Yungas

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)

Four in one

From our first visits to our farm in Salta it became apparent that its insect wealth was enormous. In particular, as you have read here, butterflies and moths really rule. The latter in particular are very varied and abundant. Being attracted by the light makes them easy to capture, observe, photograph and, eventually, release. In the early morning the trick is to be there before the insectivorous birds that do not care for beauty but taste!

I have described and published posts mainly on butterflies for two main reasons: they are colourful and photogenic but also better known in the area. Moths are difficult and, although I have taken pictures of a few hundred specimens, I am still waiting for their identification as the group’s taxonomy does not seem to be well known. The consequence of this is that most of the time I do not know what I am looking at in a taxonomical way. I then need to resort to my own classification by colour, shape and size that produces specimens such as “mottled brown medium size”, “barred brown with delta wings” or “large and smooth hawk moth”, etc.

A couple of days ago I came across one specimen that, although I have seen before, it is infrequent but rather attractive. Looking at it from its dorsal part, I could see a figure on its back that looked like a face (with Ray-Ban seafarer glasses?) or a cat face.

My wife saw a butterfly and, in December 2014 when I first saw it, I described as a moth “white with skull on back” It was like a psychological test I undertook in my childhood where you are asked to describe what you saw!

Later, looking at the pictures, there were more creatures to come out!

A dorsal view of its head showed a monkey face (agreed by my wife this time although the discussion centered on whether it was a baby Colobus or a Vervet!).

The final surprise was when we looked at it from the front. I saw a clear dog’s face while my wife saw a rabbit head!

Amazed by the various beasts we saw, we almost forgot that we were looking at a simple moth. However, it was one of Nature’s specials depicting three different creatures, apart from itself, a feat that I believe is difficult to match!

A tough owl…

Burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) used to be very common in Uruguay in the past and I remember, about 50 years back, seeing them perched on fence posts at frequent intervals. Regrettably, the advent of generalized use of pesticides meant that they almost disappeared and they are now relatively rare.

We were happy to find that in the Yungas of Salta, where our small farm is located, they are quite common, particularly in an area devoid of tree cover a short distance beyond our farm where we watch them from time to time. Luckily pesticide use here is still rare!

It was during one of these visits that we found the group composed of probably two adults (placed at both ends) and two babies showing only their heads, ready to disappear down their burrow in case of emergency.

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I was busy taking the first set of pictures when the adult on the left started to run towards me. I was quite impressed by its threatening behaviour as -I thought- it takes courage to attempt to scare off a large ape! It bobbed its head repeatedly, a normal behaviour of these birds and a couple of times it actually appeared to dig and scratch the soil with its beak. After a while it ran back to join the rest of its family and stood again where it was earlier.

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After a while we left them to enjoy their owl family life and we returned to our log fire at home. Much later, while checking the pictures taken that day, I realized that in fact the owl was not threatening me but that it was after prey! I had missed the details in vivo but these were apparent when I looked at the various pictures.

The owl had spotted a large beetle half way from me and it rushed to get it (rather than to scare me off!), caught it, tried it and spat it out, as it must have tasted bad! I can only assume that he discarded it, as I believe that eating it would have taken some effort! Although I fear for the beetle after the rough treatment received, these insects are quite common around here and I do not believe that its absence will be noted…

 

 

 

 

Wet blogging!

Probably, through earlier posts I gave you the impression that living at the foot of the Andes is a dream. While this is true to a very large extent, it also has climatic and technological shortcomings that need to be accepted to enjoy it.

The climate is dry and cool in winter with most days being sunny and warm in the middle of the day when it is possible to be outside wearing a short-sleeved shirt. At that time some frost does take place at night, responsible for our failures with our tree and plant growing efforts but otherwise life is great at that time. Unfortunately, we visit Salta in summer and autumn!

The summer is hotter and rather humid. The rain in some areas reaches up to 2,500 mm (2.5 metres!) and cloud forests are the predominant kind of vegetation around us. For a cloud forest to be such the clouds must meet the trees and we are in the middle of this get-together as our farm ranges in altitude roughly from 1,300 to 1,900 metres. As these meetings take place rather often, sunshine is not the most common phenomenon around here now!

As a consequence of this heavy precipitation the area gets waterlogged and the water must drain somehow towards the larger water bodies, in our case the Mojotoro River in the gorge below. As gradients are marked, water runs wild and swells up fast. Sometimes this surprises you as it may rain higher up in the hills and you get the water rush but not the rain.

The entrance to our small-holding crosses a small watercourse that in winter is just a small dry ditch. The fun takes place in summer when, once the rains arrive, it again becomes a stream. This adds a touch of beauty to the farm until we have heavy rains! When this happens, the normally peaceful stream “comes out of the bottle” and transforms itself into a torrent that we can only watch while waiting for it to subside. This normally takes a few hours during which our lack of communication is wide-ranging.

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For a few hours we are either in or out!

This brings me to the technological issues. The high hills surrounding us interfere with the telephone and Internet signals at the best of times. Well, there is a cell phone signal 3 km away on the access road and, of late, a basic Internet signal across the road, at the door of the public primary school. While the lack of communications makes the place a true nirvana to read and write, it has a negative impact on blogging and “Instagramming” productivity that, at this time, tends to be rather infrequent as you have probably noted by now…

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The bushsnob taking advantage of the public internet to reach the world.

On the bright side, a recent study in the farm next door[1] detected the existence of 152 species of butterflies (Hesperioidea y Papilionoidea), 14 spp. of amphibians, 23 spp. of reptiles, 216 spp. of birds and 28 spp. of native mammals.

Believe me, it is worth getting your feet wet to be able to reach our communication “hot spots” when you can watch new creatures daily while reaching them!

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One of the frequent photographic interruptions getting to the cell phone signal.

 

[1] Moschione, F.N. (2014). Relevamiento de Fauna. Finca El Gallinato, La Caldera, Provincia de Salta. Informe Relevamiento 2013-2014, julio de 2014. Proyecto de Conservación de Bosque Nativo. 55p.