautiful stream glory damselfly (Neurobasis chinensis), the red giant flying squirrel, barking deer, Himalayan Toad, birds such as the Golden Bush Robin, Rufous-breasted Accentor, Grey-headed Woodpecker, Chestnut-headed Tesia and butterflies like Stately Nawab, Black Vein and Lepcha Bushbrown, among others.
What a usual day at the festival is like
The festival is spread across the neighbouring villages—Moldhar, Bangseel, Untad, Teva, Butkot—and reserved forests, in an area of 15-20 sq.km.The days would be spent watching birds and butterflies at the stream (Lungsu Nala) or the trails through Moldhar village. On one such trail, I saw the Harlequin moth (Camplyotes histrionicus), a brightly coloured day-flying moth, lying in a puddle. As I put the “dead” moth on a rock, so that a bird could feed on it, it fluttered back to life. There are Magpie moths (Abraxas sp.) and another day-flying moth (Soritia pulchella) feigning death in such puddles to escape predators. Two species of the genus Deroca can be seen on shrubs during the day. They have a pale greyish wing colour, unlike most diurnal moths, which have bright colouration to deter predators.
After sunset, Sanjay Sondhi, founder of the Titli Trust and co-organizer of the festival, and I would put up our “light-traps”, with white sheets, around the camp and in the deodar forest. Moths have a light-oriented communication system, making light-trapping the most popular and accepted method to study or watch them. We would try to interest the festival participants in these moths, “cousins” of the butterflies.
After dinner, we would gather around the light-traps to watch, identify and photograph the diversity of moths. We spotted the Beet Webworm moth (Spoladea recurvalis), Brown-striped semi looper (Mocis undata), Burnished Brass moth (Thysanoplusia orichalcea), Naga Hawkmoth (Acosmeryx naga), Tiger moths (Aglaomorpha plagiata, Spilarctia comma, Crotolaria podborer, or Mangina argus), some Geometrids like Biston sp., Antipercnia sp.. There were some exciting sightings amid the resonant sound of barking deer from the forest abutting our camp.
There is a unique charm in returning to Devalsari for the festival—and one hopes that the global “anthropause”* of the last few months, which has revealed our impact on other species, will lead to greater efforts to coexist with them. This year, as Sondhi puts it, “We are giving the winged fairies a break from any and all human interaction.”
Pritha Dey is a moth-biologist at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
*Rutz, C., Loretto, M., Bates, A.E. et al. COVID-19 lockdown allows researchers to quantify the effects of human activity on wildlife. Nat Ecol Evol 4, 1156–1159 (2020).