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

December 26, 2004

WINTER SOLSTICE-CELBRATION WALK, 2004
To celebrate the beginning of another natural annual cycle, last Tuesday, the Winter Solstice, I strapped on my backpack and started walking. Here's part of what I saw and experienced:

Tuesday, December 21
Chores keep me busy until dusk. As I leave Komchen, already the sky is darkening and the clouds are growing purple. Out on the road I turn north, toward the Gulf beach. Along both sides of the road an abundant, head- high bush with bright yellow composite flowers very like our Spanish Needles is in full bloom. The blossoms so abound that the roadsides glow yellow in the failing light. I whistle the tune of Alice on her Yellow Brick Road.

I make only a couple of miles before it's so dark I must pitch the tent. I place it next to a thorny acacia with frilly, twice-compound leaves. Light from the 3/4- full moon fills my tent so it's like sleeping in a Chinese lantern afloat in night-insect sounds.

Wednesday, December 22
The road is straight, narrow and not much used. Walking its gentle monotony of weeds, bushes, birds and insects soon reveals itself as a kind of meditation. With a tent, sleeping bag and food and water for four days, my backpack is heavy enough, and the heat gradually grows.

A Lesser Roadrunner flushes from the ground into some bushes and poses dramatically in the low-slanting morning sunlight, his crest stiffly erect and his long tail swinging with expectation. At first you forget that roadrunners are members of the Cuckoo Family, but then you notice the long, curved bill, feet with two toes forward and two backward (zygodactyl), the long tail, and you see the similarities. There's a picture at www.osl.state.or.us/home/lib/birds/plate58.GIF.

The heat grows, the wind kicks up, the coast approaches and the vegetation evolves. The yellow-flowered composite bush gives way to tangles of leathery leafed morning-glory vines heavy with large, violet flowers. An organ-pipe type cactus appears here and there, and occasionally inflorescences of agave rise above the ever-lower-growing thornforest. Finally the road enters marshland, mangroves form impenetrable thickets, I pass the Maya ruin of Xcambo, and half a mile later the road becomes a causeway shooting across mudflats just before reaching the beach. There's a page all about Xcambo at www.yucatantoday.com/destinations/eng-xcambo.htm.

It's late morning and I'm a bit dazed with all the sunlight, wind, heat and tiredness. Half a mile across the mudflat a pink smudge shows itself through binoculars as at least a thousand American Flamingos. A white smudge beside them looks like White Pelicans. But I need shelter more than birds right now so I just keep going. There's some abandoned salt ponds and a salt- worker's hut with a mostly collapsed thatched roof at the flat's far edge, and that's where I head. Entering the hut, the shade and windlessness feel like cool silk.

After a snooze, right outside my door, where waves and wind pile up a sudsy froth along a saltpond's banks, a Greater Yellowlegs and a sandpiper half its size methodically probe the mud and shallow water with their slender bills. I'm drowsily watching them work when suddenly a very loud, hoarse croak erupts just a few feet away and a gangly silhouette crashes into my binoculars' field of vision. It's just a Great Blue Heron, but with a wingspread of 70 inches it's big enough to shock a fellow from his sandpiper reverie.

A flash of yellow ignites among the dark, glossy, leathery leaves of a nearby mangrove and when I focus my binoculars there my heart skips another beat. Here's a bird I've looked for for decades and never seen: With a canary-yellow body and chestnut-colored head, it's the Mangrove Warbler, occurring coastally from Mexico to Colombia. It's DENDROICA PETECHIA ssp ERIATHACHORIDES, and you can see one at texasbirds.org/tbrc/mangwarb.htm.

Speaking of mangrove, this is such a profoundly important ecosystem-forming set of species that, if you're interested, you should read more about at w1.mangrove.org:880/, clicking on "habitat dynamics." Here we have Red Mangrove, RHIZOPHORA MANGLE.

Not far from the yellowlegs and sandpiper, standing in shallow water, is a bird that would cause anyone to think of someone in a tuxedo on long, red stilts. It's the Black-necked Stilt, a very prim-looking, black-and- white shorebird with a slender, upturned beak and impossibly long, slender, red legs. See the bird at www.petalumawetlandspark.org/HTML/bnstilt2.html.

In weedy sand at the edge of the flats I spot a Euphorbia with bright red bracts (leaves modified so they look like large flower-petals) subtending small, inconspicuous flowers. This is a wild ancestor of the Christmas Poinsettia. Its red bracts aren't nearly as large and showy as those on the horticultural varieties sold in stores, but anyone can look at this weed and plainly see the beginnings of a Wal-Mart Poinsettia.

In late afternoon I find the kind of place I'm looking for, a spot with an expansive view of the mudflats, right next to the water, on which to pitch the tent. To top it off, there's a soft, cushiony mat of the salt- loving succulent known as Glasswort, genus SALICORNIA (botany.cs.tamu.edu/FLORA/SC02/sc02054.jpg), to make a soft tent floor. About five feet from the water's edge, the tent couldn't make a nicer wildlife blind. Inside, I sit cross-legged with my fieldguides on my lap and my binoculars raised, and as evening approaches here is some of what I see:

Thursday, December 23
At daybreak there's a very heavy fog, I can't see anything, so I roll up the tent and head for the causeway. There about 100 flamingoes preen and feed about 50 feet off the road. Their main feeding technique is to "walk in place" while turning in a circle, the head completely submerged. I think they are stirring up mud with their feet and filtering it with their beak.

I hear rushing water, think it's a boat, but it turns out to be maybe 100 Neotropical Cormorants in a long line, two or three breast, submerged but for their heads and necks, swimming fast and diving frequently. They must be chasing a school of fish. About 30 White Pelicans join them and feast. In 15 minutes the banquet breaks up.

The fog holds on so I hike to the beach. The Gulf's waters are emerald green and fairly calm, a close fog surrounds me, and I walk and walk, seeing all kinds of washed-up seashells and even some horseshoe-crab shells. Brown Pelicans fish 100 yards offshore. They hover briefly maybe 20 feet up, then dive head-first into the water, and you wonder why they don't break their necks. Usually they miss their fish, then float a while, and finally heavily take wing again, hopping on the water's surface with both feet before fully becoming airborne. Sandpipers work along the beach.

Both here and in the mudflats there are any number of terns, gulls, plovers and sandpipers, all in their winter plumages and hard to identify. I'll wait until spring hormones make their fieldmarks more distinct before making a serious effort to identify them. Now I'm in a general-information mood, not a list-making one.

The sand here is white, composed of granulated shells. Shrubs next to the naked beach-sand are widely spaced, low and sprawling. Perhaps the most common shrub, with thick, succulent leaves, is a gray-green shrubby member of the Borage Family, genus TOURNEFORTIA. Another smaller shrub is a member of the Mustard Family, CAKILE EDENTULA, sometimesknown as American Sea Rocket. Both these shrubs are flowering now, with small, closely- packed blossoms emitting sweet perfumes very much at odds with the ocean's heavy, fishy humidity. The Sea Rocket, being a mustard, produces flowers and fruit pods that are succulent and salty, making a great a snack as I walk along. You can see this good-tasting nibble at davesgarden.com/pf/showimage/34869/.

The fog doesn't break until mid day. By then I'm hot and thirsty, so I'm tickled when I spot some Coconut Palms. I move into their shade, pull out a book, but before I get too engrossed I notice a plump, green coconut low enough to reach. In a couple of minutes, thanks to my dandy Buck knife, I'm enjoying a surprising quantity of cool, sweet coconut milk.

While finishing my second coconut an Osprey crashes into the surf right before me, then flies off carrying a fish nearly too large for him, with the fish held head-first into the wind. What a bounteous place is this Earth!

In mid-afternoon as I read beneath my palm, a large YELLOW crab comes sidling up next to me. I've never seen a yellow crab, but the day is enchanted, and all I can think to do is to tip my hat to him, and of course that sends him scurrying.

I camp overnight on the beach.

Friday, December 24
After a coconut breakfast I walk for miles along the foggy beach. I haven't passed anyone for two days and I'm completely alone now. It's low tide and I'm amazed at the variety of seaweed, seashells, and things I can't even begin to classify, left by the waves. It's clear that a whole new, vitally diverse and thriving ecological domain exists just offshore, and I'm completely ignorant of it. But, right now, all I can do is to poke at things with my toe, and hike on.

By midmorning the fog has lifted and I'm back on the causeway across the flats. At last 100 flamingos cluster here and there, mostly napping with their heads beneath their wings while perching on one leg in shallow water. The ones feeding usually submerge their whole heads, not just their beaks. When flamingos come in for a landing, they daintily run a few steps before coming to a halt.

Besides flamingos in this flat, also I see Wood Ibises, Little Blue & Tricolored Herons, Great Egrets, lots of terns, gulls and cormorants, Belted Kingfishers, and one Yellow-crowned Night Heron on the same rock as yesterday, so he must be pretty content here.

Around noon I begin drifting southward back toward Komchen, flower-sniffing and moseying all the way. As I leave, at least 500 Snowy Egrets and White Ibises, in mixed flocks of 5-30 individuals flying in formation, cross the causeway before me. Some flocks are pure egret, some pure ibis, but most are mixed, and the birds take their places in their formations with no reference to their species. It's seldom you see such cross-species mixing.

Saturday, December 25
I have a tradition of making a "Birds of Christmas" list, so today as I end my Solstice hike I'll list the birds seen on the seven or so miles left of the road south to Komchen. The weather today is extraordinary -- good for road-hiking but not so good for birding. It's windy and stormy looking, with brief showers coming and going, and a mid-morning temperature of 82degrees F. During the six or seven weeks I've been here we haven't had a single real rain, but dark rainclouds are moving all around. This must be the bottom end of the gigantic winter storm making it a cold Christmas in much of North America.

Here's my list, in the order in which I see them, with many very common species just not making a showing today:

  1. White-winged Dove
  2. Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  3. Groove-billed Ani
  4. Hooded Oriole
  5. Tropical Mockingbird
  6. Black Vulture
  7. Indigo Bunting
  8. Tropical Kingbird
  9. White-eyed Vireo
  10. Northern Cardinal
  11. Turkey Vulture
  12. Summer Tanager
  13. Vaux's Swift
  14. Social Flycaatcher
  15. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

*****

IN REVIEW
What a powerful agency is this walking -- simply walking and walking -- and of the breaking off from one's usual routines, and of paying homage to natural, beautiful things!

I return to Komchen filled with a sense of new beginnings, charged with the meaning of the Solstice. Often during these days on the beach and in the flats I visualized the Earth at Solstice time, at that precise moment during its tilting in empty space when so many Earthly cycles are restarted. In my opinion, this is exactly the moment during the year most appropriate for rethinking our lives and rededicating ourselves to cherished dreams and ideals.

For, consider what happens when any harmonization takes place, even if it's only two drunks singing in a bar. If there's real harmony, a kind of buzzing, charming synergy dignifies the moment. When there's a whole symphony of harmony, what pleasure! And when we harmonize our lives with the natural workings of the Earth, then what joy.

For me, "harmonizing with the Earth" has come to mean living simply while loving and respecting the Creator's makings and intentions. The "Creator's intentions" are revealed exactly in proportion to the extent to which we behold and meditate on the "Creator's makings" -- the things of nature.

That's what I believed before my Solstice hike, and I still do after it, just with renewed dedication.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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