JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in Hacienda San Juan Lizarraga
one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO
and issued from Hotel Reef Yucatan 13 kms to the north

November 1, 2005

RECLAIMING SUMMER
By coming to the Yucatan I have reclaimed part of the very green, hot, humid summer I missed this year by not being in the US Southeast. It feels very much like July in Kentucky and the pale blue sky with its puffy, gray-bottomed but mostly pure white cumulus clouds looks just like the typical sky above a July cornfield up there.

Of course the palm and banana trees shatter any illusion I may have of being up north. A large butterfly flits by and you think it's a Tiger Swallowtail, but then you notice that its spots are light green, not yellow. You move a board and where you expect a cockroach or a spider there's a flat little scorpion with his tail all coiled up ready to sting.

In the afternoons at other places I've developed the habit of writing with classical music in the background. Forget about classical music here. The nearest I can come to that atmosphere is to tune in a station out of Merida specializing in old-time romantic music orchestrated with a bongo, clave, lots of violens and guitars, and with the lyrics crooned with the most profound feeling. Back in the 40s this kind of music was popular in the US, I think.

The tunes are so expressive that it's easy to grow a bit dreamy, even romantic, while listening. It's all moonlit nights, silhouetted palms and impossibly debonaire men with enchantingly pretty and virtuous women saying the most heartfelt things to one another.

Usually the lyrics are monotonously replete with the words amor (love, usually sung out like "amoooooor,") and besos (kisses). However, the other day as I finished a paragraph I paid attention to a song's words and what I heard, sung as dreamily and sweetly as possible was, "Pepe, ya no te puedo sorportar," which means "Pepe, I can't stand you anymore."

Like that scorpion in the woodpile, it just wasn't what I expected.

This is a good place for being reminded just how much of normal, everyday living consists of making sometimes-wrong assumptions about things, having preconceptions and prejudices, and not really thinking about what is being done, or why.

I like that.

*****

HURRICANE ALGAE & FLAMENGOS
This week I visited the beach 10 miles north of here. The sky and water were as blue as they could be, except that a good bit offshore, right before water met sky, there was a long, dark smudge that could have been sewage or an oil slick. A fisherman told me it was an algal bloom caused by Hurricane Wilma.

I don't know how he knew that Wilma was responsible but I can see how it makes sense. Waters to the north of us are very shallow for a long way out, so Wilma's big waves must have stirred up the ocean floor, releasing lots of nutrients into the water. These nutrients are fertilizer to algae, so an algal population explosion can occur -- a bloom.

You may recall that last year thousands of flamingos flocked in a large lagoon just south of the beach. In previous years they'd usually overwintered elsewhere, so I was curious to know whether they had returned this year.

"There's many, many more this year than last," the fisherman said. "I come to work and they're all along the roadside, just incredible, huge numbers!"

The fisherman thought that the large numbers of flamengos might also be the result of Wilma. One of the main wildlife reserves here where flamingos are a fixed feature, Rio Lagartos, lies east of us and was much more affected by Wilma than we were.

*****

GREEN JAYS
On my first trip into Mexico, hitching south on Mexico 85 from Laredo back in the 60s, I think the bird I most wanted to see was the Green Jay. I knew that jays were supposed to be blue, so the very name "Green Jay" struck me as heresy, and at that time in my life I was hungry for any heresy that come along. I recall vividly standing on the road with my backpack on, looking into a shadowy, weedy coffee plantation in the state of San Luis Potosi, just awestruck by my first spotting. Maybe that was the very moment I really got hooked on the tropics and its kinky way of throwing us Northerners for a loop.

Black bill, face, throat and chest, blue crown and nape, greenish blue tail with yellow outer feathers, bright yellow eyes, underparts and a truly green back and wings... That's what I saw this week in shadowy, weedy scrub along the road as a Green Jay again and again slammed a very fuzzy, white caterpillar onto a tree limb softening him up, while a second jay watched. When the watcher saw me she screamed a somewhat jaylike ahrrrrrrrrrr and the two flew into the shadows. You can see pictures of this species at http://www.photomigrations.com/articles/0411300.htm.

Green Jays are slightly smaller than Blue Jays. There are two main populations of them, one extending from southern Texas through Mexico to Honduras, and the other in South America, from Columbia to Bolivia. There must be a good story explaining why Green Jays are absent from Nicaragua to Panama, for good habitat for them is certainly available there.

*****

IGUANAS EAT BANANA PEELINGS, DOGS EAT IGUANAS
Possibly we have even more Black Iguanas, CTENOSAURA SIMILIS, here than at my location last year, though the ones here tend to be smaller. You can see them at http://www.amazilia.net/images/Herps/Lizard/BlackIguana.htm.

I eat a lot of bananas and the iguanas eat my peelings. I place the peelings atop a stone wall in the sunlight and it's seldom long until an iguana appears. At first meeting the iguana flicks the peeling with his red tongue, waits a few seconds, then takes a bite and waits a while longer, and finally takes several more bites. Typically the lizard gets part of the peeling into his mouth, then vigorously swings his head back and forth just like a chicken with something too big to swallow. With both chickens and iguanas, sometimes the shaken thing breaks, with a piece of manageable size remaining in the mouth. Also as with chickens, the greater part of the shaken thing gets slung beyond reach. The iguanas knock far more peelings off the wall than they eat.

It's not surprising that iguanas would sling their heads like chickens. In biological terms, there's not much difference between reptiles and birds. Birds are almost nothing more than the feathered evolutionary remains of little dinosaurs.

When a chicken poops, the white paste on the poop is mostly uric acid -- urine with the water removed for recycling in the bird's body. The other day I saw an iguana relieve himself and there was no white paste to it. What came out could have been fox poop, and plenty of liquid streamed over the rocks below.

Last year at Komchen the dogs chased iguanas but I never saw an igtuana get caught. Here iguanas regularly get caught and eaten. One dog, a German Shepherd, spends many afternoons barking interminably at a pile of rocks with an iguana inside it. Another, a little brown bitch with one drooping ear and big black teats, eyes an iguana-chasing situation and either attacks instantly or walks on, and if she attacks she often gets her iguana without a bark.

Different philosophies of life...

*****

YOUR RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRDS ARE WELL
Those of you in eastern North America with hummingbird feeders will be happy to know that your summer hummers are down here zipping around as lustily as ever. I haven't seen any with the summer male's glittering, ruby-red throat, or gorget, however. Here they wear the plainer female or juvenile plummage with greenish backs and whitish underparts.

In this part of the Yucatan we also have Buff- bellied, Cinnamon and Mexican Sheartail Hummingbirds, but these are all easy to distinguish from Ruby- throats, which may be the most common species during winters. Here we are at the Ruby-throat's northernmost winter distribution point, the winter populatioin extending on south through southern Mexico and all the Central American countries to Panama. Ruby-throats are completely absent from here during the northern summer.

Next to my lodging each morning I see a Ruby-throat busily taking nectar from Dwarf Poincianas, POINCIANA PULCHERRIMA, which are 15-ft-high bushes with feathery, twice-compound leaves, and which right now are just loaded with cantaloupe-size clusters of silver-dollar-size, red and orange blossoms. What a gorgeous thing to see.

You can see dwarf Poinciana flowers at http://www.geocities.co.jp/NatureLand/3053/My/mypeaco.html.

****

PUTTING A PRICE ON NATURE
The other day, for an online magazine in Holland, I wrote an essay on how -- if we are to save Life on Earth -- we humans must awaken from our hypnotic trances, begin seeing things clearly, and change our behaviors. Dirk Damsma, a professional economist at the University of Amsterdam, wrote saying that he agreed, and asked me what I thought about protecting nature by putting a price on it.

"... as soon as nature can be priced, protecting it can become profitable," he suggested. Here was my reply:

I disagree with your idea that placing a price on nature is the best way to protect it.

The workings of market forces seldom live up to the promise of their theoretical underpinning, supply and demand. Market prices are much distorted by such things as subsidies, sales taxes, embargos and the rapacious, self-serving behavior of very rich and powerful people and organizations. There is no reason to believe that if we apply market principles to nature the things of nature will ever be designated as having prices even approaching their real values. If we should "put a price on nature," I can visualize our politicians spending billions on propaganda saying we are protecting Bambi, but not spending a cent protecting the habitat real animals need.

Furthermore, with nature the stakes are higher than with the things market principles are concerned with. A manufactured cog can be stored, reused, sold at discounts, etc., but once a species goes extinct, millions of years of evolutionary wisdom are simply lost, never to be reclaimed. When a rainforest is destroyed, a rainforest does not grow back. The destruction of a rainforest changes soil and microclimate conditions so drastically that what grow back are weeds, not rainforest.

You might say that I need to be realistic, that I need to compromise just a little and accept practices real people in the "real world" can handle.

I say that the "real world" of Western-style commerce as it has become with neoconservative globalization is so perverse, so self-serving and so void of all feeling for average people and other living things that there is nothing realistic about it. Just look at the price Americans must pay for their medicines.

Awakening from the trance we are in must be an holistic experience. Putting a price on the components of nature would be no more than a gimmick that would perpetuate the false notion that nature is composed of discrete, independent parts. Also, it would perpetuate the lie that we can spend ourselves out of trouble without needing to change our own behaviors and our ways of seeing the world around us.

On a spiritual level, it would be just as insulting to the Creative Force of the Universe for the things of nature to wear price tags than it would be to place a monetary value on a mother's love for her child, or the way you feel when you "go home," or when you gaze into the starry sky at night.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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