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Return to Santo Domingo–The Birds of Chontales—The Insects of
Chontales-Mimetic forms-Departure from the Mines—Nicaragua as a field for Emigration-Journey to Greytown-Return to England. Having finished our business at Masaya, we rode back to Granada on the evening of the second day, and the next morning took a passage in a fine steamboat that Mr. Hollenbeck, of Greytown, had placed on the lake to convey passengers and goods between Granada and San Carlos, at the head of the river San Juan. We arrived at San Ubaldo at two o'clock, and found our mules safe but foot-sore, through travelling over the rocky hills from Santo Claro. The San José plains were in a dreadfully muddy state, and for five miles we went plunging through the swamps. Most of the mules fell several times, and we had great difficulty in getting them up again. We passed two travellers with their mules up to their girths in mud, and incapable of extricating themselves, but could not help them, as we dared not allow ours to stand, or they would stick fast also. We had met, at San Ubaldo, the son of Dr. Seemann, on his way home to England. His pack-mule had stuck fast in the plains the night before, and he had passed the night sitting on his boxes, half sunk in the mud, and attacked by myriads of mosquitoes that had covered his hands, face, and neck with blisters.
It was two hours after dark before we got across the weary plains, and we found shelter for the night at a small hut on their border, where, for a consideration, the occupants gave up to us their mosquito curtains and stretchers, and sat up themselves. I suppose in such situations people get used to the mosquitoes, but to us they were intolerable. They buzzed around us and settled on our hands and face, if the former were not incessantly employed driving them off. Those of our party who had no curtains had a lively time of it. A gentleman of colour, from Jamaica, who was returning to the mines after escorting young Mr. Seemann to the port, and who could find no place to rest in, excepting an old hammock, kept his long arms going round like a windmill, every now and then wakening every one up with a loud crack, as he tried to bring his flat hand down on one of his tormentors. A mosquito, however, is not to be caught, even in the dark, in such a way. It holds up its two hinder legs as feelers; and the current of air driven before a descending blow warns it of the impending danger, so it darts off to one side, to renew its attack somewhere else. The most certain way to catch them in the dark is to move the outstretched finger cautiously towards where one is felt, until a safe striking distance is reached. But what is the use of killing one when they are in myriads ? None whatever, excepting that it is some occupation for the sleepless victim. The black gentleman was a thinker and a scholar, and used to amuse himself at the mines by writing letters addressed to Mr. Jacob Elam, Esqre. (himself), in which he was informed he had been left legacies of ten, twenty, or thirty thousand pounds, a few thousand more or less costing nothing. Pondering during that weary night over the purposes of creation, he startled me about one in the morning with the question, “ Mr. Belt, sir, can you tell me what is the use of mosquitoes ?”
“To enjoy themselves and be happy, Jacob.”
“Ah, sir! if I was only a mosquito !” said Jacob, as he came down with another fruitless whack.
At the first cock-crow we were up, and as the cheerful dawn lighted up the east, we were in our saddles, and the miseries of the night were but the jests of the morning. The mules even seemed to be eager to leave that dismal swamp, where malaria hung in the air, and mosquitoes did their best to drive mankind away from the pestilential morass. The dry savannahs were before us, our hearts were young as the morning, the tormenting spirits of the night had flown away with the darkness, and jest and banter enlivened the road. We reached Acoyapo at nine o'clock; and there my good friend Don Dolores Bermudez lent me a fresh mule, so, riding all day, I reached Santo Domingo in the evening.
I have little more of interest to relate. Years had sped on at Santo Domingo ; and the time approached when I should be set free from the worries and responsibilities attending the supervision of gold mines, the products of which were just at that tantalising point, on the verge between profit and loss, that made their superintendence a most irksome and anxious duty. The difficulty of the task was vastly increased by the capital of the company having been originally wasted in the erection of machinery that proved to be useless; so that financial questions constantly retarded the completion of
the works. This book has not been written, however, to tell the story of the struggles of a mining engineer ; and I turn aside with pleasure from this slight digression to say what little more I have to relate of my naturalhistory experiences.
I did not, until near the conclusion of my stay, commence collecting the skins of birds, contenting myself with watching and noting their habits. I obtained the skins of ninety-two species only; but small as this collection was, it proved an important addition to the knowledge of the bird-fauna of Nicaragua. The eminent ornithologist, Mr. Osbert Salvin, published in the “Ibis” for July, 1872, a list of seventy-three species that I had up to that time sent to England. Altogether, only one hundred and fifty species, including those that I had collected, were known from Nicaragua. Fragmentary as our knowledge is, it is sufficient, in Mr. Salvin's opinion, to indicate, with tolerable accuracy, to which of the two sub-provinces of the Central American fauna the forest region of Chontales belongs. The birds I sent to England proved nearly conclusively that the Costa-Rican sub-province included Chontales in Nicaragua, and that the boundary between it and the sub-province of Southern Mexico and Guatemala must be sought for more to the north-west.
Of the southern species, which in Chontales find their northern limit, so far as is known, there are in my small collection thirty-two species, whilst belonging to the northern sub-province, and not known to range further south, there are only seven species ; showing that the connection with Costa Rica and the south is much closer than that with Guatemala and the north, and that the
· THE NATURALIST IN NICARAGUA. (Ch. XXI.
• THE NATURALISI
boundary between the two sub-provinces is not found, as was supposed, in the depression of the isthmus occupied by the great lakes and their outlet the San Juan river, but must exist further towards, if not in, Honduras. Mr. Salvin says, “What I suspect to be the case, though I cannot as yet bring evidence to prove it, is, that the forests of Chontales spread uninterruptedly into Costa Rica, but that towards the north and north-west a decided break occurs, and that this break determines the range of the prevalent Costa Rican and Guatemalan forest forms."* I can confirm Mr. Salvin's supposition. The San Juan river forms no greater break in the forest than a dozen other rivers that run through it and fall into the Atlantic. But a decided interruption does occur to the north-west. It is found in the valleys of Humuya and Goascoran in Honduras, which, along with the central plain of Comayagua, constitute a great transverse valley running north and south from sea to sea, and cutting completely through the chain of the cordil. leras.f The highest point of this pass is 2850 feet above the sea, and the country around is composed of undulating savannahs and plains covered with grass. The Gulf of Honduras, cutting deeply into the continent, also plays an important part in preventing the intermingling of the faunas of the two sub-provinces, but the principal barrier is the termination of the great Atlantic forest north-westward, which even at Cape Gracias begins to give place to plains and savannahs next the coast.
My entomological collections were much more complete than my collections of birds, especially as to the
* “ The Ibis,” July, 1872, p. 312. + Squier, “States of Central America," p. 681.