JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

December 18, 2006

SAN JUAN DE LOS DURÁN
This week I visited the eco-bungalows at San Juan de los Durán. The trip up from Jalpan took about two hours in the back of a pickup truck, mostly bouncing along dirt and gravel roads and often snaking up the sides of steep mountain slopes. It was glorious but chilly at 4500 feet (1360 m) among pines and oaks. It was so sparklingly sunny, fresh, moist and springlike that dandelions were flowering.

The humble folks of tiny San Juan de los Durán hope that visitors will rent their eco-bungalows, bringing some money into the mountains. The bungalows are astonishingly well-crafted, sturdy, rustic structures not unlike expensive-to-rent chalets in the Alps, and they're even powered with solar panels. You can see two of several buildings, and two solar panels if you look hard, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218d.jpg.

From the back of the truck as we approached San Juan, along the road I spotted numerous feathery cycads -- the primitive gymnosperms I told you about in the December 4th Newsletter. I read that we have two cycad species endemic to the San Juan area and this is also where our most exciting bird-sighting might be made -- the Bearded Wood-partridge. Mountain Lions occur here. During this visit I could stay only for a couple of hours but I'm looking forward to later backpacking in the area.

In fact, if anyone out there wants to visit a peaceful, fascinating spot in an oak-pine forest among mountains where on certain ridges cloudforest appears with trees festooned with gardens of mosses, ferns, lichens, bromeliads, orchids and more, let me know. The local people will treat you like royalty and will provide pretty cheap services. I'd love to conduct week-long nature-study workshops for small groups at San Juan.

*****

RUFOUS-CAPPED WARBLERS
When North Americans think of warblers they visualize nervous little yellow-and-black, migrant birds with slender, insect-eating bills. The quintessential North American warbler is a member of the genus Dendroica, such as the Yellow-rumped Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Hermit Warbler and the Pine Warbler.

At San Juan de los Durán a common warbler flitting among the weeds and along forest edges is neither a migrant nor a member of the genus Dendroica or any other genus most North American birders are familiar with. It's the Rufous-capped Warbler of the genus BASILEUTERUS. See one at http://www.siti.com.mx/musave.dir/htm.dir/1333.htm.

Though the Wood-Warbler Subfamily, the Parulinae, is assumed to have arisen in North America, Basileuterus warblers are thought to have evolved in South America. In continental-drift terms, it's conjectured that before the Central America land bridge connected North and South America Basileuterus's ancestors passed from the warbler homeland in North America into South America and there evolved a bit before re-invading back northward through Central America. Basileuterus warblers are a bit more robust and have stouter bills than North American genera. Most Basileuterus species have olive or gray upperparts and yellow underparts, striking "eyebrows" (superciliums) and colored crowns or crown stripes. When you've spent a lot of time learning North America's many migrant woodwarbler species it's a treat to see these southern "variations on the warbler theme."

The Rufous-capped Warblers at San Juan de los Durán were very curious about me as I sat in the sun near a spring. They came tsik-tsik-tsiking and hanging sideways on weed stems looking at me the way a chickadee might.

Rufous-capped Warblers sometimes show up accidentally in the US along the border with Mexico, in Texas and Arizona. Otherwise they're normally found throughout most of Mexico, except in the hot lowlands, into South America. They specialize in disturbed areas such as clearings and woods edges and usually are found in lower mountains and foothills -- in other words, places exactly like San Juan de los Durán.

Probably the most interesting species in that list are the Military Macaw and the Bearded Wood-partridge.

*****

THE PREGNANT PLANT
The first time I ever entered a university greenhouse -- at the University of Kentucky in Lexington -- the plant that most got my attention was one known in Latin as BRYOPHYLLUM DELAGOENSIS. It's one of those weird, succulent Malagasy plants from which you can expect almost anything. That day in the UK greenhouse the otherworldly thing I saw Bryophyllum delagoensis doing was producing large numbers of baby plants all along the margins of its matchstick leaves -- it was viviparous. That's why one of its many names is Pregnant Plant.

I pilfered a couple of plantlets from a scraggly specimen, took them home to the farm in Western Kentucky, and was very gratified when the plantlets grew into big plants whose own leaves soon became pregnant. Later I learned that the species grows almost anyplace you put it if you keep the cold from it.

In fact, this plant that once I thought was so unique and rare has become a weed in much of the world's tropics and subtropics. In Hawaii and Australia it's especially troublesome. It's also a weed, as well as a handsome garden flower, at San Juan de los Durán.

That day on our way up from Jalpan, peering Buddha-like over the truck's cab from atop my upside-down bucket seat in the airy back of the pickup truck I didn't see any Pregnant Plants until we had a bit of elevation. Then they became conspicuous along roadsides flowering very prettily. The plants grew three to four feet tall and their blossoms were crimson red, glowing almost psychedelically in the sharp mountain air. Another pickup truck up ahead of us pulled to the side of the road, a woman jumped out and began picking a bouquet of the red inflorescences and, as we passed, the man at the wheel had on his face that you-know-how-women-are look. Well, if I hadn't felt it was slighting the pollinators, I'd have picked a bouquet, too.

At the bungalow compound they've planted Pregnant Plants to good effect. You can see my picture making them look much taller than they really are because I was lying on the ground taking the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218b.jpg.

In that picture the large, pointed blades from which the stalks arise belong to agaves who will flower later. The Pregnant Plant's leaves, as I said, are like matchsticks.

A number of Bryophyllum species are known and several produce plantlets along their leaf margins. You can see how that phenomenon looks on the leaves of several species, including on our own Bryophyllum delagoensis, at http://www.bryophyllum.com/b/articles/id/.

*****

EPIPHYTES ON SHINGLES
Back in my German days I used to backpack a lot in the Alps. I always got a kick from how the slate-tile roofs of mountaintop shepherds' huts often were thickly carpeted with lichens, mosses and other plants such as the rosette-forming little succulent sometimes called Hen-and-Chicks (genus Sempervivum) seen at http://www.wsu.edu/~lohr/wcl/SemtecForm.jpg.  

Up at San Juan de los Durán the mountain air was so humid that not only were many tree branches heavy with dangling fruticose lichen but also the shingles of buildings sprouted plant populations reminiscent of what I've seen atop Alpine shepherds' huts. The plants inhabiting the shingle edges here were tropical, however, and much more colorful and diverse. A picture of such a shingle garden is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218e.jpg.

In that picture the green, upward-pointing, fingerlike items are ferns with round, spore-producing sori, or fruitdots, on their lower surfaces. I think this is PLEOPELTIS CRASSINERVATA, close to the genus Polypodium. Next to the Pleopeltis is a gray tuft of stiff, slender leaves with two narrow, reddish inflorescences arising among them. That's a bromeliad, genus TILANDSIA, probably the species BARTRAMII.

By "bromeliad" I mean that it's a member of the Tropical American plant family the Bromeliaceae, or Bromeliad Family. Nearly all bromeliads grow on trees as epiphytes. Don't confuse epiphytes with parasites. Parasites rob nutrients from their hosts while epiphytes merely use their hosts as perches, taking their nutrients from the air and rain. Most epiphytes are not parasites. Mistletoes are semi-parasitic epiphytes but bromeliads are not parasitic at all. The best-known bromeliad, by the way, is the Pineapple plant, which is very unusual in the family since it grows rooted in the ground.

Spanish Moss also is a bromeliad. In fact, Spanish Moss is also a member of the genus Tillandsia, like our roof- shingle bromeliad -- it's Tillandsia usneoides. Therefore, Spanish Moss is closely related to the bromeliad in the picture. Spanish Moss itself is unusual among bromeliads because its plants grow connected together in dangling, rope-like associations. The shingle Tillandsia is much more typical of bromeliads.

*****

HOW PANCHO OPENED HIS TUNA
A number of Spanish words are known to English speakers trying to learn Spanish as "false friends." Many English words have been taken into Spanish and mean what they look like they mean, so they're "real friends." For example, the Spanish word "bar" means "bar" in English. So does "sex-appeal." But other words look like English words, but aren't, and so are "false friends." For example, the Spanish word "pan" means "bread." Spanish "arena" means "sand." "Once" means "eleven" and "red" means "net." That's the way it is with "tuna." In Spanish a tuna is an edible cactus fruit.

So, up at San Juan de los Durán there was this Nopal Cactus, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, about 12 feet tall behind one of the bungalows bearing several pretty, red fruits, or tunas, which taste good. You can see that very cactus at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218t.jpg.

Now, many cactuses bear two kinds of spines. One kind is the hard, sharp spine everyone visualizes cactuses having, but then there are tufts of often honey-colored, extremely sharp, tiny spines called "glochids" at the spine bases or where spines might grow. You touch one of those glochids and you end up picking at it for days trying to get it out of your skin. You almost have to have good eyes and tweezers to get those things out. A close-up of two tunas in which you can clearly see the glochid tufts with no associated spines is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218u.jpg.

The tunas in that picture are about egg-size, but in markets you can buy special horticultural kinds that are much larger and without glochids, or almost without. The Nopal Cactus has been horticuluralized for so long that quite a few varieties have been developed. The cactus in these pictures is an old type.

So, I had a good-tasting fruit covered with glochids I didn't want to touch. How could I get at the edible part without ruining my fingers for several days? I've tried various techniques and I've always ended up with at least one glochid in a finger, so up at San Juan de los Durán I didn't even try to open a tuna.

However, my friend Pancho, the truck driver, eventually came along so I asked him how he'd eat it. He gave me that look that only a Mexican can give a gringo when the gringo is being hopelessly helpless. He took a fruit between two sticks chopstick-like, and told me to follow him. We went over to the bunch of weeds near the spring where the Rufous-capped Warblers had tarried, dropped the tunas onto the ground, broke off several switches from an assortment of soft-leafy weeds, and set about vigorously brushing the tunas with his weed-switch. After about 45 seconds he picked up a tuna with his fingers, sliced it open, and held it before me to eat. Before I ate it I took its picture, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218v.jpg.

And, indeed, Pancho didn't get a single glochid out of the deal. Through all these years of wandering in cactus country, why hadn't I thought of switching tunas with soft-leafy weeds?

The picture shows that tuna fruits are red and succulent inside, looking almost like watermelon flesh. The taste is even a little like watermelon. However, the scarlet pulp is full of small seeds, so you're faced with the same question as when you eat passion fruits or pomegranates: Do you spit out each little seed or swallow them?

I asked Pancho what Mexicans did. He said that some spit, some swallow. He, personally, was a swallower. By the time he'd told me all that I'd already swallowed mine.

*****

A VIEW OF EASTERN SIERRA MADRE GEOLOGY
The view from the bungalows at San Juan de los Durán reveals a bit about Mexican geology. You can see the view at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218g.jpg.

Behind the sheep you see a mountain slope, the ridge of which is defined by the slanted outcropping of a layer of white limestone rock. Limestone is sedimentary rock originally deposited as horizontal layers of limy marl, mostly on sea floors, so a lot of energy has been used raising the former seabed more than 4500 vertical feet to where we see it today. This isn't anything extraordinary, however. The Earth does such things all the time, and much, much more.

Those outcropping limestone rocks highlight a big difference between the Eastern and Western Sierra Madres. Our Eastern mountains are mostly composed of sedimentary limestone of predominantly Cretaceous Age (144 to 65 million years old), while the Western Sierra Madres are mostly of volcanic origin, consisting largely of old lava flows, erupted ash and such of a generally younger age. In between the two Sierra Madres, which merge in the south like the arms of a V, lies Mexico's Interior High Plateau or altiplano, which is tilted so that it is higher in the south than the north.

If you follow the Eastern Sierra Madres north they merge into western Texas's mountains where certain ranges are known by such names as the Davis Mountains and the Guadalupe Mountains, and then farther north they acquire the grand identity of the Rocky Mountains. Biologically the continuity of this series of mountains is significant because it means that plants and animals find no great ecological barrier keeping them from moving north and south.

One consequence of this vast upland being continuous is that in this part of Mexico there are relatively few endemic bird species. Remember that in the northern Yucatan we had several endemics because northern Yucatan was isolated from other arid-scrub ecosystems by the ocean on three sides, and a rainier climate to the south. The Yucatan was an ecological island, and islands produce endemics. The Eastern Sierra Madres just go on and on, one mountain range after another, letting genes from contiguous populations mingle with ease, thus keeping populations blending, and endemism low. Howell reports as the only bird-endemic for the entire Mexican Plateau, of which we are part, the Worthen's Sparrow, found north of Querétaro state.

The Eastern Sierra Mountains' geology is surprisingly poorly studied. You might be interested in an introduction to the general geology of the Mexican uplands north of Mexico City at http://p2.www.britannica.com/ebc/article-39940.

*****

FLAME VINE FLAMING
Once again this Sunday I headed upslope through the scrub and once again on the outskirts of town I was transfixed by flowering plants around people's homes. This week it was the Flame Vine, PYROSTEGIA IGNEA, that caught my eye. You can see a cantaloupe-size cluster of Flame Vine's 2- to 3-inch-long, reddish-orange flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218p.jpg.

Flame Vine is a member of the Bignonia Family. North Americans know Trumpet Creeper and Catalpa, which also are members of this family. Flame Vine bears evergreen leaves that can be simple or digitately compound (with leaflets arising from one point like the digits of a hand), and its stems are somewhat woody. With its tough tendrils, which divide into three curling, wrapping- around "fingers" at their tips, the vine climbs along walls and fences for up to 40 feet. The one I saw Sunday was cascading down a 20-ft stone wall simply setting the whole slope ablaze.

One curious feature of Flame Vine's blossoms is that the curved-back corolla lobes bear whitish, velvety margins. You can barely see this in the picture.

Flame Vine is a native of Brazil and is grown from cuttings in the full sun.

*****

HENEQUEN WEAVING AND NATURAL DYES
I've added some fine new pages dealing with the use of henequen fibers in weaving bags and other items, and using natural dyes to color the fibers. These pages were prepared by my friends Ruth McMurty and Louis Vogel, both with homes in Mérida, Yucatán, and both with years of experience dealing with fiber.

The introductory page on henequen fiber is at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/henequen.htm.

The page on natural dyes from native Yucatan plants is at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/yuc-dye.htm.

The page describing the extraction of henequen fiber is at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/fiberout.htm.

(The henequen-mill page linked to at the above page isn't finished yet but at least you can see inside a great old mill.)

*****

BOOM-BOOM, CROAK-CROAK
This is the time of year when a vast exodus of working Mexicans floods south from the US diffusing out into Mexico's thousands of little towns and villages more or less like Jalpan. Jalpan's general atmosphere has changed enormously from two weeks ago.

Mainly you see it on the steep, narrow streets now jammed with cars and pickup trucks with US license plates. Up north these folks may have been only the shadows you see hustling in the backrooms of restaurants, the humble, stooped-over fieldworkers you pass in your car, or maybe the anonymous construction workers across from your office, but, down here, now, they are kings. They have returned home in triumph. They are powerbrokers and people of vision, bigwigs, people who have seen and done it all.

A fair percentage of these returning workers are young men and one way they impress the local folks with their success is to drive their fancy cars equipped with sound systems with speakers that can jar the fillings from your teeth from half a mile away. Day and night, day after day, night after night, up and down the one main street of this little town the boom, boom, boom of the base line of songs erupts from one car or pickup truck after another. Higher-frequency lyrical notes get filtered out half a mile away but these very low bass notes rumble through trees, through walls, right through my body and my soul, day and night. It's like being inside the guts of a flatulent dinosaur. Add to this the continuing rocket explosions set off by wandering Baby-Jesus-statue carriers and the cathedral's unpredictable outbursts of tolling bells and you have something to consider.

Thursday night I camped beside the reservoir near the Reserve HQ. Right after sundown the first carload of young people arrived on a peninsula across the lake and they came in a car with a grand sound system. Over half a mile of silvery water speckled with startled coots and nervous Blue-winged Teal the boom-boom-booms came. I am pretty sure the nylon walls of my tent shuddered with each boom but how could I know with my eyeballs jiggling so?

The booms made frogs start calling. And what must have been those frogs' thoughts as they heard the boomings of what surely was a competitor frog ten stories tall? Yet, this is the wonderful thing: Those little frogs around my tent gamely replied to the behemoth across the lake with their own normal croaks, just as if they had not lost all hope of having their own croaks heard.

So, I lay there in my tent Thursday night admiring frogs. Also, I thought about this: Clearly, on this Earth there are very many more folks wanting big speakers to boom their primal calls across the waters than there are we who prefer that our frogs and ourselves stay unbothered. These days, seeing more clearly than ever what an ever-diminishing, lost-cause minority I find myself in, that's my own giant frog booming its message through my viscera.

Boom, boom, boom... The panes of glass in the window next to my desk rattle in empathy with my brain.

Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve will be closed for Christmas when my next Newsletter is due so I'll have no computer access. The next Newsletter will come when things fall together and I've had enough peace to compose one.

Boom, boom, boom, and Happy Solstice, everyone. May our next great seasonal cycle bring us, more than anything, peace and wisdom.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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