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 15, 2005

TURNSTONE & SANDERLINGS
A sulfurous odor hang in the air as I hiked along the beach this week. Probably the wind carried the stench from many miles to the north where oil drilling platforms abound. A dead sea turtle lay on the beach, a young one only about 18 inches long. With my foot I flipped him over and there in a cavity in the sand where he'd lain was a hand-sized, almost white crab with two stalked eyes so black and shiny they looked like wet obsidian BBs. What a cozy setup that crab had, able to stay in his hidden little cellar eating dead-turtle roof whenever he wanted. I replaced the roof and was glad that at least a handsome crab was benefiting from the young turtle's tragedy.

Poking in a pile of dark brown, washed-up seaweed not far away were four small shorebirds of the fast- running, toothpick-legged kind. One bird was larger than the others and besides his drab winter plumage had reddish legs and a dark chest band. The fieldmark that really gave away his identify, however, was his slightly upturned, sharp-pointed little beak. He was a Ruddy Turnstone. Turnstones get their name from their habit of walking along shore flipping small stones with their specially designed beaks, foraging on critters beneath them. You can see a turnstone at http://www.fnal.gov/ecology/wildlife/specs/Ruddy_Turnstone.html.

His smaller companions, as plain as they could be in the usual winter-shorebird plumage of grayish upperparts and whitish underparts, were Sanderlings, the classic shorebird. "Classic" because, in my experience, no other bird spends more time chasing waves out to sea, pecking in the sand as they go, then being chased back inland by incoming waves -- this again and again as they generally work up or down the beach. You can see one in winter plumage at http://www.fnal.gov/ecology/wildlife/specs/Sanderling.html.

Both turnstone and Sanderlings breed in the far, far north, deep within the Arctic along the northernmost coasts of Canada and Greenland. Both species also overwinter along shores all the way south from both US coasts to southern South America.

Watching these birds I tried to visualize where they'd just come from -- cold, windswept, mostly barren, dark gray, wave-lapped, rocky shores with leaden sky and frequent icy showers, an infinity of mosquitoes, and that weak, opaque sun ever so low, circling around and around behind the gray haze but never dipping below the horizon.

But now here they are on this hot, sandy beach with dazzling sunlight and silky nights. These birds have evolved for two very different lives and one has to marvel that such fragile-looking creatures can endure such changes and such long trips twice a year.

*****

DISTANT THUNDERSTORM AT NIGHT
I leave Hotel Reef Yucatan at dusk, riding the free bus that shuttles employees between the hotel and the two towns where the workers live, Dzemul and Telchac Pueblo. This is when an admirable feature of the people here really expresses itself. I have ridden buses, subways and trains full of homebound workers in several cities and it's always been a pretty subdued affair. However, on this bus the radio blares disco music, a light over the driver's head rapidly flashes four different colors, and people laugh and joke with the exhuberance of kids. The ten- mile ride down the straight road through low scrub and weedy henequin plantations is a pleasure. I've never seen such good-natured people anywhere, except maybe Belize.

Walking through Telchac at night I'm reminded of small-town Kentucky back in the 50s. In the ill-lit streets people stand around talking to one another and kids play on the sidewalks. Rooms are lit with a single lightbulb and are often bare of furniture beyond a table and a hammock. At the few houses with TVs people often sit just outside their doors keeping one eye on the screen but mainly watching who is going where on the street.

I think most US citizens would be surprised how easy it is to see where you're going on an unlit road in the countryside, even when there's no moon, and even on a cloudy night. This week as I walked from town to the hacienda a big thunderstorm way to the south put on a show. It was so far away I couldn't hear its thunder but it was close enough for me to see very clearly nascent thunderheads rising mushroom-like beneath the gigantic mother-thunderhead. Almost constant lightning snaked among the round-topped cloud risings tinting them orange and pink.

The most vivid moment came when a surprisingly slow shooting star fell just to the left of the storm. Just visualize it: The road with its head-high weeds full of summer-sounding crickets and other stridulating insects, the smell and feeling of a warm, early night, fireflies over the weeds, that storm way to the south, and then a shooting star right next to the storm...

The funny thing, though, was that when I turned into the lane into the hacienda, putting the storm to my back, it was as if the storm wasn't there, and overarching tree limbs hid any meteor that might fall.

As I fumbled with the big metal gate trying to keep it from rattling and setting off the dogs barking I wondered this: What else in this life is as beautiful as what I just saw, but we happen to have our backs turned to it, so we never even know it's there... ?

*****

MONARCH BUTTERFLIES IN THE YUCATAN
You might recall that this spring I reported seeing Monarch Butterflies in upland Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. Since arriving here I've seen dozens in the Yucatan.

This has surprised me because every magazine article and film I've ever seen about Monarchs focused on the story of their migration between North America and certain mountaintops in central Mexico. That doesn't explain the butterflys' occurence in Chiapas and here, far south of the central Mexican mountaintops.

I wrote Chip Taylor at http://www.monarchwatch.org/ and he exlained the situation with a single sentence: "Monarchs occur as far south as Venezuela."

He went on, " Monarchs can be found in most of lowland and mid elevation Mexico - wherever the tropical milkweed is found."

I'm glad to hear about this very large distribution area for Monarchs because I've visited some of those central Mexican mountaintops where overwintering Monarchs hang by the millions from trees, and my impression is that those "sanctuaries" are very mcuh endangered -- mainly by local firewood gatherers and timber cutters, farmers wanting land, and by changing microclimates inside the sanctuaries, because of forest removal outside the sanctuaries' boundaries. If North America's Monarchs depend on Mexico's sanctuaries, then either the sanctuaries need more protection or North Americans shouldn't plan on having Monarchs for long.

However, now it's clear that even if the central Mexican sancturies are destroyed, at least some Monarchs will survive. I'm unclear as to wehther those Monarchs who overwinter from here to Venezuela migrate to North America, or migrate at all.

You might enjoy reading a piece at Chip's site called "Understanding Mexico's Important Role in Preserving North America's Biodiversity." It's at http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/GeographyMigration.html.

*****

WHITE-WINGED DOVES
Stone walls of white limestone rock and up to ten feet high surround and crisscross the hacienda. In early mornings I like to sit atop the taller ones watching birds. Not only does the extra elevation afford a better view but it also puts me above most mosquitoes.

A typical occurence while I'm perched there is for a flock of ten or so White-winged Doves to come flying low over the scrub and when they come to the wall they usually clear by just inches they are surprized to find me sitting there. During the split second before our encounter I hear their fast-approaching wing-whoosh, then as they put on their brakes and veer hard to miss me it's amazing how loud the feather-against-feather sound is, like the hard beating of a close-by kite in strong wind.

To produce such speed and powerful flapping sounds it's clear that these birds' flying muscles are well deeloped. In fact, it's those big pectorals that attract the attention of hunters, for the doves' "meaty breasts" are thought by some to be good eating.

At first glance White-winged Doves look and behave similarly to North America's Mourning Doves, except that there's a lot of white in the White-winged's wings forming conspicuous white bars along the wings' lower edge when the birds are perching. Also, Mourning Doves have long, pointed tails while White- wings have blunt, pigeon-like tails. The two species are enough alike, however, to be placed in the same genus, ZENAIDA. You can see a White-winged Dove at http://www.birdsofoklahoma.net/Wwdove.htm.

Mourning Doves overwinter in the Yucatan but I've not seen them, while White-winged Doves well may be the most commonly occurring and conspicous of all bird species in our scrub. They are distributed throughout nearly all of Mexico, into the US Southwest.

*****

BIRD THERAPY
Though quite possibly I am the most contented person I know, I have to say that anytime I look at a healthy, free wild bird it makes me even more cheerful. Just seeing the Tropical Mockingbird with the blue sky behind him, perched on the gracefully arching, yellow petiole of a fan palm next to my door swaying idly in the summery afternoon wind makes me smile all inside.

In fact, often I've thought that if I had a millionaire friend I'd urge him or her to set up a sort of clinic where people with the blues or even hardcore depression could come, and I would raise their spirits back to healthy levels by introducing them to nature study, with bird-looking being the main therapy. It would be like an oldtime sanetorium, except that instead of healing with hot mineral baths and weird diets I'd heal with bird fieldmarks and flower anatomy.

Not having such a monied benefactor, the best I can do is this: Propose that during the upcoming season of gift-giving you consider giving the gift of nature study, especially bird watching. The appropriate gifts are fieldguides (illustrated books for identifying things), binoculars, and a handlens for magnifying insect wing venation and the innards of small flowers -- also a note saying that my website is at http://www.backyardnature.net.

Note that my page on fieldguides, with links to Amazon.com so you can review and buy them online, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/fd_guide.htm.

My binocular page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/binocs.htm.

My handlens page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/magglass.htm.

My "Three Steps to Discovering Nature" page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/listopen.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim