In a perfect world, all insects would stay outside and be perfectly content in their soil filled, green leafed, decaying mulch environment. Unfortunately sometime conditions are such… like when it rains a lot, the bugs decide to cross that sacred threshold, and enter.
Of all the creatures, the one I cannot stand is the cockroach, or palmetto bug. They are the stuff of nightmares, as they fly through a room. The cockroaches hide in dark places and emerge when no-one is looking. I always imagined cockroaches living in my sister’s beehive hairdo, a style popular in the 1960’s, Her hair would would be teased and sprayed, and wound into a tall bun. When my sister styled one of these hairdos, it would last for days, even withstanding potential collapse during sleep.
Last summer, as part of plumbing maintenance, we had our drain pipes pressure cleaned. The plumber inserted a video camera through a roof vent to show the grease and scale accumulated on the pipes, and the hundreds of creepy cockroaches living there. The second video taken after the cleaning showed the pipes clean and as good as new. Throughout this process, the cockroaches in the pipes escaped through the roof vent. I needed a video of the plumber doing his crazy dance, as he brushed the creepy, crawly cockroaches off his arms and legs. Unfortunately, some of the cockroaches escaped by way of the sink drains inside our home… an unintended consequence to say the least. Most roaches were contained, but there were some that managed to evade capture. The cats would find and play with one or two, but for the most part just ignored them. If I saw one I would attempt to step on it, but I hate that popping sound when they go squish. To control the cockroaches, I’d put combat gel or boric acid in cracks, out of reach from the cats. That worked okay, but a natural solution was on the horizon.
Is my new insect friend the proverbial fly on the wall, able to watch what happens without people knowing? We all have experienced our phones eavesdropping on conversations, and later displaying ads related to the conversations. Well if Siri is listening, and if the tech folks are getting a direct feed from their consumers, and if the government is watching our every move… at least we are keeping everyone busy.
Since the fly creature was friendly, it allowed me to photograph it. Via my post on iNaturalist, my “super spy” creature was identified as an Ensign wasp. These wasps live to exterminate cockroaches! Indeed my friend! Evania appendigaster, also known as the blue-eyed ensign wasp, lay their eggs in cockroach egg casings. The wasps’ eggs hatch, and the larvae eat the roaches within the egg case. These wasps are not known to sting humans. So what do you do if you find an Ensign wasp in your house, leave it alone to look for cockroaches!
There is another creature on my patio that I literally ran into… a spider who spins it’s web all around the screen porch, and I often encounter their low webs. Aargh. It’s spiny body looks ominous, but in fact they are friendly. The common Spinybacked Orbweaver, Gasteracantha cancriformis, are often called "crab spiders", because they look a little like crabs. The Spiny orbweaver is a beneficial spider that feasts on garden pests, and flying insects such as whiteflies, mosquitoes, and wasps. Outdoors they spin their webs within trees and shrubs.
Their webs are about 12 inches across, with many connecting strands. The patio is covered with them, but the lowness was bugging me! I discovered a solution by accident, when a helium balloon got loose on the patio. As it floated around inside the enclosure, the spiders relocated to spaces beside the high beams where the balloon couldn’t affect them. Problem solved. Now we buy balloons just for the purpose of releasing.
Nature has a solution for everything. We just have to be patient and observe the world around us, and pray that my Ensign wasp… my “super spy fly” friend…. doesn’t decide to visit the spiders.
If you have ever visited the parking lot at Key Largo Publix, you have undoubtedly seen the chickens there. Great idea for a story, but why weren’t they there mid-afternoon on a weekday when I actually have my camera to take their photograph?
I drove the whole lot, and all I saw were some chicken feathers. Thinking the worst… did the gentrification squad move them away? My friend said when she was shopping early on a Sunday they were everywhere… even blocking the road, as if daring you to drive-by.
So I returned early one morning, and there they were in all their parading, pecking, crowing, scratching glory. Luckily I had finished photographing by the time the parking lot clean-up crew, with their blowers and weedwackers arrived, and the chickens and roosters dispersed into the woods.
Now that I know their routine, tell me, “where did they come from and why do they stay?”
The chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a domesticated species that arose from the jungle fowl that was originally found throughout the Caribbean, including Cuba. Early settlers in the Keys, many from the Caribbean Islands of the Bahamas and Cuba, kept chicken coups and used them to feed themselves, consuming both the meat and their eggs.
The 10 Year War in Cuba (1868-1878), a war led by planters and wealthy Cubans for independence from Spain, caused many Cubans to migrate to Key West. There were three Cuban wars for independence, the last of which escalated to the United State’s involvement in the Spanish American War, after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.
A 1906 postcard of sailors betting on a cockfight depicted everyday life aboard warships during WWI. These sailors must have adopted some of the traditions of the countries they were protecting. Cubans arriving in Key West fleeing a war brought with them their Cuban heritage, including their roosters and the sport of cockfighting.
Is it fair to say the Cuban roosters qualify as military veterans or AWOL?
Cockfighting thrived in the Keys until it was outlawed in the 1970’s; no longer being of use to their owners, these roosters were released into the streets of Key West.
Few are aware that back in the mid-80’s a flourishing illegal cockfighting business was going on in north Key Largo, just off CR 905 about a mile south of the three way at Card Sound Road. On weekends I recall seeing many cars turn off the main road and drive into the hammocks. At a glance, it didn’t look like it was a family picnic. The conversation was loud and exclusively Spanish; there were guards checking all who entered, a few women, but mostly a lot of older Cubans with lots of cash and many bodyguards with lots of guns.
Hidden behind the trees was a huge steel frame building that law enforcement called “The Chicken Ranch”. There were numbered seats surrounding an open ring in the center, where the cockfighting took place. The roosters were raised in chicken farms on Rockland Key, from former Cuban-bred roosters, known for their territorial and aggressive tendencies. The illegal operation was raided, and shut down permanently around 1987-88.
So with hens no longer being kept in coups for food, and roosters no longer being needed for the wagers, these released feral fowl hooked-up and are free-ranging through the Keys. In Key West, whose unofficial mascot is the chicken, locals call their chickens “gypsy chickens” as they roam freely everywhere. So much so that the City of Key West funds a program to rescue, care for the sick and injured, and re-home the chickens.
Many of the chickens from Key West are trucked to farms on the mainland, to continue their free-range lives. Did a few jump off the transport in the parking lot in Key Largo? And now they are here, they are officially staying since obviously someone is feeding them, and I suppose no-one is particularly bothered by the rooster’s early morning crowing. I find them amusing and a small reminder of our early Caribbean island roots.
It was another humid Florida Keys day, with record setting heat, when a naturalist friend alerted me to a very rare bird sighting. The tip came from a true photo enthusiast, who sadly possessed only an iPhone. I gathered up my professional photo gear and showed up in the hopes of getting a shot. OK… Though most of my photo archive consists of photos of birds flying away, I am optimistic. The first rule of photography… always have your camera ready so you can be there to get the shot. The thing about the iPhone is you will definitely have it when something happens, and though they are amazing, they fall short on details.
The rare birds were a pair of Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) which had been parading back-and-forth in a small cove on the Atlantic side of North Key Largo. The second rule in photography, is you have to be lucky; I was pleased when the swans decided to come to the shore and greet me. My friend called me a “swan magnet.” These birds possessed no fear at all. Was it the bold blue hydrangea print dress I was wearing, or maybe I represented a source of food, as people tend to befriend wildlife in nature.
I lingered for the best part of an hour, took dozens of swan portraits, before they retreated offshore as the tide was going down, and more feeding grounds opened up on the flats. It was a breathtaking scene, with Carysfort Lighthouse on the distant horizon, sport fishing yachts and sailboats passing by, and even some paddle-boarders moving through. From time to time I would see a flash of white feathers, as they dunked and bobbed, but wasn’t sure where on their body, as they were so far away.
Ecstatic that I had been able to witness such a beautiful display of nature, I headed home, eager to share my discovery with my husband, whose first reaction was, “oh that’s very bad.”
Huh? I was more thinking this was a gift, and I was blessed to witness it. As a child, I recall seeing White Mute swans paddling in the canal behind our home off East Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale. We’d feed them scraps of bread and enjoy their presence, but one day these graceful creatures, whose only predators are birds of prey, mysteriously disappeared, amidst rumors of foul play. Maybe that’s what my husband was thinking about… that humans can be so cruel sometimes?
I later returned to the cove, and they were still there, but a Great Blue heron had now befriended them, and they were happily feeding side-by-side. I thought for a moment, how is the Blue heron reacting to these strangers? Has it ever seen a Black swan, with a long neck such as this? All of a sudden one of the swans fluttered up and revealed a beautiful white underside to an otherwise black feathered body.
I captured many images of these swans, both close-up, and far away… so much for my theory about birds flying away! I logged a few photographs on iNaturalist (www.iNaturalist.org) to confirm the identity and search for places where Black swans had been observed; the closest to the Keys was Fort Lauderdale, but very few overall had been reported. There are estimated 500,000 Black swans in the entire world. The Black swan is a non-native species, and there are no breeding populations in this area, They are migratory, and their origin is southeast and southwest regions of Australia. Florida is home to three species of swan: the Mute swan, the Trumpeter swan and Whooper swans. Factors that may have attracted the Black swans to this area include the search for more abundant food options, and migration patterns.
They are typically found near lakes and ponds, with fresh water and cover needed to survive, but they frequent brackish environments during migration times when resources become scarce elsewhere. 80% of a swans diet consists of plant based food sources, but they will also eat small fish, mollusks, insects, crustaceans and worms when available.
While online, I checked my email, and my husband had sent me info about the “black swan theory”, often used as a metaphor for an unexpected event, that plays a dominant role in history. Up until a Dutch explorer in 1697 discovered Black swans in Australia, people thought that only white swans existed. In the financial world, a black swan event is seen as an event that negatively impacts the stock market, catching investors off guard. Recent examples include the dot.com stock market crash, and the housing crisis that caused recession. Hope that as I stand in proximity of a ga-zillion dollars worth of real estate, their rare visit is not a forewarning of some future event.
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