The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #45: Learn to Deal With Incredibly Annoying Bugs

Here are some of the worst bugs you'll encounter while birding, as well as some methods for prevention.

Even the most ardent biophile gets irritated by bugs. They’re built to bother us, with their incessant buzzing, crawling, biting, flying, creeping, crawling, stinging, hole boring, and just general annoyingness. Of course, they’re also critical to the health of the environment: They clean up waste, pollinate our plants, provide food for lots of other animals, and more. I just wish they’d do that stuff a little farther away from me, you know?

Bugs—insects, arachnids, arthropods, etc.—are an inescapable aspect of birding. In tropical areas they’re a year-round presence, and their absence is one of the few silver linings of a frigid northern winter. But spring is here and the bugs are returning, so we need to talk about them.

The most fun way to talk about bugs is to complain about them. All birders have stories about some tick bite they got, or swarms of mosquitoes so thick they needed a machete to cut through. I asked Twitter which crawly creatures were the worst to deal with while birding, giving three of my most annoying bugs—chiggers, ticks, and mosquitoes—as well as an “other” option. Here are the results, with some suggestions on how to deal with each one:

Greenheads

I had never actually heard the term “greenhead” before, but once I looked into it I know exactly what these people are talking about. Greenheads are a particularly persistent species of horse-fly that live near salt marshes on the East Coast. They’re big, and their bite hurts like heck. What more do you need to know?

How to deal with greenheads: I wasn’t able to find much science about protecting yourself from greenheads, but I was able to find a lot of local lore. Just about every small-town newspaper on the Atlantic seaboard has written about the plague of coastal flies, each offering their own homespun advice. Greenheads can be a big problem at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and other famous birding spots in south Jersey, and locals there use “cactus juice” moisturizer and watered-down listerine to keep the bugs away. Meanwhile, folks in Newburyport, Massachusetts swear by Skin-So-Soft bath oil, despite having “no way of vouching for it.” Out on Cape Cod they apparently rub Tanqueray gin on their legs to keep the flies away. I’d also use a bit of that gin to alleviate any pain after I've been bitten, but that’s just a personal tip from me.

Human Botflies

So, I hadn’t really considered botflies. I have never birded in tropical Central or South America and haven’t encountered them in the wild. Nor have I experienced the unique terror of having one particular species, the Human Botfly, get its eggs into me via a mosquito bite and have the larva grow underneath and then burst out of my skin. No, I hadn’t considered them, and honestly, I never ever want to think about them again.

How to deal with botflies: The Internet says that “the easiest and most effective way to remove botfly larvae is to apply petroleum jelly over the location, which prevents air from reaching the larva, suffocating it. It can then be removed with tweezers safely after a day.” Sounds awesome! Or, you could just lock yourself inside and never come out again.

Black Flies

Black flies are that classic pest of dark northern forests. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to some deep-accented Mainer say to me, “Oh I’ll tell ya what Maine’s real state bird is: the black fly!” as he chortles into his Bud Light. It’s a staple of their humor up there. Black flies are just what they sound like: little black flies of the family Simuliidae. They swarm around in great numbers and bite the heck out of mammals, including humans.

How to deal with black flies: It’s hard to deal with black flies. According to Purdue University, there’s little someone can do if they want to avoid black flies and also be outside during black fly season. Great. Wearing DEET bug spray can help, and just make sure to cover up and protect your skin if you’re headed outside. These insects are also attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, and so they have a tendency to swarm the face. Fun! Pack gloves and one of those hats with a mesh net over the face if you’re traveling to a place where black flies get really bad, like the Canadian Arctic.

Biting Midges

No one tweeted about midges, or “no-see-ums,” as I grew up calling them, but I wanted to include them because I have personal beef with them. I planned to propose to my then-girlfriend on New Years’ Eve from a tent platform in the middle of Florida Bay, off Everglades National Park. It was going to be so romantic. We got down to Flamingo Campground a couple nights early to explore the park, and proceeded to have two of the most miserable nights of our lives. These biting midges were small enough to fly through the mesh of my tent, absolutely swarming us all night long. We couldn’t just hide in our sleeping bags because it was like 85 degrees even in the middle of the night, and we were just pouring sweat. We survived the first night, but both sat up in the middle of the second, delirious with lack of sleep, and promised each other we’d leave in the morning. My secret proposal be damned. It turned out fine, but I’ll never forgive no-see-ums for ruining my romantic plans.

How to deal with midges: These little flies are in the family Ceratopogonidae and closely related to black flies. They’re also similarly resistant to bug sprays that don’t include DEET. This budget-looking website from Costa Rica says you’re supposed to use tents with 10,000mm mesh in order to keep midges out. I wish I had known.

Fire Ants

Fire ants are terrifying because you don’t know they’re there until they’re everywhere. You’ll pause to look at some bird in a tree and then, after a minute, look down to see your legs entirely swarming with ants. Panic time. Their bites are painful, and the ants find their way into all nooks and crannies.

The most annoying fire ants we’ve got are literally called the Red Imported Fire Ant, and they’re an invasive species that has colonized the southern half of the country. They’ve also been introduced out of their native South America into Australia, India, China, and New Zealand, among other places. Watch where you stand, no matter where you are.

How to deal with fire ants: One important lesson is to just not step on a fire ant nest. Look where you’re going, you know? If you do get stung, over-the-counter itch, steroid creams, and cold compresses work well enough.

Killer Bees

AHH KILLER BEES. I’ve never dealt with killer bees, or Africanized honey bees as they are properly called, and as such, I don’t really know what to say about them. Killer bees aren’t really a birding annoyance as much as they are a total life ruiner, but that's a column for another day.

How to deal with killer bees: RUNNNNN!

Chiggers

Okay now we’re getting into what I consider to be the three most annoying bugs that birders have to deal with. Chiggers are definitely up there, even if you don’t know you’ve been bitten until it’s too late.

Chiggers are related to ticks, and the two adult bugs look similar. It’s the larval chiggers that birders need to worry about, though. These nearly microscopic bugs live in a variety of vegetated habitats and wait to hitch a ride on passing mammals, like birders. One they've found a host, they'll then begin feeding on the skin of said host, not really “biting” like other insects but making a little hole, injecting some enzymes, and sucking up the digested tissue. It’s pretty gross.

Chiggers find their way into weird areas, like the back of the knee or up near the groin. Most people don’t know they’ve been bitten until a day or two later, when super itchy red bumps appear. Super itchy. Dealing with chigger bites means about a week of thinking about how itchy the bites are, trying to resist the urge to scratch all the itchy bites, giving in, scratching the heck out of all the bites, and then shame. It’s not fun. Chiggers are not fun.

How to deal with chiggers: People swear that chiggers can be repelled by using DEET or by treating clothes with Permethrin. You can wear long pants and boots, but honestly they seem to get right through that stuff on me. Avoiding taller grasses helps . . . but that’s where the birds are!

Once you’ve been bitten there isn’t a lot that helps other than time and some hot showers. I’ve used all the cortisone-type steroid creams but nothing seems to work. 

Ticks

In all seriousness, ticks give me nightmares. They’re monsters: crawling silently up your skin looking for a place to attach themselves to feed off your blood. I truly hate them with all of my heart.

The worst tick moments are the discovery, that random moment the day after you’ve been out birding when you find a tick attached to you somewhere. I’ve gotten into the shower the next morning and found a tick on my thigh. I’ve run my fingers through my hair at work and found a tick attached to my scalp. I had one crawl across my face while driving.

Ticks aren’t just annoying; they’re dangerous, too. Ticks carry all kinds of colorfully named and terrible diseases: Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Rabbit Fever, Powassan Disease, etc. Each tick bite is attended by the genuine fear of acquiring some awful ailment. Ticks are no good.

How to deal with ticks: The best way to deal with ticks is not to let them bite you. Wear boots or tuck your pants into your shoes when you’re walking in tall vegetation. Light-colored clothes also make it easier to spot them. Make sure you perform a thorough tick check as soon as you can, making sure to check places like your scape, your armpits, and behind your knees. If you do find a tick, remove it safely and keep it, in case you start to experience symptoms of a tick-borne disease and need to identify the species that gave it to you.

There is lots you should know about avoiding ticks or, if bitten, getting treated. Audubon has some great advice here about preparation and avoidance. If you begin to experience odd symptoms after getting a tick bite, check the CDC for info on the different diseases, and get yourself to a doctor pronto!

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are the most annoying birding bug. They hit the triple whammy: They’re persistent and bothersome while you’re out in the field; their bites itch for days; and they transmit terrible diseases. Congratulations, mosquitoes: You’re the worst.

My all-time worst mosquito birding story happened in the Everglades, on the Snake Bight Trail. It was my first time birding in Florida, and I was excited to stroll through the mangroves down to the famous American Flamingo-viewing area. The trail was probably a mile long, but the hordes of mosquitoes made it an absolute death march. I was swarmed. My exposed hand holding my scope and tripod was covered in a glove of bugs. I could hardly keep my eyes open. I was undoubtedly surrounded by amazing birds—for all I knew there were Mangrove Cuckoos copulating in the branches above my head—but I couldn’t stop walking long enough to look. Mosquitoes ruined my walk, and I was feeling their bites for the rest of the trip.

How to deal with mosquitoes: Bug sprays, DEET, electric bug zappers, citronella candles . . . whatever works for you. If none of that works, don’t forget that it just feels good to swat the heck out of them when they land on you.

Like it or not, annoying bugs are an inevitable part of birding during the summertime. Deal with them the best you can, whether it’s with bug spray, special clothing, or tents with fine mesh windows. When all else fails—and trust me, all else might fail—at least make sure you remember the story. Birders may hate bugs, but they sure love complaining about them later.  

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