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

January 9, 2005

SPOT, THE TARANTULA
In dawn's dim light each morning I can barely make out a dark spot in or around my sink. The spot changes location from day to day so it's always interesting to see where Spot has moved during the night. When I return from jogging there's enough light go see that Spot is a black, very hairy tarantula.

Spot is a male and I don't expect him to stay around my sink for long. I know he's a male because he has very large, bulbous "pedipalps" -- leglike structures arising from his head area. There's a page on "sexing tarantulas" at www.tarantulas.com/howtosex.asp.

The reason I don't expect Spot to hang around long is that mature male tarantulas are absolutely obsessed with finding females, who generally spend their time secure in their burrows. In fact, males search for females with such fervor that they literally wear themselves out. Females may live 30 years or more, depending on the species, while males, even under the best of conditions, seldom last over a year and a half. In nature their lifespan may be measured in only weeks or days. Spot has been looking a little ragged lately so I expect his imminent demise.

Over 50 tarantula species are found in the southwestern and south-central US, and surely many more than that here in Mexico. I don't know what species Spot is, but I can tell you that he's smallish for a tarntula, foot-to-foot only about as wide as the top of a coffee cup, and very hairy. Because of those hairs I don't handle him. Usually people have more trouble with irritating tarantula hairs than with bites. The bites, which are hard to provoke, are not at all dangerous.

A slick National Geographic site about tarantulas is at www.nationalgeographic.com/tarantulas/index2.html and basic info on US tarantulas and tarantulas as pets can be found at www.tarantulas.com/found.asp.

*****

VINE SNAKE
The other day I was idly gazing into the strangler fig tree next to my bungalow when I realized that something was out of whack. About 20 feet up, extending from one shadowy bough to another, appeared a stiff, straight, gray stem, but the stem was running the wrong way, not at all in harmony with the tree's general outward- radiating design. Moreover, as I watched the stem, it appeared to be moving -- not back and forth, but lengthwise. I reasoned that it couldn't be a snake because it was too slender and stiff looking. However, then the entire item slowly penetrated one of the boughs as if were a rigid spear being driven into the bough by an invisible hand.

It was indeed a snake, about six feet long, somewhat pointed at both ends, and hardly thicker than my little finger. How such a slender snake kept much of its body so stiff in open space I just don't know. Because of its outlandish appearance, behavior and wide distribution from Mexico into South America, pictures of this snake are easy to find on the Internet. One good one resides s here.

The species goes by a variety of names, including Neotropical Vine Snake, Whipsnake, Bejuquilla Parda and, in local Maya, Xtachoy. Xtachoy refers to the drawstring on a well bucket. It's OXYBELIS AENEUS.

One reason people know this species is that the snake really looks like a vine stem, and Mexicans are always grabbing such stems intending to hack them with their machetes. Grab this, and you'll remember it for a long time. The snake is not particularly aggressive but if grabbed it will bite, and this species is "semi- venomous." My Maya-speaking friend Don Elías, who has a long history of machete-swinging, says that if an Xtachoy bites you you won't die or lose an arm, but you'll get a serious sore that'll take a very long time to heal.

The snake eats small lizards, especially anoles, and part of its lizard-fooling camouflage is to remain rigid for hours, often extending like a vine from one tree to another.

*****

YOUR WARBLERS ARE DOING FINE
For a goodly portion of North American birders, the highlight of the birding year is being able to behold the spring arrival of migrating warblers. It's great seeing thrushes, tanagers, and the like returning, but there's just something extra-magical when warblers begin filtering through the trees with their complex songs and endless variations on the yellow, black and white plumage-theme.

I'd like to tell the warbler connoisseurs among you that from what I can see here your warblers are doing well. They don't look at all concerned about all the coldness and snow up North. It looks like this spring you'll get to enjoy yet another season of warbler spotting.

It occurred to me to tell you this on Thursday afternoon when I was sitting eating a pocketful of tangerines I'd just plucked, heard some chipping up in the Pixchoy tree, and the binoculars revealed a Black- throated Green Warbler. Of course he wasn't singing his wheezy spring-whistle and he wore his relatively drab winter plumage, but it was easy to see who he was, and he sure seemed to be having fun flitting about inside a little community of aphids.

Actually there were several Black-throated Greens around me. last week I'd seen several Palm Warblers wagging their tails on the trail next to my bungalow, but they're gone now, so I'm gathering the notion that at least some overwintering warbler species hang together in small flocks as the flocks slowly drift across the landscape, being in one place for a few days, then disappearing. That's just a hunch, though. Northern Parulas can be seen anytime.

Of course not all warblers overwinter here. Lots just pass through the Yucatan and keep going to spend winter farther south, and others migrate sticking to the highlands, avoiding the Yucatan Peninsula altogether.

According to Barbara MacKinnon's "Check-list of the Birds of the Yucatan Peninsula," here are the Yucatan's warbler species found here during the winter:

Blue-winged, Golden-winged, Tennessee, Orange-crowned, Northern Parula, Yellow, Magnolia, Cape May, Black- throated Blue, Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Green, Yellow-throated, Prairie, Palm, Black-and-white, American Redstart, Prothonotary, Worm-eating, Swainson's, Ovenbird, Northern Waterthrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Kentucky, Common Yellowthroat, Hooded, Wilson's and Yellow-breasted Chat.

Species that just pass through here during spring and/or fall migration are:

Nashville, Chestnut-sided, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, Cerulean, Mourning and Canada.

Warblers living here permanently are:

Mangrove, Golden, Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Golden- crowned and Gray-throated Chat.

*****

"NOW I KNOW WHAT IT IS... "
Often the identity of a plant will have me stumped but then someone will tell me its Maya or Spanish name, I'll look that up, get it scientific or "Latin" name, and then I'll say "Ah, now I know what it is... "

Of course these people think that having the Maya or Spanish name I already know what it is and shouldn't have to look into a book before I know that I know what it is.

Here's what's happening: Right now, for example, there's a small native tree fairly common in the thornforest around us that is totally leafless in its dry-season condition, but bearing clusters of very pretty ORANGE blossoms. You can see a close-up of a flowering branch of this tree (unlike ours, with leaves), at www.uady.mx/sitios/veterina/deptos/botanica/ciricote.jpg.

Ana María told me that it was the Ciricote. That name meant no more to me than it probably does to you. When I looked it up in my old "Flora of British Honduras," however, I found that Ciricote is CORDIA DODECANDRA. "Ah, now I know what it is," I said...

The thing is, I know that the genus Cordia is a large one in the Borage Family, the Boraginaceae, and I know dozens of plants in the Boraginaceae. Knowing what all those are like -- knowing the "family features" of the Boraginaceae -- I automatically already know a lot about Ana María's Ciricote. For example:

In most members of the Borage Family, flowers are produced in a special kind of cluster known as a "helicoid cyme," and usually the herbage is hairy. Leaves are simple (undivided), usually with smooth margins, and the leaves arise singly at stem nodes. Flowers are bisexual, with 5 sepals and 5 corolla lobes, and there are 5 stamens alternating with the corolla lobes. Since the edible, medicinal garden plant known as Borage gives its name to this family, I also know that any other Borage-family member I come across might well have medicinal and/or culinary value, as well. In fact, one book we have says that a tea from the bark of our Ciricote tree is good for treating diarrea and disentery.

Most of the Borage Family members I know are herbs or low weeds (Hound's Tongue, Heliotrope, Bluebells, Forget-me-not), so finding a borage TREE was a nice surprise. Seeing a borage with such spectacular, orange blossoms was simply a treat.

*****

PICTURES OF KOMCHEN AND VICINITY
Gradually I'm building a website about the natural history of the Komchen area. Also I'm offering to visitors nature-oriented workshops, using Komchen as a natural classroom. Whenever I can get a good digital photo from someone I write a little about it and post it. Also I'm posting the list of birds I've seen here so far. You can watch the content grow at www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/kjim.htm.

*****

ATOLE & PINOLE
On my first trip into Mexico back in the late 60s I hitchhiked all the way from Kentucky down to the Guatemala border and all through the Yucatan Peninsula, visiting archeological ruins. It wasn't until my second trip that I learned that Mexican buses were so cheap that even I could afford them.

On that first hitching trip Mexican truck drivers often picked me up, and it was through them that I learned about atole (ah-TOH-leh) and pinole (pee-NOH-leh).

Many times we'd be riding along and the driver would pull to the side of the road, pull out a bag of dusty, sandy-looking stuff, pour it into his cup, add water, stir, and he'd drink it. That was atole he was drinking, sometimes pinole.

Atole can be made many ways. Traditionally it's finely ground corn added to water to form an emulsion, with or without sweetener. The corn can be fresh corn ground into a paste that's then dissolved in water, or it can be hard, mature corn grains finely ground into cornmeal, similarly dissolved in water. If you're lucky your atole will be sweetened and a dash of cinnamon or vanilla will be added. I've also seen people pulverize oatmeal in a blender, then add sweetener and spices, and call it atole.

Pinole is basically the same thing, except that the corn has been toasted. In backcountry Chihuahua I've seen people saving their old corn tortillas, roasting them, then grounding them into powder for making pinole. This is also very good. Both atole and pinole are drunk both cold and hot.

Atole and pinole are such simple, homey-tasting creations that few in our generation with taste buds tuned to industrial-strength processed foods will find them very interesting. However, if you're a believer that it's a good idea to know how to survive on simple, very cheap fare -- or if you're just sick to death of too-rich stuff -- keeping atole and pinole in mind may be a good idea.

Here I buy very cheap, very finely ground cornmeal at the market, and often when I'm hungry but don't want to take the time to prepare anything properly, I just pour some cornmeal into my cup, add water, stir, and it's not bad, especially with a banana.

US cornmeal is so coarsely ground than it doesn't form the smooth emulsion of a good atole. Also, if cornmeal has baking soda in it, it'll be bitter. If you want to try atole, really pulverize some baking-soda-less cornmeal or oatmeal in a blender, lightly sweeten the resulting dust, add a dash of cinnamon or vanilla, and then figure out whether you prefer it with hot or cold water.

*****

LINO'S METALWORK
Komchen is lucky to have a hired hand named Lino. Lino is one of the most level-headed, honest, dependable, inventive and talented people I know. Still in his 20s he's worked here for 14 years, so he knows more about keeping Komchen going than anyone.

Lino's salary here is not great so this week, when Komchen chores weren't pressing, he's been allowed to supplement his income by welding together metal grillwork for someone in town. His finished pieces are about 4 ft x 4 ft, with arched tops, and they are so substantial and fancily ornamented that they would look good on any Canal Street cathouse in New Orleans.

Lino worked about 30 hours on the two pieces and will sell them for about $220. Half of that $220 pays for the metal and half is his income. Therefore, Lino is making about $7.30 an hour, which is a remarkably good wage here. The problem is that such jobs are very few and far apart. He hasn't done any other such work since my arrival here in early November. When I consider his usual income in light of the basic costs of living here, really I don't see how he keeps his family afloat.

I'm beginning to realize that a remarkable percentage of men from Dzemul work in the US, legally and illegally, sending money to their families here. The general consensus here is that if the US should really seal its borders against undocumented laborers, it would be a complete economic disaster for Dzemul and untold numbers of other such towns. It would seriously cripple Mexico's economy.

Lino knows that in the US he could earn much more with his talents than here, yet he stays. Being so consistently level headed, I bet he's weighed the issues and recognized that there's value in his being here for his wife and children, value in living a simple life in a peaceful, friendly place like Dzemul, and value in being among friends and family. In fact, these things possess such high intrinsic value that when weighed against the strictly material advantages of going to the US, leaving here just doesn't "pay."

It's good to see someone recognizing the value of something that isn't advertised, isn't packed in plastic, isn't glitsy and high-powered.

Lino's situation can lead to other trains of thought, too -- such as the political hypocrisy of declaring as "illegal" people wanting to work at jobs North Americans aren't willing to do, while businesses who hire such people do so with impunity -- but that's too much to get into here.

Lino works all day beneath the strangler fig tree next to the big fishpond with its tinkling fountain and sometimes he breaks into a bright whistle that's a pure pleasure to hear.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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