Critters Galore

October 2, 2019

Let’s start with hummingbirds. They’re fun to watch. They’re the baby helicopters of the natural world. We get a lot of them round here, swooping in to drink from the tree blossoms in spring, and later on, from the flowers on the cacti in our garden. I don’t have a camera that can get a decent picture of one, but I’ve sometimes watched them from just a few feet away, slurping away, all unconcerned about my presence.

The strangest encounters, though, happen when I leave the living room door open for the dogs, and one of them flies in and crashes against the window. This has happened twice in recent weeks. I might miss its entry because I’m in another room, but I’m alerted to what’s happened by the thrumming sound of the wings as the bird desperately tries to pass through the glass.

Most birds won’t let you capture them: they’ll do anything to avoid direct contact with a large animal like a human. Maybe it’s the shock of striking glass that lets me entrap hummingbirds in my hands, but there also seems to be a fatalism in their general attitude. As my fingers enclose them, while being careful not to apply harmful pressure, they stop flapping, as if expecting to be unavoidably eaten. Then, when we’re outside the door, I can open my hands and the bird is quick to take advantage of the opportunity for escape.

And there’s this lingering sense that my world touched theirs, without any mutual comprehension, even if there was a mutual benefit.

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Not one of my photos – but  we get these little guys round here.

Urban experience doesn’t equip us to deal with the wild world. I like teasing city friends with tales of scorpions and other bugs, or of letting a large moth walk onto my fingertips. But I was always super-squeamish for most of my life, and before I came here, I’d have shuddered at the notion of direct contact with such creatures. I had to re-educate myself in Mexico, so that I was no longer appalled at the profligacy and oddness of the world of arthropods and other creatures.

Stick insects are a favourite find. Some people tell me stick insects bite, and while I don’t have confirmation of that, I think they bite each other. Two of them were on my screen door three days ago, and while they might have been mating, I think one was trying to consume the other. The smaller one seemed to be minus a leg or two when I got a photo of it, having first positioned a sheet of paper behind it to outline its contours.

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My stick insect visitor.

Most of us who move to this area proclaim a love of the natural world and the views of the mountains. But the place does force us to accept the life-and-death processes that small creatures are always part of. I’m not kind to all creature regardless, despatching cockroaches as swiftly and ruthlessly as possible, as well as happily squishing any of the mosquitoes perpetually treating me as a large, moving buffet, that I can catch.

But I’ve developed an affection, or at least a tolerance, for many kinds of small critters, including beetles and the seemingly endless number of species of moths that seek out my lights at night. I also recognise they represent a reliable food supply for many of the songbirds that visit, so their rich numbers are a good sign.

And far above, through much of the day, there are the black vultures, with their white wingtips, circling on thermals, waiting for something to die, or watching for something to catch. Their rattling croaks have sounded over the half-valley of this village for millennia, and they’ll probably still be here when we’re all gone.

The Bugs is Coming

June 11, 2019

Read no further, entomophobes, for I write today of bugs. Big bugs, swarms of bugs, and odd bugs.

My first summer here, I learned the rains in central Mexico bring with them crowds of insects. I decided I had to make peace with them, or be driven to an equally low-cost residence somewhere in the Arctic. Then I read about giant Arctic mosquitoes and decided I was far better off here.

Besides, a lot of the bugs in Mexico are quite gorgeous.

This year, the first group to make itself felt was June bugs, which here are known as May bugs. They’re like flying coffee-beans, and end up … well, everywhere. I sweep a half-dozen out of the kitchen every morning, and more from the living room. I think of them as “stupid bugs,” since they seem devoid of any kind of plan other than getting into the house, and making a crunchy noise when I step on those the broom missed.

Hot on their heels at the start of June were las hormigas de San Juan – St John’s ants, which are flying critters that, like the stupid bugs, get everywhere. Then they shed their wings. Then local people eat the ants.

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Mmm-mmm, crunchy: hormiga de San Juan.

I’ve not tried them, but I’m told they’re tasty. But I’m still, along with stupid bugs, sweeping up discarded wings.

But, along with occasional groups of houseflies, there are also creatures that enchant. This evening, a moth with a five-inch (12 cm) wingspan flew into my kitchen. Earlier in the day, a bird flew into my living room, almost knocked itself out trying to pas through the window, and was so dazed it let me grab it and release it outside. The moth, though, was having none of that stuff, and while I got it onto my fingers for a few moments, it promptly flew towards the overhead kitchen light, where it’s still sitting as I write.

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The Black Witch on the kitchen light.

I know some people fear moths, but the oddly named Black Witch (which is beige and grey) is an attractive creature, and harmless. Occasionally, we get morpho butterflies, the ones with the fluorescent blue scales on their wings, and other large lepidoptera. They’re benign, they’re solitary so you don’t get a bunch of them in the kitchen, and on the rare occasions I have one on my hand, I don’t freak out to feel their bug-feet on my fingers.

I’m told centipedes here have a nasty bite, so while some species look like nothing worse than spindly caterpillars, I avoid them. And even caterpillars here can sting, as one that got into a sock on the washing line proved to me. Fortunately, the sting was baby stuff, and passed off after ten minutes.

Stick insects, which aren’t rare but are hard to spot, also have a mild sting, I’m told, but they’re fascinating, and haven’t gone for me yet.

Other favourites of mine include creatures camouflaged to look like green leaves. If you approach one too closely, it flies off, spoiling the illusion; but they’re neat little critters regardless.

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Can you see me? You can? Oh.

But my undying fascination is with scorpions. They’ve stung me twice, but unlike some people my metabolism doesn’t freak out in response to their venom. The pain’s unpleasant but not terrible, and the worst effect is that the bite kills or numbs the nerves  near the point of penetration for days or even weeks. We get two primary species here, a black one (scientific name uncertain) with a mild sting, and a yellow-brown one (Centruroides vittatus) with a nastier one.

They’re durable bugs that can be thrown out the window without injury, after first being trapped by an upturned glass tumbler. Some adopt a militant stance, but more usually, they curl up in terror. They can’t jump, and they scarcely run, depending on their stingers for protection. Since a lot of birds eat them, catching them by the stingers, this arrangement isn’t as efficient as it might seem.

The local attitude is mostly that if we don’t kill them, they won’t bite us. They seem to be honourable creatures who respect this arrangement, and while a tiny black one stung me when I bent down to pick up what I thought was a piece of black fluff (yes, I needed better glasses, while it wrongly felt attacked), the only other time I’ve been caught was after accidentally stepping on one. Later, when I went to take my towel off the line where it was drying in the sun, I discovered a yellow-brown scorpion had made its way onto it (they like coolness and damp) and it took an arthropod’s karmic revenge on my hand.

If you go to the health centre after a bite, they make you sit to see if you develop breathing difficulties. If you don’t after two hours, they tell you to go home, and if necessary, swallow Tylenol. A local lady who cleaned house here at one point wasn’t so lucky, and needed four shots of antivenin to stabilise her. That stuff is quite bad for us, so I’m glad I seem to tolerate the stings.

But mostly, right now it’s small moths, small beetles and small “What-the-heck-is-that?” bugs. I can’t say I welcome them when the rains bring the mass hatchings, but my insect acceptance level is far better than it ever was in Canada. If nothing else, they’re a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and they support a good population of songbirds, lizards and (my favourites) dragonflies.

Also, the golondrinas, the swallows, are starting to build or restore their mud nests as the rains create puddles. They’re pest-control officers par excellence, and they’re also fun to watch as they swoop and loop. None has ever chosen to make a nest at this house, but they’re comfortable living close to humans, which means that the small bugs and mosquitoes are kept numerically in line.