If you don’t like bugs you’d best move on. The rare autumn rains was a boon for the invertebrates of the river valley. As I mentioned earlier, we saw stick bugs everywhere the first few days. One bush had over a dozen and they were on the move. When I think of stick bugs I think of them silently and stoically imitating sticks in stationary solitude. These bugs were on the move. The great walking stick disco. Were they looking for love or food? I never could tell.
Another night, just as I’d come to terms with our jammed tent zippers we found a scorpion that appeared to be making his way to our tent. The scorpion denied the allegations. Lucky for him the zippers miraculously recovered when I saw his wee eyes looking our way. Perhaps the zip just need some panicked body English to get past the rough spots in the teeth.
The dung beetles made swift work of horse and burro turds. All they left behind was a woody poop skeleton. Spiders were in the family way and making appropriate plans. Some carried their eggs with them and others built elaborate houses of leftover bugs and vegetation.
I found two new to me bugs: the wind scorpion and the desert daddy long legs.
We never needed bug repellent and all of us had a soft spot for the spineless. Margaret used to have a bug zoo as a child. I would like one now but our lifestyle limits pet options.
When others formerly afflicted with this nasty virus we have told us it would take 2 weeks or more to recover I thought I would prove them wrong. Well here we are on day 11 for Burt and day 9 for me and both of us are still deeply afflicted. Last night we went to dinner just to get out of the trailer. It was lovely but exhausting. My voice is froggy and I have coughing fits. Burt has ‘snakes’ of snot coming out of his sinuses and he’s just plain tired. We’re watching a lot of television. DVDs of Network, Fame of Thrones, The Killings, The 100, Dr. Who….
The spider of a few nights ago is called a huntsman. They are famously fast and mighty hunters of bigger bugs. My friend Mayra told me they are great for keeping cockroaches at bay. I had to wonder which is more palatable a giant spider or a cockroach. Meanwhile Burt has been learning La Cucaracha (the roach). La Cucaracha originates in Spain and was a song sung while the Spanish were pushing out the Moors. There are hundreds of verses, many relevant today. So Burt’s picked out a few choice ones to share with the kids. It’s a catchy tune, too, and fun to play. SO. The stage is set. Here we are sick. Watching TV. Spending a ton of time on our backs in bed. Occasionally we manage to play a tune, clean the litter box, go out to eat. Mostly we avoid people and expending energy. Last night we were watching The Killing. It’s set in Seattle. I felt wet just watching. The lights are out and the laptop all aglow when large bug falls of the ceiling and land on my stomach. I suppress the urge to scream and flee. I calmly say to Burt, “There’s a roach on my belly.” Burt LAUNCHES out of bed leaving me to wonder where he’s going. One look at the bug from Burt and he realized this was no job for a naked hand. He was running for a paper towel to better defend himself. I start giggling but I am frozen in place. Above all I do not want to dislodge the cucaracha and lose it in our covers. The roach is staring at me. I am looking at it with peripheral vision because I cannot tolerate eye to eye contact with a massive beetle in my bed. Burt returns and dives on the beetle and says, “Wow! That’s fast!” He’d missed. I guess the fall from ceiling stunned the little bugger. Burt got him on the second jab just off the side of my now heaving gut.
The laughter and nausea almost killed me. I launched into a coughing fit so severe I had to take antacids to tamp down the stomach acid flooding my respiratory tract. Nose, trachea, sinuses, mouth all burning with digestive juices. And I could not stop laughing and coughing. All I could wonder was should I have left the spider in the trailer to control the cockroaches?
Last night (9/27) was our eight wedding anniversary. Traditional style: Pottery/bronze or Modern style: linen/lace for you people still looking for the perfect present. Elaine gave us a monkey finger puppet. I say that qualifies as Modern style. We had a gig under the eclipsing blood moon. The vibe was wonderful. A giant desert centipede came to listen and the skunks stayed home. We sang Moon River and Bad Moon Rising. We also did the Hokey Pokey. It’s Howdy Doody Time was sung but not by us. Believe it or not, our artistic sensibilities have a line and It’s Howdy Doody Time crossed that line. That guy gave me the creeps. We also sang Lonesome Cowboy’s Breakfast for our friend Pat even though Pat failed to make the event. I hope she knows we missed her.
This gig was after a very long and nasty day at work. We insulated the entire house in one day. There was an episode of marital strife. Some of you think we get along in some dream world of fun and games. Not so. We live in the real world and are both ornery at times. Domestic disputes while covered in fiberglass are not minor things. That bad moon hung around for a little bit but faded rapidly.
I ended my six days of training at the Coronado National Forest’s Cave Creek Visitor Information Center with an action packed day. Many interesting people stop by the VIC with a variety of agendas. Some folks are lost. Lost people are difficult to reorient. That’s why they are lost. Some people just want information or advice. Others have new to share or interesting tidbits on the natural history or wildlife. Some people need a therapeutic ear as they try and decide what to do with their time in the Chiricahua Mountains.
A few days ago a man came in to pay a professional courtesy call. He was Mike and he staffed the Carr House visitor’s center in the Huachuca Mountains due west of here. Mike is a very knowledgeable naturalist and he makes videos covering an assortment of topic related to this area and Mexico. He informed Ron and I of an acorn for sale on the streets of Mexico just over the border and he wondered if we had any of the trees nearby. In Mexico they call the acorn ‘bellota’. All acorns are edible but only this acorn is tasty. All the other acorns require an intensive treatment to remove the bitter taste. These can be eaten raw straight from the shell. This was news to both me and Ron. Free food, falling from trees! Later that night I went and looked up Emery Oaks and studied what the acorn looked like. You can see Mike’s videos HERE. There’s some great Mexican footage of a jaguar near Alamos in Sonora.
Two days later as I walked the road to the VIC I noticed a tree had dropped a ton of acorns overnight. The acorns were small and slender and fresh from the tree. Mike had advised us that the acorns fall at the start of the monsoon and quickly rot due to moisture. I bent down and picked up a few. I popped one in my mouth and set about trying to crack it open. It was not a tidy job but I did free the nut meat and it was tasty. Not sweet but firm and hardy. It could use salt. If you have ever tried to eat an acorn you’ll know that standard acorns do not readily release their nut meat. This little bundle slid right out of the shell once I had it open. I met Ron at the door with his first nut. We were so delighted at the confluence of knowledge and and tree and fruits we headed out and gathered more acorns before the day got underway. The tree was only 100′ from our front door. By the end of the day I had learned how to easily pop open the shell and had consumed at least 50 of the little darlings. All day long I mentioned the acorns to anyone that seemed even remotely likely to be interested. Burt came up for lunch and was so excited to hear the news he exclaimed, “I could see my dad living off of these!” Jack is quite a gleener/gatherer.
The thing about oaks is there are 21 species of oaks in the Chiricahua Mountains alone. They are very hard to distinguish. So finding your very own Emery Oak could be difficult. They are only located in the sky island mountain ranges of the borderlands. The good news is that you can try all the acorns you want. If they taste bad it’s not an Emery Oak but at least you haven’t poisoned yourself.
Meanwhile the day went on. Next up was the mating pair of stick insects on the USFS bulletin board at the entrance to the VIC. Learn about Phasmatodea HERE. After pondering their lovely defensive strategy of blending in nature as a pair of fornicating sticks I headed off to wash up the restrooms. The toilets were taking on a scuzzy sheen so I asked Ron about more advanced cleaning systems. So far I was doing light duty wiping and sweeping. It was time to scrub. Ron came out and showed me the Pine-Sol and scrub brush and filled up a bucket of water for me at the exterior spigot. He suggested tossing the bucket on the floor and using the brooms to brighten the floors when I was done with the fixtures. Sounded good to me. Since we clean the bathrooms every day they are very quick to dress up. I swept out the new spider webs and made a note that this was the first time there were no mouse droppings in the sinks. I tossed the left over piney water over the floors and swept out the residue with our old broom. When I was done I went to the spigot and reached with one hand for the end of the house and the other to turn on the water. In between I met a black-tailed rattler fangs out and tail wagging. I screamed and flew through the air. Does a person scream if there’s nobody to hear you scream? There nestled up against the house mere inches from my hand sang this lovely snake. Who needs caffeine when you can enjoy this kind of adrenaline?
Lucky for me the black-tailed rattlesnake is one of the mildest rattlesnakes. They would rather move away then confront a body. Ron had just been in the exact same spot and she hadn’t even said, “Hello.” I guess two intrusions were more than she could tolerate. Later we moved this specimen off with a friendly push of the broom and a blast of water from the hose. She’s been left to live in peace in the brush nearby. Now I know why there was no mouse poop in the sinks. You can read about the black-tailed rattlesnake HERE. This particular specimen was very dramatically marked and had a coy black mask over her face.
Visitors continued to stream in at such a pace I couldn’t finish my book, Journey through an Arid Land by G. Davies Jandrey. I know Gayle Jandrey. She happens to live right here in Portal. Her book is a fast paced murder mystery set right on the border. It is a dark, fun read. You can pick it up on Amazon or at the Portal Cafe. We got a few people turned in the right direction, answered some questions about last year’s flooding, met with people looking for the Yellow Billed Cuckoo. I spotted some guys collecting bugs in our meadow and went out to see what they were finding. This was a pair from Manitoba, Canada and they were collecting leaf bugs to make displays for Canadian museums. They swept their nets over the tops of the plants in the meadow. If they found something interesting they popped it into a vial of vinegar and alcohol for preservation. You can see the assortment of tiny beetles in the photograph below. Given the biologic diversity of this area I would not be surprised to learn some of these beetles are only found here. The one guy told me I could name them whatever I wanted as there was a chance the species is unnamed. Check out the the red-faced dazzler below. Leaf beetles are tiny insect jewels. Check the variety out HERE.
On the VIC porch we have a trumpet vine. It reminds me of my little grandma’s place. She had a trumpet vine on her shed. We’d pluck the flowers and stack them up to make flower swords when we were kids. This trumpet vine is full of a tiny sugar eating ant. If you crush the ant it smells like blue cheese. This LINK says these ants can’t bite so they use a repulsive smell as defense. These ants on our porch smell bad and bite. If you want to see for yourself come by and visit. Just lean against the porch column. The ants will cover you in no time. Maybe there’s a new species here, too?
Back to regular carpentry this week. Which link do you like the best?
Did you read that right? We’re talking skin crawling sensations not the infamous deed. Formication is the sensation of bugs crawling on your skin. There’s a lot of things that can bring on formication in the Portal Area. Two nights ago we watched a public showing the documentary Empire of the Desert Ants. Ray Mendez, pictured here with Burt was instrumental in filming the movie. Empire of the Desert Ants purportedly tells the story of a colony of ants in nearby Horseshoe Canyon. The footage is formication inducing amazing. Twenty-seven underground ant sets (formicaries), built by Ray and his team, were used in constructing the plot. As Ray says he’s a wrangler not a trainer. You give the ants what they need to do certain things and they will do those things: eating, feeding, raiding…The ants in this movie are Honey-pot ants. This particular species has a type of ant that fills its abdomen as a storage container of food. Called a replete, these ants hang from the ceiling with translucent honey filled guts.
I enjoyed the movie but it anthropomorphized the ants so much that I missed out on the highlight of the night. Ray brought replete honey-pot ants for tasting. For a donation to the Sew What scholarship fund you could eat a honey filled ant. I’ve always thought I would eat one if given the chance but after watching the ants on the big screen I was hypersensitized to them and couldn’t bring myself to eat them alive. I was also experiencing some formication from listening to the ant noises throughout the movie. Lucky for us Burt is tougher than me. He paid up and opened wide. Ray advised that the first squish usually results in the emission of the ant’s formic acid as a bitter precursor to the honey but Burt didn’t notice. Ants form formic acid (CH2O2), the simplest carboxylic acid as venom. If you are interested in the movie you can watch it HERE. The exterior shots of Horseshoe Canyon are magnificent. In case you’re wondering, Formica of kitchen counter fame is named from a combo of the two words ‘for mica’ meaning it was a replacement of the use of mica as a counter top. Formica is not related to ant farms as my otherwise outstanding fifth grade teacher (Mr. Delage, may he rest in peace) misinformed us. BTW, there are more than 125 ant species in the Chiricahua area and there is more than one species of honey-pot ant.
Another source of formication in Portal is the abundance of wildlife. This sensation of formication is real and not imaginary. Yesterday I brought in my laundry, I accidentally left it hanging overnight and unbeknownst to me it had become a layover spot for about 50 moths. The moths peaceably rode the laundry into the trailer and erupted when I began folding the clothes. The trailer is riddled with moths. They fly at the computer and the light reflected off my face. There are moths in my hair and behind my ears. Mimi is doing her bit but at two moths a day my formication was going to cause lasting harm. Burt took to swatting them and we are down to a manageable but still skin crawling number.
The last major source of this week’s formication is the dry desert air. Burt and I are dessicated. Elvis, Olive and Mimi are drinking water constantly. Their water bowls demand filling every hour. My skin looks like a lichen. My nasal passages are shriveled. Where is my giant Pacific Ocean humidifier? This combination of high altitude, high heat and low humidity can mummify a person while still alive. No wonder the moths landed on our clothes. They just wanted a nice spot of moisture.