Cicada Season

(Wrote this one a while ago, then forgot about it in all the madness. Oh well. Still holds.)

 

Ah, Cicada Season. That lovely time of year, roughly mid Feb to early April, peaking in March, when enormous insects emerge from underground and begin their courtship serenade. While not as numerous or as sporadic as the cicadas of Eastern North America, the ones here make up for it with a regular annual emergence to sprout wings, find a mate, and die all within about a week. Also, while they are generally physically similar to their northern cousins—roughly resembling a green human thumb with wings, legs, bulging eye, and a straw-like mouth—the Costa Rican cicadas are noticeably larger. Which makes cicada season all the more memorable.

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Like I said, memorable.

Yes, Cicada Season. When the days are filled with the sound of millions of bugs screeching a high-pitched whine like so many dentist drills. The raspy chorus reaches a crescendo in the morning and early evening, both times when people are most desperately trying to fall asleep.

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“Good morning.”

Oh, Cicada Season. When you can stroll along the forest edge and marvel at the delicate sprays of moisture drifting from the treetops and catching the sun, dancing upon the hot air. This is, of course, caused by the constant urination of the cicadas as they void their tiny bladders after so many years underground feeding on plant juices. The effect truly is mesmerizing. I’ve seen trees so heaving loaded with pissing insects that it was creating minute rainbows. The scene is usually accompanied with the steady patter of their fecal matter upon the leaves.

Cicada Season. When peaceful and romantic evenings upon the veranda are punctuated by large bugs hurling themselves into the lamps and human heads, while making their horrid buzz. They strike with the force of tiny thrown stones, and are surprisingly dense. Also, they seem very fond of getting tangled in hair and landing in food.

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“Good evening.”

But it’s Cicada Season, when food is in abundance for birds, mammals, and reptiles alike, especially something so protein- and fluid-rich in the middle of Dry Season. This is when everything from monkeys to squirrels to iguanas to toucans turns a little insectivorous at the availability of food that is easy to catch and easier to locate. So while the rest of us may be sleep deprived, urine-soaked, and driven mad by large swarms of bugs, at least the animals are happy.

Flashback Stories: Spider Eater

With most of the world completely come to a screeching halt due to a disease of historic proportions, you’d think the one people actually still active would be the bloggers. After all, who thrives best when they’re locked in their house with nothing else to do? However, in my case, I’ve been kept quite busy since circumstances are different. First, I live where I work, so isolation is no excuse. Second, I work in wildlife rescue, and animals couldn’t give two watery shits if the world is suffering a plague–they’re hungry. And we still have an obligation to clean up their watery shits.

So with animals to take care of and no one to take care of them (most of our foreign workforce went home while they still could), I’ve been pulling extra duty helping out feed animals, clean cages, administer medicine, wrangle snakes, sedate monkeys, net birds, and arm-wrestle sloths. I doubt anyone else’s quarantine is this interesting.

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My self-isolation involves iguanas.

But I haven’t had much time to explore, take photos, or find inspiration for new posts (I still don’t feel comfortable blogging about work, strictly). So I’m falling back on my fallbacks: Flashback stories. And what better way to start off this pandemic post with some good ol’ fashioned body horror.

No, seriously, the last one’s pretty bad.

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You’ve been warned.

I’ve mentioned before the concept of the “spider eater”–that is, the first person who walks in a line down the jungle trail and inevitably walks through many spider webs. It’s happened to me so many times that I’m almost to the point where I can identify a spider by its web. Not the appearance, mind, but the feel of the silk on my face.

 

Costa Rica boasts some orb weavers with webs strong enough to stop a human in their tracks. I know because that’s not an exaggeration–it actually happened to me. Several times, in fact. One was just high enough to yoink off my hat. It then bunjeed higher, out of my reach. But that was preferable to the time when I caught the spider too, and it ended pinned to my face by its own web and tangled in my beard.

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Not sure who was more upset in that scenario.

I’ve gotten in the habit of waving a long stick in front of me if I leave early in the morning when the webs are freshest, at their most strong and sticky. I usually go a few hundred meters until before I’m holding an enormous glob of what looks peculiarly like cotton candy. Once I did this during peak mosquito season, and the glob filled up with trapped bugs. Inspired, I ran around twirling my arms, deliberately catching in as many webs as I could. It worked–soon I was covered in trapped, squirming mosquitoes unable to reach my skin. I became a living mosquito trap!

But what happened this morning went a little too far. Have you ever tried to eat, say, hot pizza, and accidentally inhaled a little bit of melted cheese? And it stretched, down your throat and out your mouth like a piece of hair? Well, I was half-turned, speaking to someone behind me when I walked face-first into a web. I impacted the spider mid-sentence, just as I was taking a breath. I inhaled the whole thing. It went right down to Florida. I could feel it tickling the whole way, followed by a strand of silk. Gagging and retching, I fell to my knees, and managed to grab hold of the remaining web. With a combination of coughing and tugging, I reeled that little spider back up my windpipe and out my mouth.

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In case you’re wondering, it did not taste like melted cheese.

There. Now you might want to explain to your roommate/family/partner that the reason you’r hacking and gagging now isn’t coronavirus–it’s spiders.

How Many Can Sing a Duet?

Ok, quick little interlude here, and it doesn’t have any photos to go with it, but I have to put this out there:

The other day I was sitting in my room, which has a large screen window that faces into some low forest. I was playing guitar. And a toucan landed on a branch right outside my window and stayed there, unmoving, until I finished the song.

It was a Yellow-Throated Toucan (previously Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan, because birders can never keep names the same for long), and we get them all the time on the property. Many of the trees around the residential building are Ficus or Cecropia, which have ripe fruit this time of year. But toucans are canopy birds that generally feed high in the trees. This one was about 4 meters from the ground. My room is on the first floor.

And it just sat there, not hoping or swaying its head as they do. I can’t say for sure where it was looking, but it had one side of its head turned to me, giving me one good eye the whole time.

It was surreal. It was magical. It was as close as I will ever get to being a Disney Princess. Seriously—I was singing to the wild animals. But I just don’t understand why.

Was it a fluke? Just a coincidence? Was it reacting to the sound? To the pitch? The rhythm? I’ve heard a few animals are known to react to human music, but I don’t have any precise data on that. Toucan calls don’t sound particularly much like guitar to me.

So here’s what I collected from my little case study:

–The song was in the Key of G, and contained only the chords G, C, and D (Yay for Bluegrass, everybody!)

–The song was 4/4 time.

–My guitar was slightly out of tune as I discovered later (G chord was a little flat)

–Yes, I was singing too. I have a pretty low voice. No comment as to its quality.

–The tree right outside my room did not have ripe fruit. The nearest food source was about 5 meters away and 2 meters up.

 

So what gives? Has anyone heard of this before? I’ll be sure to post if it happens again.

Serpent Style

My plan for catching and relocating snakes on the property seems to be working, since we’ve had remarkably few sightings in the last few months. At least, for the venomous ones. We seem to be making it through terciopelo birthing season with no incidents, which is fortunate, but we’re still getting plenty of Cat-eyed Snakes, Leptodeira, a common harmless species often mistaken for the fer-de-lance.

And I’m guessing the similarity is working in the little snakes’ favor, since the one I found the other night seemed to be mimicking the viper in behavior as well as appearance. It was crossing a path, and when I bent to examine it closer it stuck a classic pre-striking pose, head raised and neck curved into an S.

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“Come at me.”

But then it did something I’ve only heard of but never seen before: it reshaped its head into triangle, forcing its jaw back and pointing its nose. It also spread its ribs and flattened its back like a cobra. From a distance and to an untrained eye, it looked arrow-headed and large: the profile for a dangerous fer-de-lance!

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“Yeah, I’m deadly.”

Intrigued, I gave it a little prod. While the snake didn’t strike, it contorted its body and arched its back. It swayed from side to side. It shifted its jaw, as if to emphasize the shape. It wove and ducked while retreating for cover.

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“Check out my skills.”

It was like watching a little kung fu warrior move through poses. Like some kind of bizarre dance. Or a series of yoga positions. Snake tai chi. I watched for several minutes until it crawled under some debris, probably in search of frogs to eat.

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“Keep moving.”

Herpetologist friends: you heard of this? This was a new one to me. This species is pretty common in this area, so I’ll be sure to make note if it happens again. But while I’m walking away with a couple of photos and a few new questions, the snake has an even better story: he’s probably off telling his friends about how he scared off a giant human by showing off his kung fu skills.

A Little on Ants (and Haunted Houses)

To quote a great comedian, “I’m not superstitious, but I’m a little ‘stitious.” But more importantly, I’m well aware and often fascinated by the effect that superstition has on other people. On top of that, I love to work a crowd. I like to get people in touch with their emotions and instincts. And sometimes I like to freak people out. Which brings me to night walks.

Like any good naturalist, night walks are my bread and butter. My after dark tours are designed to be a good mix of excitement, curiosity, wonder, fear, perverse fascination, and horror. Depending on the crowd. But my most recent one ended up focusing more on those latter three. Partially because I was deliberately trying to scare the hell out of a group of rowdy volunteers. But also because I didn’t need to be deliberate: we were walking past an old decayed house in the middle of the forest that local legend says was the scene of a mass murder. Yes, an honest-to-god jungle haunted house.

So I kept my mouth shut and let imaginations run wild as I led them around vine-covered walls and mossy collapsed roof. Murder or no, the atmosphere was pretty sinister, as if the house was being swallowed by the jungle. I pointed out a couple of large wandering spiders and toxic frogs, but then spotted something that made my blood freeze and my stomach churn.

It was my old nemesis: army ants.

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Oh no.

And not just army ants, but an army ant bivouac.

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Oh, hell no.

I don’t scare easily. And I have a pretty high tolerance for horror. But these things are literally from my nightmares. I still haven’t quite gotten over that time they invaded my cabin back in 2015. Or that time they raided my bed at night. It’s just—

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Ahh! Kill them all!

Oh god, all those legs! And it didn’t help that most of them were young, a new generation freshly ecclosed, still yellow-headed and pink-bodied. Almost fleshy-looking.

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Good luck sleeping tonight.

The swarm had set up between some fallen pieces of corrugated metal, and was roughly the size and shape of a half-deflated beach ball. They scattered when I shone my light on them, revealing a bounty of eggs, grubs, and still-cocooned young pupae. The soldiers flexed their fishhook mandibles and blindly tasted the air for us, the interlopers, and I tried to explain what was going on while also trying to get people away while also trying not to dry heave. In the confusion I was pushed into a sinkhole and ended up getting several dozen crawl up my pants before I got my leg out.

We were all pretty rattled after that. Me most of all. Not because of the spirits of jungle murder victims, but because of tiny insects. Tiny insects with overwhelming numbers, fanatical aggression, and wriggling, biting…

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Yeah. Might’ve bitten off more than I could chew here.

Night hike? Total success. But still, fuck ants.

Missed Connections

You: the couple of tourists feeding the monkeys the other day

Me: the guy who asked you repeatedly to stop feeding the monkeys.

Hi there!

Remember me? No doubt you do—I spoke to you several times, trying to be as polite and professional as I could to explain why it was unsafe, illegal, and irresponsible to give food to wild monkeys. You tried your best to blow me off, but I’m sure I made an impression. It’s just that I had a tour group to attend to, so as I was walking off and saw you giving the monkeys Cheetos I never got a chance to tell you what horrible human beings you are.

You see, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I know a lot of people don’t have monkeys at home, and really don’t like to use their brains in the slightest, and can’t imagine the consequences of giving them junk food handouts. But that excuse just doesn’t fly since I gave you that flier called “11 Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife.” Although, wait—maybe you can’t read? Did you need me to spell it out in pictures? Pictures like the ones that accompanied the flier? Well, shoot, maybe I should’ve used smaller words.

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YOU. NOT. FEED THIS.

No, the issue here has nothing to do with communication. I made every attempt to be civil, and accommodate for your ignorance. You did something bad, you knew it was bad, and you did it anyway. That makes you a bad person. A stupid person. And for the benefit of everyone else reading this, I’m going to explain just how bad and stupid a thing you did.

First, it was dangerous. Monkeys are aggressive, and common knowledge will tell you this. Also me. I told you this. You or your children could have been bitten. You could have lost a finger. You could have caught a disease. Did you know that monkeys often carry diseases they can pass to humans, including skin parasites, giardia, and the fucking herpes simplex virus? Of course you know because I told you that too, you—oh my god, was this all part of your plan to come up with an excuse to your spouse why you have herpes? Or some perverse weight-loss diet? Are you after a Giardia body?

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“Honey, I swear I got this herpes from a monkey! Wait…”

Second, by feeding the wild animals, you teach them to expect food from all humans, something the rest of us have to deal with long after you’ve crammed your Cheetos-smelling bodies into your crappy rental car and left. Thanks to people like you, this community is now dealing with emboldened, habituated monkeys who regularly shake down or outright rob park visitors, tearing open bags and breaking into houses. The locals call them “la Mafia” now. But I doubt you care about other people. You certainly didn’t care about the volume and behavior of your kids. Although it just occurs to me that this all might have been a misunderstanding because you confused the monkeys for your own ugly children.

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Yeah, I’m seeing it now.

Third, you could make the monkeys sick. Local troops are showing signs of diabetes, tooth decay, sugar addiction, and mouth ulcers from eating too much human food. You might be content to shovel junk into your bodies like grunting swine, but please spare the wildlife. They don’t know any better. You do. Or at least, you should.

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“Leave me out of this.”

I could go on, but since you may as well have used that flyer to wipe Cheeto dust off your monkey-feeding fingers, I won’t waste my time. But the worst part about this isn’t so much that you did it, it’s that you did it in front of your children. You got them involved. You gave them Cheetos to give to monkeys, and told them that was okay. You had them ignore my advice, and deprived them of a chance to learn to be better than you. You arrogant pieces of shit. Do you also tell your kids to ignore their doctor and not wash their hands? To not wear seatbelts? If you want to be such bad parents, why don’t you just give them forks and tell them to tickle electrical sockets? Or go play on train tracks?

Oh, I get it—you don’t like to be disturbed on your vacation. You don’t like to be told what to do. You thought I was bothering your fun. Fuck you. I was trying to help you. You chose to be assholes. Do you also go to Niagara Falls and piss over the edge? Go to Paris and grope the Venus de Milo? Being on vacation doesn’t give you that right. People live here. You just visit.

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Seriously, what is wrong with you?

So leave. Get back on your crappy rental and get out of here. For your next trip, you can go to Alaska and cuddle the bears. Or go to Australia and tease the sharks. I don’t care. Just don’t come back.

Also talk to your doctor, you might have herpes.

I Finally Freaked Out an Australian

While most foreign guests can generally be relied on to have a terrible fear and respect of all the horrible and dangerous things in the Costa Rican jungle, this is not the case for Australians. Australia might just be the least human-friendly continent on the planet, or so I can presume from its tourists abroad, whose reactions to my stories of deadly snakes and hungry crocodiles illicit–at best–boredom, or–at worst–mirth. They’re some tough blokes, is what I’m saying.

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“Eh, she’ll be right.”

But I have found their kryptonite, their one true fear, their Achilles heel: Giant Toads.

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“She’ll…not be right.”

Not just any large toads, mind. But Giant Toads, widely known as Cane Toads or formerly as Marine Toads until someone wisely split up the widespread species with more logical names. The ones here are Rhinella horriblis, an appropriate name for a generally unpleasant-looking animal, all brown and warty and bloated. I’ve mentioned them before. Slightly toxic, they are usually fairly aloof and bold and inflate themselves when threatened when they aren’t grudgingly hopping out of the way. And they were introduced to many countries including Australia to control Cane Beetles (thus the former name) where they have caused an out-of-control invasion.

 

The awful little bastards breed rapidly and outcompete whatever native species they aren’t stuffing into their mouths. Towns are now suffering literal Biblical plagues, only Egypt didn’t have frogs this ugly. They’ve earned themselves a disgusting reputation in Australians’ hearts, which are already pretty hardened by killer snakes, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, octopus, and whatever else that country can throw at them.

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I say this with respect, mind.

But here, they’re perfectly at home in our ecosystem and outdoor patios, where they hop along in search of large insects and smaller frogs. They’re more of a curiosity than a menace. Kids grow up playing with them, and dogs have learned to avoid them.

Last night during a night walk to a nearby river we stumbled across a few hundred of them breeding in a little lagoon. The water was full of writhing bodies and sticky strands of eggs. We watched as egrets and night herons plucked them from the pools and mud, choking them down whole. Not even I had seen so many at once.

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Apparently, egrets are immune to the toxins in their skin. Either that, or we witnessed Natural Selection in action.

And the one Australian in our group? Couldn’t stop shuddering. I tried not to enjoy my victory. Not too much, at least. Although I did point out that all the eggs meant we were in for a few thousand more in a few weeks, all just hopping around like the they belong here. Which they do.

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See you soon.