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

April 1, 2006

BIRDS ON A MUDFLAT
About a kilometer east of Hotel Reef the road crosses a canal through which saltwater pours into the lagoons when the tide is high, and returns to the ocean when the tide is low. Just beyond the bridge a finger of mud, gravel and rocks juts into the lagoon, at low tide rising just an inch or two above the water. This finger is what remains of the former highway after the last big hurricane's tidal surge. Birds love it. They probe its mud and sand for worms, and perch atop the scattered rocks which once were part of the causeway.

There's always a mixed flock of birds on the finger and this week I made a census. Sitting on the new causeway with a stiff, blustery, unusually cool wind at my back a day after a big norte plowed through, here's what I saw:

31 Neotropic Cormorants
7 Willets
9 Ruddy Turnstones
6 Brown Pelicans
35 Laughing Gulls
8 Caspian Terns
43 Royal Terns
24 Common Terns
1 Piping Plover
1 Spotted Sandpiper

The Ruddy Turnstones are still in their gray winter plumage, though some are just beginning to show a little rustiness on their backs. They breed in the far north, well beyond the Arctic Circle, where nesting won't be possible for a long time, so their continuing winter plumage is understandable.

However, the plumage situation with the other species isn't as straightforward. The Semipalmated Plovers retain their winter plumage and like the turnstones breed in Northern Canada and Alaska but the Spotted Sandpiper retains its winter plumage, yet it breeds as far south as approximately Tennessee. Both the Piping Plover and the Willet nest in the northern US and southern Canada, but the plover wears its summer plumage while Willets are still in their winter plumage. About half the Laughing Gulls wear their black-headed summer plumage while some retain their winter plumage, yet most wear an intermediate plumage.

While making the census a Greater Yellowlegs worked along shore gathering energy for its flight to nesting grounds at Canada's middle latitudes. A flock of 75 American Flamingos flew far overhead in a big V formation, honking hoarsely almost like Canada Geese. They were headed west, following the coast. By the way Canada Geese don't make it to here.

A male and female White-lored Gnatcatcher kept together as they worked among bushes and weeds along the causeway, and a Mangrove Vireo complained of my presence with a buzzy call.

Last week I saw hundreds and hundreds of Barn Swallows, but during my two-hour morning mangrove walk this week I didn't see a single one. I'm worried that they may have begun their big flight across the Gulf just as the norte came upon them in mid ocean.

*****

COQUINA
Several times I've mentioned how in certain spots along the sandy beach beside Hotel Reef often you come upon long, fairly pure deposits of small, white seashells several inches deep. When my Natchez friend Karen visited here last year and posted her Mexico diary online, there was a picture of her contentedly sitting atop such a heap, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/travel/kw-shell.jpg.

About 80% of the shells in those wave-tossed-up heaps are of a single clam species, and at last I've figured out what that species is. It's Coquina, DONAX VARIABILIS. You can see a nice shell close-up at http://www.seashells.org/seashells/coquina.htm.

This species is one of the most common and abundant clams in the Gulf of Mexico. Individual Coquinas migrate shoreward during rising tides, then return seaward during falling tides. They spend most of their time in the sand, but on the Internet I find the observation that they emerge several times per tidal cycle to "ride waves." I think they must mean that the clam takes advantage of waves carrying them in the direction they want to go. One report says that clams actively "jump out of the sand and ride specific waves."

*****

PIICH, THE EAR TREE
I've told you about the very anomalous heavy rain we had about a month ago, causing the landscape to burst into greenness well in advance of when it should. It's been interesting to see that the rains have caused certain plants to be released from their dry-season leaflessness and brownness, while other plants weren't fooled by the rains at all. I am guessing that this is because some plants leaf out simply whenever enough water becomes available, while the leafing-out of others is triggered by the relative lengths of days and nights.

One tree not fooled by our anomalous rain was the great Piich, as it's known in Maya, or Guanacaste, as it's known in other places. It's the potentially huge, widely spreading tree member of the Bean Family, ENTERLOBIUM CYCLOCARPUM. The "cyclocarpum" in its name refers to one of its features accounting for another English name it goes by, at least among tourists requiring an English name for everything, is "Ear Tree." The "ear" comes from coiled (cyclo) fruits (carpum) -- flat legumes curved so that they look like large, green, puffy ears. Right now the Piich is leafless, but very conspicuously adorned with its "ears," which you can see against a very blue sky, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/guanacas.jpg.

The Piich is one of the most characteristic and best- known trees of the American tropics, occurring from central Mexico through Central America into South America. In earlier times the coiled legume's seeds were toasted and ground for human consumption, as well as for cattle feed and for making soap. Medicinally, the tree's resin has been used for bronchitis, colds and hemorrhoids. In the ancient Maya text "El Ritual de los Bacabes," it's prescribed to place the Piich's flowers over the womb of a woman giving birth. I suspect the idea behind that is that one hopes for the child to grow up as strong and well formed as the majestic Piich.

*****

FIBERS & TEXTILES
A while back I told you about our Tree Cotton plant. At that time I wasn't sure whether Tree Cotton was native here or planted as a curiosity. Then the other day I was helping a group of men survey a section of scrub and was talking with an older Maya man, maybe about 75 years old, when we came upon a Tree Cotton way out in the scrub. He looked at the gobs of cotton hanging there and told me a story.

When he was child his grandparents would gather this cotton, place the fibers into a jícara (a bowl made from half of the round, gourdlike fruit of the Calabash Tree, which you can see me next to at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/calabash.htm), then the old man mimicked how his grandparents would knead the fiber and string it out with their fingers to form slender threads, and then with these threads they'd weave fabric for their clothing.

I stood there sweating in scrub trying to visualize the state of mind a person spending so much time and energy making clothing from cotton fiber in a jícara, but it was hard to imagine.

Quite by chance I've fallen in with that Mérida subculture consisting of artsy North Americans, and because of that my sensitivity to the fiber scene has been enhanced even more.

One day this week when I had to go into Mérida to replace my broken glasses, a transplanted US fiber- artist let me see her studio. For years she's been producing handsome handbags from local henequen fiber, paying local people to do the actual weaving. Later as we were sharing a meal she absent-mindedly picked up some henequen fiber we'd earlier collected at a still- functioning henequen mill, and began combing the fibers with her fingers, making them cleaner and softer. Later when she realized she'd been "working" she got a sort of wistful look in her face and said:

"Working with fiber like this is such a gritty business. It's hard and incredibly time consuming, and people just don't know how much work goes into making a little piece. You can work very, very hard, and you'll hardly make any money at all... "

You can see a cotton bursting from a boll of our Tree Cotton, with the bush's new leaves brought on by the heavy rain of a month ago, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/treecot2.jpg.

*****

BRONZE-BACKED PARROT SNAKE
Friday Roberto came to the door saying that he had another snake for me, and that it was a good one. He said that all day yesterday and all of that day a snake had been trying to eat a mother ground-dove sitting on her nest, and that the snake was going around and around the nest "mareando" the mother. That word translates to "making seasick," but Roberto meant that the snake was trying to get the bird into a dazed state, a kind of hypnotic tranced, where the snake could simply attack as the bird was frozen with inactivity. When I went out I saw a slender snake about four feet long, with a brightly green head. He had lines like a garter snake, with the top line a bronzy color, edged in black, and then a white bottom. The book identified it as a Bronze-backed Parrot Snake, LEPTOPHIS MEXICANUS. You can see one at http://mexico-herps.com/Tamaulipas/Leptophis-mexicanus-septentrionalis.jpg.

And it was true that at a distance of about three feet the snake just went around and around the little Ruddy Ground-dove as she sat on her next wide-eyed, with a nestling peeping out from beneath one of her wings. She was very nervous. A puff of wind shook the palm frond's petiole holding the nest stood and the mother fluttered with shock.

Curiously, the book says that this species mainly eats frogs, and only occasionally birds. There's another snake, the Bird-eating Treesnake, which is similar in appearance, and which behaves exactly as we saw this snake behaving. Therefore, I was a little unsure which species it was when late in the afternoon my young friend Ricardo Pat came for a visit from Dzemul. I told him about the snake and that I'd like to catch it to see if the snake's anal plates were divided or undivided. One species is one way and the other is the other.

Before I could figure out what was happening, Ricardo, an old snake hand, managed to grab hold of the snake's tail and present it before me.

I was amazed. Held by its tail, the snake tried several times to rise to bite Ricardo's hand, but it was too slender and weak. Finally it did manage to rise to Ricardo's hand and slither between his wide- spread fingers, which enabled Ricardo to close two fingers around the neck. Now we could examine the snake's anal scales.

The thing is, this happened exactly as Ricardo had planned. He knew that -- unlike the vast majority of snakes -- this species should be grabbed by its tail. He knew it would eventually rise to his hand and pass between his fingers, not biting, and that then he could close his fingers around his neck. He'd learned all this as a kid, and it was all exactly as it should be. What these Maya people know... !

The snake had divided anal plates, as well as the right number of scales on the face, and a two-toned iris (yellow above and dark brown below), so it was definitely a Bronze-backed Parrot Snake, despite its behaving exactly like a Bird-eating Treesnake.

*****

COLLARDS GROW IN THE YUCATAN
When I arrived here in October I carried in my backpack several envelopes of seeds. I visualized big beds of turnip greens, spinach, lettuce and lots of other things. Though the seeds germinated well, everything eventually was eaten by critters, mainly iguanas, though the wandering geese got their share. Eventually I stumbled upon the right combination of fencing and plant type to be able to grow at least one thing here -- collards. Therefore, for the last month or so each morning I've picked a big "mess" of collards, sautéed them over my campfire, scrambled eggs into them and added chunks of freshly baked "cornbread," and begun my day feeling wholesomely sated indeed.

Each morning I've wondered whether that day's pickings might be the last. When I lived in Belize and I finally got a nice bed of bok choy going, one night just two or three days after I began harvesting meals from them, leafcutter ants carried every leaf. You can see a shot of my collards bed, showing the anti- iguana, anti-goose fence behind it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060401_.jpg.

Collards plants look like Brussels sprout plants without their little edible heads, except that collard leaves are larger and shaped somewhat different. There's reason for the similarity, and that's because collards and Brussels sprouts -- as well as kale, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, and several brightly colored ornamental plants -- all not only belong to the same plant family, the Mustard Family, but also the same genus AND the same species. All the above plants go by the scientific name of BRASSICA OLERACEA. I've heard collards referred to as headless cabbage or stalk cabbage, and that's a stab in the right direction.

In the US, collards are mainly a Southern crop, with the admirable feature that they provide "greens" during the South's long, hot summers. Most Southerners certainly cook them differently than I, first "boiling them down" so that they're softer and less nutritious than mine, plus most people wouldn't have them if they weren't "seasoned" with chunks of pig flesh or at least great gobs of butter.

So, it looks like collards should be considered as a potential garden crop by the people of the Yucatan. Collards contain certain nutrients not found in the poor-people's basic diet of beans and tortillas.

*****

KAREN'S MEXICO JOURNAL
Funny things happen when you post your thoughts and experiences on the Internet. Not long after my Natchez friend Karen posted her description of her visit with me last spring she received a letter from Beth White, a writer of Christian Romance Novels. Beth was writing a story about a girl who goes to Mexico and in her search for romance has interesting experiences. Beth wanted Karen's permission to incorporate some of Karen's experiences into her book. Permission was granted and now the book has come out. It's called "On Wings of Deliverance," and has been rated with 5-½ stars by TOP PICK! Romantic Times Bookclub. You can find out more about the book at Beth's website at http://www.elizabethwhite.net.

What a hoot that pagan, just-friends Karen and I end up immortalized in a Christian Romance Novel!

You can review Karen's online journal from those days at http://www.backyardnature.net/travel/karen.htm.

*****

"LIKE SEEING THINGS FOR THE FIRST TIME"
Speaking of my Natchez friend Karen, this week she applied for the Bronze Level of my Worm-eaten Leaf Award, for which she qualified by submitting a list of at least 33 plants and animals she had identified in her own neighborhood. You can admire her list at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/b-ms-001.htm.

I'm gratified that Karen writes that when she was obliged to scrutinize organisms closely enough to identify them it was "like seeing things for the first time." She was amazed that not only are so many details of organisms interesting, mysterious and beautiful, but also that such details exist in the first place. How many of us have really looked closely at the elaborate venation in a mosquito's wing, or the precise manner by which a stamen's anther opens to release its pollen? Identifying organisms causes us to focus on such details, and we are enriched and enlarged in the process.

Karen remarked that probably people going through the identification process for the first time like she is actually get more of a kick from what they see than experts who deal with these things daily. I agree that usually that's the way it happens, but I think it's important to know that there are very satisfying levels of appreciation beyond that of the first-time acquaintance.

In fact, nature study is like paying attention to music, in that there are different levels of appreciation, and that ever more refinement is needed to accomplish those levels. Moreover, each level of appreciation can be as intense and pleasurable as any other.

For example, any child can enjoy music with a hot beat and titillating lyrics, and the great masses of people don't grow beyond that stage, asking no more of the world of music. Yet, some individuals who have inherited fine sensibilities, or who have worked hard to sharpen their senses, can enjoy subtle tonal modulations, the interplay of subsidiary melodies, artful variations on themes, etc. Yet another level of music appreciation becomes available when one can visualize the history of music and thus recognize how any particular piece of music relates to that history.

In a similar way, the first steps into nature study can be pleasurable to anyone able to enjoy splashes of color and intricate designs in unexpected places. Yet, as with music, higher levels of appreciation exist.

Analogous to music's tonal modulations, subsidiary melodies and variations on themes, are nature's mosaic of interdependent ecosystems, the species living in those ecosystems, and the manner by which all living things are related. A Hairy Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker are variations on a woodpecker theme. The forest in which they live is a symphony. Nature itself, like inspired music, is the Creator's actual blossoming.

Life on Earth has a history just as music has, and what a insight to see birds as little more than small, feathered dinosaurs. What a kick to one's notion as to what it means to be human when we finally see the significance of the fact that human embryos while developing inside the mother's womb have gill slits like our fish ancestors and later possess a tail. During the fifth month of development our human embryos even possess a fine fur, the lanugo.

There's a level of appreciation beyond even these, available to both music and nature lovers -- in fact, to lovers of all kinds. That pleasure becomes available when at last we realize that music, nature and everything else in the Universe are one thing, the Universal Creative Force struggling to know Herself, to grasp the value of what has been created by knowing it through our senses and experiences.

There is an even more exquisite pleasure available to those who consciously struggle to assist the Universal Creative Force to know Herself by being as sensitive to the rest of the creation as possible. It can be like being a tone in a fugue fully aware that you are that tone, and that you are needed where you are, as you are, except that the more scintillating you can be, the more vibrantly the music will play, and the greater the joy for all.

But, first things first.

Karen with her "seeing it for the first time" is showing one path to the higher levels.

I invite you all to apply for your own Bug-eaten Leaf Award, as described at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/.

*****

ON THE ROAD AGAIN
As spring comes to North America and Europe, tourist season winds down in the Yucatan. The great waves of Canadians who have populated Hotel Reef Yucatan since December now are subsiding and from now on there will be fewer guests, and they'll mostly be local people not very interested in my talks. Therefore, I expect this to be my last Newsletter issued from the Reef, and I leave offering great thanks to the people here who have not only accepted my weekly presence, but who have become friends I've looked forward to seeing.

Similarly, now there is less reason for me to stay at Hacienda San Juan. I expect to be leaving San Juan soon after a very pleasant and happy time there, and I thank Katharine the owner and her son Vladimir for their wonderful friendship.

I only have a vague notion of my itinerary for the next few weeks. Since now my Newsletters will begin originating from "cybers" encountered along the way, or anyone who'll offer me access to their computer, I have no way of knowing when the next editions will appear. Please forgive the irregularity, the misspelled words and lack of picture links.

My life is about to change again. I'll not spoil the fun you'll have coming along with me by telling you any more about it now.

*****

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