The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 8.

Description of San Antonio valley. Great variety of animal life. Pitcher-flowered Marcgravias. Flowers fertilised by humming-birds. By insects. Provision in some flowers to prevent insects, not adapted for carrying the pollen, from obtaining access to the nectaries. Stories about wasps. Humming-birds bathing. Singular myriapods. Ascent of Pena Blanca. Tapirs and jaguars. Summit of Pena Blanca.

ON the northern side of the Santo Domingo valley, opposite to my house, a branch valley came down from the north, which we called the San Antonio Valley. It intersected all the lodes we were working, and I constructed a tramway up it as far as the most northern mine, called San Benito, by which we brought down the ore to the stamps and the firewood for the steam-engine, and in a short time we had cleared all the timber from the lower part of the valley; and a dense scrub or second growth sprang up, through which numerous paths were made by the woodcutters. I was almost daily up this valley, visiting the mines, or in the evening after the workmen had left, and on Saturday afternoons, when they discontinued work at two o’clock. On Sundays, too, it was our favourite walk, for the tramway was dry to walk on; there were tunnels, mines, and sheds at various parts to get into if one of the sudden heavy showers of rain came on; and there were always flowers or insects or birds to claim one’s attention. I planned the whole of the tramway; the upper half I surveyed and levelled myself; and my almost daily walks up it familiarised me with every bush and fallen log by its side, and with every turn of the clear cool brook that came prattling down over the stones, soon at the machinery to lose its early purity, and be soiled in the ceaseless search for gold.

PITCHER-FLOWER (Marcgravia nepenthoides).

The sides of the valley rose steeply, and a fair view was obtained from the tramway in the centre over the shrubs and small trees on each side, so that the walk was not so hemmed in with foliage, as is usual in the forest roads. Insects were plentiful by this path. In some parts brown tiger beetles ran or flew with great swiftness; in others, leaf-cutting ants in endless trains carried aloft their burdens of foliage, looking as they marched along with the segments of leaves, held up vertically, like green butterflies, or a mimic representation of a moving Birnam wood. Sometimes the chirping of the ant-thrushes drew attention to where a great body of army-ants were foraging amongst the fallen branches, sending the spiders, cockroaches, and grasshoppers fleeing for their lives, only to fall victims to the surrounding birds. On the fallen branches and logs I obtained many longicorn beetles; the woodcutters brought me many more, and from this valley were obtained some of the rarest and finest species in my collection. On the myrtle-like flowers of some of the shrubs, large green cockchafers were to be found during the dry season, and a bright green rosechafer was also common. I was surprised to find on two occasions a green and brown bug (Pentatoma punicea) sucking the juices from dead specimens of this species. The bug has weak limbs, and the beetle is more than twice its size and weight, and is very active, quickly taking wing; so that the only way in which it could be overcome that I can think of is by the bug creeping up when it is sleeping, quietly introducing the point of its sharp proboscis between the rings of its body, and injecting some stupefying poison. In both instances that I witnessed, the bug was on a leaf up a shrub, with the bulky beetle hanging over suspended on its proboscis. Other species of bugs certainly inject poisonous fluids. One black and red species in the forest, if taken in the hand, would thrust its sharp proboscis into the skin, and produce a pain worse than the sting of a wasp. Amongst the bushes were always to be found the beautiful scarlet and black tanager (Rhamphocoelus passerinii, Bp.), and more rarely another species (R. sanguinolentus, Less.). Along with these, a brownish-coloured bird, reddish on the breast and top of the head (Phoenicothraupis fusicauda, Cab.), flew sociably; whilst generally somewhere in the vicinity, as evening drew on, a brown hawk might be seen up some of the low trees, watching the thoughtless chirping birds, and ready to pounce down when opportunity offered. Higher up the valley more trees were left standing, and amongst these small flocks of other birds might often be found, one green with red head (Calliste laviniae, Cass.); another, shining green, with black head (Chlorophones guatemalensis); and a third, beautiful black, blue, and yellow, with yellow head (Calliste larvata, Du Bus.). These and many others were certain to be found where the climbing Marcgravia nepenthoides expanded its curious flowers. The flowers of this lofty climber are disposed in a circle, hanging downwards, like an inverted candelabrum. From the centre of the circle of flowers is suspended a number of pitcher-like vessels, which, when the flowers expand, in February and March, are filled with a sweetish liquid. This liquid attracts insects, and the insects numerous insectivorous birds, including the species I have mentioned and many kinds of humming-birds. The flowers are so disposed, with the stamens hanging downwards, that the birds, to get at the pitchers, must brush against them, and thus convey the pollen from one plant to another. A second species of Marcgravia that I found in the woods around Santo Domingo has the pitchers placed close to the pedicels of the flowers, so that the birds must approach them from above; and in this species the flowers are turned upwards, and the pollen is brushed off by the breasts of the birds. In temperate latitudes we find many flowers fertilised by insects, attracted by honey-bearing nectaries; and in tropical America not only bees, moths, and other large insects carry the pollen from one flower to another, but many flowers, like the Marcgravia, are specially adapted to secure the aid of small birds, particularly humming-birds, for this purpose. Amongst these, the “palosabre,” a species of Erythrina, a small tree, bearing red flowers, that grew in this valley, near the brook, often drew my attention. The tree blooms in February, and is at the time leafless, so that the large red flowers are seen from a great distance. Each flower consists of a single long, rather fleshy petal, doubled over, flattened, and closed, excepting a small opening on one edge, where the stamens protrude. Only minute insects can find access to the flower, which secretes at the base a honey-like fluid. Two long-billed humming-birds frequent it; one (Heliomaster pallidiceps, Gould), which I have already mentioned, is rather rare; the other (Phaethornis longirostris, De Latt.) might be seen at any time when the tree was in bloom, by watching near it for a few minutes. It is mottled brown above, pale below, and the two middle tail feathers are much longer than the others. The bill is very long and curved, enabling the bird easily to probe the long flower, and with its extensile cleft tongue pick up the minute insects from the bottom of the tube, where they are caught as if in a trap, their only way of exit being closed by the bill of the bird. Whilst the bird is probing the flower, the pollen of the stamens is rubbed in to the lower part of its head, and thus carried from one flower to fecundate another. The bottom of the flower is covered externally with a thick, fleshy calyx — an effectual guard against the attempts of bees or wasps to break through to get at the honey. Humming-birds feed on minute insects, and the honey would only be wasted if larger ones could gain access to it, but in the flower of the palosabre this contingency is simply and completely guarded against.

FLOWER OF THE “PALOSABRE.”

Many flowers have contrivances for preventing useless insects from obtaining access to the nectaries. Amongst our English flowers there are scores of interesting examples, and I shall describe the fertilisation of one, the common foxglove, on account of the exceeding simplicity with which this object is effected, and to draw the attention of all lovers of nature to this branch of a subject on which the labours of Darwin and other naturalists have of late years thrown a flood of light. The pollen of the foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is carried from one flower to another by the humble-bee, who, far more than the hive bee, that “improves each shining hour,” deserves to be considered the type of steady, persevering industry. It improves not only the hours of sunshine, but those of cloud, and even rain; and, long before the honey-bee has ventured from its door, is at work bustling from flower to flower, its steady hum changing to an importunate squeak as it rifles the blossoms of their sweets. The racemes of purple bells held up by the foxglove are methodically visited by it, commencing at the bottom flower, and ascending step by step to the highest. The four stamens and the pistil of the foxglove are laid closely against the upper side of the flower. First a stamen on one side opens its anthers and exposes its pollen. The humble-bee, as it bustles in and out, brushes this off. Then another stamen exposes its pollen on the other side, then another and another; but not till all the pollen has been brushed off does the cleft end of the pistil open, and expose its viscid stigma. The humble-bee brushes off the pollen onto its hairy coat from the upper flowers of one raceme and carries it direct to the lowest flowers of another, where the viscid stigmas are open and ready to receive it. If the humble-bee went first to the upper flowers of the spike and proceeded downwards, the whole economy of this plant to procure cross fertilisation would be upset.1 The open flower of the foxglove hangs downwards. The lower part, or dilated opening of the tube, is turned outwards, and has scattered stiff hairs distributed over its inner surface; above these the inside of the flower hangs almost perpendicularly, and is smooth and pearly. The large humble-bee bustles in with the greatest ease, and uses these hairs as footholds whilst he is sucking the honey; but the smaller honey-bees are impeded by them, and when, having at last struggled through them, they reach the pearly, slippery precipice above, they are completely baffled. I passed the autumn of 1857 in North Wales, where the foxglove was very abundant, and watched the flowers throughout the season, but only once saw a small bee reach the nectary, though many were seen trying in vain to do so.

1 Darwin mentions having seen humble-bees visiting the flowering spikes of the Spiranthes autumnalis (ladies’ tresses), and notices that they always commenced with the bottom flowers, and crawling spirally up, sucked one flower after the other, and shows how this proceeding ensures the cross fertilisation of different plants. —“Fertilisation of Orchids” page 127.

Great attention has of late years been paid by naturalists to the wonderful contrivances amongst flowers to secure cross fertilisation; but the structure of many cannot, I believe, be understood, unless we take into consideration not only the beautiful adaptations for securing the services of the proper insect or bird, but also the contrivances for preventing insects that would not be useful, from obtaining access to the nectar. Thus the immense length of the nectary of the Angraecum sesquipedale of Madagascar might, perhaps, have been completely explained by Mr. Wallace, if this important purpose had been taken into account.1

1 “Natural Selection” by A.R. Wallace page 272.)

The tramway in some parts was on raised ground, in others excavated in the bank side. In the cuttings the nearly perpendicular clay slopes were frequented by many kinds of wasps that excavated round holes of the diameter of their own bodies, and stored them with sting-paralysed spiders, grasshoppers, or horse-flies. Amongst these they lay their eggs, and the white grubs that issue therefrom feed on the poor prisoners. I one day saw a small black and yellow banded wasp (Pompilus polistoides) hunting for spiders; it approached a web where a spider was stationed in the centre, made a dart towards it — apparently a feint to frighten the spider clear of its web; at any rate it had that effect, for it fell to the ground, and was immediately seized by the wasp, who stung it, then ran quickly backwards, dragging the spider after it, up a branch reaching to the ground, until it got high enough, when it flew heavily off with it. It was so small, and the spider so heavy, that it probably could not have raised it from the ground by flight. All over the world there are wasps that store their nests with the bodies of spiders for their young to feed on. In Australia, I often witnessed a wasp combating with a large flat spider that is found on the bark of trees. It would fall to the ground, and lie on its back, so as to be able to grapple with its opponent; but the wasp was always the victor in the encounters I saw, although it was not always allowed to carry its prey off in peace. One day, sitting on the sand-banks on the coast of Hobson’s Bay, I saw one dragging along a large spider. Three or four inches above it hovered two minute flies, keeping a little behind, and advancing with it. The wasp seemed much disturbed by the presence of the tiny flies, and twice left its prey to fly up towards them, but they darted away immediately. As soon as the wasp returned to the spider, there they were hovering over and following it again. At last, unable to drive away its small tormenters, the wasp reached its burrow and took down the spider, and the two flies stationed themselves one on each side the entrance, and would, doubtless, when the wasp went away to seek another victim, descend and lay their own eggs in the nest.

The variety of wasps, as of all other insects, was very great around Santo Domingo. Many made papery nests, hanging from the undersides of large leaves. Others hung their open cells underneath verandahs and eaves of houses. One large black one was particularly abundant about houses, and many people got stung by them. They also build their pendent nests in the orange and lime trees, and it is not always safe to gather the fruit. Fortunately they are heavy flyers, and can often be struck down or evaded in their attacks. They do good where there are gardens, as they feed their young on caterpillars, and are continually hunting for them. Another species, banded brown and yellow (Polistes carnifex), has similar habits, but is not so common. Bates, in his account of the habits of the sand-wasps at Santarem, on the Amazon, gives an interesting account of the way in which they took a few turns in the air around the hole they had made in the sand, before leaving to seek for flies in the forest, apparently to mark well the position of the burrow, so that on their return they might find it without difficulty. He remarks that this precaution would be said to be instinctive, but that the instinct is no mysterious and unintelligible agent, but a mental process in each individual differing from the same in man only by its unerring certainty.1 I had an opportunity of confirming his account of the proceedings of wasps when quitting a locality to which they wished to return, in all but their unerring certainty. I could not help noting how similar they were to the way in which a man would act who wished to return to some spot not easily found out, and with which he was not previously acquainted. A specimen of the Polistes carnifex was hunting about for caterpillars in my garden. I found one about an inch long, and held it out towards the wasp on the point of a stick. The wasp seized the caterpillar immediately, and commenced biting it from head to tail, soon reducing the soft body to a mass of pulp. Then rolling up about one half of the pulp into a ball, it carried it off. Being at the time amidst a thick mass of a fine-leaved climbing plant, it proceeded, before flying away, to take note of the place where the other half was left. To do this, it hovered in front for a few seconds, then took small circles in front, then larger ones round the whole plant. I thought it had gone, but it returned again, and had another look at the opening in the dense foliage down which the other half of the caterpillar lay. It then flew away, but must have left its burden for distribution with its comrades at the nest, for it returned in less than two minutes, and making one circle around the bush, descended to the opening, alighted on a leaf, and ran inside. The green remnant of the caterpillar was lying on another leaf inside, but not connected with the one on which the wasp alighted, so that in running in it missed the object and soon got hopelessly lost in the thick foliage. Coming out, it took another circle, and pounced down on the same spot again, as soon as it came opposite to it. Three small seed-pods, which here grew close together, formed the marks that I had myself taken to note the place, and these the wasp seemed also to have taken as its guide, for it flew directly down to them, and ran inside; but the small leaf on which the fragment of caterpillar lay, not being directly connected with any on the outside, it again missed it, and again got far away from the object of its search. It then flew out again, and the same process was repeated again and again. Always, when in circling round it came in sight of the seed-pods, down it pounced, alighted near them, and recommenced its quest on foot. I was surprised at its perseverance, and thought it would have given up the search; not so, however, for it returned at least half-a-dozen times, and seemed to get angry, hurrying about with buzzing wings. At last it stumbled across its prey, seized it eagerly, and as there was nothing more to come back for, flew straight off to its nest, without taking any further note of the locality. Such an action is not the result of blind instinct, but of a thinking mind; and it is wonderful to see an insect so differently constructed using a mental process similar to that of man. It is suggestive of the probability of many of the actions of insects that we ascribe to instinct being the result of the possession of reasoning powers.

1 “Naturalist on the River Amazons” page 222.

Where the tramway terminated at San Benito mine, the valley had greatly contracted in width, and the stream, excepting in time of flood, had dwindled to a little rill. A small rough path, made by the miners to bring in their timber, continued up the brook, crossing and recrossing it. The sides of the valley were very steep, and covered with trees and undergrowth. The foliage arched over the water, forming beautiful little dells, with small, clear pools of water. One of these was a favourite resort of humming-birds, who came there to bathe, for these gem-like birds are very frequent in their ablutions, and I spent many a half-hour in the evenings leaning against a trunk of a tree that had fallen across the stream four or five yards below the pool, and watching them. At all times of the day they occasionally came down, but during the short twilight there was a crowd of bathers, and often there were two or three at one time hovering over the pool, which was only three feet across, and dipping into it. Some would delay their evening toilet until the shades of night were thickening, and it became almost too dark to distinguish them from my stand. Three species regularly frequented the pool, and three others occasionally visited it. The commonest was the Thalurania venusta (Gould), the male of which is a most beautiful bird — the front of the head and shoulders glistening purple, the throat brilliant light green, shining in particular lights like polished metal, the breast blue, and the back dark green. It was a beautiful sight to see this bird hovering over the pool, turning from side to side by quick jerks of its tail, now showing its throat a gleaming emerald, now its shoulders a glistening amethyst, then darting beneath the water, and rising instantly, throw off a shower of spray from its quivering wings, and fly up to an overhanging bough and commence to preen its feathers. All humming-birds bathe on the wing, and generally take three or four dips, hovering, between times, about three inches above the surface.

Sometimes when the last-mentioned species was suspended over the water, its rapidly vibrating wings showing like a mere film, a speck shot down the valley, swift as an arrow, as white as a snowflake, and stopping suddenly over the pool, startled the emerald-throat, and frightened it up amongst the overhanging branches. The intruder was the white-cap (Microchera parvirostris, Lawr.), the smallest of thirteen different kinds of humming-birds that I noticed around Santo Domingo; being only a little more than two and a half inches in length, including the bill; but it was very pugnacious, and I have often seen it drive some of the larger birds away from a flowering tree. Its body is purplish-red, with green reflections, the front of its head flat and pearly white, and, when flying towards one, its white head is the only part seen. Sometimes the green-throat would hold its ground, and then it was comical to see them hovering over the water, jerking round from side to side, eyeing each other suspiciously, the one wishing to dip, but apparently afraid to do so, for fear the other would take a mean advantage, and do it some mischief whilst under water; though what harm was possible I could not see, as there were no clothes to steal. I have seen human bathers acting just like the birds, though from a different cause, bobbing down towards the water, but afraid to dip their heads, and the idea of comicality arose, as it does in most of the ludicrous actions of animals, from their resemblance to those of mankind. The dispute would generally end by the green-throat giving way, and leaving the pugnacious little white-cap in possession of the pool.

Besides the humming-birds I have mentioned, there were four or five other small ones that we used to call squeakers, as it is their habit for a great part of the day to sit motionless on branches and every now and then to chirp out one or two shrill notes. At first I thought these sounds proceeded from insects, as they resemble those of crickets; but they are not so continuous. After a while I got to know them, and could distinguish the notes of the different species. It was not until then that I found out how full the woods are of humming-birds, for they are most difficult to see when perched amongst the branches, and when flying they frequent the tops of trees in flower, where they are indistinguishable. I have sometimes heard the different chirps of more than a dozen individuals, although unable to get a glimpse of one of them, as they are mere brown specks on the branches, their metallic colours not showing from below, and the sound of their chirpings — or rather squeakings — being most deceptive as to their direction and distance from the hearer. My conclusion, after I got to know their voices in the woods, was that the humming-birds around Santo Domingo equalled in number all the rest of the birds together, if they did not greatly exceed them. Yet one may sometimes ride for hours without seeing one. They build their nests on low shrubs — often on branches overhanging paths, or on the underside of the large leaves of the shrubby palm-trees. They are all bold birds, suffering you to approach nearer than any other kinds, and often flying up and hovering within two or three yards from you. This fearlessness is probably owing to the great security from foes that their swiftness of flight ensures to them. I have noticed amongst butterflies that the swiftest and strongest flyers, such as the Hesperidae, also allow you to approach near to them, feeling confident that they can dart away from any threatened danger — a misplaced confidence, however, so far as the net of the collector is concerned.

At the head of the tramway, near the entrance to the San Benito mine, we planted about three acres of the banks of the valley with grass. In clearing away the fallen logs and brushwoods, many beetles, scorpions, and centipedes were brought to light. Amongst the last was a curious species belonging to the sucking division of the Myriapods (Sugantia, of Brandt), which had a singular method of securing its prey. It is about three inches long, and sluggish in its movements; but from its tubular mouth it is able to discharge a viscid fluid to the distance of about three inches, which stiffens on exposure to the air to the consistency of a spider’s web, but stronger. With this it can envelop and capture its prey, just as a fowler throws his net over a bird. The order of Myriapoda is placed by systematists at the bottom of the class of insects; the sucking Myriapods are amongst the lowest forms of the order, and it is singular to find one of these lowly organised species furnished with an apparatus of such utility, and the numberless higher forms without any trace of it. Some of the other centipedes have two phosphorescent spots in the head, which shine brightly at night, casting a greenish light for a little distance in front of them. I do not know the use of these lights, but think that they may serve to dazzle or allure the insects on which they prey. We planted two kinds of grasses, both of which have been introduced into Nicaragua within the last twenty years. They are called Para and Guinea grasses, I believe, after the places from which they were first brought. The former is a strong succulent grass, rooting at the joints; the latter grows in tufts, rising to a height of four to five feet. Both are greatly liked by cattle and mules; large bundles were cut every day for the latter whilst they were at work on the tramway, and they kept in good condition on it without other food. The natural, indigenous grass that springs up in clearings in the neighbouring forest is a creeping species, and is rather abundant about Santo Domingo. It has a bitter taste, and cattle do not thrive on it, but rapidly fall away in condition if confined to it. They do better when allowed to roam about the outskirts of the forest amongst the brushwood, as they browse on the leaves of many of the bushes. This grass is not found far outside the forest, but is replaced on the savannahs by a great variety of tufted grasses, which seem gradually to overcome the creeper in the clearings on the edge of the forest; but at Santo Domingo the latter was predominant, and although I sowed the seeds of other grasses amongst it, they did not succeed, on account of the cattle picking them out and eating them in preference to the other.

There were many other paths leading in different directions into the forest, and I shall describe one of them, as it differed from those already mentioned, leading to the top of a bare rock, rising fully 1000 feet above Santo Domingo.

This rock, on the southern and most perpendicular side, weathers to a whitish colour, and is called Pena Blanca, meaning the white peak. It is visible from some points on the savannahs. During the summer months it is, on the northern side, covered with the flowers of a caulescent orchid (Ornithorhynchos) that has not been found anywhere else in the neighbourhood; and the natives, who are very fond of flowers, inheriting the taste from their Indian ancestors, at this time, often on Sundays ascend the peak and bring down large quantities of the blossoms. Its colour, when it first opens, is scarlet and yellow. With it grows a crimson Mackleania. Once when I made an ascent, in March, these flowers were in perfection, and in great abundance, and the northern face of the rock was completely covered with them. When I emerged from the gloomy forest, the sun was shining brightly on it, and the combination of scarlet, crimson, and yellow made a perfect blaze of colour, approaching more nearly to the appearance of flames of fire than anything I have elsewhere seen in the floral world.

ADVENTURE WITH A JAGUAR

The last ascent I made to the summit of Pena Blanca was in the middle of June 1872, after we had had about two weeks of continuously wet weather. On the 17th, the rain clouds cleared away, the sun shone out, and only a few fleecy cumuli sailed across the blue sky, driven by the north-east trade wind. I had on previous visits to the peak noticed the elytra of many beetles lying on the bare top. They were the remnants of insects caught by frogs; great bulky fellows that excited one’s curiosity to know how ever they got there. Amongst the elytra were those of beetles that I had never taken, and as they were night-roaming species, I determined to go up some evening and wait until dark, with a lanthorn, to see if I could take any of them. We had one heavy shower of rain in the afternoon, so that the forest was very wet, and the hills slippery and difficult for the mule. The path ascends the valley of Santo Domingo, then crosses a range behind a mine called the “Consuelo,” enters the forest, descending at first a steep slope to a clear brook; after crossing this, the ascent of the hill of Pena Blanca begins, and is continuous for about a mile to the top of the rock. The ground was damp, and the forest gloomy, but here and there glimpses of sunshine glanced through the trees, and enlivened the scene a little. I startled a mountain hen (Tinamus sp.) which whirred off amongst the bushes. The dry slopes of hills are their favourite feeding-places, and around Pena Blanca they are rather plentiful; and so, also, in their season, are the curassows and penelopes. In the lower ground, the footmarks of the tapir are very frequent, especially along the small paths, where I have sometimes traced them for more than a mile. They are harmless beasts. One of our men came across one near Pena Blanca, and attacked and killed it with his knife. He brought in the head to me. It was as large as that of a bullock. I often tried to track them, but never succeeded in seeing one. One day in my eagerness to get near what I believed to be one, I rushed into rather unpleasant proximity with a jaguar, the “tigre” of the natives. I had just received a fresh supply of cartridge cases for my breech-loader, and wishing to get some specimens of the small birds that attend the armies of the foraging ants, I made up three or four small charges of Number 8 shot, putting in only a quarter of an ounce of shot into each charge, so as not to destroy their plumage. I went back into the forest along a path where I had often seen the great footmarks of the tapir. After riding about a couple of miles, I heard the notes of some birds, and, dismounting, tied up my mule, and pushed through the bushes. The birds were shy, and in following them I had got about fifty yards from the path, to a part where the big trees were more clear of brushwood, when I heard a loud hough in a thicket towards the left. It was something between a cough and a growl, but very loud, and could only have been produced by a very large animal. Never having seen or heard a jaguar before in the woods, and having often seen the footprints of the tapir, I thought it was the latter, and thinking I would have to get very close up to it to do it any damage with my little charge of small shot, I ran along towards the sound, which was continued at intervals of a few seconds. Seeing a large animal moving amongst the thick bushes, only a few yards from me, I stopped, when, to my amazement, out stalked a great jaguar (like the housekeeper’s rat, the largest I had ever seen), in whose jaws I should have been nearly as helpless as a mouse in those of a cat. He was lashing his tail, at every roar showing his great teeth, and was evidently in a bad humour. Notwithstanding I was so near to him, I scarcely think he saw me at first, as he was crossing the open glade about twenty yards in front of me. I had not even a knife with me to show fight with if he attacked me, and my small charge of shot would not have penetrated beyond his skin, unless I managed to hit him when he was very near to me. To steady my aim, if he approached me, I knelt down on one knee, supporting my left elbow on the other. He was just opposite to me at the time, the movement caught his eye, he turned half round, and put down his neck and head towards the ground as if he was going to spring, and I believe he could have cleared the ground between us at a single bound, but the next moment he turned away from me, and was lost sight of amongst the bushes. I half regretted I had not fired and taken my chance; and when he disappeared, I followed a few yards, greatly chagrined that in the only chance I had ever had of bagging a jaguar, I was not prepared for the encounter, and had to let “I dare not,” wait upon “I would.” I returned the next morning with a supply of ball cartridges, but in the night it had rained heavily, so that I could not even find the jaguar’s tracks, and although afterwards I was always prepared, I never met with another. From the accounts of the natives, I believe that in Central America he never attacks man unless first interfered with, but when wounded is very savage and dangerous. Velasquez told me that his father had mortally wounded one, which, however, sprang after him, and had got hold of him by the leg, when it fortunately fell down dead.

The path up Pena Blanca hill gets steeper and steeper, until about fifty yards from the rock it is too precipitous and rugged to ride with safety, so that the rest of the ascent must be made on foot. Tying my mule to a sapling, I scrambled up the path, and soon emerging from the dark forest, stood under the grey face of the rock towering up above me. It has two peaks, of which the highest is accessible, footholds having been cut into the face of it, and the most difficult part being surmounted by a rude ladder made by cutting notches in a pole. Above it the rock is shelving, and the top is easily reached. I found a strong north-east wind blowing, which made it rather uncomfortable on the top, but the view was very fine and varied. To the south-east and east the eye roams over range beyond range all covered with dark forest, that partly hides the inequalities of the ground, the trees in the hollows growing higher than those on the hills. On this side the rock is a sheer precipice, going down perpendicularly for more than three hundred feet; the face of the cliff all weathered white. The tops of the trees are far below, and as one looking down upon them hears the various cries and whistles of the birds come up, and marks the vultures wheeling round in aerial circles over the trees far below one’s feet, then it is that you realise that at last the forest, with its world of foliage, has been surmounted. Looking down on the trees, every shade of green meets the eye, here light as grass, there dark as holly, whilst the fleecy clouds above cast lines of dark shadows over hill and dale.

Directly south-east is a high rock, about three miles distant, and beyond it the Carca and the Artigua rivers must meet, judging from the fall of the country. The course of the Carca is marked by some patches of light green, that look like grass, and are probably clearings made by the Indians.

To the south the eye first passes over about six miles of forest, then savannahs and grassy ranges stretching to the lake, which is only dimly seen, with the peaks of Madera and Ometepec more distinct, the latter bearing south-west by west. Alone on the summit of a high peak, with surging green billows of foliage all around, dim misty mountains in the distance, and above the blue heavens, checkered with fleecy clouds, that have travelled up hundreds of miles from the north-east, thoughts arise that can be only felt in their full intensity amid solitude and nature’s grandest phases. Then man’s intellect strives to grapple with the great mysteries of his existence, and like a fluttering bird that beats itself against the bars of its cage, falls back baffled and bruised.

PENA BLANCA

Another shower of rain came on, quickly followed by sunshine again. Great banks of vapour began to rise from the forest, and fill the valleys, and now looking down over the precipice, instead of foliage there was a glistening white cloud spread out below, up through which came the cries of birds. The hills stood up through the cloud of mist like islands. To the south-west, over the savannahs, the air was clear, and the peak of Ometepec was a fine object in the distance. A white cloud enveloping its top looked like a snow-cap, and this, as the night came on, descended lower and lower, mantling closely around it, and conforming to its outline. That the savannahs should not give off the same vapour as the forest has been ascribed, and, I believe, with reason, to the fact that their evaporating surfaces are much smaller than those of the latter, with their numberless leaves heated by the previous sunshine.

As night came on, a wetting mist drove over the top of the peak, and the wind increased in strength, making it very cold and bleak, for there was no shelter of any kind on the summit. Such a night was not a favourable one for insects, but I got a few beetles that were new to me on the very top of the rock, where only rushes are growing. They appeared to be travelling with the north-east trade wind, and were sifted out by the rushes as they passed over. On a finer night I have no doubt many species might be obtained. I suppose that the wind was moving at the rate of not less than thirty miles an hour, so that the beetles, when they got up to it from the forest below, where it was comparatively calm, might easily be carried hundreds of miles without much labour to themselves. I added two fine new Carabidae to my collection; and about eleven o’clock started back again, having many a fall on the slippery steep before I reached the place where I had left my mule. It was a very dark night, and the oil of my small bull’s-eye lanthorn was exhausted, but the mule knew every step of the way, and, though slipping often, never fell, and carried me safely home.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32