• I have pursued insects nearly all of my life. My great-grandfather was Robert Asa Cushman, a turn-of-the-century authority on the Ichneumonidae, and my grandfather was Arthur Cushman, an artist and naturalist whose striking illustrations of insects can be found in USDA publications and many other places. A cigar box of cast-off specimens from the Smithsonian that Grandaddy Arthur gave me over forty years ago got me started on a life-long pursuit of insects. My passion is avocational; as a full-time high school teacher (and family man) I can only hope to help professional scientists by bringing my independent study into the public sphere.

 

Field work on Isla Colon is a full-time, all-encompassing occupation that includes different activities depending on the time of day and the groups sought; for this reason I have decided to describe a “typical day” in the field. Those who do similar work will no doubt feel a connection here, and I’m also aware of the possible entertainment value. So here’s a “Day in the Life” on Isla Colon:

Up with the oropendulas and howlers, often right around sunrise; if we’re at the ITEC field station and Rosa is cooking, then breakfast is at 8. If not, then we’re on our own for an egg or a pb and j with lots of coffee. Then we gear up for a walk into the forest to check the bait traps. We have 15 home-made traps hung along an overgrown trail in the rainforest understory, and also in the pasture (not in the canopy, since we lack time and gear for getting them up into the trees). These traps are baited with ancient bananas, sometimes months old.
Since we’re walking into the forest to check the traps, we’ll bring along a net and containers, although this early there are typically very few things flying. It’s more likely, this early in the day, that we’ll find caterpillars, so we bring a few plastic sandwich bags. If we do find larvae, we’ll take them back to the ITEC station in the baggie with a few leaves of the food plant, and keep them pinned to a clothesline outside our room.
Any specimens from the bait traps and trail are brought back to the room, where we’ll sort them along with last night’s catch from the lights. If we’re camping out in the forest, this work will be done under the blue tarp shelter we have set up next to the tent.
When this work is done, we’ll head out to the pasture to set bait on tree trunks — we think of this as “splatterbaiting,” an amusing term that describes flinging handfuls of rotten, slimy banana bait against trees; several species of Nymphalidae and some moths will come to this bait, sometimes within a few minutes. Any leftover bait is used to refresh the traps in the forest and pasture, which are often deprived of their bananas by coatis, raccoons, or other roaming nocturnal scavengers; even without these pests, the frequent torrential rain will wash away much of the bait.
By late morning it’s time to gear up for a longer walk into the forests and pastures around ITEC. I’ve found that most diurnal Lepidoptera — butterflies and day-flying moths — start flying around 10:30AM, so we aim to be out from then until early afternoon. This walk will take us into any number of different habitats, from roadsides to palm jungle to raffia swamp. Jungle boots are a necessity for these hikes, as is a copious amount of mosquito repellant. Specimens from these walks, once dispatched in a jar with ethyl acetate or by a sharp pinch to the thorax, are kept in glassine envelopes with collection data. Larvae are kept in baggies. Observations about behavior and etc are written in a waterproof field notebook.
Back at camp, we move the specimens to a safe container, or into the freezer if we’re at ITEC and the electricity is working. Then it’s time to head back out to see what may have visited the bait traps during the afternoon. At this point we may need to lug gas up to the generator in the forest, and fix any damage done by rain or wind during the pervious night. At some point we eat a big meal, since it will have to get us through a long night.
After the sun sets and the howler monkeys start telling each other it’s about to rain again, we head back into the forest to our camp where we’ll spend most of the next several hours. Once the “baby generator” — a temperamental Chinese-made model that was purchased for $200 in Bocas Town — is up and running, we turn on the 160-watt mercury vapor bulb and settle in to wait. The first moths will start showing up around 7:30, when the sky is still just a little purple. Assuming it’s raining, the moth turnout will depend partly on when it starts and how heavy it gets. Often the heavier the rain, the better the turnout.
Throughout the night we’ll walk back through the rainforest to check on other lights set up around the ITEC property, as well as the bait still on the tree trunks.
The generator typically runs out of gas around 1AM, and if we’re up and have gas on hand we’ll refill the tank and keep the light going. We sleep in bits and pieces, waking up to check on the lights, since some species won’t show up until 3 or 4 in the morning. When the howler’s start up again the sun is coming up over the hills, it’s time to start it all again.

 

Isla Colon, July 2, 2014

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About me

The Dixon Farm, Isla Colon, August 2010