JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve Headquarters in
Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

February 2, 2007

LOOKING FOR JAGUARS AT JOYA DEL HIELO
Last Sunday morning several of us at the Reserve piled into trucks and headed east and upward, to a high ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madres and one of the Reserve's critical "nuclear zones," a magical place called Joya del Hielo, which translates to something like "Ice Jewel."

"Ice," because after a great deal of pushing a four-wheel pickup to its limit (with us in the back bouncing a good bit) and then hiking upslope for over an hour, we were at an elevation of 6500 feet (2000 m) in virgin cloudforest where it's always pretty chilly. We were lucky that day because the ridge was dry, not enshrouded in cloud-fog.

We'd come to Joya del Hielo to begin a wildlife survey, the peak accomplishment of which might possibly turn out be proving that the area is visited by Jaguars -- something widely suspected. We did see signs that looked like big cat, probably Mountain Lion, but possibly Jaguar. If we're very lucky we'll end up with Jaguar pictures.

For, on this trip we strapped six newly acquired cameras to trees, the cameras' lenses pointed at clearings and wildlife trails, and sensitive to infrared light. When a warm body wanders before a camera's lens the shutters snap and a flash goes off. You can see my friends Alfredo and Roberto, from left to right, with a blue GPS unit on a rock at the far left, and Camelia the Dog at the far right, strapping a camouflaged camera to a tree, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202ca.jpg.

You can imagine how curious we all are about what the cameras have captured this week. A fellow has been letting his cattle wander in the Joya. He was asked to put them up, but I wouldn't be surprised if mostly we end up looking at cow pictures.

*****

MOSSES & PEPEROMIAS
You've probably noticed how mosses grow so abundantly in the dim, cool, mustiness below rock overhangs and right next to woodland streams. Joya del Hielo smells and feels like it's beneath a big rock overhang in the winter. It's Moss Heaven. You can see a general view across the Joya's forest floor showing thick moss mantling limestone rocks and tree trunks (with a prettily yellow-flowering bush, probably the endemic Senecio lanicaulis) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202mo.jpg.

Not only does Joya del Hielo's forest look, smell and feel like Appalachia's higher elevation forests but also, as explained here earlier about the last Ice Age leaving relict species at our higher elevations, many of the species are identical, or almost so. I saw very large basswoods, Hophornbeams, two magnolia species, hickory, Fragrant Sumac, Partridge Berry, Squawroot and more.

But then also there were bushel-basket-size, flame-red- topped bromeliads, epiphytic orchids, peperomias and more. Seeing these, you remember you're not in Appalachia. Since we've already spoken about bromeliads and orchids, while I was at the Joya I took some peperomia pictures so we can discuss them now.

Peperomias are members of the tropical Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae -- black pepper being of salt-and- pepper fame, not the "chili peppers" Mexico is famous for. Members of this family are easily recognized by their minute, much-simplified flowers very densely packed on long, slender, often arching spikes. The reduced flowers lack any corolla or calyx and bear only two stamens and a single ovary. Peperomias are small, more- or-less succulent herbs, and some are so attractive that they're sold up north as potted plants. You can see some of the most commonly marketed potted peperomias at http://www.southerntropicals.com/galleries/Peperomia/index.htm.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202p4.jpg you can see Joya del Hielo's most common peperomia, probably PEPEROMIA BLANDA, growing on the ground and on rocks, and with uncommonly numerous, long, slender flowering spikes. A close-up of this species' fruiting spike appears at http://botany.cs.tamu.edu/FLORA/dcs420/mi15/mi15045.jpg. Though black pepper is made from ground-up fruits of the other big genus in the Pepper Family, Piper, you can see the similarity between this species' fruits and store- bought peppercorns.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202p5.jpg one of the Joya's less common peperomia species is shown on a mossy tree-trunk. Notice that its spikes are less numerous, shorter and thicker that Peperomia blanda's. In the early 70s when I worked at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis I specialized in the Black Pepper family's taxonomy. At first the hundreds of species all looked the same, but with time I began seeing how each taxon was unique. It was like studying music, focusing on artful variations of subtle themes. I can't even guess at this second peperomia's identity. I find five species listed for the Reserve, but three species aren't shown on the Internet.

*****

DANGLING RAT-TAIL CACTI
Even in the Joya's cold, moist forest, cacti often put on a show. In certain areas tree limbs were draped with a slender, dangling, epiphytic, endemic cactus, APOROCACTUS MARTIANUS, sometimes known as Rat-tail Cactus. You can see it dangling from a mossy tree-stub topped with a gorgeously red-flowering bromeliad, Tilandsia imperialis, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202rt.jpg.

A close-up of this species' stem and flowers is available here.

Up north a very similar and closely related species, Aporocactus flagelliformis, often is sold as a window plant. Our species is a bit more robust than that one but is seldom grown. Both species send out aerial roots and both produce diurnal, or day-blooming, blossoms especially attractive to hummingbirds.

This species must be very sensitive to subtle habitat variations because in some areas it was absent and in others abundant, even though I couldn't sense differences between the environments.

*****

MEXICAN YEWS
I think of yews as dense, soft-stemmed, evergreen gymnosperms people plant around their homes, then snip into boxy shapes. Yews produce succulent, red, pea-sized fruits, the seeds of which are considered poisonous. Therefore, when Roberto told me that yews grow at Joya de Hielo I was visualizing a low, green shrub. You can see me standing next to what turned up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202tx.jpg.

In that picture I'm standing next to the trunk of a Mexican Yew, TAXUS GLOBOSA. I'm there to show the trunk's size (and that look on my face is because of the cold). I'd never dreamed that a yew could be so big; and Roberto tells me that he knows where others much larger can be found.

The "Gymnosperm Database" at http://www.conifers.org/ta/ta/globosa.htm says that Mexican Yews get up to 4.6 meters tall (15 feet). Our yews were much taller than that. Next time we visit the Joya we'll carry measuring devices and nominate our largest trees for the Big Tree Award.

Some authorities suggest that Mexican Yews and other yew species at home throughout the northern hemisphere are just varieties of one widely distributed, polymorphic species. I have to admit that features distinguishing the various species seem pretty mushy -- mostly differences in leaves, stems and growth form, when variations of flowers and fruits are considered most important in determining an organism's taxonomic status.

Whatever the case, the doubt about the Mexican Yew's status as a distinct species shows how closely related it is to its more northern cousins, or maybe brothers. Probably this is another instance of all those Eastern-US forest plants surviving down here as relicts from the last Ice Age.

*****

SKINK IN THE DUST
The Reserve has a tiny demonstration garden right next to the offices, the idea being to remind local folks that they can grow things other than tropical fruits, squash, manioc and the like. I work in it and from time to time snip a few greens.

The other day as I was weeding it I pulled up a big tuft of long-rooted grass and dislodged a good bit of dusty, sandy, pebbly material -- too dry and loose to dignify with the name of soil -- and a brown, shiny skink. Skinks are lizards belonging to the Skink Family.

I was delighted, especially because during my stay here, much in contrast to my past Yucatan locations, I've run across very few reptiles and amphibians. I've heard frogs croaking and I saw one remarkably long, slender snake swimming across the reservoir, and that's it.

This skink looked familiar. With its thick body, brown color, many rows of prominent scales and a dark line right through its eye and down its body it reminded me of the Broad-headed Skinks I used to write about back in Mississippi. However, it didn't have an angular head or any hint of orange around the throat.

Some years back two herpetologists (reptile-and-amphibian specialists) made a list of "herps" here in the Reserve, turning up eight or nine species of amphibian and eleven reptile species. By Googling each skink name on their list I decided that probably my garden discovery was the Four-lined Skink, EUMECES TETRAGRAMMUS, distributed from central Texas south at least to here. You can see one at http://www.naherpetology.org/detail.asp?id=543.

So, that was pretty good. May this be the first of many herps I run into here.

*****

CLOCK VINE ON A CHAIN-LINK FENCE
Right outside the window of the tiny guardhouse in which I live there's a chain-link fence with ornamental vines twining up through it. Nowadays the star of the fence is the Bengal Clock Vine, also called Sky Flower, THUNBERGIA GRANDIFLORA. You can see the vine's three-inch broad, sky-blue flowers and its opposite leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202th.jpg.

Thunbergias are members of the mostly tropical Acanthus Family, and in the photo you can see one thing that makes a Thunbergia a Thunbergia: The four, upward arching stamens in the flowers' throats. Not seen are the two large bracts subtending the corollas, looking like huge, two-pointed calices. The actual calyx is a hardly noticeable rim at the corolla's base.

Several Thunbergias are widely planted in the tropics. They're mostly African and Asian in origin. Our Bengal Clock Vine is from Indian Bengal. The flowers wilt quickly when cut, but the two pictured above blossomed on the fence for over a week.

*****

MEXICAN FLAME-VINE
Each time I walk downtown I pass a certain tree into which an orange-blossomed member of the Composite Family climbs weedlike into a tree creating a very pretty effect. It's the Mexican Flame-vine, SENECIO CONFUSUS, a northern- and central-Mexican native. You can see it, with the cathedral's tower rising in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202v8.jpg.

If you know your northern wildflowers you may be shaking your head because, first of all, not many northern species of the enormous Composite Family (daisies, zinnias, sunflowers, dandelions, goldenrods, asters, etc.) are vines. Moreover, this plant's genus name, Senecio, is one we especially don't think of as viney. Up north, in the East, Senecios are "groundsels" -- those almost-succulent, orange-yellow weeds of roadsides and wet fields that flower so prettily in very early spring.

However, this is a genuine Senecio, which you can believe more readily when you view the close-up of three of its flowers, with characteristic long-curling stigmas, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202v9.jpg.

Well, the genus Senecio is a huge one, with about 1200 species. Moreover, not only are some of the species vines, a few are even trees. Remember that the orange- yellow-flowering bush in the Joya del Hielo moss picture above is a Senecio. Senecios are worth knowing! Technically, three easy-to see features making Senecios Senecios are: 1) Involucral bracts arising in one, non- overlapping series; 2) Achene pappuses consisting of abundant, soft-whitish bristles, and; 3) No "chaffy scales" separating individual disk flowers.

The plant's scientific name, Senecio confusus, is a funny one. Senecio is based on the Latin senex, which means "old man," and probably refers to the ample white fuzz (the pappus bristles) atop the mature fruits, or achenes. "Confusus" is easy to understand. Therefore: "Confused Old Man" -- not really fitting for such a colorful, vigorous plant.

*****

SOLAR COOKING, AGAIN
Finally I have a solar cooker going again, a prerequisite for any spot I intend to tarry at. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070202sc.jpg.

Compared to my earlier models, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/solardsh.htm, this cooker is a very lightweight edition. The Reserve has a room with several of them stored away. When I left the room with the cardboard-based reflectors under one arm and a bowl-ensemble under the other, I figured I didn't have much. I was wishing for that big one I built back in California, which could make a dry chunk of wood smoke, then burst into flames, and fry eggs in ten minutes or so.

I started with an easy task for this cooker, just filling its crock with snipped-up chard, beet and cilantro leaves from the model garden, with a little water. In two hours when I opened the crock, steam poured out and the leaves smelled cooked. I was amazed that it worked so well. Maybe being in a semidesert environment a bit higher in elevation than usual has its advantages.

The next day I baked bread and fried eggs in it. You should have seen and heard how oil bubbled up around the bread's edges as the eggs cooked atop the bread.

Part of the secret of why this oven works so well is certainly the bowl ensemble. You have a dark inner bowl sitting inside a larger, clear-glass bowl, with dead air between the two bowls. The top is closely fitting and made of clear glass.

Each time I experiment with solar cookers I'm astonished at how wonderful they are. What a profound effect on the planetary ecosystem it would be if every family in sunny parts of the world -- like here and even more in firewood-gathering Yucatan -- had a simple oven like this one, and used it intelligently.

You can see detailed directions on how to make your own simple, inexpensive ""Cookit" Foldable Family Panel" at http://solarcooking.org/plans/cookit.htm.

*****

THOREAU, CHINESE LANDSCAPE PAINTING & BITTERNESS
Thoreau wrote:

Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.

I thought about these words this week when I enjoyed my first solar-cooker meal at this location -- those snipped-up chard, beet and cilantro leaves. Having no seasoning, just cooked in their own juices by the sun, actually they were a bit bitter. But, it was a good bitterness, a clean, honest acrimony somehow just right for a chilly day in upland, semidesert Mexico, and for me being where I am, the way I am. I leaned back in the grass and ate a whole bowl of bitter greens, one chopsticked-mouthful at a time, loving every second.

It's too bad that the general impulse in our culture is to accept that the sweeter, the saltier, the greasier, the more industrial-strength pizzazz a food has, the better it is, and that everything else in life is best if it's comfortable, cozy and mellow. In today's world, if you suggest that being cold, hungry, weary and eating something bitter occasionally has its place, you'll only get a blank stare: Zero comprehension, zero empathy.

Ancient Chinese landscape paintings famous for evoking sharp nostalgia and esthetic appreciation very often portray the craggiest and most severe of landscapes. Our culture's stereotypical pleasing landscape is one that's pastoral with gently rounded hills and grazing cattle. Could it be that the Chinese masters knew something we've forgotten? Might the old masters agree with Thoreau that a good dose of being cold and hungry and weary raises the spirit? Maybe even that, under certain circumstances, bitter herbs taste good?

For my part, I'm sure of it. Hardness, negation, bitterness all have their place. A whole life of these things would be awful, but disciplining oneself with occasional dosages of them... that can be delightful, even necessary for happiness, good health and deep insight.

Who knows why this is so? As a balding white-beard who has thought a lot about the matter, I'll just say that I believe that Thoreau, the old master Chinese landscape painters, and my solar-cooker all got it right. So I'm passing along the insight to you.

You up there in the north with all that coldness, the dark skies, the deadness of things... Rejoice! Take a walk and breathe it all in. Let yourself indulge in it to the point of pure misery.

Then, once you're warm again and before your cup of hot chocolate, correct if I'm not right that now, as Thoreau would say it, you're spirits are higher.

*****

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