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

January 12, 2007

GAS-FILLED BALLOONS & THE MAGI
Last Friday, January 5th, as I walked toward my apartment downtown I noticed that I was gaining company as I went. I couldn't figure out what was going on until I passed a stationery shop with a handmade sign in the window translating to: "FOR SALE: Gas-filled balloons for sending your lists to the Magi."

Of course! The next day, January 6th, was "traditional Mexican Christmas," the day when people exchanged gifts back before gringo Christmas started taking over. In Jalpan most people, I think, exchange gifts the new way, though on December 24th and not the 25th, but in the more conservative smaller towns and countryside the old ways hold on and January 6th is still the main gift-giving day, and an important religious day. The idea with the balloons is that the Wise Men, the Magi, bring little kids gifts on the 6th, so if you're a kid you write to the Magi just like gringo kids write to Santa Clause, and since the Magi are in Heaven, how better to contact them than with gas-filled balloons?

I joined the people -- town folks referred to them at "peregrinos," or pilgrims -- as they converged on the cathedral atop the hill. It was like a circus up there, toys being sold in new plywood booths, men circulating selling pink cotton candy, ice-cream, tamales, atole, just everything you could want, and there was lots of loud music.

People lay everywhere, some sleeping, some staring about as if dazed, everyone looking frowsy and pooped. I was told that many had walked long distances to get there. Cars, trucks and sidewalks along nearby streets also were crammed with sleepers and gazers. I asked what was going on. People were waiting for that night's mass, which would go on the whole night, I was told. And people especially wanted to spend their nights praying to the "Santo Niño de la Mexclita" -- The Little Jesus carving with its gold crown and two missing fingers -- who performs miracles for the faithful.

You can see a picture of people camping before the cathedral at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112j6.jpg.

I asked if they'd be ringing the cathedral bells all night. Sí. Would rockets be exploding? Sí. Would even a lot more people than this be coming in? Sí. I headed downhill to my apartment, strapped on my backpack, and that weekend camped in the mountains.

If you can read Spanish you might enjoy an article about the event posted by the newspaper El Universal at http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/estados/63474.html.

There you can read that pilgrim Juventina Barrera has been coming here on this date for the last nine years because the Santo Niño de la Mezclita cured her of diabetes, and she comes to give thanks for her cure.

*****

COOTS
The reservoir next to which I camped over the weekend harbored hundreds of American Coots -- those blackish, ducklike birds with white beaks you see so often in open water. I say "ducklike" because they're not ducks. Coots don't have webbed feet or flattish beaks like ducks. Coots are in the Rail Family. You can see a coot at http://www.johnsonmill.com/images/American%20Coot.jpg.

Blue-winged Teal also populated the lake in smaller numbers. These are small, prim-looking ducks, as shown at http://www.virtualbirder.com/vbirder/stimac/BWTeal.jpg.

The two species sometimes mingled and when I saw them together I couldn't keep from philosophizing about their very different living strategies.

For, coots hang out in small, loose flocks, with each bird more or less doing his own thing. In a flock of three, one bird may be diving deeply for food, another may be preening, and the third signaling his mates with head-bobbing and calling while the mates seem to ignore him altogether. The smaller, more elegant-looking Blue- winged Teal, however, stay in tightly constituted flocks of 15-30 or more birds. They're nervously alert and fly away fast if anything looks suspicious. While coots seem content eating any aquatic vegetation they can stuff into their mouths, the teal appear to be more selective, apparently relishing aquatic insects and other invertebrates along with their aquatic-plant diet.

In other words, the two species formed a classic couple -- like the slob and the dandy, the flexible generalist and the finicky specialist, the unfocused liberal and the obsessive conservative. Once again Mother Nature shows that She doesn't favor one manner over the other, but She does insist on diversity.

Sometimes the teal in their methodical foraging uprooted aquatic vegetation that the coots then opportunistically ate. Some coots seemed to hang around the teal just for the free scrounging. Since there was plenty of aquatic vegetation to go around I almost got the notion that the coots were freeloading just for the fun of it!

At dusk when there was hardly any light left a good number of coots drifted into a little inlet near my tent where they roosted. It was too dark for me to see but it sounded as if they climbed onto shrub limbs emerging from the water.

During the night sometimes a coot would erupt into the kind of nasally squeaky, rattling and clucking heard by clicking on one of the audio icons at the page bottom linked to here.

There was a nearly full moon last weekend. What a pleasure lying in my tent with its open-web top while the moonlight flooded in, crickets chimed, frogs croaked, and those good-ol'-boy coots out there whooped it up in the moonlight.

*****

TWO DISTINCTIVE ROADCUT-FERNS
On both sides of the reservoir several miles of one-lane gravel roads have been cut into the mountainsides. Besides displaying fine examples of the region's much folded and faulted limestone geology, the roadcuts display a goodly number of plants adapted to rock faces, especially ferns. Two particular fern species are common and very distinctive, and I had a dickens of a time trying to identify them. No fieldguides here...

One fern especially catches your eye nowadays because its frond undersurface is chalky white. When the frond is dry its blade margins curl up showing the whiteness, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112ch.jpg.

The fronds in that picture are pretty curled up, but since the picture was made it's been dry and now those fronds look like little more than popcorn puffs on black stems.

I'm about 90% sure it's the Floury Cloak Fern, CHEILANTHES FARINOSA. It's called "floury" not only because of the whiteness but because the whiteness rubs onto your fingers like flour.

The second fern grabs your attention mostly if you're a little familiar with the fern groups, particularly the "rattlesnake ferns," genus Botrychium. Rattlesnake ferns have much-dissected, triangular leaves from which a single rattlesnake-tail-like, spore-producing "fertile frond" arises from the fern stem. What jars the fern- expert's sense of propriety is that our fern has two of those fertile fronds, not one. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112ne.jpg.

One name for this fern is "Blooming Fern." It's ANEMIA PHYLLITIDIS, of the same fern family as the climbing ferns I've mentioned twining so luxuriously along roadsides in Mississippi.

*****

PURPLE ORCHID TREE
Maybe the most spectacular flowering tree at this moment is a smallish Bean-Family member planted fairly regularly in people's yards and along roads. You can see one in full bloom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112b1.jpg.

A close-up of its four-inch-wide, rose-colored flowers and one of its curious, cow-foot-shaped leaves is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112b2.jpg.

This is the famous Purple Orchid Tree, BAUHINIA VARIEGATA, originally from India and China but now planted worldwide in the tropics. Wild members of the genus Bauhinia live here but they're not nearly as showy as this species. Like the Poinsianas I told you about last week, Purple Orchid Trees balance their gorgeous flowering periods with an ugly time, when they bear abundant, flat seedpods. Those seedpods snap open when they reach a certain state of dryness, scattering brown seeds everywhere.

I've always been partial to the genus Bauhinia because it's an easy Bean-Family member to identify. Especially in our scrub country there are so many Bean-Family members with feathery, compound leaves -- the Acacias, the Caesalpinias, the Mimosas, the Albizias, the Leucaneas, etc. -- that it's very hard to differentiate them, especially when they're not flowering, as is the case now. But, Bauhinias have those nice leaves with shallow clefts at their apexes, looking like a cow's hoof-print, almost yelling out the tree's identity.

*****

BROMELIADS ON POWER LINES
Travellers in the tropics know very well the phenomenon shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112ep.jpg.

That picture is of bromeliads growing naturally on power lines here in Jalpan. The bromeliad is TILLANDSIA RECURVATA, sometimes called Small Ballmoss, though it’s a bromeliad, not a moss. As you might expect with a species that can grow on power lines, this is a tough little plant with an enormous distribution throughout tropical and part of subtropical America. It's found from as far north as Georgia and Arizona south to southern South America. I’ve even seen it growing on cactus spines and barbed-wire fences.

Seeing Tillandsia recurvata on power lines should dispel any suspicions you might have that epiphytes -- plants growing on other plants and elevated structures -- have to be at least a little parasitic on their hosts to survive.

The vast majority of epiphytes aren't parasitic at all. They just grow epiphytically because they need a place to live and their perches give them access to light. Though the percentage is much less in temperate climates, when the whole world's seed plants and ferns are considered, about 10% of them are epiphytes. Over half of the Orchid Family's 20,000 species are epiphytic.

Whenever you read how epiphytes manage to survive you find a great deal about dust, trapped organic debris accumulating around plant bases, and trickling rainwater, but there's little said about microorganisms. Recently studies have shown that in many epiphytic species bacteria play a huge role by fixing atmospheric nitrogen. Almost all orchids have mycorrhiza associated with their roots which provide the plants with micronutrients. Our little Tillandsia recurvata has been shown to have its blade surfaces populated by the nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Pseudomonas stutzeri.

So here's more evidence that we underestimate the importance of microorganisms in our lives, and to Life on Earth. We've already spoken of how very much the health and survival of animal species -- humans being animals -- depend on a diverse, well balanced population of bacteria being present in our guts.

Sometimes I think that future generations may regard the manner in which we abuse the planet's microorganisms as even more disastrous than how we deal with global warming and nuclear proliferation. When we clear-cut a forest and cause so much erosion and oxidation of the soil's organic content, that's devastating on the established bacteria. From the regenerating forest's point of view, loss of a healthy community of bacteria may be worse than losing normal soil structure and the forest's self-regulating microclimate.

*****

CATS
New research suggests that cats may be the single most important cause of songbird deaths. The combination of humans fragmenting natural areas into small plots, then letting cats roam in these plots is particularly deadly to all forms of small wildlife.

A new campaign has begun to educate people not only on the disastrous effects of free-roaming domestic cats, but also on the proper way to keep a house cat happily in a house and away from wildlife. It's the "Cats Indoors Campaign," introduced at http://www.abcbirds.org/cats/.

Notice that on that page, in red letters up in the top, left corner, there's a link to an "online citizen science survey." This survey is meant to gather more information on cat impact -- how much they destroy and how they do it.

*****

YUCATAN-LOCUST UPDATE
You might remember from last year's November 20th Newsletter, issued from Río Lagartos in the Yucatan, my telling you about the concentration of nymphal grasshoppers I'd found, apparently the precursors of a locust outbreak. You can see my photo of the grasshopper hoards at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120g3.jpg.

Mexico's La Prensa newspaper reports that now the grasshoppers have matured into locusts, and that 12,000 acres, or 5000 HA, of Yucatan fields and forest are threatened. Officials report a "cloud" several kilometers wide in eastern Yucatan. The paper says that last year locusts destroyed about a thousand acres of corn and vegetable crops. The current outbreak seems poised to expand southward into the states of Campeche and Tabasco.

The grasshoppers's name is given as SCHISTOCERCA PICEIFRONS PICEIFRONS

*****

TUNITAS UPDATE
In last month's December 29th Newsletter I told about some friends and me picking "tunitas" -- edible cactus flower ovaries. The picture of the tunitas we picked is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061229no.jpg.

Folks here think of the tunitas-providing cactus as just one of the many varieties of Nopal Cactus, which provides edible cactus fruits, or tunas, and edible cactus pads. Now that my eye is starting to pick up subtle details in the flora, I've realized that the tunita cactus isn't a variety of the Nopal at all, but rather an entirely different species.

It's OPUNTIA AUBERI. Sometimes the species is called Lengua de Vaca in Spanish (Cow's Tongue), but lots of things here are called Lengua de Vaca. The main Nopal Cactus is OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, but several edible-fruit-  producing cacti are called Nopal. Really, when dealing with the varied world of cacti in Mexico, you just about have to use Latin names.

You can see a picture of our tunitas-producing Opuntia auberi along the lake beside our offices at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070112no.jpg.

The Opuntia ficus-indica I photographed last month at San Juan is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061218t.jpg.

Both of these species produce cylindrical, bark-covered tree-like trunks, and the Cow's-tongue's trunk is even tallrt and more slender than the Nopal's.

The cacti I'm finding here are wonderful and I expect to be learning a lot more about them. Just in little Querétaro state, occupying only 1% of the Mexican nation, about 112 cactus species are known, in about 30 genera. Amazing!

*****

CAVING TERMS
My recent comments on the enormous sinkhole near La Trinidad, Hoya de La Luz, has stirred interest among some spelunkers and rappellers. I hope the interest converts into ecotour money for people living near the attraction.

You may enjoy exploring the Association for Mexican Cave Studies' website at http://www.amcs-pubs.org/. That site links to a page on special caving terms such as "aa," which is a Hawaiian word for "A surface type of solidified lava, characterized by broken lumps of material or very sharp prickly fragments," and "rootsicle," which refers to "roots of trees or plants which grow into a cave cavity and become calcified."

There's something magical about having a word. For example, I've seen rootsicles and just brushed them off as something that couldn't be talked about, and hardly thought about. However, now I have that word "rootsicle" and here we are thinking about them, recognizing the calcification process that forms them, and looking forward to seeing the next one, when we'll say "rootsicle!"

*****

HAVING A COLD
I think it all started about a week ago when I was eating tangerines, which are at their peak of production here, and jalapeños. I like that sweet-hot effect, take a bite of one, then of the other, sometimes with a chomp of banana in between. The problem arose when during this particular snack I started sneezing and got jalapeño juice up my nose. My sinuses stayed enflamed for several days and gradually that turned into a head cold. The cold has kept me from being very philosophical and artsy this week.

There's a point to think about here. For, many years ago I realized that when you're sick or just plain feel bad your intellectual level plummets and you're not so creative. It seems like that would be self-evident to everyone, yet from people's behavior I have to think that it's not clear at all.

Else, why do so many people who otherwise work very hard and make many sacrifices for the things they believe in pay so little attention to their health?

You can see where I'm going here. If we are to be effective warriors in the fight to save Life on Earth, then not only must we be smart, sensitive and determined, but also in good health. In my way of thinking, eating properly, exercising and avoiding unhealthy habits such as smoking and overdrinking are as important as being well informed and keeping an independent mind.

It might be a good idea as well to avoid sneezing when you're eating tangerines and jalapeños.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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