Spot the beast

Spot the beast 71

Finally, after nine months at the farm, Covid 19 cases have decreased in Salta Province (Argentina) and travel restrictions were lifted, although still maintaining the usual precautions.

For a change of scene, we headed for the “Valles Calchaquíes” a string of valleys that go through Catamarca, Tucumán, Jujuy and Salta Provinces. Although I will probably expand on this in future posts, we are now at a place called Payogasta and in the garden of the hotel Mabel found this beast while checking the identity of some of the plants there. So, if it is a tricky “spot”, it is not my fault this time as she found it and took the pictures!

To the left of the yellow flower, there is a toad that was busy catching flies, its whitish mouth gives it away. It is raining in Payogasta, a very dry area. Because of this, a lot of animals usually not seen are now active, including the toads.

Spot the beast 70

To change a bit, I offer you a rather different “spot” today.

One of the main attractions of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe (apart from the river, the light, the various campsites, the wild dogs, the elephants, the lions and I stop there naming just a few!) is to be able to walk through the park despite it holding the Big 4 (sadly the rhino is no longer there).

While walking is a great way to explore the park you must be careful as, often, you do not see the animals until you are too close for comfort and you need to be prepared to respond appropriately. This is one of the cases that seems incredible until it happens to you.

Imagine that you are walking there now, what can you see?

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What look like tree trunks, suddenly become legs and they start moving!

You had just disturbed the siesta of a large elephant and it is coming your way!

You realized that it is a bull elephant but the most important thing at that time is to back down slowly and start taking pictures through a zoom lens!

Spot the beast 69

While trying to catch up with the next post about our time in Ethiopia, I present you with this beast captured in the video below. These are frequent visitors in our garden now that the jasmine is flowering. Nice beast but what is it?

Is this what you believe you saw?

At first I also thought I had seen a small hummingbird of the various species present at the farm. However, it was really too small for a bird.

A more careful look reveal it to be a moth that also drinks nectar!

The beast is a day-flying moth in the family Sphingidae described by Jacob Hübner in 1819. More specifically it is known as a Titan sphynx moth (Aellopos titan), a species described by by Pieter Cramer in 1777 [1].

The genus Aellopos occurs from the United States through Central America and down to Argentina and Uruguay in South America. It has a wingspan between 55 and 65 mm and it is dark brown with a distinctive wide white stripe across the abdomen.

The larvae of this moth feed on seven-year apple (Casasia clusiifolia), bottombush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) and white indigoberry (Randia aculeata) among others. They pupate in shallow underground chambers. The adults are around throughout the year in tropical areas, feeding on nectar of various flowers by rolling out their long proboscis, estimated at twice the length of their bodies.

They are fascinating insects to watch as they buzz rather loudly while moving actively between flowers. They are capable to beat their wings up to 70 times per second and they can fly at speeds of up to 20 kph. Their oversized and rather menacing eyes are meant to look like those of a bird so, do not feel bad if when you saw the video you did think it was a hummingbird as I also did!

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Cramer

Spot the beast 68

Having given you difficult assignments before, today I give you a relatively easy one…

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I hope you found it easily as I expected. What I am not sure of is whether you are familiar with this rather large moth known as the Black Witch moth (Ascalapha odorata), an interesting beast in the way that it elicits fear in some parts and good luck in others!

Named by Linnaeus in 1758, the Black Witch is found from the southern United States to Argentina. The adults feed on overripe fruits while the earlier instars feed on legumes’ leaves such as Acacia species. The female of this moth is one of the largest in the American continent reaching up to 17cm (the one illustrated below was about 16 cm). The males are paler and smaller.

The Black Witch was already known by the peoples of America well before Linnaeus. They associated this moth with death and bad luck with names that meant butterfly of the land of the dead, death’s butterfly, and terror’s butterfly. It is believed to bring death in North American, Mexican and some Caribbean cultures and if one of these flies into a house, it is considered bad luck and most likely killed.

In some parts of Mexico, people joke that if one flies over someone’s head, the person will lose his hair. I was in Mexico and have lost my hair but I did not see the moth…

Closer to our present home, in Paraguay, the moth is wrongly associated with Dermatobia hominis as there is a mistaken belief about the moth urinating over their human “victims” and thereby inoculating their eggs, which then develop into maggots under the skin of the victim. In parts of Argentina it is known as the “pirpinto de la yeta” that could be translated as “bad luck’s butterfly”.

These beliefs have influenced the genus name Ascalapha. It comes from Ascalaphus, the custodian of the orchard of Hades who was the god of the dead and king of the underworld in Greek mythology. Ascalaphus was turned into an owl by either Demeter or Persephone (Hades’ consort) because of his misdeeds [1].

In the Bahamas they are know at the “money moths” as it is believed that if they land on you, you will get money, the same as in Texas if one lands outside your house. Just yesterday Carolina, a good friend, told me that she recalls her grandmother telling her that these moths brought good luck to the family that finds them.

They are not common at our farm in the Yungas of Salta but it makes some appearances attracted to the lights, resembling the bats that often fly around at night with which they are also mistaken. They seem to lose their bearings, and some have remained in our house for several days -despite our attempts at returning them to the outside- until they move off or just die.

Although the dorsal side of their wings look dark brown and almost black, its colours change depending on the angle of the light. On close inspection they can reveal areas of iridescence, mainly purple and pink, crossed by a whitish bar in the females. The small, comma-shaped green/pale blue surrounded by an orange line on each forewing are diagnostic of the species.

While we had not seen it, the larva is large (up to 7 cm) green and dark brown/black. Black Witch moth pupae were placed in the mouths of victims of the novel “The Silence of the Lambs” although in the movie they were replaced by death’s-head hawkmoth pupa.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ascalaphus_(son_of_Acheron)

Spot the beast 67

While writing about our Ethiopia days, I found this finding. Let’s see if you can see it. I think it is pretty easy but…

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To take this close-up I needed to climb the rocks that are seen behind the croc in the previous picture as to at a safe distance from the “sleeping” beast. That is the reason why the head is pointing to the opposite side in the second picture.

Recently it has been discovered that, as it had been observed in other animals, crocodiles are able to sleep with one-half of their brain at a time, a phenomenon known as unihemispheric sleep. During this kind of sleep the eye neurologically connected to the ‘awake’ hemisphere remains open while the other eye is closed [1].

I was not able to check the condition of its eyes to tell what was it really doing but, in the light of the research mentioned, to ascertain its status would have demanded a close inspection that I had no intention to do and I am quite happy not to know!

[1] See: https://jeb.biologists.org/content/218/20/3175

Spot the beast 66

Aware that this can be difficult, I give you two different views of the beast in the first two pictures. Below you will find it enlarged in both.

Have a good look and you will find it.

View 1
View 2

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Here are the enlarged views:

View 1
View 2

Two more pictures to show it over a black background and give you an idea of size.

Spot the beast 65

With the warmer weather small beasts started appearing and you get surprised by them more often. This is the case of this one I found on the ground this morning that was very well camouflaged. Can you spot it?

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At 12 cm wingspan this is a rather large moth of a species unknown to me but not less beautiful! A couple of other pictures for you to admire.

Spot the beast 64

Now that the winter is over, things start to happen at the farm in Salta, Argentina. The following “Spot” is difficult, perhaps too difficult but what follows I believe it is interesting. Here there are two pictures for you to look at and try to find the hidden “beasts”.

Here you can see our finding:

Well, in reality there were “future beasts”. It is a nest of the Southern lapwing (Vanellus chilensis). This bird is common throughout the southern part of Latin America. The nest with two to four eggs looks like if the eggs were dropped anywhere as nests go. The idea of “egg incontinence” came to mind…

Meet the birds known locally as “Tero” or “Teru-teru”, because of their calls, that happens to be the national bird of Uruguay:

As much as the nest looks like a careless affair, its defense by the birds is not. Apart from their loud screams, they go through a routine that I can prove is a good deterrent to anyone approaching the nest.

First they try to attract you to a spot far from the nest by pretending to be sitting on it. If this fails, one or both start behaving weirdly, showing signs of being wounded or just trying to distract you, staying quite close to you.

If the above noisy diverting tactics fail, the birds go into the next line of defense that is quite aggressive. The screaming goes up a few decibels while taking off and flying low directly towards you until veering off at the last second! When close, you can hear a clicking noise that I believe they make with their beaks as well as the spurs in their wings.

Although I have being mobbed many times I can assure you that they can be extremely intimidating as the following sequence of images show.

More info on the species can be found at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_lapwing

To hear their calls:

Spot the beast 63

I have not been able to continue with “Spots” as we are not travelling and we had gone through our winter in our farm in Salta where we focussed on looking after ourselves in isolation.

The arrival of the spring brought nicer temperatures and things started to change and liven up. Plants and trees started to flower and, because it is dry now, lots of birds have arrived to drink at our water baths.

So, while doing general maintenance preparing for the summer that it seems we would need to spend here, I found this object that, although it is not a usual “beast” it is somehow challenging. Would you guess what it is and what happened here?

I am aware that it is not straight forward… but it gets better if we remove the white cover.

Just in case you did not get what had happened I will explain.

I use the tins of preserve to build bird nests. To this particular one I added the white foam for warmth and used the same material to close it, leaving the round hole for the birds to get in (see first picture, above). They did and you can see their nest at the bottom of the tin. That happened during year one.

The following year a colony of wasps found the tin suitable for their purposes and decided to build their nest inside, on top of the birds’ nest. The birds did not come back again for obvious reasons as these are large and aggressive wasps.

So, removing the wasp’s nest you can actually see the bird’s nest and a few wasp bodies.

Two more pictures to show you the removed wasp’s nest.

The removed wasp comb .
Another view of the wasp comb.









Spot the beast 62

Today I needed to go to the garden and, as usual, I went for my Crocs shoes. When I tried to slip my left foot inside I found some resistance and I was surprised and amused to find a best inside. See if you can identify it…

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I know that it is not a very good picture but otherwise you would get it too fast!

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I am sure that you have guessed what it was:

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Understandably it wanted out of my shoe in a hurry! Soon it was released back to where it come from.

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I believe it was an African common toad or guttural toad (Sclerophrys gutturalis) of widespread distribution in Zimbabwe.

Luckily it was not a scorpion or worse!