JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

March 24, 2007

MIGRATING WHITE PELICANS
Tuesday morning about 50 White Pelicans appeared above Reserve HQ circling low and majestically the way White Pelicans do. They presented enough of a show for several of the workers to point and call to their friends. I guess the flock had spent the night at the reservoir next to us. Last fall I saw individuals and small flocks here, but since then they've been missing. My snapshot of Tuesday's flock in tight formation as they circled, gradually gaining altitude above our Sweet Acacias is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324pe.jpg.

Most White Pelicans spend their summers in western Canada and a few spots in the northwestern US. They overwinter in the southern US and throughout most of Mexico into northern Central America.

It's hard to believe that spring migration is already here, but this flock was surely migrating. On the Internet I see that during spring migration White Pelicans pass through Oklahoma as early as March 11th, so this flock on March 20th had every reason to be migrating. Certainly after this little flock had circle and circled, each rotation a little higher than the last, they all drifted off in the right direction -- exactly toward the north.

It felt good seeing those big birds (wingspread 9.2 feet (2.8 m) heading north on the last day of winter, behaving exactly as they should. I hope they are graciously received up there and find healthy habitats awaiting them.

*****

DOBSONFLY ON A WALL
A little after dawn one morning this week, on the outside stucco wall of one of the office buildings, I noticed the 2.9-inch (7.4 cm) insect shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324df.jpg .

It was a female Dobsonfly, probably CORYDALUS LUTEUS. I know she's a female because her "pincers" are so SMALL. Male Dobsonflies of this species possess much longer, curved mandibles that extend over a third of the length of their bodies. You can see such a long- mandibled species atop the page at http://tolweb.org/Corydalus.

Down the page at the above address you can also read about the Dobsonfly's natural history. It says, for example, that members of the genus Corydalus are nocturnal and secretive, thus seldom seen. During the day they hide under leaves. Also, Corydalus adults, especially females like ours, are attracted to lights. Probably that's why I found this one beneath a light bulb that had been on all night.

You can imagine the stories country people tell about how dangerous, even deadly, dobsonflies are. However, they're not venomous, and only the female can inflict an unpleasant but not debilitating pinch. The male's gigantic, sickle-shaped "tweezers" are used for holding the female during copulation, and aren't much good for anything else.

Dobsonflies are like cicadas in that they spend by far the greatest part of their lives in their immature or larval stage. When they metamorphose into adults their brief lives are almost entirely focused on finding a mate, reproducing, then dying. The dobsonfly's immature larval stage is aquatic, living 3-5 years in non-polluted, fast-running, well oxygenated rivers before metamorphosing. It's thought that the adults don't even eat, though they may drink a bit.

About 200 species of the dobsonfly genus Corydalus are known, and several extend into North America. They belong to the same insect order, the Neuroptera, as antlions, owlflies and lacewings. My Neuroptera page at http://www.backyardnature.net/neuropte.htm shows the similarities.

The etymology for the word dobsonfly is a mystery.

*****

BARBARA'S ARMADILLOS
This week Barbara in Texas qualified for my Gold-Level Bug-Eaten Leaf Award by listing a hundred plants and animals she'd identified in her eastern-Texas neighborhood.

Barbara is one of those people who can't recall a plant or animal without launching into a story about it, and that makes her list especially fun to read. It's full of acid-soil-loving Blackjack Oaks, feral pigs hanging out with javelinas, and her horticultural interests in pawpaws. If you like that kind of rambling, sharp-eyed writing, you can see her list at http://www.backyardnature.net/awards/g-tx-001.htm.

Especially after my gardening years in southwestern Mississippi, when my ankles and hands stayed looking like hamburger because of fire-ant bites, I was gratified by her observations about the relationship between armadillos and fire ants in her area. She writes:

"Armadillos, who live in holes in the ground when they're babies, were driven almost to extinction in our area by introduced fire ants. A few of the armadillos were able to overcome this problem -- I never have figured out for sure whether they adopted new nest-building techniques or whether the genetic potential was there for some to be resistant to ant venom. It's now common to see armadillos grubbing around in fire ant mounds, chowing down on the ant larvae, so my guess is that there were a few who were resistant to ant venom, and their descendants have now replaced the original armadillo population."

Barbara also has a pretty good story down in the "Remarks on the Five Species of Most Interest" section about a coyote who got her hind paw caught between some hogwire and a strand of barbed wire fence. That story comes after Garden Spiders, who remind her of Spanish ladies, and female scorpions she's seen carrying their babies on their backs...

*****

BUD-BURSTING CEIBAS & SYCAMORES
A number of trees and shrubs who have lost their leaves for the dry season now are issuing new sprouts. This creates an interesting sensation when you move up and down slopes. Sometimes you'll be among evergreen oaks with leathery, faded, bug-eaten, dusty leaves and you'll feel like you're in late summer. Then you turn a corner and maybe that slope will be dotted with flowering peach trees as if it were early spring up North.

One completely leafless tree along my reservoir walk has been particularly noticeable this week because of its stems' terminal buds turning silvery and enlarging drastically. You can see what that looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324cb.jpg.

That's a Ceiba tree, which is such a striking species on the landscape that I've written about it a couple of times from the Yucatan. Those stories are at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ceiba-fl.htm.

In the December 11, 2006 Newsletter I also told you about our Mexican Sycamores. Now most of those trees have lost some but not all of their leaves, yet already they're issuing new leaves, and the older trees are flowering. You can see sycamore leaves and flowers, with pollen tumbling from flowers at the far right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324sy.jpg.

Those of you in eastern North America will find it curious how the Mexican Sycamore links several spherical flower-clusters into a zigzagging chain. The East's American Sycamore usually produces single fruiting balls on their own stems attached directly to the twig. However, out West, the California and Arizona Sycamores issue chained fruiting balls similar to the Mexican.

Sycamore flowers are either male or female (unisexual) and they appear in separate spherical heads on the same tree. In the above picture the reddish heads consist of male flowers while the yellowish ones on the longer stems at the bottom left are female ones. Of course only the female heads produce fruits.

*****

ONCIDIUM ORCHIDS FLOWERING
The Reserve's Management Program book lists 38 orchid species for the reserve, and surely there are several more. What a pleasure it is to find any of the 38 blooming in its native habitat.

I've been waiting for the one that began flowering last week, for it is common and conspicuous on trees next to the Reservoir. Because of its large leaves I knew that its flowers would be spectacular. You can see a small colony with their stiff, sharp-pointed, thick leaves up to 15 inches long, and nodding yellow flowers, clinging epiphytically with their white roots to the bark of a dry-season-leafless acacia tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324on.jpg.

This is ONCIDIUM CEBOLLETA and you can see a nice close-up showing details of an individual flower at http://www.abundaflora.com/onc_cebolleta.htm.

In the labeled flower-photo at the above link, the large, yellow, butterfly-shaped thing is actually just a much-modified lower lip of the corolla. The bumps labeled "callus" are growths not directly associated with the sexual parts. Surely the callus's form and colors have evolved to fool pollinators into landing there, maybe to mate with the callus. The blossom's sexual parts lie in the flower's center surrounded by radiating, purple-spotted upper petals.

The genus Oncidium is a big one, the number of species in it depending on who your expert is. It's so complex that "splitters" want to divide it into numerous small genera but "lumpers" say it's just a huge genus and more species should be shifted to it. When you look at Oncidium taxonomy and remember that certain groups have been shown to evolve much faster than others, you start wondering about the whole classification system. I personally think the traditional kingdom/phylum/class/order/family/ system is inadequate and misleading.

Whatever their pedigree, Oncidiums are generally thought of as epiphytic orchids growing where dry seasons occur. Our O. cebolleta occurs from here and the West Indies south through Central America all the way to Paraguay, so it enjoys a distribution larger than most orchids. One website says that our species likes strong light and high humidity with a good airflow -- which is exactly what the ones in the photo have, the humidity supplied by the nearby lake and the airflow being great on that limb jutting out over the road.

*****

MONKEY-COMBS DROPPING BUTTERFLY-SEEDS
A common woody vine climbing into trees all along the road around the reservoir these days is producing a crop of eye-catching fruits. The fruits are brown, elliptic, about hand-size, flattish and -- most striking -- absolutely burry with short, blunt projections. These tubercles are responsible for the vine's name of Monkey-comb, PITHECOCTENIUM CRUCIGERUM. It's a member of the Bignonia Family, the family to which the northern Trumpet Creeper and Crossvine also belong. You can see two spiky, dangling monkey combs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324m8.jpg.

In that picture the fruit on the left has split so that a mass of silvery, waferlike seeds has slipped from the spiny husk. Usually the seeds drop one or two at a time but a bird or something must have jarred this fruit, causing its contents to plop out all at once.

Monkey-comb seeds with their cellophane-like, silvery wings lying on the ground are even more noticeable than the fruits hanging on their vines. You can see three seeds in the palm of my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324m9.jpg.

Actually, what you see there is six seeds. The bottom item shows how each butterfly-like thing consists of two seeds with their wings grown together. Of course the wings help the seeds disperse on breezes.

A Spanish name for the vine is Palomitas, which means "Little Doves," and I suppose that the silvery seeds fluttering to the ground could be little doves landing. I think in this area the more common name is Mariposa, meaning butterfly. Back in the Yucatan it has a good Maya name, X-ne-tolok.

The English name Monkey-comb is based on its genus name, Pithecoctenium. In that word you might recognize "pitheco," which also appears in Australopithecus, the name of a group of extinct hominids closely related to humans. Australopithecus means "southern ape." Both "pitheco-" and "pithecus" derive from the Greek "pithekos," for ape. "Ctenium" comes from the Greek "ctenidum," for "comb." Monkey-comb.

Monkey-comb also is a far-ranging species, distributed from Mexico to Brazil.

In Mexico, at least traditionally, there's a pretty use of the butterfly-like seeds as a headache remedy. Just apply a seed to your forehead and the headache is supposed to go away. I bet that the usage is based on the subliminal notion that anything as transparent, light and ethereal as these seeds can't but help a dull, dark, throbbing headache.

*****

MALA MUJER
A semi-woody shrub or maybe small tree is flowering now with such attractive clusters of white flowers atop long, stiff stems, or peduncles, that when you see them you just want to take a peduncle by your fingers and bend the flowers near so you can sniff. This would be a mistake, for the species is Mala Mujer, CNIDOSCOLUS sp. The name Mala Mujer translates to "Bad Woman" -- bad, because the long, slender, translucent hairs all over the plant's body sting like the dickens. Some English names for this plant include Spurge Nettle, Tread-softly and Devil Nettle. You can see a Mala Mujer and her stinging hairs near my casita at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324mm.jpg.

You may think you've seen that plant featured here before, and you'd almost be right. In the February 4th, 2006 Newsletter, writing from the Yucatan, I introduced you to Chaya, sometimes called Tree Spinach because its leaves can be cooked like collards or spinach, they taste good, and are very nutritious. Chaya is not only in the same family as Mala Mujer, the Euphorbia Family, but also the same genus. In fact, I can't see much difference between the two, except that Mala Mujer has many more stinging hairs than does Chaya. You can see my Chaya story at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chaya.htm.

*****

A CARPET OF FLOWERING PONDWEED
Down below the reservoir dam where nowadays the river is reduced to a trickle, boys fish for tilapia, bass and other species in shadowy pools of green water beneath broad-trunked Mexican Cypresses. The boys use hand-tossed lines (no reels, no poles, no floats, just lines with hooks on them, and earthworms on the hooks). Some of the sunnier pools have pondweed growing thickly along their edges. You can see floating pondweed leaves and emerging flower spikes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324po.jpg.

This is Long-leafed Pondweed, POTAMOGETON NODOSUS, of the Pondweed Family, and there may be some of this very species near where you live because the species is found worldwide, except in Australia. Several aquatics are similarly distributed over an enormous area, migrating waterfowl helping with the dispersal. This species is distinguished from most of the 80 or so other pondweed species by its big leaves on long petioles. Actually this species has two kinds of leaves: The submerged ones are long and thin, up to eight inches long, while the floating leaves are broad and grow up to five inches long.

Despite their cosmopolitan nature, most of us can go for a long time without seeing pondweeds because nearly everywhere our wetlands have been abused and destroyed. Pools of shallow freshwater almost anyplace where there's sunlight should have its pondweeds. A rainbow of aquatic life uses pondweed to hide in, or to eat. Our Long-leafed species produces chains of starchy tubers very important to certain waterfowl and mammals.

In the picture, the four emergent spikes are not flowers themselves but rather clusters of very simple, much reduced blossoms. The actual flowers are tiny things congested on the spikes, each flower consisting of four female pistils almost looking like a mint's four nutlets nestled in an old calyx, then surrounding those are four pollen-producing stamens and then there are four petal-like things generally interpreted as growths arising from the stamens. This is an unusual flower anatomy, especially when you consider that pondweeds are monocots (like grasses and orchids), not dicots.

I think of flowering pondweeds as late summer/ early fall blossoming plants, so it's neat finding flowers here in March. I also think of pondweed as indicating a wetland in fairly good condition. However, the ones in the picture were growing in water smelling of human feces, probably because of untreated sewage from unofficial-looking homes upstream, and nearby was a little park where lots of people hang out. A lady washed clothing in a wheelbarrow full of water from the stream not far away.

Like Barbara's fire-ant-resistant armadillos, maybe our pondweeds somehow have acquired the knack of surviving around humans.

*****

DON GONZALO'S CILANTRO PATCH
A few weeks ago Don Gonzalo broke up a small patch of land near my casita and sowed cilantro, a pungent herb much used in Mexican cooking. In English often it's called Coriander, but Mexican food has become so popular in the US that now people up there often use the Spanish name. Its technical name is CORIANDRUM SATIVUM. The species is a member of the Parsley Family, in which we also find Cumin, Fennel, Parsnip, Carrot, Celery and other distinguished plants.

Don Gonzalo's seeds promptly sprouted and my first impression was that he'd sowed his seeds far too closely together. But now I see that he knew what he was doing. The plants are indeed crowded but, as such, they create their own microclimate, keeping individual plants relatively sheltered from the hot, dry-season air and sunlight. These plants aren't bolting and becoming scraggly, as they usually do when up north they're planted well spaced and in straight lines. You can see the Don's shaggy patch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070324ci.jpg.

I also thought Don Gonzalo had sowed far too much Cilantro, but now I see that he got that right, too. At lunch he opens up his tacos and heavily mulches his bean paste with shredded Cilantro, and he's not the only one who visits the patch. Sometimes the cleaning ladies go down and pick whole handfuls, take a break beneath a tree and nibble on their Cilantro bouquets as if they were bags of popcorn. The office workers sometimes collect it to sprinkle atop their meals and, of course, each day I throw a handful into my solar cooking pot.

There's a page telling more about Cilantro and providing interesting recipes using it at http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/cilantro.htm.

Though Cilantro lies at the heart of traditional Mexican cooking, it was introduced into the Americas by the Europeans. Nor is Cilantro the only European food Mexican cuisine has wholeheartedly embraced. Olive oil, cinnamon, parsley, oregano and black pepper were all introduced by Europeans. They likewise brought in almonds, rice, wheat and barley, and fruit and vegetables such as apples, oranges, grapes, lettuce, carrots, cauliflowers, potatoes (these brought from Peru), and sugarcane. Nor had indigenous Mexicans ever seen horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, or chickens.

On the other hand, Europeans had never heard of Mexico's chocolate, vanilla, corn or chili peppers.

*****

RSS FEEDS & PODCASTS
You've probably heard about podcasts, where you click on a link and instead of your browser filling your screen with text and pictures, your media player -- such as "Windows Media Player" or "iTunes" -- provides an audio presentation. You hear sounds, like talking.

Another upcoming technology is the RSS feed. Here you click on a link and your browser provides text that is automatically updated by whoever distributes the feed. I set up a page with the links, then other people update the articles available at my links, usually on a daily basis.

A while back on one of my webpages I started providing links to some of the best RSS and podcast feeds dealing with nature and the environment. These now include feeds from the National Geographic Society, National Public Radio, the Smithsonian's Migratory Bird Center and others.

In other words, if you like to keep updated with regard to nature and the environment, you might want to bookmark my page and regularly visit it and click on your favorite news sources. For example, right now I visit the page and as I randomly skip from source to source I find the following subjects striking me as interesting:

The page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm.

*****

BUSH IN THE YUCATAN
Those of you who were with me during my Yucatan days may be interested in reading what Mérida was like during the recent visit of the US president. An online story with pictures is at http://www.yucatanliving.com/news/bush-leaves-mexico.htm.

*****

BARBARA'S LIST TICKLES ME
Setting up Barbara's list of 100 plants and animals identified in her neighborhood was such a pleasure that I had to think a bit about why I enjoyed it so.

For one thing, I identify with certain assumptions about existence-in-general that Barbara seems to make. Again and again her remarks reflect the recognition that we humans are members of the Animal Kingdom, and thus very definitely ensconced in Nature's web of life. "Aside from humans, in which I’m intensely interested, I can’t pick 5 most interesting organisms," she says.

She also confirms my opinion that when you get to know just about any natural thing, you can't help but to admire it, at least a little.

More important, though, is that her good-natured, insightful rambling reinforces one of my core beliefs: That if you fill your head with observations about the lives of neighboring plants and animals -- like the Yaupon Holly, Hispid Pocket Mice and Leaf-cutter Ants in Barbara's case -- a mature, gratifying understanding of life-in-general automatically blossoms.

Our ancestors' intimacies with the seasons and their daily need to identify with and flow with Nature's general currents imprinted them with insights more profound and powerful than it would seem their level of technology would permit. Remember the amazing understandings of the ancient Greeks and Chinese.

Modern people no longer benefit from such an immediate, personal relationship with nature, but, in exchange, we do have the means for learning very much about our neighboring organisms, by using books and the Internet. The understandings our ancestors derived from personal experience, we can now access with technology.

Barbara's list, and her manner of presenting it, encourage me to keep thinking that people who sensitize themselves to the living world around them live enriched lives, and understand reality-in-general better than others.

And from that belief arises the hope that once people understand better, admire more, and even love the living ecosystem in which they are enmeshed, they'll grow less likely to continue destroying it.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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