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

February 20, 2005

DRY-SEASON ANTS, & COOING IN DEEP SHADOWS
The dry season grinds on, a hard edge coming into the afternoon's heat and glare, the landscape ever more brown and more desiccated-crisp, fires breaking out daily, and this trend will continue until May, if it's a normal year.

Ants of many kinds are more apparent than before, especially the army ants, which march day and night. Sometimes on night walks I blunder into their ranks and end up picking them off my skin like ticks. An advancing wave surprised a visitor in an outdoor toilet, coming up beneath him while he sat on the throne, biting him in some tender spots. It was a laughing matter, but almost not.

At dusk leafcutter ants form long lines using our irrigation hoses like interstate highways, half the ants headed toward doomed bushes and trees, the other half returning with fragments of leaves and flowers. The Tropical Almonds having been attacked first, now the ants are going after our oleanders. The tiniest breadcrumb on the floor or an oily thumbprint on a door is enough to summon hoards of other kinds of tiny ants to come and feast.

All is not harshness. Our most abundant birds, the White-winged Doves, each morning call with their tender "Who-cooks-for-you" phrasing, massaging the entire landscape with their gentle cooing. The birds hide when they call, and one of their favorite hiding places is inside big strangler fig trees with roots reaching the water table and thus still leafy and dark green, and abundantly bearing yellow, pea-sized, spherical fruits. These little figs are pithy and not sweet but birds love them, gorging on them all through the day. Orioles, Tropical Mockingbirds, Yucatan Jays, the doves... all busy inside the figs' deep shadows sending a gentle rain of fig fragments showering onto the hot dust and ants below.

*****

ECOTOURISM & EARTHFOOT
My first major project on the Internet was to conceive of and produce "EarthFoot's Free Ecotour Posterboard" at www.earthfoot.org, now managed by my Danish friend George. My working definition of "ecotourism" is that it is traveling conducted with the goal of experiencing nature and traditional human cultures. Come to the Yucatan and instead of never leaving Cancún's big hotels, bars and beaches, focus on the kinds of things I write about in this newsletter

While EarthFoot has been responsible for hundreds of ecotours taken mostly in developing countries, until this week I'd never met anyone on a trip they'd learned about through EarthFoot. This week at Komchén Doug, Mara and 20-month-old Cassidy of Virginia have been visiting, and they are EarthFoot people. Also Alex and Kathy of Missouri have been here, thanks to reading about Komchén in this Newsletter.

All these folks have made very good impressions on the local people, the local people have been wonderful to the visitors, money is being introduced into the local economy, which needs it very badly, and all this week I have just been beaming with pride seeing that my hermit-in-Mississippi-thought-out theories really work.

*****

DZIBILCHALTÚN
Alex and Kathy from Missouri are veteran travelers who can get along in Chinese and French, but not Spanish. That's one reason why on Monday they invited me to accompany them on a visit to the Maya ruin of Dzibilchaltún just north of Mérida. With about 8,400 catalogued structures and once being home to up to 40,000 inhabitants, Dzibilchaltún used to be one of the largest of all Mesoamerican populations. You can read more about this archeological site at www.yucatantoday.com/destinations/eng-dzibilchaltun.htm.

As the author of "The Maya Road" for which I traveled through the Maya regions of southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras, I have about reached my saturation point with Maya ruins. Still, it was good to be back among the pyramids, stelae, hieroglyphs and uninterpretable structures every good Maya ruin has. The mingled sunlight glare, wind, rough stones and ancient motifs convey a feeling at once thrilling and numbing. How did we get from those times to now? In the end, the wind whistling around the temples' corners seem as articulate about the matter as the books.

I have found that any travel experience is enhanced if you organize your trip around a certain project. That approach opens doors to serendipitous circumstances that otherwise you may have never even known existed.

One of the most rewarding projects around which a tour in this part of the world can be arranged is that of learning about Maya archeology and history. A good place to start learning is at www.isourcecom.com/maya/.

*****

MATING TOADS
Also this week, Hal and his son Noah arrived from Philadelphia. Noah has a burning interest in herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians, so he and I have been turning over plenty of rocks and watching the big Black Iguanas cavort in the trees and along the fences.

Alex provided one of our best discoveries: A couple of mating toads. The male rode atop the much larger female, his forelimbs firmly grasping the female's trunk. Frog mating is such a curious process that it has its own name. It's called Amplexus.

Thing is, neither male frogs nor male toads possess penises, so fertilization of the eggs must take place outside the female's body. While the female discharges eggs -- usually into water -- the male atop her discharges sperm over the eggs. Then the eggs, often stuck to aquatic vegetation or just floating in the water, eventually produce tadpoles, which metamorphose into adults. You can see some fine pictures of amplexus taking place on my "frog reproduction page" at www.backyardnature.net/frogsex.htm.

One way of thinking about this matter is to recognize that frogs and toads came about before penises evolved.

For, the first amphibians were basically fish that developed legs and an ability to get around on dry land. Being the first land animals, amphibians just didn't have some of the adaptations that other kinds of animals developed later.

For instance, amphibians don't have scales, which help retain water inside the body. Scales only appeared among the reptiles, which arose from amphibians, and therefore later. Amphibians are cold blooded, which causes a lot of problems, such as being slow-moving when it's cold. Warm-bloodedness came about only much after the amphibians' appearance, among birds and mammals (and maybe among certain dinosaurs, which were advanced reptiles). And one last problem amphibians have that more advanced animals don't is this matter of the males not possessing penises. Most amphibian species, like their fish ancestors, still have to be in water in order to mate.

You can read more about which animal groups evolved from which, and what kinds of advancement the evolution of each new group had over the more ancient groups, at www.backyardnature.net/amphibs.htm.

*****

OVENBIRDS
I have mentioned how some bird species overwintering here in the Yucatan appear at Komchén for a while, then disappear, as other species come onto the scene for the first time. My guess is that small flocks of various overwintering species are wandering the landscape, and here we are just seeing the flocks as they pass through.

When I arrived in November, Common Yellowthroats and Northern Parulas were common here, but now I seldom see them. In contrast, until fairly recently I never saw Black-throated Greens and Palm Warblers. The Palm Warblers stayed for just a few days, but the Black- throateds are still here.

The most commonly seen warbler at Komchén now is a fairly recent arrival, the Ovenbird, and they're all over the place, walking (not hopping) on the ground, their brown backs, spotted breasts and black stripes on their heads making them easy to identify even in their winter plumage.

Ovenbirds overwinter in southern Florida, the Lesser Antilles, and from central Mexico south to Venezuela. They rear their young in most of eastern North America, though when I was in Mississippi I saw them only during migration, since we lay south of their summer breeding grounds. I've always thought of Ovenbirds as northern forest birds, so seeing them now on our scorched, hot dirt and exposed limestone rock makes them seem out of place. I often look at them and wonder what cool, moist mountain slope or lowland maple forest the individual I'm seeing may have as a nesting ground.

Our Ovenbirds are silent now, but I know that before long birders far to the north will be hearing them singing their loud, clear "tea-cher tea-cher tea-cher" from exposed perches in shadowy forest understory. Maybe I myself will get to hear one of our Komchén birds later this year, though of course I'll never know.

You can see and hear this pretty bird here.

*****

KATHY'S POEMS
Kathy from Missouri keeps a journal in which throughout the day she jots down poems about what she sees and experiences. She's allowed me to share some with you, so you can briefly see this world through someone else's eyes:

IGUANA
Garden regular
Every afternoon
Sunning on the rock wall
Like a movie star
Posing for paparazzi.

MORNING AT Komchén
"It's like living in a zoo"
Alex says as he slowly wakes.
"Or in a symphony hall" I think
Chicken chorus in the distance
This bird that trills and chirps
Doves like oboes accent the peace
Nature's composition
Ours but to listen in awe...

ARMY ANTS
No obstacle too big.
In their way?
They attack!
Walk through their column
All of a sudden
Dozens of pin-pricks
Up and down your legs and elsewhere.
How do they get so far so fast?
Alex on the toilet?
"No problemo!"
Up, around and THROUGH.
Watch that gringo hop!
Fun -- Let's do it again!

*****

SMALL TOWNS ALIVE IN THE EVENING
The Missourians, the Philadelphians and I took a day- trip to the nature reserve/ flamingo-nesting ground of Celestún this Thursday. To get there we had to pass through a number of small towns. I think the guests were nearly as impressed with those towns as we returned through them during the early evening as they'd been with the thousands of flamingos and other birds they'd seen during their boat-trip at Celestún.

The impressive thing was that during those first hours of darkness every little town was vibrant with activity. People including many very young and very old folks were walking the streets or biking, ball games were being played, the parks were full of chatting friends, little stores lit by single lightbulbs dangling from their ceilings had their doors open and were doing good business, and everywhere there was the sound of music and laughter.

"Our small towns at this hour are dead," Kathy said, and we all knew that it was true.

Myself, that day I'd had a conversation in which I'd made the point that once Mother Nature regards you as more or less superfluous in terms of engendering and taking care of children, she doesn't much care about you. She lets your hair and teeth fall out, your joints freeze with arthritis, your skin wrinkle and spot... On a certain level, humans, like other animals, are programmed just to produce the next generation, then to get out of the way.

But, that night, those good-natured and pleasant little towns did a good job reminding me that for everyone there's always a heap of living possible beyond just sitting and thinking about your falling-apart body.

But, how do we northerners reclaim the joy of living that seems to come so easily to these Mexicans? I can remember a time when small-town Kentucky was just as pleasant and alive as small-town Mexico, so it's not a genetic thing. How and why did we change from being that way, to the way we are now?

*****

QUAKERS
Alex from Missouri is a Quaker. I didn't know anything about Quakerism so I was tickled when Alex offered to conduct a Quaker service at Komchén. Last Sunday at sundown we had one, with six of us sitting in a circle around a small fishpond populated with waterlilies and Guppies.

Our service had no preaching, no singing, no discussion of sacred text, and in fact seemed to have no discernable structure at all -- other than that we were all together with the understanding that our meeting had something to do with the spirituality of each of us. I interpreted our shared but unspoken goal as being an attempt by our little group to come to a better understanding about what it means to be a human and a human community in this world. If during the service any of us had an insight into the matter, we were encouraged to share it with the others, but it wasn't obligatory to say anything.

Alex began the meeting by giving a little history about the Quakers and explaining the basics for having a meeting. Then we just sat there silently, for about 45 minutes. Alex and I came up with thoughts we wanted to share but the others said nothing. Alex adjourned the meeting when he felt the meeting had ended.

Well, I liked that. I don't think I've ever experienced such an appropriate manner of paying respects to the Creator without getting bogged down with "sacred texts," preachers, and having to say I believed a lot of unbelievable stuff.

You can learn more about the Quakers (formally known as The Society of Friends) at www.quaker.org/.

*****

I AM LEAVING KOMCHÉN
A friend has sent a picture from his garden showing mustard greens already with yellow flowers, and his peach tree bright with pink blossoms. I find the prospect of chronicling the evolution of yet another spring up North too appealing to ignore, so this Sunday morning, as soon as this newsletter goes out, I am leaving Komchén.

I expect to do a bit of visiting and wandering before shooting off toward the north. I have no idea whether during the upcoming few weeks I'll be able to issue newsletters or not. If I must depend on cybercafes, I doubt I'll be able to continue sending them out on Sundays. I'll be taking lots of notes, so eventually you'll hear all about my adventures.

*****

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