Tag Archives: island 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!)

In one word: Althea!

What title would you give Althea?

While trying to come up with a title for this post I ran through a number of ideas but all seemed to fall short and not capture the right feeling.  So I have left it ‘Althea’, similar to other famous individuals who only need one name: Madonna, Elvis, Houdini, Sting…  Althea has most certainly been Maho Bay Camp’s biggest celebrity!  Add her regal air, a combination of aloof and inviting which created an ever-growing fan base every season.

Where I always found Althea: on the boardwalk from the dining pavilion to the store.
Where I always found Althea: on the boardwalk from the dining pavilion to the store.

While there were other lovable cats at Maho, Althea has always been my favorite.  Perhaps it is because my family had a cat that looked nearly identical to Althea, a calico female we named Checkers. Checkers and Althea even have very similar personalities / temperaments. (Somewhere packed away in a box I have a photo of her and will have to scan it and post it here for a side by side comparison.)  Every year that I visited Maho Bay Camp I would look for Althea and my vacation would not be complete without seeing her.

In years past I remember seeing Althea up near the Dining Pavilion where a water bowl was placed for the Maho cats. While feeding the cats in the pavilion was discouraged, it was hard to resist Althea’s occasional visit to my table for a bit of bacon. Not the healthiest cat treat, but it is what she liked. Does anyone else remember seeing her hurry across the area where the line formed? She would be quick in getting from one side to the other, trying to avoid all the feet of the many guests, and I guess she has a hip problem because her run was more of an elegant sashay. Very different from other cats.

Below are two recent photos of Althea, the first taken in 2013 and second taken almost two years prior in 2011.

A popular place to find Althea, she looks like she had had numerous people stop to pet her!
A popular place to find Althea, she looks like she had had numerous people stop to pet her!
This was a popular place to find Althea, since I had taken a similar photo two years prior!
This was a popular place to find Althea, since I had taken a similar photo two years prior!

Althea liked to spend some time in the high traffic areas and boardwalks of camp and would even lay down in the middle of a step on a flight of stairs, often right at the top coming up from the A-Section before you reach the Registration Desk. She was completely confident that no one would accidentally step on her!  This last seaon I was told the story of an evacuation of Maho for a tropical storm or low level hurricane.  After everyone was gone and the wind and rain were picking up, the resident manager made his last rounds of camp before taking shelter himself.  He saw Althea in an alcove next to the store (in a spot staff called “the Secret”, which was a recessed storage doorway), sitting up with her head held high and Althea appeared as though she was going to stoically wait out the storm right there. Of course she was at camp and fine when everyone returned.  With that confidence and attitude I came to see her as Maho’s “Manager Incognito”. Secretly Althea ran the place….

At various times there has been some discussion regarding when Althea arrived and how old she is. Last year I got the credible answer from Joe Brown, a friend and former staff member at Maho Bay Camp:

I’ll clear this up. I worked at Maho from 1997-2008. Althea showed up feral to my apartment (Dan-o’s too) right after hurricane Georges in 1998 – so she is at least 15 years old. We lived above the store and took her in as our own. We had no idea where she came from, but she was adorable and wouldn’t stop meowing at our door. Danny took primary responsibility for her and had to leave island in 2000. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take her to NY and thought it would be best to leave her in the care of staff and guests. He loved her very much and hated to leave her. Danny passed away in 2006 at the young age of 35.  She has had a great life at Maho. By the way, we named her after the Grateful Dead song Althea.

Althea taking a comfortable nap after eating her fill of tuna fish!
Althea taking a comfortable nap after eating her fill of tuna fish!
Althea was tempted to sleep on my papers in order to be sure I gave her my undivided attention!
Althea was tempted to sleep on my papers in order to be sure I gave her my undivided attention!

She did have a great life at Maho Bay Camp! Guests, staff and four-hour workers alike loved her, fed her and took care of her whenever she needed it. The Animal Care Center on St. John knows her well enough that I could pick up medicine for her without bringing her in (she had previously run away during a vet visit and it took weeks for Althea to return to Maho Bay Camp.)  Meanwhile she had the run of the property and could be as social or introverted or independent as she wished. When Maho closed everyone felt Althea needed to stay on island because she would not survive a flight to the States. Understandable since she disliked even the short car ride to the vet!  Actually I was worried that she might not even survive the closing of Maho. I am rather impressed that she did not return to Maho Bay Camp (as best I know.) I had anticipated her returning a number of times before she settled into a new home.

The day Maho Bay Camp closed, May 16th, someone from Coral Bay did adopt her but apparently it didn’t work out. A month later Althea showed up near Calabash Boom (the area just before Miss Lucy’s restaurant) at the apartment of Marty, a former employee of Maho Bay Camp. She could not have been luckier to find anyone, since Marty not only knew her and that she was supposed to be living in Coral Bay, but he also has a soft spot for Althea. He looked after her until she could find a permanent home, which turned out to be a former chef from Maho Bay Camp. Crispin had left St. John when Maho closed and by a twist of fate returned a few months later to work at Asolare in Cruz Bay. Crispin has now adopted Althea and I am guessing that she is eating better than I am!!

One thing is for sure, Althea is a fighter and a survivor! So… Titles for Althea??

Althea keeping an eye on things!
Althea keeping an eye on things!