JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
On-the-road edition: Yucatán, Mexico to Querétaro, Mexico

December 4, 2006

DOWN THE ESTUARY TO THE SALTWORKS
The other morning Diego (in Río Lagartos, Yucatán) invited me on a birding trip. At first I'd be with a couple of English-speaking Dutch tourists being guided by Gabriel, who didn't speak English, so I'd be the translator. That day the flamingos were feeding only a quarter of a mile across the estuary so within moments our motorboat was within good viewing distance. You can see what it looked like from the boat at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204f.jpg.

Continuing on up the estuary we passed by an arboreal termite nest about the size of a bushel basket. I was surprised to see such a nest in an inundated mangrove swamp. Gabriel told us that the nest was made of termite feces and saliva, the feces being like sawdust from the wood the termites ate. He also said that in the old days Maya folks collected such nests, crumbled them up and fed them to their animals. You can see the nest mounted on a hurricane-killed Red Mangrove trunk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204t.jpg.

During our passage up the estuary we saw four Morelet's Crocodiles, a couple of them seven or eight feet long. One of them escaped into the water with such speed and power that my toes tingled just thinking about one coming at me like that, regarding me as its next meal. Gabriel explained how they would come up under a heron's nest, flip it into the air, catch it in its mouth, and drown the nestlings, and eat them. He also said that you could go to prison for hunting them, but people killed them anyway, for the food and the hides.

We saw lots of White Pelicans, Great Blue and Snowy Herons, White Ibises, Neotropical Cormorants, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Ospreys and an Anhinga. At the end of the estuary we encountered mudflats busy with small waders such as Western and Least Sandpipers, Snowy and Wilson's Plovers, and Black-necked Stilts. I was astonished when Gabriel three times made a squealing sound and called flocks of sandpipers quite near him. Everyone knows you can "spish" birds such as warblers and chickadees, but I'd never even tried attracting shorebirds. It really works!

It's something how close the crocodiles, herons and shorebirds allowed us to approach. At the mudflats we exited the boat and you can see a picture of our Dutch friends approaching some Black-necked Stilts at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204b.jpg.

Part of the "Classic Flaming Boat Trip" is the offer to have your whole body smeared with the very sticky, white, pasty mud particular to this beach -- taking a "Maya bath," it's called. It's supposed to be very good for your skin, taking five years of its age. You can see the Dutchman having his face smeared by Gabriel at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204m.jpg.

After the smearing we met up with Diego and a second birding group, a family from Pensacola, Florida very serious about adding species to their Life Lists. Now I joined them, traveling by car along the beach and into the saltworks of Las Coloradas about five miles up the coast from Río Lagartos.

On the edge of Las Coloradas I was delighted to see three Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures tugging at what may have been the remains of a dead dog. How often I've tried to spot this species, and now here three were within 20 feet of the road in full view. They looked a lot like Turkey Vultures, except that the featherless parts of their heads consisted of yellow-orange cheeks and throat, and the tops of their heads were pale blue. You can see one at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic28-3-2.html.

What a surreal environment those saltworks were! The sky was dazzlingly blue, the salt blindingly white, and the carotenoid-pigment-saturated water weirdly pink, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204s.jpg.

In that picture you see a salt-crystallization pond with a mountain of salt rising behind it. The bridge-looking thing in the background is an elevated transport system conveying salt to ships offshore. This is a big operation. Just while we were there several double- trailer semi-trucks left the saltworks filled with salt.

One of the most remarkable sightings took place where wind was blowing white spume into great piles, in one place the spume avalanching across the road so deep it came up to the bottom of our car's windows. We talked about how such resilient spume could form and why the bubbles didn't burst but we came to no conclusion. If anyone out there knows, drop me a line, for I've seen this before and it's always mystified me. You can see a through-the-windshield view of our road-crossing spume at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204x.jpg.

Returning from the saltworks we stopped at the beach where immediately we were confronted with some unusual palms, Kuká in Maya, which I think is Pseudophoenix sargentii. You can see them, some being hurricane-topped, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204k.jpg.

What a strange-looking environment the beach is, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204u.jpg.

I think the small, trunkless palm is Coccothrinax readii, the bush with large, roundish leaves is Sea Grapes, Coccoloba uvifera, and the agaves with slender flowering stalks are Agave angustifolia.

The beach itself was smothered with brown, blown-ashore seaweed. You can see the waist-high heaps, with the long salt-transport system extending into the Gulf beyond, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204w.jpg.

A wonderful variety of seaweed was being blown ashore, some of them kinds I've never seen before. I photographed a selection and the picture turned out so pretty that I'm using it now as my screensaver. To keep the resolution high I've uploaded the picture full size, 146 kb large. If you have a fast connection or don't mind a slow download via modem you can admire and have this colorful image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204z.jpg.

If anyone out there can identify the algae in the picture I'd appreciate hearing from you.

On the way back to Río Lagartos we were happy to spot a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and a Boat-billed Heron. However, the visitors still hadn't seen a flamingo so as we entered Río Lagartos Diego had us turn down a certain street, stop at a certain spot and look between two houses. And there was a flock of flamingos. You can see the curious circumstance of a birder eyeing a thin line of pink flamingos from a sidewalk -- and see how Río Lagartos really does extend right into the mangroves -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204p.jpg.

*****

GRACKLES IN SAN JUAN PARK
My work in Río Lagartos being finished, on Wednesday morning I ended my happy stay on the Yucatan's northern coast by thanking Diego, his family and friends for their warm and generous hospitality, strapped on my backpack, and hit the road yet again.

That afternoon while hiking between bus stations in Mérida, the Yucatan's capital city, I came upon San Juan Park at Calle 69 x 64, saw how pleasant it was, and took an extended rest. It was a small park with maybe ten trees and as many benches, surrounded by busy streets.

In the late afternoon pigeons quietly came and went from the trees, sometimes gliding overhead in flocks of 15-20 birds, their gray and white markings showing handsomely against the trees' dark greens and in the late-afternoon light.

As dusk came on the pigeons left but Great-tailed Grackles started arriving. Most came at that special moment when there's not enough light to show a tree's greenness but there's enough for the top branches and any birds there to show up as satiny silhouettes against the milky sky.

And those treetop silhouettes were constantly in motion. More and more birds were arriving and when they got there they constantly gawked around, called, moved their great tails expressively, and they couldn't stay in any one spot more than a minute or two before they'd change to another branch or fly to another tree. The commotion was tremendous and the grackle-filled trees moved as if the wind were blowing.

One hardly noticed the movement, however, because of the noise. Throughout the day a Great-tailed Grackle is likely to emit every kind of sharply screeching, grating, whistling sound and now the birds were expressing their full repertory, but with their main sound being a single sharp, upward-swinging, second-lasting note. When there was just enough light to see, say, a peanut on the ground, the grackle-noise decibel level was simply hilarious.

Gradually the birds gravitated toward the park's densest trees, the Ficus benjaminas, and it was clear from the mess beneath those trees that every night they were favored with such preference. Denser and denser the grackle population grew in the ficuses, birds on the outside limbs moving into the trees, new birds still arriving on the outer branches.

Though the whole scene was an expression of the birds' powerful coming-together urge, each bird vigorously defended his immediate personal space. If a grackle on a branch was approach too closely by a newcomer, the bird in position lowered his head and opened his beak threateningly. What an interesting conflict -- to want companions near, but not too near, thus always needing to defend an abstract, conjectural and highly debatable boundary. Just like people.

When it was completely dark the grackles grew quiet and I headed to the bus station. During that night of sleeping on the bus I had mixed feelings as I abandoned the Yucatan entirely, with no fixed plans to return.

*****

BIG BAGS OF COLD HERBS
At dawn the next morning I was in Villahermosa, Tabasco, sweating as the sun came up, the huge, modern bus station memorable for its droning ceiling fans, signs warning of dengue fever, and its in-house mosquitoes.

Then all day Thursday I traveled on a series of westward- lumbering buses across the Gulf lowlands. Our pace was slow on badly deteriorated, four-lane highways that hadn't even been built in my early days of traveling there. It was typical to pay a $5 or $10 toll for just a few miles, but people paid it anyway because other roads were even worse. But I was in no hurry, my eyes feasting on lush, expansive greenness of a kind you don't see in arid Yucatan. Kentucky can be as green, but this Mexican greenness was savage and flamboyant compared to Kentucky's relatively prim and sedate hues.

There were banana plantations with people along the roads selling great yellow stalks hanging from rusted corrugated-tin roofs atop four rough poles. The same was true of Veracruz's pineapple-plantation region, except the pineapples were heaped in lovely yellow and brown mounds, and I could smell their sweetness from inside the passing bus.

In late afternoon we began climbing in elevation. Before long when people entered the bus you could feel fresh, chilly air. By nightfall I was in Puebla, elevation 7100 feet (2160 meterss), and I was shocked by the cold. I would have guessed the temperature to be in the low 40s but my thermometer read mid 50s. Still, I had avoided cold places for so long that this coldness penetrated to my bones, and made me reflect on the fact that I'd packed for the Yucatan's weather, not upland Mexico's.

High-elevation Mexico is simply another world from the Yucatan. For one thing, human population density there is very high, and the way that Paris is the center of all thing French, Mexico City is the inescapable heart of upland Mexico.

Back when I was gathering material for my website celebrating traditional Mexican markets (found at http://www.mexicanmercados.com) I was astounded at the sheer tonnage of plant material that every day was transported into Mexico City on trucks, in buses and other means. Thursday night waiting for my next bus in Puebla's icy-feeling air, I met some of that stream once again. An old lady in Native American pigtails was hiring a young man to cart her five enormous bags of fresh herbs to a Mexico-City-bound bus's baggage bay.

When the old lady and her bags of herbs passed me the mingled odors of basil, cilantro, spearmint, marjoram, hoja santa, parsley, lemongrass, chamomile, detonated in the cold night air like a cow's herby breath frozen to crystal, shattered, and blasted in my face. What vivid evocations each breath of stinging cold air brought, and how gratifying to see the bringer of all this an old, fat, pig-tailed woman in a black poncho-like quexquémitl graced with geometrical Native-American ornamentations.

At midnight just as Mexico's new president was being sworn in a few miles away, I was in Mexico City heading north on yet another bus, this one to the town of Querétaro, capital of the mostly arid highland state of the same name.

So, yes, I have returned to the place I visited in October, and I am considering staying awhile with the folks at the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve in the town of Jalpan, Querétaro. You have already seen snapshots from Jalpan (pronounced HALL-pahn) in my October 16th Newsletter, which resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016.htm.

You can read a little about the state of Querétaro at http://www.tourbymexico.com/quere/quere.htm.

You can read a little about the pretty town of Jalpan at http://www.tourbymexico.com/quere/jalpa/jalpa.htm.

*****

EATING BURRITOS IN PEÑA BLANCA
Much of the road between the state capital and Jalpan passes through very rugged, arid land. Maybe 25 road- miles west of Jalpan our bus stopped for half an hour in the mountain village of Peña Blanca (White Rock) so the bus driver could have breakfast. He pulled up next to a portable kitchen where two women tended a large comal, or hotplate-like thing, preparing traditional Native Mexican food items called burritos. I was hungry so I got off the bus -- the only passenger to do so -- and accompanied the bus driver as he ate.

To make a burrito, first you form a ±½-inch thick, oval patty of moist, freshly ground corn grains, bake the patty on a hot metal plate to the point that it's sort of stiff and smelling roasted, then you break the patty open and stuff it with any of a variety of possibilities. The ladies' fillings consisted of three kinds of spicy animal flesh, crumbled boiled eggs marinated in hotsauce, and crumbled Chiapas Cheese, which is white and rather bland, but when you twist it, it breaks into what appears to be soft, parallel fibers.

I had an egg burrito and a Chiapas Cheese one, plus a hot cup of rice atole (ah-TOLL-eh). Atole is another traditional Native-Mexican dish made by grinding into a paste some kind of carbohydrate-rich item such as rice, cooked oatmeal or, most traditionally, cooked corn, mix the paste with water and a sweetener and cook so that the result is a somewhat thick but drinkable emulsion. It was my first real meal in two days and in that chill mountain air that meal tasted all awfully good.

After my burritos and cup of atole I snapped a picture of the scene just across the road from where the bus driver and I stood. In that picture you can see the arid, scantily vegetated mountains, plus at the road's edge there's a red, portable kitchen similar to the one we ate at. See http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204g.jpg.

In that picture notice the clouds between the upper peaks. Our road took us right over that ridge, into the clouds where we traveled through dense fog for about 15 minutes. Then we descended on a slope that now was forested largely with oaks and pines, and the fog became clouds that made for a darkly overcast day. Jalpan lies in a valley between two high ranges and that day the valley was choked with fog/cloud, even while the uplands just to the west basked in dazzling sunlight.

Arriving in Jalpan I immediately set off hiking up to Biosphere Reserve headquarters, passing what had been a green field of tall corn during my October visit. Now a man was out in the field cutting cornstalks with a machete and stacking them into sheaves the way people did before they had cornpickers. Just so you won't forget what traditional cornstalk sheaves look like, see these at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204c.jpg.

By the way, above the cornfield in that picture you see several trees planted in a straight line and pruned into squares. These are the Ficus benjaminas I've mentioned several times, including in this Newsletter, they being the preferred roosting tree for San Juan Park's chattering grackles. Lately I've seen Ficus benjaminas pruned into very artful designs. Mexicans seem to be especially good at this.

*****

REFORESTATION AT EPAZOTES GRANDES
Saturday morning I was invited to visit one of the Reserve's reforestation projects. As is the case anytime one leaves Jalpan in any direction, the first part of the journey was upslope. Hilly Jalpan's elevation is around 2500 feet (750 meters). Our destination was a cluster of humble dwellings atop a mountain at about 7200 feet (2200 meters). The place is known as Epazotes Grandes, Epazote being the name of the herb sometimes known in English as Mexican Tea, famous as an ingredient in bean soup.

As is typical nearly everywhere here we saw slopes so steep one could hardly stand on them deforested for cornfields. Of course after a few years the soil in such spots has eroded leaving exposed rocks and weeds. Continuing cattle grazing and firewood gathering keeps most slopes in the same shape. Now there are problems with landslides and downstream reservoirs filling with silt.

This was a model reforestation project. Some slopes are being terraced and some are being replanted with trees -- pine trees, Pinus greggii. The people of the zone are very poor. While we were there the workers asked if they could keep working through the weekend, for they were being paid for work accomplished, not by the hour. About half were women wielding pick axes and shovels. You can see the slope we visited, with soil-stabilizing terraces in the foreground and on the opposite slope trenches meant to gather rainfall for the pines that will be planted -- all the plots fenced with five strands of barbed wire -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204e.jpg.

Of course it was gratifying to see such efforts and expense invested in soil conservation and reforestation. However, the thought I left there with was this: It takes an awful amount of money and effort to undo abuses that never should have been committed in the first place.

*****

BOUGAINVILLEA-FLOWER TEA
The Biosphere people are giving me a crash course in what they're doing in these mountains so on Sunday I was ferried back into the highlands to a different place, to where some landowners are trying to develop horse-riding trails and picnic areas for ecotourists. A norther was blowing in so it was cold and drizzly when we sat to talk with campesinos beneath a tin-roof shed with a view into the valley below. Above us spread a magnificent bougainvillea vine in full blossom like the one I photographed in Jalpan in October. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061016b.jpg.

One of the group had come down with a cold so someone mentioned that bougainvillea flowers of this particular color -- the brightest pinkish red -- were known to relieve symptoms of a cold. A lady standing nearby was amazed at the news and volunteered to pick some blossoms right then, go to her kitchen, and soon return with hot bougainvillea tea for all.

This she did, and the tea was the expected pinkish red. She brought lemons for us to squeeze into the tea and when we did the tea color changed to a yellowish hue. The resulting brew tasted like hot water with lemon juice in it and at this point we don't know if the person with the cold found relief.

However I did check my "Las Plantas Medicinales de México" and it does indeed list bougainvillea-flower tea as efficacious against coughs. By "flowers" we are referring both to the small, tubular flowers and the large, colorful bracts subtending the flowers.

*****

THE CYCADS OF SAN ANTONIO
The mountaintop less-than-a-village we were at was called San Antonio, and one of the ideas the local landowners have is to reintroduce Collared Peccaries, a kind of wild hog, into their local woods, then invite hunters to come and pay to shoot them. Collared Peccaries once occupied this area but were all killed off. An old man in a broad, sloppy sombrero and with a broad, sloppy smile, Don Rafa, was among us. He told us he had about 30 peccaries in a pen on his land about ready to be released, and invited us to go see them.

The peccaries were there just like any bunch of hogs in a muddy, sloppy pen but what really caught my attention on that trip was the appearance of hundreds and hundreds of a certain kind of plant growing wild along the muddy road to Don Rafa's rancho. They were Mexican Cycads, DIOON EDULE, and you can see my picture of one about three feet tall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204d.jpg.

Cycads are always wonderful to see, not only because they are such lovely plants but also because they are "living fossils." Here people refer to them as palms, but they are not at all related to palms. They look like ferns but neither are they close to ferns. They are gymnosperms and thus most closely related to plants such as ginkgos and yews, but really their closest relatives went extinct millions of years ago, so now cycads as a group occupy a rather isolated branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life.

Cycads produce fruiting structures looking a little like pine cones, which makes sense since pines are gymnosperms, too. Don Rafa was in the car's back seat as we headed toward his rancho and when he saw the cycads he said:

"Ayyyy, I know some women who make the most marvelous tamales from that plant's fruits. You go to their homes at the right season, you sit and talk with them awhile, you bring the subject around to this plant, and they say, 'Ayyyy, I have some tamales of that fruit right here. You want some?' And then you say, 'Why, yes, I think I might enjoy that.' And then they bring out the hot coffee and you sit and eat that tamale, and, ayyyyyy, nothing is better in this life than that my good man, nothing is like a cycad-fruit tamale and hot coffee... "

The people of San Antonio aren't the only ones who know you can eat this plant's fruits. Note the species name: D. edule, from "edulis," meaning "edible." But Don Rafa would have named it D. deliciosus, I am sure.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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