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

January 6, 2006

GULF COAST TOADS
"I'd better tell them about our toads before the dry season drives them into hiding," I said to myself the other day. The thought suggested itself because that afternoon sunlight stung the skin mercilessly, the blue sky paled not with humidity but unrestrained dry-season brilliance, and files of white cumulus clouds scudded from the east as if afraid of scorching if they tarried too long over one spot. How could any amphibian, even one as durable as a toad, stay aboveground for long in such dry harshness? When I opened the big, wooden doors to the computer room a gecko sheltering in the dim coolness of a crack atop the misfitted parts tumbled onto my naked shoulders and then, with a sharp smack, onto the prettily tiled floors, seconding my thought.

Therefore, Gulf Coast Toads, BUFO VALLICEPS, about the size and wartiness of an American Toad, just with some extra dark blotches. It's approximately as commonly encountered here as toads around an average farmhouse up north. The gardeners tell me that after the first big rain at the end of the dry season this toad emerges onto highways in delirium-tremens numbers, numbers that shake one's belief in nature's sense of modesty.

I am astonished at this species' variation in the ground color of its upperparts. Normally it's gray, like a good toad's, but I've seen brownish forms and rusty-orange ones and I've read about yellowish tan and reddish brown ones. The species lives from the southern US to Costa Rica, and you can see one at http://hartmanprehistoricgarden.com/sa-bufo.html.

At dusk if I wait too long to close my doors for the night a Gulf Coast Toad hops into the room. If I don't watch, I'll step on one in the grass, and I did that once to a Bufo americanus up in Kentucky. Remembering the crunchiness beneath my instep still makes my toes tingle.

Our toads are thinning out now, now that the dry season is showing its serious side, occasionally even imparting to the air the acrid odor of ashes -- an odor that later will be a continual presence, day and night, week after mind-scorching week -- for the campesinos can't forget their traditional role of cinderizers of the landscape. Their ancestors practiced sustainable slash-and-burn with long periods between crops so the land oould recuperate, but now population density is so high that there's little or no resting period for the land, just daily slash, and yearly burn.

Heat and ash come, toads and greenness go. One stares toward upcoming weeks of heat and glare and the soul blinks dumbly.

*****

GOING BAREFOOTED
Last week I mentioned building my campfires inside the rubble heap next to where I stay. That rubble has toughened my feet marvelously.

During my summer in California's Sierra Nevadas my feet got a little tender. The problem was that the pinecone scales on those big Ponderosa Pines bore short but very hard, sharp spines that stabbed right through my feet's tough calluses. Therefore, last summer, as I wore out a pair of sandals, my feet got tender. By the time I arrived here walking on mere gravel was a bit ticklish.

But now I can scramble across the rubble just like our main iguana-chasing dog and I'm enjoying the full benefits of going barefooted most of the time.

Of course there's the pleasure of walking in grass cold with dew each morning, and always being able to pick things from the ground using my toes. It's very hard if not impossible to buy shoes of my large size in this part of Mexico, so it's wise to reserve shoe- wearing for emergencies.

I've often noticed that the soles of my feet sweat more than other people's who wear shoes a lot. That may be because I'm simply made that way, but sometimes I wonder whether this may be a feature of the feet of other barefoot-tending people as well. Unfortunately, the only other barefoot-tending people I meet are Indians in isolated villages half scared at talking to a gringo, and they just can't handle a question like "Do your feet sweat more than someone's who wears shoes?"

I wonder: Could it be that sweaty feet help nutrients in the soil make their way into my body -- by dissolving minerals in the mild saline solution that is my sweat? When I read the ingredients of the multivitamins I take each morning it's almost like viewing a list of minerals freely available in the soil.

The idea of taking nutrients into our bodies via our feet shouldn't be so shocking. Humans have been wearing shoes during only a very tiny fraction of the evolution of our species, so why shouldn't we have evolved to absorb minerals through that part of our body most in contact with the main source of all earthly minerals, the Earth itself? Most insects bear taste buds on their feet, so Mother Nature clearly is comfortable with the concept.

Also, there's this: Somehow when I'm out on the land barefooted there's an agreeable sensation in my feet of "being satisfied," almost like the belly feels when eating wholesome food. Maybe it's all in my mind but it sure feels as if through my feet I'm soaking up something good from Mother Earth. In contrast, when my feet are shoed somehow they feel hungry.

*****

PIGEONS & DOVES OF NORTHWESTERN YUCATAN
During any brief walk around the hacienda you're bound to see several to many White-winged Doves and Ruddy Ground-doves. These species are abundant here because, like American Robins and Cardinals, they have adapted to "disturbed habitats" created by people. Ruddy Ground-doves nest atop a light fixture suspended from the ceiling of the "Pavilion" where I sleep, and beneath the building's eaves.

If you hike a mile or two down little dirt trails through the scrub to where the vegetation is a little more intact with a greater diversity of taller bushes and small trees, you start seeing other pigeon and dove species.

In the scrub south of here you need to check every pigeon and dove perched in a snag because sometimes they won't be White-wingeds. With rounder bodies and smaller heads they'll look almost like park pigeons, with gray-violet heads, slaty blue-gray bellies and blackish tails, but they'll be Red-billed Pigeons. From a distance their bills look white, but with a spot of red at the base. This species resembles the park pigeon because it's in the same genus, Columba. Ecologically it's a specialist of forests and semiopen areas, and is distributed from northern Mexico to Costa Rica. You can see it at http://www.schmoker.org/BirdPics/Photos/Doves/RBPI1.jpg.

A mile or two north of the hacienda sometimes you flush from dense brush a White-tipped Dove, shaped like a cross between a small-headed, chubby-bodied pigeon and a larger-headed, more slender-bodied dove. This bird has yellow eyes, a gray-violet head and chest, brownish back and pale gray underparts. It prefers forest with brushy understory, but here it'll settle for our dense, shoulder-high tangles of bushes and vines if there's a patch of low trees nearby. See http://www.tsuru-bird.net/doves/dove_white-tipped1.jpg.

Around town sometimes you see Common Ground-doves, about half the size of a regular dove or pigeon. They are mostly brownish gray with curious scale patterns on their chests, orange bills and when they fly their wing feathers are rusty colored. This little critter has accommodated himself very well to human society. http://moumn.org/temp/Common_Ground-Dove-1.html.

So, in this area the pigeons and doves I've seen are the regular park pigeon or Rock Dove, Red-billed Pigeon, White-winged dove, White-tipped Dove, Ruddy Ground-dove and the Common Ground-dove.

Also found in northwestern Yucatan but so far having escaped me are Zenaida Doves found only along the coast, North America's Mourning Doves overwintering here, and Blue Ground-doves, who may not get this far north.

That's eight or nine pigeon and dove species, and there are others farther east and south where there's more rainfall and higher forest. This is pretty different from the situation in most of North America where there's only the Mourning Dove and park pigeons.

*****

PIGEONS & DOVES IN GENERAL
When speaking of pigeons and doves we're referring to a taxonomic ORDER of birds, the Columbiformes. That fact is worth thinking about.

For, all the Earth's 9,000 or so species of birds are separated into only about thirty different orders, of which a good bit over half are placed in the order of "perching birds," the Passeriformes. Other important orders include the owl order, the parrot order, the duck, goose and swan order, and the woodpecker order.

What's so special about pigeons and doves that they deserve their own order? The differences between owls and ducks are obvious, but why aren't pigeons and doves placed with perching birds such as robins and grackles?

One special feature of pigeons and doves is that their crops are well developed for food storage and production of "pigeon's milk," a nutritious, milky substance regurgitated by the parents into the nestlings' throats instead of feeding them regular food.

Also only pigeons can drink by sucking up water. Other birds take water into their bills, then raise their heads to let the water trickle down their throats.

The bills of pigeons and doves are slender and possess a cere, which few other birds have, except for birds of prey. A cere is a bare, leathery patch of skin into which the nostrils open. If you get close to a pigeon you can see it where the top of the bill meets feathers.

*****

AMORPHOPHALLUS'S DISAPPEARING LEAVES
Possibly the most exotic, weird looking and thought provoking horticultural plant at San Juan is a member of the genus AMORPHOPHALLUS. It belongs to the Arum Family in which we also find Jack-in-the-pulpit and philodendrons. The genus name, Amorphophallus, hints at what the foot-wide blossoms of the various species look like -- the Latin translates to "deformed penis."

I'm not sure which species we have because ever since I arrived in October the only parts of the plants aboveground have been the plants' one or two leaves, which grow to five or more feet high, and arise from a bulb. You can see a variety of Amorphphalli at http://biology.fullerton.edu/facilities/greenhouse/amorphophallus/.

A big Amorphophallus resides in a large clay pot outside my door. I'm told that the plant's leaves appear during the rainy season, then when the dry season comes (now) the leaves die back. During the dry season the bulb passes time beneath the ground, then the gigantic flower appears at the beginning of the wet season.

Thing is, I've been watering the plant assiduously, wanting the bulb to store plenty of food so a big blossom will appear, but all the leaves of our several Amorphophalluses are dying back anyway. Clearly the plant has have not been tricked by my watering. Maybe their flowering and fruiting times are triggered by day length or the season's slightly cooler temperatures -- both more trustworthy signs of the advancing dry season than actual rainfall.

I admire this plant knowing what in life to ignore and what to pay attention to. I wish I had more of that talent myself.

*****

NOTES ON YUCATAN HISTORY
When I was in school I despised history with a passion. Now I can see that my distaste was a consequence of the way the subject was presented. Now I get a real kick from reading history. For one thing, I regard it as nothing less than an extension of ecology. Ecology, after all, is the study of how living things interact, and that's exactly what history chronicles. Most big events and trends in human history are easily explained in terms of Darwinian evolution.

In fact, from what I can see, events in human history become surprising only when they happen by chance, as when a storm wipes out an invading navy, or else when some leader rises above his or her animal instincts, conveys to followers a transcendent vision, and takes effective action. These are the moments in history worth savoring, of being reflected on, of being taught with enthusiasm and proper explanation of why the event is relevant to us right now.

During my talks with guests at Hotel Reef, despite my own inadequate background in history, I feel obligated to point out that certain historical events have taken place in the Yucatan that shouldn't be ignored. I encourage people to write down certain words and phrases so that when they return to their homes and computers they can use a search engine to look up more information on the matter. Here are the main keywords I mention, given here in the hope you will "look them up on the Internet":

CASTE WAR: After centuries of abuse by colonizing Europeans, from 1847 to 1853 the Yucatan's Maya Indians rebelled, almost succeeding in driving all Europeans, mainly Spaniards, from the peninsula. During the conflict about half of the Yucatan's 500,000 or so population was dislocated or killed. The rebellion might have succeeded had not the Indians decided, right before overrunning the last two European holdouts of Mérida and Campeche, to return to their rural homes to plant the season's corn.

CRISTEROS: Early in the 20th century Mexico's federal and state governments did what they could to rid themselves of the pernicious effects of religion. Such draconian and ill-conceived measures were employed, however, that many religious people, especially the Indians, waged war against the armies sent to uphold the laws. These conservative, religious fighters were known as the Cristeros and, of course, today religion, especially Catholicism, exercises a very strong influence in Mexico.

FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO: During the 1910s and 1920s this man, elected governor of the Yucatan, championed socialism of the Russian Revolution kind. Seizing large plantations he redistributed land to poor families and introduced many social reforms protecting and advancing rights of the underclass. He promoted women's rights and a popular education. Eventually right wing forces seized power, chased Felipe Carrillo Puerto down, and killed him in Mérida without a proper trial. Today in the Yucatan he is revered by some, reviled by others.

*****

BARBARA'S YUCATAN JAYS
If, say, you are a big nature organization planning to organize an expensive birding trip to the Yucatan lead by a renown expert on Yucatan birds, your first choice for trip leader surely will be Barbara MacKinnon. Barbara is the author of the Checklist of Birds of the Yucatan, she organizes the annual Yucatan Bird Festival, she is the main point person for any ornithologist doing serious work on birds here and, if anyone can find a rare bird in the Yucatan, she can.

Though Barbara is a US citizen just about gone native here and seldom hangs out with other Norteamericanos, this last weekend she spent New Year's night and her birthday with us at Hacienda San Juan. She and Katharine, the hacienda's owner, are great friends. At dawn on January 1 Barbara and I were out birding in the flat, sublimely weedy, firewood-gathering-and- hurricane-and-fire-ravaged landscape surrounding the hacienda.

So, what's the world's foremost expert on Yucatan birds like when she's birding just for the fun of it?

One answer is that, unlike so many birders, she is less interested in adding new names to her Life List than in understanding bird behavior -- seeing what they eat, how they interact... It's the difference between stamp collecting and learning a new language.

Barbara also confirms my belief that the more you know something natural, the more you must love it, and want to protect it. She has done much to educate Mexican ecotour guides and others about birds and the environment in general.

We were walking along when seven endemic Yucatan Jays flew across our trail and landed inside a Ja'abin tree. They were juveniles with at least one adult. Two young birds, their bright yellow bills like clown noses stuck onto their black heads and blue bodies, perched side by side, the language of their slender, lithe bodies expressing profound interest in goings- on inside the Ja'abin. There, two of their siblings played tug-of-war with a stick while yet another with its bright beak took hold of the adult's long, blue tail for four or five seconds, exactly as a puppy might pull on a breeches leg wanting attention.

There in that vast, dewy, weedy field we were both transported by witnessing a simple, innocent display of lovely living things uninhibitedly being themselves. We agreed that our glimpses into the family life of those birds would leave a smiling residuum glowing within us for days to come.

Therefore, my birding walk with Barbara last weekend also confirmed for me that if ever there is reason for becoming a genuine expert in something, surely it is this: So that when a sublime moment spontaneously blossoms before you during your work or studies, by this time in your life you'll have become sensitized enough to your subject to recognize, treasure and love what stands plainly before you.

I suppose one goal we should all aspire to, then, should be to become so expert in living our ordinary lives -- so at peace with our environment and ourselves and so conscious of what we're doing and why, and what the results of our actions will be -- that we can get a happy buzz just from being part of what's going on around us all the time.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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