Category Archives: Land Creatures

Island Lullaby

St. John Night Music:

One experience I always loved when I returned to stay at Maho Bay Camps was listening to songs of the frogs and birds while falling asleep in my tent at night. It is a phenomenal chorus that starts at sunset and continues throughout the night.  I’ve discovered that there are a variety of frogs (so far I’ve found four) that are singing on St. John: 

  • the local tree frog,
  • the Antillean frog,
  • the Coqui and Whistling Eleuth from Puerto Rico.

It is intriguing that I will go all day without seeing a frog anywhere, but as soon as the last rays of sunlight dissolve, I hear thousands of tree frogs in the bush, both near and far, begin their nightly songs. I especially love driving along North Shore Road through the National Park after dark with all the car windows open, listening to all the thousands of frogs in the forest and seeing the bats swoop down and back up in front of my car.   

From what I can gather the local tree frog only sings when it is wet or has just rained. But others clearly sing every night regardless of the weather.  One sound I used to hear at Maho Bay Camp came only after the rain; either a frog or a bird made a pleasant and irregular (thankfully!) sound of water dripping.  I recall hearing it when the rain woke me up at night when I first arrived and was not used to living in a tent and hearing all the sounds around me.  I would listen to the rain, usually hearing it end shortly after it started.  Once the rain stopped I heard that “drip” sound. Wondering if there was a slow leak in the tent roof I would get up to inspect.  My inspection said no. And it quickly became clear the sound was outside and up in a tree!  I always loved that drip sound; it was uncommon and it served the same purpose of counting sheep – listening to it would help me fall right back  to sleep.

Singing in the Rain

After a rainfall the frog chorus can be phenomenally LOUD if you are surrounded by trees and bush!  Now that I am living in a house in Coral Bay (vs. a tent at Maho) I have the opportunity to watch TV again. One night while watching a movie, there was a brief shower and once it had passed the frogs picked up their singing in force. I kept turning up the volume so I could hear the movie, until it occurred to me that it might be disturbing my neighbors, even though I could barely understand what was being said on TV!  At that point it is best to just give up and turn off the TV.  Island life….

The Dog Ate My Homework!

Actually I don’t have a dog. What I have is a cat. Sweet, cuddly and non-demanding. I am house-sitting in Coral Bay for the summer.  And in addition to not having a dog, I also do not have a maintenance crew. I am the maintenance crew. It is hurricane season and primary reason I am at this house – if a storm comes I get it boarded up and safe. The rest of the time keep the house open and lived in to prevent mildew growth on the furniture, water the plants, feed the cat and maintain the yard (which never stops growing in this climate. ever.) But my current problems are typical island problems. Minus the actual concern of hurricanes, which politely give you advance warning of their arrival! They are not party-crashers.

So here is my excuse for being absent recently… WAPA & Wasps.  Last week I had edited my photos and planned some topics. An island friend was leaving for the States for an extended visit, so I was having a group over for drinks on the porch at the time of the full moon. However that was not to be. The power to the house was shut down by WAPA (Water and Power Authority) while I was in town buying food and drinks. It seems WAPA never sent the bill to the owner, so he did not pay. Since it was a Friday, that meant the earliest the power would come on, after payment, was Monday – end of business day!!  And it’s hot here.  Humid.  Nary a breeze.  And now no fans.

It has been years since I have been without power (minus 7 weeks ago when the very same thing happened while I was house-sitting! ehem.)  It’s worse now because I (we) rely on it for more than ever. And maybe because I am older and dislike the inconvenience more. My quick reminder list, since we take our power so much for granted:

  • the refrigerator / freezer
  • the internet router
  • the water pump for the sink, laundry, shower and cleaning duties such as dishes!
  • the lights – to prevent sitting in the dark at night!
  • the water heater
  • the coffee maker and toaster
  • the microwave
  • the stove (sometimes)
  • Air conditioning and Fans!!
  • Cordless telephones
  • Music
  • the TV and peripherals
  • my Cell Phone!!
  • my laptop computer
  • and no flushing the toilets (they are on a septic system which requires a pump.)

Having no power changes all of one’s plans. It also meant I was on the phone with the owner and power company getting things squared away. Hauling food to a refrigerator that could be supplied with power. Then Monday evening arrived. No Power. I called WAPA in St. Thomas and they said my power was reconnected. Go check your fuse on the meter (down the hill and up high on a pole!) Nope, it’s fine. “Okay, someone will come out and fix your problem tonight.”  Admittedly I was skeptical. If you have lived on St.John you can understand my skepticism. Besides, the bill was paid over the weekend, so why don’t they turn on the power in the morning? why wait until the close of the work day. Thankfully, someone did fix it and the power came back on about 4 hours later that night!

My thoughts after this ordeal: “If I could afford a $1,000,000+ home on St. John (as most of them are), I would have solar panels. It seems absurd not to have them here. It is almost always sunny and electricity costs are 5x higher than in the States.”

With the power back, I spent the next morning returning a power cord and fan the neighbor loaned me (to keep my food cold and my nights mosquito-free), moved my food and belongings back to where I was staying, and made sure all was working. Nope. Spent another morning trouble-shooting the Satellite TV receiver that now did not work, ending with a series of calls between companies trying to get a new one sent to island in time for the arrival of the first guests this season.  Finally things calmed to a dull routine again and I was able to actually spend time on work. (I am working from home, so the power outage put me behind.) Last night I was one hour from being caught up with work, preparing to finally work on my blog again! But in flew a small hummingbird…

No, actually it looked like a hummingbird when I saw it out of my peripheral vision while working on my computer. It was actually a big freaking Wasp!! I quickly got up to see if the screen door was open and get out of the room. Smartly I grabbed the electric mosquito swatter on my way!  Ha!  But the more I watched it swoop quickly around the entire living room and kitchen, the mosquito racket seemed useless. It really needed a 10 foot handle and a huge racket head!  It landed briefly on the livingroom wall so I was able to get a good look at it. It occurred to me this wasp might be mad enough to sting. My creative thinking kicked in and I decided to open the doors on the screened-in porch, duck and dive and turn out the lights inside, leaving only the porch lights on. My hope was the wasp would be attracted to the lights on the porch and find its way out one of the doors…

Instead another one flew in!!  Ughh. You know, it may be only 8pm but I am going to bed.

Once in my bedroom – thankfully on a separate floor from these monster wasps – I used up all the battery in my iPhone researching them online. I’ve seen them before while hiking and they were much smaller, like a regular size wasp. They are actually quite beautiful. The body is all back, the antennae are a bright orange and the wings are an iridescent blue the color of the water here on St. John. (more turquoise than the one in this photo.)

Source: Scientific American Blog /Dumb Yanqui Photo
Source: Scientific American Blog /Dumb Yanqui Photo

Turns out that my flying house guest is called a Tarantula Hawk! (the descriptions are worth reading!)  A photographer has some great photos of them here.  And This photo can give you a feel for their size. I can honestly appreciate this wasp being named after a bird! Apparently it is solitary, not aggressive, the female is much bigger than the male, but as it turns out, if provoked it will sting. A Travel + Lesiure article wrote that it is the second most painful insect bite in the world.

Commenting on his own experience, Justin O. Schmidt, entomologist and creator of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, described the pain as “…immediate, excruciating pain that simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream. Mental discipline simply does not work in these situations.”  The wasp’s sting is rated near the top of the Schmidt index, second only to that of the bullet ant, and is described by Schmidt as “blinding, fierce [and] shockingly electric,” similar to dropping a live hairdryer in the bathtub with you.

After reading that I felt reassured that my intuition told me not to get that wasp any more upset that it already was! However, as I lay in bed, thinking about my computer and phone charger sitting upstairs on the table, I was wondering what I was going to do about that wasp (or wasps) in the morning.

I woke up at 5:00 and tossed and turned until I could not delay this confrontation any longer. I went upstairs and stood at the screen door, peering around the interior of the screened-in porch to see it the wasps were around. I was too sleepy to have good running reflexes at that hour of the morning so I tiptoed slowly from place to place and looked for any sign of the wasps. I had just purchased a bag of my favorite coffee in town yesterday and really wanted to make some coffee but the kitchen was the last place I had seen the wasp. I stood at the entry to the kitchen for a while, waiting. Nothing. I decided to take my computer and work to my bedroom downstairs, in case this turned into an extended occupation. When I returned the wasp was hanging on one of the screens on the porch. I quickly opened the doors so she could fly out.

But she didn’t fly out.

So I removed one screen panel hoping she would notice her freedom. Then another panel. then another. She seemed to keep her eyes on me and did not fly when I took out panels, but maybe she was exhausted.  After that I just stood back and became her ‘Pep Squad’ – giving her directions on which way to fly, not to give up, she’s getting warmer! You’re Hot! Go. Go. Fly out. Please! And that’s how it ended. She is out tarantula hunting again.

It might be easier to tell you the dog ate my homework, but I feel the need to dispel the misconception that many people have of life on the island. I am not sitting on the beach every day sipping on frozen tropical drinks unfortunately!  I feel lucky when I have had chance to go out snorkeling. When things are quiet I am usually dealing with some oddity of island living that I don’t have to deal with back in the States. And… wondering what happened to that second wasp!  (But it makes for a good blog post!)

St. John’s Hermit Crab Migration

Beautiful red St. John hermit crab climbing up a rock in the beach after the mass migration to the water on August 22, 2013.
Beautiful red St. John hermit crab climbing up a rock in the beach after the mass migration to the water on August 22, 2013.

St. John had another hermit crab migration last Thursday (08/22/13) and I was able to see the very end of it. I arrived at 11:30am to the shore at Nanny Point and had to pick my way along the stone beach in order not to step on any hermit crabs.  St. John resident Pam Gaffin had been keeping an eye on the crabs for over a week as they gathered under the trees along the beach. She said she arrived around 5am and the migration was in full swing, with a pile up of hermit crabs at its deepest that would reach her elbow (if sticking her hand down into the migrating crabs.) Last year she and Steve Simonsen caught the migration on video at its height. You can watch it here.

Hermit crabs collecting along the rocky shore in St. John during their mass migration to the water to release their eggs.  Occasionally the crabs would wrestle and there is some lack of clarity on what is happening - maybe crab sex, although that should have happened earlier for egg release.  This wrestling usually brought other smaller crabs to the event who climbed on top of the two crabs...?
Hermit crabs collecting along the rocky shore in St. John during their mass migration to the water to release their eggs. Occasionally the crabs would wrestle and there is some lack of clarity on what is happening – maybe crab sex, although that should have happened earlier for egg release. This wrestling usually brought other smaller crabs to the event who climbed on top of the two crabs…?

 By the time I arrived it seems the stragglers were making their way back up to the trees, with a few hermit crabs still hoping to get close enough to the shore and incoming waves to release their eggs. Pam pointed out the area where the crabs were the thickest and the rocks were larger.  Here the hermit crabs can secure themselves in cracks and crevices in order not to get washed into the ocean with the incoming waves. Apparently the crabs fill their shells up with water in a motion that looks like they are lifting their shells up and down on their body, and this releases the eggs out in the ocean. The mass migration allows for some protection of the crabs and eggs from predators.

The view under my feet of the rocks and the way the remaining hermit crabs wedged themselves in between the rocks on the beach, hoping for a last big wave to wash over them.
The view under my feet of the rocks and the way the remaining hermit crabs wedged themselves in between the rocks on the beach, hoping for a last big wave to wash over them.
A hermit crab wedged between the rocks on the beach during the St. John hermit crab migration in August 2013.
A hermit crab wedged between the rocks on the beach during the St. John hermit crab migration in August 2013.

Despite not seeing the migration at its height, it was still more than I ever see on the beach or elsewhere at one time. They are rather fascinating to watch and with less of them converging on the beach at once their individual appearance and actions were more fun to watch! Here is a short video of a hiding hermit crab – maybe he understands english?!

My friend Gail also made it out to watch the migration and we chatted as we watched one particular crab make the long trek to the shore. She told me that she used to collect shells and leave them outside here door at her house. After a while she noticed that the nice shells she collected were gone, replaced by some ragged shells instead.  Wondering what was going on, she kept her eye on the shells.  Then one day she discovered that hermit crabs were coming up and exchanging old shells for her nice larger shells and heading back on their merry way!  After that day she made a point of collecting shells and putting them out there for the hermit crabs, a crustacean “Help-Yourself Shelf”!! I can’t tell you how badly I want to do that now! Especially since I saw hermit crabs in some shells that I did not know they live in.   (So please consider leaving any large shells you find on St. John beaches on the beach for a crab to take as his new home. But bring your camera for a good photograph instead!)

Hermit crabs collecting along the rocky shore in St. John during their mass migration to the water to release their eggs.
Hermit crabs collecting along the rocky shore in St. John during their mass migration to the water to release their eggs.
A lone hermit crab, red and purple, hiding from my camera.
A lone hermit crab, red and purple, hiding from my camera.

And St. John resident Rafe Boulon wrote a short and interesting article on hermit crabs for the St. John Historical Society. You can link to the article here.   You can watch some other video I captured: