JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Komchen de Los Pájaros
just outside Dzemul, Yucatán, Mexico

November 28, 2004

SPOTTED SKUNK ENCOUNTER
Monday morning at dawn I was standing next to a pond hoping to see some wildlife when down the trail came a small, black critter with large white spots, and about the size of a normal rat. The binoculars showed it to be a Spotted Skunk, SPILOGALE AUGUSTIFRONS ssp YUCATANENSIS, and I was thrilled to think I might see it foraging for food along the water's edge. I stood perfectly still, trying to be "invisible."

The skunk passed right by the pond and continued bounding down the trail toward me. I could hardly believe my luck. Closer and closer he came until he was so near that my binoculars couldn't focus on him. I lowered my binoculars and as the skunk continued coming right at me I began thinking that I was not seeing standard skunk behavior.

In fact, that skunk ran right up to within a foot of my feet, suddenly did a hand-stand on his front legs with his back legs pointing skyward and his tail curled over his back. Not wanted to be squirted, I took off running.

Assuming that once the skunk saw me moving he'd be frightened and escape in the opposite direction, I proceeded only a few feet before stopping and looking back. The skunk was running after me. I ran 20 feet more and by golly that skunk stayed right behind me. I was barefooted and the trail was rough with jagged rocks so running was a painful business, but I did it anyway.

The skunk chased me a good 150 yards before I made it back to my little bungalow and just barely got the screen door slammed before he arrived and began sniffing and pushing furiously against the door's base. Then he actually climbed up the screen itself, but only got about a yard high before falling off. This he did several times.

I'd never heard of this kind of behavior in a skunk so I wondered whether I might have run into one with rabies. Fortunately I had a book describing certain Mexican mammals, including skunks (Fauna Sylvester de Mexico by A.S. Leopard), and it told me just what I wanted to know.

"The Spotted Skunk is more lively, agile and aggressive than the larger species," I read. "When Spotted Skunks feel threatened they often quickly attack their aggressor, and this habit has given rise to the false notion that Spotted Skunks are rabid... They've told me that in the Yucatan {they} attack without provocation, and that the most violent attacks take place when the male is looking for a female... "

So, I'd been witness to a behavior that was normal for the Yucatan subspecies of Spotted Skunk. I felt honored.

For the rest of the day that little skunk ran up and down the road and even in the middle of the day came sniffing and running around the big pool near the main residence. If he was looking for a lady skunk, he must have been absolutely intoxicated by his hormones, for rushing around like that in broad daylight isn't at all skunk-like.

That night I took a walk and in the moonlight saw him coming down the road. This time I let him come right up to me and actually get atop my bare feet. I couldn't see him clearly but it felt as if he did some kind of dance there, before I lost my nerve and once more ran away.

Sadly, the next morning we found him drowned in the big pool. I wasn't surprised, having seen how he rushed wherever he went.

This is one skunk I won't forget. Of course Ana María had to point out that a few weeks ago when I encountered a Mountain Lion in California I'd hardly broken my stride while jogging, yet this little Mexican skunk had managed to make me run down the road twice. I think the folks here regard that as one point for Mexico.

You can see a picture of the very similar and closely related Western Spotted Skunk at www.calmzoo.org/stories/storyReader$186.

*****

YUCATAN JAYS
I can't think of a single country I've been in where there wasn't some kind of jay-bird with a flashy appearance, remarkable curiosity, very loud mouth, and outlandish behavior. Mother Nature clearly is of the opinion that an ecosystem isn't complete unless there's a boisterous clown in the neighborhood.

Well, here that attention-getting jay is the Yucatan Jay, CYANOCORAX YUCATANICUS, in some fieldguides designated as a subspecies of the more generally distributed Black-and-blue Jay. Yucatan Jays are fair- sized birds with black heads and chests, with the rest of the body dark blue, except for yellowish legs, and young birds have very conspicuous, bright-yellow bills.

The birds fly about in noisily chattering flocks of a dozen or more. One reason the flocks are so large is that young birds remain with their parents, helping take care of their even younger siblings. It shouldn't be surprising to find any species of jay displaying a more-complex-than-normal social structure. Jays belong to the same bird family as crows and magpies, and most birders agree that these are among the most highly evolved and intelligent of all birds.

Still, many mornings I see one of their behaviors that surprises me. At dawn, right outside my porch, usually there are a couple of horses grazing, just waiting for me to feed them my banana peelings. There's a white horse and a dark brown one, and the brown one very often has six to twelve Yucatan Jays riding him. Sometimes a jay descends the horse's tail looking for whatever might be suspended in the long hairs. Sometimes a couple of jays sit for a long time just watching the horse's tail-hole. I suspect that any tick climbing onto this horse is quickly devoured by a jay.

Most of the jays riding the brown horse appear to be enjoying the trip. They perch in a line along the horse's spine, looking around, squawking, preening and billing their neighbors.

You can see a young Yucatan Jay with its yellow bill at www.birdseen.co.uk/mexico/yucjay.htm.

*****

YUCATAN WEATHER
On Thanksgiving day an aunt in Kentucky emailed me that it was 34° up there, so I felt pretty smug about our weather here. In fact, the weather has been great every day since I've been here. If you're ever curious about what the current weather is like in Mérida, go to www.wunderground.com/global/stations/76644.html.

The other day my turtle-loving friend Ricardo told me this about the weather here: When the wind blows directly from the south, in three days there'll be a "norte," a "norther," a blast of really cool air blowing in off the Gulf just north of here. Early this week the wind came up from the south and I was tickled to see that three days later, on Thursday, a "norte" rolled in with a deliciously mild and stiff wind. All day it got no hotter than about 82°, and the next morning it was 57°, low enough to make people talk about how cold it was. Ricardo also told me that "nortes" blow in hoards of tiny, blood-thirsty, biting gnats, and that was true, too.

The thing to know about the weather here is that the main seasonal change is not between hot and cold, but between wet and dry. The wet season begins in May or June and lasts until the dry season begins in October or November. It hasn't rained since I've been here, so we're definitely in the dry season now. During the wettest month, September, rain averages seven inches. December and January are our coldest months, with average highs of 85°. May is the hottest month with an average daily high of 97°. You can see monthly averages of rain and minimum and maximum temperatures at www.wunderground.com/NORMS/DisplayIntlNORMS.asp?CityCode=76644&Units=both.

*****

BUYING YOUR HOLIDAY BOOKS
Though here it feels like hot, dry, early-September in Kentucky, I'm told that up North Christmas decorations are already appearing and that there's a decided feeling of winter in the air. I would like to remind everyone that hardly any holiday gift is more appropriate and useful than a good book, especially one that opens doors to nature.

If this year you do buy gift books, please consider using my link to Amazon.com, at the bottom of my main web page at www.backyardnature.net. Just click the Amazon.com logo and you'll go to a page where nature is divided into its major components. Click on "insects," for instance, and you'll be lead to a page listing books on insects. If you see a title that interests you, click on it and you'll go directly to Amazon.com where you can review the book and buy it if you wish. Of course Amazon.com also sells DVDs, audio tapes, and even TVs and refrigerators, and all these items can be accessed through my links.

I get a small referral fee, usually 1.5 to 3% but much less on "big ticket items," on items sold through my links. Basically this income pays my Internet bills, allowing me to break even with all my Internet work. Your use of my links means a lot to me. Thanks.

*****

WALKING INTO DZEMUL
One reason I enjoy walking into the little Maya town of Dzemul right across the road from Komchen is that in many respects it's more like I remember small-town Kentucky being like back in the 1950s than small-town Kentucky is like now. I remember Calhoun, our county seat, on Saturday afternoons with its streets blue with the bibed overalls of farmers making their once-a-week trip into town, taking the time to talk about crops and chew some tobacco with their friends. I remember the excitement of county fairs and local elections, and how whole families visited one another unannounced, and how glad everyone was to see everyone else. Then came TV and "the consumer society."

One part of those earlier times was that back then nearly everyone had a nickname. In Dzemul, it's still that way and often, as back in the 50s, the names are not necessarily flattering. But people get stuck with them and everyone uses them. Sitting in my Internet room across from the cathedral I hear someone call "Ha regresado Don Lechuga ?" -- "Has Lettuce returned?"

How I enjoy entering the dark little tortillaría where, while waiting in line to buy my half kilo of hot corn tortillas, I watch the big, dark, greasy machines taking in basketball-size gobs of moist cornmeal at one end and spitting out steaming tortillas at the other. The machines have so many moving parts that they remind me of dragons scratching for fleas. As I walk into town, what a chore it is to give a smiling "Buenos días" to everyone along the street standing at the door or leaning out the window, but what a shame it would be if that street were as lifeless as Main Street usually is now in Calhoun. How touching it is to see believers making the sign of the Cross right outside the door of my Internet room, as they pass before the Cathedral.

When I walk through Dzemul, I get that poignant feeling you have during the play "My Town" when the ghosts in the cemetery atop the hill look down on the everyday events of the little town below and yearn to be part of it all, to be next to the little boy on the bicycle, hear the streetside mechanic swear when he scrapes his knuckle, to smell the roses.

In Dzemul, in a way, it's as if I've returned from the dead, returned to a time otherwise lost. I think it's one of the smartest things I've ever done to look at what's around me right now, exactly here, just what IS, as if I were a ghost on a hill.

Of course, you don't have to be a gringo in the Maya backcountry to think like this. Just step outside your own front door, look around, and imagine yourself as a ghost on a hill, looking down on your own place, right now. And if what you behold outside your own front door strikes you as empty and lifeless, then it's up to you to change that, one way or another.

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net