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

November 8, 2005

SNOWY PLOVERS ON A WINDY BEACH
Folks at the five-star Hotel Reef Yucatan on the beach 10 miles north of the hacienda (see it at http://www.reefyucatan.com/ ) have invited me to give their guests weekly talks about the Yucatan's plants and animals. I'm paid nothing but get a day of internet access and a free meal, so it's woth it to me. When I was there issuing my Newsletter last Tuesday I finished in time to take a walk on the beach in the late afternoon.

Blustery wind off the water, straight from the north, blew knee-high waves onto the dun colored sand, piling up froth that sometimes gathered and rolled inland like tumbleweeds. The low sun, shining through salt spray suspended over the beach shined weakly, somehow sulkily and raw. Wave action made the water so brown that not a hotel guest swam on the beach, hanging around the big pool instead. After a day at the computer the salty, fishy air smelled good, and I walked along the beach in a mood set by the edgy sunlight.

In some places along the beach long, pure deposits of small, white seashells had been washed up and I remembered how my Natchez friend Karen, who visited here last winter, could spend hours sitting in such places looking for perfect shells to take home to her mama. In other places dark brown heaps of dried-out seaweed piled up, long ribbons of it violently fluttering in the wind.

I was approaching such a mess of seaweed when movement caught my eye -- several small, fast running, toothpick-legged birds with gray upperparts and white underparts. The binoculars showed them to be six Snowy Plovers in winter plummage, the black, broken collar of summer birds now just gray smudges on their upper breasts. You can see this plummage at http://www.bobsteelephoto.com/Species/snpl.html

As a group, plovers are medium-sized to small shorebirds with short beaks, necks and tails. They walk or run, not hop, as they forage for insects and small marine animals, and they nest on the ground. Probably the best-known plover to Americans is the Killdeer, which is one of the larger plovers and a species uncharacteristically found inland. Killdeer are eight inches long but Snowy Plovers are only a little longer than five.

As soon as I saw the plovers I sat on the sand and the birds stopped running. Each bird mechanically faced into the wind, then simply stood perfectly still while dingy-white gobs of spume blew past and brown ribbons of dead seawed lashed all around. Motionless now, the birds were so well camouflaged that they were almost invisible. There hunched in the wind and old-feeling sunlight I felt invisible, too.

It was one of those quintessential moments when the mood of a certain place, time and circumstance expresses itself perfectly, penetratingly. The whole day the beach, the sun and the wind had built to that very moment, and very soon the sun would sink, the wind would lay, the waves would calm down, and the plovers and I would drift away. But at that very moment everything was as intense as it could be, saying completely what it had to say, and the plovers and I were just hanging on, like gossamers momentarily snagged on a treelimb.

I could have loved the ocean so well that I'd never have been able to wander far from it, but I was born an inlander destined to be enchanted not by the art of waves, the mingled odors of salt spray and fish, and crabs skittering across sand, but by shadowy swamps along lazy rivers, abandoned fields of goldenrod, and cicada droanings among oaks, maples, ash and hickory. I can see why some religions incorporate reincarnation into their beliefs, for sometimes it seems almost too unfair that in life we are only one thing, and not another.

If I had been born at the seaside I think those years I spent hermitting in the Mississippi woods would have been invested instead in beachcombing, just wandering day after day, never tiring in the least of the sound of the surf, the moods of the waves, and of the beach suddenly stirring with quick little eruptions of plover, sandpiper and sanderling.

*****

SEAGULLS & TERNS
On down the beach I came upon a seagull lying unmoving on the sand. The wind broke upen its plumage in so many places that the bird looked like a newspaper blown in from the sea. I picked up one of his wings and to my surprise he half opened an eye and groggily turned his head toward me. A clotted puddle of sand stuck to his rear end. What a sad looking bird, one born to be such a buoyant flier, and a young bird at that.

I knew he was young because the field guide identified him as a 2nd-winter Laughing Gull, as shown at http://www.gos.org/meetings/2003-fall.html.

Laughing Gulls are the most common winter gull here. Like several other gull species, Laughing Gulls produce 1st-winter, 2nd-winter and adult plumages, adding to the challenge of identifying them. Great Black-backed Gulls even have 3rd-winter plumages.

I placed a piece of mashed banana before the gull. He pecked at it once or twice, then closed his eyes and lay his head onto the sand. What could I do but walk away?

A bit farther along the beach I encountered a Royal Tern with a broken wing, walking on the sand. He was easy to identify because of his large size (wingspread 43 inches), dark crest, orange bill and deeply forked tail. You can see this bird at http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/DesJardin/RoyalTern(winter).htm.

Probably most people call all mostly white fishing birds seagulls. However, both seagulls and terns are common at many beaches. Seagulls and terns belong to the same family, the Laridae, but they are in different subfamilies. Gulls have hooked bills and generally square tails, while terns possess pointed bills and forked tails. Gulls usually alight on water to seize food, while terns typically dive into the water from the air.

I have seen terns crash into water with such violence that I wondered how their bodies survived. Maybe this one with a broken wing had misjudged his approach.

Again, what could I do but just walk on... ?

*****

PALMS
Hacienda San Juan's previous owner, transplanted Oklahoman Arthur Pogue, was a passionate planter of ornamental plants, and he specialized in palms. How I am enjoying the results of his efforts. I had forgotten what a huge and exotic world the Palm Family is with its 2300-2700 species in some 200 genera.

Walking toward the main house from San Juan's big gate you pass down a straight lane bordered by Cuban Royal Palms, ROYSTONEA REGIA, a tall species with straight, columnar, smooth, gray trunks and crowned with arching fronds ten feet long. (http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/carr/images/roy_reg_hab.jpg)

There are members of the date palm genus, PHOENIX cf. CANARIENSIS, with stubby, jagged trunks looking like three-ft-thick pineapples and with arching fronds 15 feet long  and neat little Bottle Palms, HYOPHORBE LAGENICAULIS, about eight feet tall but with bulging, bottle-shaped trunks three feet thick. There are thickets of fan palms, COCCOTHRINAX ALTA, and delicate little Bamboo Palms, CHAMAEDOREA ERUMPENS, with clumping, finger-thick trunks.

I have identified about 15 species and know there are more, and finding new ones is like finding Easter eggs hidden years ago by Arthur Pogue.

When identifying palms the first feature to note is whether the frond segments radiate from one point atop the petiole, like a hand's spreading fingers, or whether the segments are arranged like the parts of a feather along the midrib, as with the Coconut Palms. A second feature to notice is whether the frond segments attach to the petiole or midrib in a V-shaped configuration or an upside-down V.

One feature making palms so exotic is that palms, unlike all our other trees, are monocots, like grass, lilies, orchids and the like. As such, palms possess no vascular cambium. Vascular cambium allows regular trees to keep adding rings of growth year after year. Palm trunks, in contrast, have no growth rings and like grass stems can only grow so large. Vascular cambium also allows dicot trees to branch freely and heal rapidly. Palms usually can't branch and once their trunks are damaged it's permanent. Even palm roots can't exapnd beyond a predetermined width, but they can branch, to three levels. Palm roots do not produce root hairs.

With so many restrictions to their growth and ability to heal themselves, it's amazing palms do so well, and that so many species exist.

*****

DAY OF THE FAITHFUL DEAD
Last week I simply forgot to tell you about the invitation I got during the celebration of the Día de Los Difuntos Feales, or Day of the Faithful Dead, which is Mexico's take on Halloween. On Halloween Sunday I visited a friend in Mérida where the traditional alter for the celebration was set up.

A wooden table was decked with burning candles and several pictures of dead family and friends. Next to the pictures were small offerings of food and drink the deceased had liked in life. The alter was pretty and neatly prepared, but a good bit different from the one I saw years ago when I was with a family of Nahuatl folks in the Eastern Sierra Madre foothills of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

That alter consisted of a free-standing, arched-roof structure about six feet tall with a shelf halfway up. It was constructed of bamboo and adorned with palm fronds, marigold flowers and other colorful leaves and flowers. On the shelf were placed candles, pictures, foods and drinks.

In the Nahuatl village marketplace, marigold blossoms were sold just for this celebration. For, in that village, many marigold blossoms were broken apart and their brightly orange parts were strewn on the floor from the altar through the house, to create an orange trail. Outside the house the marigold-petal trail joined other such trails to form a larger trail passing through town and leading to the cemetary. The idea was that wandering spirits would see the beautiful orange trail and follow it to the altars set up for them, and then they would see that they were being remembered and honored.

Roberto, San Juan's gardener, tells me that in the past special flowers and edible plants were grown in this area just for thisyearly celebration, but that now you hardly ever see them. In town, some young people have even taken to dressing up and trick-or- treating, gringo style.

Eating, drinking and visiting friends and neighbors is a big part of the Faithful Dead celebration, and I hit the jackpot. Not only was I invited to the Sunday meal but also Roberto brought me a big pile of freshly made tamales wrapped beautifully in banana leaves, and Darwin's mom sent me a large bowl of atole, a traditional drink made of fresh sweetcorn smushed into an emulsion, sweetened and cooked.

*****

COLORS AND THE HUMAN SPIRIT
Sometimes I just pause and take in all the colors, textures and patterns around me. For instance, so I can sit in the sunshine and write this, I open the door to my room.

Beneath the 15-ft-high ceiling the room's walls are painted gold. The doorframe, the pipes bracketed to the walls carrying electrical wiring, and the metal bars across my high windows are all blue. The ceiling is white concrete between 26 closely spaced, rusty- red rafters. The ceiling fan is white. The tiled floor, cool to my feet, is a mosaic of patterns -- green, pink, cream, brown, gray tiles, and a few multicolored tiles with snowflake designs and arabesques.

The room's stone walls are nearly three feet thick, so windows and doors are inset amonst their own dark shadows. The ten-ft-high, dark brown doors are of heavy, rough wood, and opening them occasions scraping and screeching appropriate for a medieval dungeon. The sunlight pouring through, though, undoes all heaviness and gloom, and the floor tiles shine like a cheerful song. On the patio floor just outside a sunning green snake slips into the shadows of a thicket of bamboo palms. A yellow, black and white Great Kiskadee shrieks from a banana tree with glossy, green leaves.

Drinking in all these sensations it seems to me that I could hardly live without them. Yet most people would say that they could hardly live without central heating and cooling, soft beds, sealed windows and plush carpets, even though the main effect of these items is to cushion, muffle, tone down, make tepid, sanitize and generally drain from our lives the sensations that right now I cherish and need.

In fact, in my opinion, one reason so many people are neurotic or basically unhappy is that they live sensory deprived lives. Maybe obsessions with immoderate booze, drugs and sex are unhealthy attempts to reclaim the sensations our ancestors felt with the changing seasons, dawn and dusk, and simple living.

In modern, consumption-focused society, I think that when it gets cold there are more reasons than for sustainability to put on a sweater and crack the window, instead of turning up the thermostat. There are more reasons for long walks and weekends at the park than exercise and cheap fun. And there are more reasons to fill one's head with flower anatomy and bird fieldmarks than merely to identify what is at hand.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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