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

March 17, 2007

LONG-BILLED THRASHER LUSTILY SINGING
As I hiked along the reservoir's shore a fair-sized, long-tailed, slender-beaked bird with a rusty back and dark breast-streaks ascended to the top of a roadside tree and began very prettily, rather loudly singing an endless warble. If I'd been in eastern North America I'd have called him a Brown Thrasher without further thought, but I didn't think Brown Thrashers got this far south, and -- now that I looked and listened closely -- certain things weren't quite right.

For example, the song. Brown Thrashers tend to repeat their phrases twice: wheet-wheet, chew-chew, ow-ow... The song I was hearing halfheartedly repeated a phrase here and there, but not with the regularity of Brown Thrashers. Also, this bird sang louder and with more gusto than the average Brown Thrasher. It had the Brown Thrasher's yellow eye but its upper parts weren't quite as reddish, plus it seemed just a wee bit larger than the Brown.

Well, it was the very closely related Long-billed Thrasher, distributed in arid to semihumid brushy, scrubby and semi-open places from southern Texas to east-central Mexico -- not a big area. See the species at http://www.greglasley.net/longbillthras.html.

By no means am I less interested in bird species that are almost the same as I grew up with in the US. In fact, in some ways such species are more engaging. That's because I've always gotten a buzz from "variations on a theme."

For example, I love Bach's fugues, which consist mostly of a simple stated theme repeated again and again, each time in a different way, in a different context, with ever more daring artistry.

In this vein, the Brown Thrashers of my childhood in Kentucky constitute a simple theme, the thrasher theme, and now this Long-billed Thrasher is a slightly different variation on that pleasing theme.

Mexico is home to about eleven thrasher species, or thrasher variations. Most lack the Brown Thrasher's and the Long-billed Thrasher's rusty upper parts. The Ocellated Thrasher has dark, not yellow, eyes, and its chest is spotted like a thrush's, not short-streaked like a Brown Thrasher's. Maybe Mexico's most outlandish thrasher-theme is manifested by the Crissal Thrasher with his much curved beak, gray-brown overall color, and chestnut undertail coverts, like the catbird's.

In fact, when you look at all the members of the family to which thrashers belong, the Mimidae (and Mexico hosts 18 of them), the boundaries between thrashers, catbirds and mockingbirds aren't nearly as well defined as they seem farther north.

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"A GRACKLE WITH SOMEBODY ELSE'S HEAD"
Speaking of bird similarities, last week when I took our four visitors from Washington State along the reservoir they got very excited about seeing a bird I've thought of as a "weed bird" for so long that when I spotted it I didn't even think of pointing it out to them. It was the Groove-billed Ani, shown at http://www.birdinfo.com/A_Images_G/Groove-billedAni_0001.html.

Anis are largish, all-black birds with long, round- pointed tails. "They look like grackles with somebody else's head," one of the visitors said, and that's right. In this area one becomes so accustomed to seeing and hearing raucous Great-tailed Grackles, which are the same size and all-black like anis, that the more subdued anis can be overlooked -- even though they're common, too.

As you can see in the above picture that the attention-getting thing about a Groove-billed Ani is its short but very thick, curved-topped bill which is longitudinally furrowed with "grooves." The grooves are easy to see if the light is just right. I have no idea how these grooves benefit the bird. The un- grooved Smooth-billed Ani of southern Florida and the Caribbean gets along perfectly well without them.

Despite their similar black color and size, anis aren't closely related to grackles. In fact, anis are members of a completely different bird order, the Cuckoo Order, which besides anis also holds cuckoos and roadrunners. Two features uniting anis with cuckoos and roadrunners are these:

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NEVER WITHOUT NECTAR
The dry season grinds on and on, the landscape ever browner, crisper and scratchier. However, just when one starts worrying that so many flowering plants are fading that hummingbirds and butterflies won't have enough sources from which to take nectar, suddenly a new species begins blossoming, taking over the job.

Within the last week one flowering plant coming to the rescue with its pretty, reddish-orange flowers is the so-called Mexican Honeysuckle, JUSTICIA SPICIGERA, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317jc.jpg.

I say "so-called" because Mexican Honeysuckle isn't a member of the Honeysuckle Family, nor even viny like Japanese Honeysuckles. A less-used name for it is Orange Plume Flower, which seems more appropriate.

Whatever it's common name, the plant belongs to the Acanthus Family, which is an important tropical and horticultural family with over 2000 species in about 200 genera, but not well known beyond the tropics. When you see a tropical herb with opposite leaves, irregular or 2-lipped flowers with two or four stamens, with long, slender, cream-colored styles dangling from calyxes after the corollas have fallen off, the way it is in the picture, and often with leafy bracts subtending each flower, a good guess is "Acanthus Family." Blossoms of Justicia -- the Mexican Honeysuckle's genus -- bear just two stamens.

In Spanish one name for Mexican Honeysuckle is Muicle. It's reported that in the old days indigenous people used infusions made of Muicle's leaves against dysentery, immoderate menstrual flow and the itch.

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SUBTERRANEAN DRAINAGE EXPOSED AT RÍO ESCANELA
Thursday Margarita took me up to the ecotour destination of Río Escanela to help brainstorm on improving a trail. The main attraction was a broad, natural rock-bridge spanning the river, with abundant water draining down through the bridge. You can see a shot taken from beneath the very drippy bridge at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317c2.jpg.

I've used Photoshop on the above image to highlight formations beneath the bridge. Originally the interior showed up as completely black.

One transfixing feature beneath the bridge was something like a downspout from which water gushed abundantly. You can see a much-retouched image of the outgushing, a stream four or five feet broad, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317c1.jpg.

Another downspout only trickling water during this middle of the dry season, prettily rusty-stained with iron oxide and about four feet from rim to rim, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317c3.jpg.

Río Escanela is a good place for the geologically inclined. Not only are there karst features like the ones shown above, but also at the beginning of the trail you pass by a functioning silver mine. This silver is associated with upwelling magma resulting from the Cocos Tectonic Plate grinding beneath the North America Plate along the Pacific Coast. More on that some other time...

The Río Escanela itself courses through a very deep, steep-walled valley where you can spend all day just looking at exposed rock in roadcuts.

*****

TADPOLES IN THE RESERVOIR
At dusk and into the night when I step from my little casita, down at the reservoir it almost sounds like hundreds of big, idling boat-moters. It's Giant Toads calling, BUFO MARINAS, also called Cane Toads and Marine Toads. In my February 13th, 2005 Newsletter from Komchén in the Yucatán I wrote:

"Giant Toads look just like average American toads except that, by comparison, they are... gigantic. They grow up to 9 inches long from snout to rear end, and can weigh more than two pounds. When you catch one, sometimes it keeps calling. Its big belly is flabby- fat and pulsates as the toad calls, so holding such a toad is an experience unlike holding any other kind of creature. You can't keep from laughing."

That story and a picture of a Komchén toad is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/toad-gnt.htm.

Nowadays sometimes even at midday you see 15-ft-long, inky, shape-changing blobs slowly migrating through the reservoir's very shallow waters next to shore, like diffuse, black amoebas. The blobs consist of thousands of black, wiggly tadpoles such as those at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317tp.jpg.

I'm not sure that the tadpoles in the picture will metamorphose into Giant Toads. However, they certainly were large and they match Giant-Toad tadpole pictures found elsewhere on the Internet.

A large percentage of Giant Toad pictures on the Internet are provided by websites based in Australia. That's because our native Mexican Giant Toads have been introduced there and now they're wrecking havoc on Australian and many other countries' ecosystems.

The first Giant Toads introduced into Australia -- usually there're called Cane Toads there -- were let loose in the hope that they'd eat beetles infesting sugarcane crops. The toads didn't control the beetles but they did begin gulping down many smaller, native Australian organisms. The whole story is online here.

One problem with Giant Toads is that they're so poisonous that animals who eat them often die. In Australia at least two snake species have responded to the toad's introduction -- which took place only in the 1930s -- by evolving smaller heads. Smaller heads make it less likely that the snakes will eat athe Giant Toad and die. This story is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4073359.stm.

The BBC also has a story on Giant (Cane) Toads themselves at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/1126423.stm.

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THE WORD "TADPOLE"
The homey word "tadpole" is compounded from the two Middle English terms "tad, or tadde" -- recognizable as an earlier form of "toad" -- plus "pol, or poll," which meant "head." If you think about it, a bulgy- eyed tadpole's head does look a bit toady. The term tad" seems to have arisen in our language, since no known cognates exist outside English.

"Poll" roots in Middle Low German or Middle Dutch, and sources from 1290 show it meaning "hair of the head." This concept drifted into the meaning "collection of votes," as in "counting hairy heads," first recorded in 1625. In English our head-counting idea of "taking a poll" derives from this base.

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GUMBO-LIMBO/ NAKED INDIAN
With so many trees and bushes leafless because of the dry season, one common tree here is more conspicuous than usual because of the striking, reddish bark peeling from its green-to-gray trunks, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317gl.jpg.

Since the tree is so attention-getting and is present in so many tropical-American countries (southern Florida, Mexico and the West Indies to northern South America) it's known by many names. When I lived in Belize I heard people call it Naked-Indian Tree because of its reddish color, and Tourist Tree, because its trunk peels like a sunburned tourist. Books often call the species Gumbo-limbo. Both here and in the Yucatan it's called Chakah. It's BURSERA SIMARUBA, a member of the little-known, tropical Bursera Family.

Gumbo-limbo's leaves look like pinnately compound ash- tree leaves, except that they are alternate on the stem, not opposite. The tree's small, inconspicuous, greenish flowers produce elliptic, half-inch-long, dark red fruits eaten by certain birds.

The tree is brittle and juicy, and its sap smells a little like turpentine. I read that in the Caribbean people use its resin as glue, varnish, water-repellent coating, and incense. Gumbo-limbo is considered medicinal nearly everyplace it grows. A site reviewing the tree's "ethnomedical" uses and listing 22 of its names is at http://www.rain-tree.com/gumbo.htm.

What impresses me about the species is that it's so flexible in terms of habitat requirements. You find it holding its own in fairly undisturbed forests as well as appearing as a "weed tree" along roads and in chopped-over cornfields. In southern Florida it makes a handsome street-tree.

I like tough, adaptable beings. After humankind finishes destroying the environment, if anything is left alive, it'll be adaptable weeds, cockroaches and such. Maybe someday Gumbo-limbo will constitute almost-pure forests all through the Earth's tropical zone, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

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QUEEN'S WREATH FLOWERING
Here and there you see a woody vine climbing into trees producing long, slender clusters of pretty, purple flowers. It's the Queen's Wreath, PETREA VOLUBILIS, of the Verbena Family. You can see flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317pt.jpg.

This is a native tropical-American vine but it's so pretty that it's grown worldwide. Last year at San Juan in the Yucatán the large trellis over the patio next to the hacienda house supported a large Queen's Wreath that grew like a grapevine. I'd like to sit in its shade right now sipping tea and admiring its foot- long, purple clusters of star-shaped blossoms dangling into the dimness below, charming the whole sitting space. This fine plant can twine up to 40 feet if it's kept watered and has plenty of sun.

The vine is so admired by tropical gardeners that it's been horticulturalized into a number of showy forms. One curiosity about the blossoms is that the flowers' slender "petals" aren't petals at all, but rather colored sepals -- calyx lobes -- that serve the function of petals, which is to attract pollinators with their color. In my photograph you can see inconspicuous corollas in the blossoms' centers.

Corollas typically last only for one or two days, but the petal-like ("petaloid") sepals persist for a good while, often gradually fading to tan as they mature. In my picture you can see how the tiny corollas in the blossoms' center at the bottom of the inflorescence haven't yet opened, just two or three at the inflorescence's center have expanded, and then in the older blossoms at the flower cluster's top the old corollas are shriveled and brown, though the petaloid sepals show little age at all.

You can see a horticultural form in which the corolla has been selected to be much larger than in my wild form, making each blossom more colorful, at http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/FACULTY/CARR/images/pet_vol_5766.jpg.

There's a more delicate, white-flowered form in Japan at http://www.mizunomori.jp/zukan/winter/w022.html.

This vine's leaves are so leathery and rough that often the plant is known as Sandpaper Vine.

*****

NOPAL AT THE WINDOW
Monday morning I was working in my little casita when someone outside by window loudly said "¡Buenos días, buenos días... !" I parted by curtains and there stood Don Gonzalo with his usual big smile. He'd brought me a plastic bag of Nopal cactus pads ready to turn into the delicious dish called "nopalitos." You can see those very pads moments before I sliced them up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070317no.jpg.

In that picture you can admire the conscientious job the don did preparing the pads. He chose young pads still in their long, slender, tender stage, he shaved off every bump on each pad where there conceivably could be a glochid -- one of those tiny, almost invisible stickers at the base of normal spines -- and he'd excised the rims, which are the toughest parts, and where there'll be glochids if there's any glochid at all. I was touched, for it takes a little time to prepare cactus pads like this.

At http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/nopalitos.htm you can read a lot about nopalitos, surf to a link showing a new gadget designed just for glochid removal, and see a tasty-sounding recipe for nopalitos requiring:

I didn't make that recipe. All I did was to cut my pads into my black solar-oven bowl, top them with chopped onions, sliced jalapeños and two raw eggs. When this had cooked to the point that the nopal pieces were soft and a little slimy, the onions were smelling awfully good, and the jalapeños hadn't yet lost their sting, I topped it all with chopped tomatoes, salted lightly, and spritzed it with a little vinegar and oil.

That was good, people. I still salivate just thinking about it.

*****

SEA FOAM UPDATE
You may remember in last year's Newsletter of December 4th my speaking of "spume" blown across a road in the coastal saltworks at Las Colorados in the Yucatán. It was so deep it almost came up to the car's windows. I took a through-the-car-window picture of it, still at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204x.jpg.

At that time I said I didn't know how such foam could form. Several readers wrote in with opinions, but no one provided a convincing answer. This week, Beryl in the Turks and Caicos Islands, wrote with some answers.

Beryl pointed me to an article by Vicki Osis and Bill Hanshumaker at Oregon State University, online at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/onlinepubs/g03003.html.

The secret ingredients for our resilient, long-lasting spume are dead-phytoplankton-based organic matter and wind, both of which were abundantly available that day. Remember the saltwater crimson with plankton- produced carotenoid pigment and all that wind.

The authors write:

"... waves or strong winds inject air into the dissolved organic matter in ocean water, forming bubbles. The organic matter, mostly made of dead microscopic plants, contains protein that gives the water enough surface tension to form bubbles."

They also suggest that if you have a microscope you would do well to look closely at that spume.

"The {phytoplankton} skeletons have a beauty that is seldom captured by drawings or photographs," they say.

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WE'RE AN INTERNATIONAL BUNCH
I wasn't surprised to get a letter from Beryl in the Turks and Caicos Islands this week. Reviewing my website statistics I see that less than half of my website visitors reside in the US. 7% are in India, 7% in the UK, and goodly numbers are in many other countries. On a per-capita basis my site enjoys its greatest popularity in Malta, then India, then Turkey, and only then in the US.

I am humbled by this interest by people so far away, and I do appreciate your interest and encouragement.

Thank you.

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"DON"
I know that some of you wonder why so many men here have "Don" in their names. In this and the last Newsletter there's been Don Gonzalo, Don Tacho and Don Emerterio, plus you've heard about Don Juan and, if you remember the old Zorro movies, Don Diego.

The word "Don" reveals a lot about the very social, friendly, family-focused Latin culture. "Don" is a title like "Mister," except that it's more informal and friendly. To translate "Mister" you use the word Señor, but if you want to show a man that you feel friendly toward him, but at the same time wish to show him respect, then you use Don. It's a concept we simply don't have in English. In practice, any male beyond a certain age, no matter how scroungy he looks, if you which to express friendliness and/or respect toward him, you call him Don.

Sometimes kids in the street who have no idea what my name is, but want to address me in a way that's both friendly and respectful, call me Don.

"Eh, Don. ¿Adonde va?"

By the way, that earlier "¡" and this "¿" are required in Spanish the way I've used them. I hope your email program shows them so you can see what's going on. I love speaking, knowing that upside-down question marks are issuing from my mouth.

And while we're at it, "señor" is pronounced "sehn- YOR" and "jalapeño" is "hal-ah-PEN-yo." In Spanish "ñ" is a letter all by itself, not a variation of the letter "n," and it's pronounced "EN-yeh."

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SHAKING HANDS & FRENCH FINICKINESS
Back to "Don." There's a feminine equivalent, Doña (DON-ya). In fact, there's a lot in this culture -- at least small-town and rural Mexican culture -- providing such social nicety.

For example, each morning employees here shake hands and say a few words to their coworkers when they first see them. When someone leaves the Computer Room typically they ask to be excused -- while a gringo like me typically slips out, thinking that it's rude to disturb someone working or studying. In other words, one culture focuses on interpersonal relations while the other thinks in terms of getting stuff done.

One thing that strikes me about the intensity of Mexican sociality and politeness is that everyone seems to accept it as normal. They don't consider themselves as particularly gregarious or considerate.

In fact, usually it takes an outsider to identify the ways any culture exhibits its genius, its obsessiveness, it's backwardness, or whatever might be a culture's distinction. In my time I've certainly ruminated a lot on the German bent for making laws and regulations, the French finickiness with food and drink, Danish phlegmaticness, US materialism, and this Latin sociality...

What does all this have to do with my usual theme of saving life on Earth?

I'm thinking about the fact that we citizens of the "Developed World," like small-town and rural Mexicans in their polite societies, are so immersed in what we are that apparently most of us can't see a salient feature of the lives most of us live: consumerism. Intellectually we know that our discretionary shopping, through the pollution and extraction of natural resources required for making or providing what we buy, translates into death and destruction for the ecosystem, but somehow this doesn't change our behavior. It's even normal for "environmentalists" to maintain oversized homes and cars.

Sometimes I feel like a childish barbarian around my thoughtful and polite Mexican coworkers. If I had always lived here I suppose I wouldn't notice it, but, I haven't, so, I do. Also, the longer I'm away from "The Developed World," the more agog I am at what people up there consume and waste, believing they're not consuming much at all.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim