JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

April 14, 2007

MEXICAN CARDINALS
When I read my old Newsletters written at this time of year they seem to be messages from another person in another world. In the April 14th, 2002 Newsletter the titles of my blurbs include "Moments of Perfection," and "Honeysuckle Staggers," describing pure Spring moments back when I lived as a hermit in southwestern Mississippi. Back then, back there, at this precise moment of the year, a flood of Spring migrant birds was surging into North America up the Mississippi River and I in the woods near Natchez welcomed them as only a springtime hermit after a hard winter in the woods could.

My weekly birdcount in that April 14th, 2002 Newsletter listed 19 summer-resident species newly arrived in the Natchez area -- a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 12 Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, 10 Hooded Warblers, 35 Red- eyed Vireos, 1 Blue Grosbeak... The whole list resides at the bottom of the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/02/020414.htm.

Here, farther east in Querétaro state where the border with the state of San Luis Potosí coincides with the main backbone of the Eastern Sierra Madres, I'll bet one can see migrants streaming northward right now. However, here, deep in the mountains and in a deserty valley, I'm seeing no migration. Things are greening a bit after four afternoon rains last week, but it's too hot to feel like spring.

Sometimes, however, I have spring-flashbacks. For example, some mornings a Cardinal sings in a Sweet Acacia right outside my casita. The song is indistinguishable from how it sounds up north. The liquid CHEW-CHEW-CHEW-CHEW stirs up childhood memories of my mother in spring-green Kentucky grass hanging big white sheets on the clothesline, the sheets flapping and snapping in chilly, moist April wind as "Red Bird" calls from the Flowering Peach tree. And I remember what a sight a Cardinal was singing in a dark green, Mississippi magnolia. CHEW-CHEW-CHEW-CHEW and I look at the parched, wrinkled skin on my hands and arms and wonder how I got from there to here.

Cardinals down here are the very same species that are so common and eye-catching in Eastern North America's woods and suburbs, and the US Desert Southwest. The Northern Cardinal's distribution extends deep into Mexico all the way along the Gulf Coast to the Yucatan and northern Guatemala and Belize. It's an unusual distribution that must hint at something in the species' evolutionary history.

If you're in a part of the world without Cardinals you need to know what gorgeous beings they are. There's a resplendent male perched among blossoming Ocotillos at http://fireflyforest.net/firefly/2006/04/27/camouflaged-northern-cardinal/.

*****

ORGAN PIPE CACTUSES FLOWERING
One mental image some people have of village life in Mexico consists of the little rancho with a living fence composed of leg-thick, pole-straight cacti. A cactus species often providing those poles is the Central Mexico Organ Pipe, or Órgano, PACHYCEREUS MARGINATUS. Sometimes you really do see living fences like that, and they're pretty impressive, and can be effective. The species is flowering now, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414or.jpg.

In that picture the cactus's small flowers are mostly clustered at the tips of its long, vertical branches, though you can see that some branches are floriferous below. This species is so common around here that a lot of people don't respect it at all. Typically any Órgano within reach of the road has been so machete- hacked in random places that it's grotesquely deformed. A big, thick stem easily penetrated by a sharp machete is just too much of a target.

Our Central Mexico Organ Pipe is a different species from the one featured in Organ Pipe National Forest in southwestern Arizona. That's Stenocereus thurberi, which you can see belongs to a different genus -- Stenocereus, not Pachycereus. At first glance species in the two genera look very much allike, because of their similar sizes and similarly branching stems, but in plant classification much more weight is given to flower and fruit anatomy than to vegetative parts.

Our Pachycereus marginatus was originally endemic to three or four central-Mexican states -- with Querétaro being one of them -- but now it's planted in many places as an ornamental and a fence maker. One reason it's planted so widely is that it can be propagated easily with stem cuttings, plus it's a fast grower -- up to three feet a year. The one in the picture, a wild one, is about twelve feet tall.

*****

SWEET ACACIA'S RESIN TEARS
Late one afternoon I was taking in my laundry spread to dry on the lower branches of a Sweet Acacia outside my casita when a certain glow caught my eye. It was a gob of hardening, honey-colored resin oozing from the wound of a poorly pruned branch, with late-afternoon sunlight shining through it. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414rs.jpg.

In this year's January 5th Newsletter I showed you Sweet Acacia's abundant orange-yellow flowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070105sa.jpg. Now those trees are full of immature, green fruits, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414ad.jpg.

Whenever I see hardening resin like that on my clothes-drying acacia I always think of my freelance writing days when often during trips I'd camp at Jeff Busby Campground on the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi. A maintenance worker called Tiny McKinney would drop by my camping site as I typed at the picnic table and we'd talk. One day as he leaned against a Loblolly Pine expanding on the topic of the day he raised his hand to the pine's trunk, broke something off it and popped the thing into his mouth. It was a hard, whitish-yellow piece of dried-up pine resin, and he called it a rosin pill.

"I eat me one every time I see a good one," he said, "and that keeps me fit the way you see me!"

Tiny was just expressing what a lot of people used to know: That pine resin was medicinal. You might enjoy looking over the page on the medicinal uses of pine resin and turpentine at Mrs. M. Grieve's classic "A Modern Herbal," full of natural remedies from the early 1900s, online at http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/p/pine--34.html.

But, that's pine, and I began by talking about acacia resin. Acacia resin has a long history of usefulness, too. You may have heard of "gum arabic, which is a natural product of the acacia whose Latin name is Acacia senegal. Gum arabic is still used as a natural stabilizer and thickening agent in the food industry, particularly in soft-drink syrups, gumdrops and marshmallows. In the past it was used to adjust viscosity in inks. Gum arabic is normally collected by hand in its dried-hard, amber-like state and is often referred to as a 'tear' -- the very thing shown in my picture. You can read more about gum arabic at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gum_arabic.

When a wounded tree exudes resin drops, it's doing so because the gummy resin plugs up the plant's severed conducting tissue in a process called "gummosis." Resin is a lot like the clotting agents in our own blood when we cut ourselves,

In this year's January 5th Newsletter I told how some of the world's most expensive perfumes are based on an essence called "cassie," which is extracted from the fragrant, orange-yellow blossoms of the Sweet Acacia -- our most common tree here, and the species my resin "tear" was photographed on. On the Internet I read that in some cases gum produced from Sweet Acacia resin is actually superior to Gum arabic produced commercially from Acacia senegal.

What an amazingly useful plant our most common tree is! Yet I'm unaware of people here using it for anything other than firewood. In fact, I'm told that most folks here are glad to have it cut from their land because the tree shades out grass, which goats like to eat.

You can read a whole page of uses of Sweet Acacia products, including plenty of medicinal ones, at http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Acacia_farnesiana.html.

*****

WHAT IS AN ACACIA?
Speaking of acacias, I think most of us have a mental image of them as low, spiny, ferny-leaved trees nibbled on by giraffes in African savannas. That image may be valid but it overlooks the fact that here in the Americas we have plenty of acacias, too. My "Trees of North America" includes four species, mostly living in the US Desert Southwest. Besides our most common tree, the Sweet Acacia, the Reserve's Management Program booklet lists seven other acacia species for here.

Technically, acacias (in American English pronounced uh-KAY-shuhs) are members of the Bean Family, the Mimosa Subfamily, and the genus Acacia. Among the distinctive features of Acacias are the following:

When you're trying to keep your arid-land trees straight you have to keep the above points in mind because lots of non-acacia trees look like acacias -- have ferny leaves, may be spiny, and produce flattish bean pods or legumes. Calliandras, Leucaenas, Mimosas, Lysilomas, and several others all can look like acacias until you start examining them closely.

Most of the world's 450 or so acacia species are tropical, are largely Australian, are trees or shrubs that can be thorny or unarmed, and bear leaves that are often "feathery," or bipinnately compound.

I'm thinking of acacias nowadays because one of our most common scrub trees, which has been leafless most of the winter, now is starting to flower pretty spectacularly. It's the Fernleaf Acacia, ACACIA PENNATULA. You can see a flowering branch with its ferny leaves, short, paired spines and strikingly golden-globose flower heads atop long, fuzzy peduncles at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414ac.jpg.

Fernleaf Acacia is native from northern Mexico south to Venezuela and Columbia.

*****

JACARANDAS FLOWERING
For the last two or three weeks all across hot-weather Mexico in towns and along roads the Jacarandas have been blossoming into gigantic, lilac-colored bouquets. Even if you never look skyward the tree's blossoms are impossible to miss, for they strew the ground beneath trees with blue polka dots. I think the trees are most riveting when you stand beneath them looking up through their branches on dazzlingly sunny days such as we've had this week. Visualize translucent, purplish flowers against the deep blue sky, and freshly emerged, ferny leaves emerald green and wind- shaken, set among deliquescing, black-silhouette branches with sunlight-silvered edges. See this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414jc.jpg.

The tree I'm referring to, growing up to 50 feet high, is JACARANDA MIMOSIFOLIA, in English often called Blue Jacaranda. It's a native of South America but planted worldwide in the tropics, even in southern Florida and places like Phoenix, Arizona. Besides being so pretty, jacarandas are popular because they can be grown easily from seeds or cuttings.

In size and shape Jacaranda's two-inch long, tubular flowers might remind Eastern North Americans of Catalpa or Trumpet-creeper blossoms. They should, because Jacaranda belongs to the same family as those plants, the Bignonia Family. Maybe half the species in that family are woody vines and the vast majority have opposite leaves. Jacarandas distinguish themselves in the family by being trees with twice-pinnately compound leaves, and having bluish flowers with five corolla lobes but only four fertile stamens.

The expected fifth stamen is reduced to a sterile, club- shaped "staminode" typically bearing a dense tuft of bristles. You can see this staminode, fuzzy at both its middle and its tip, on some dissected flowers, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070414js.jpg.

In an online page of the American Journal of Botany I read that in our Blue Jacaranda the staminode's "bristles are critically important in keeping small pollen-foraging bees closer to the stigma, resulting in more frequent contact and pollen transfer." (http://www.amjbot.org/cgi/content/full/89/6/991).

About those lovely blue flowers that fall onto the ground once they're pollinated, the Desert-Tropicals website says of the trees that "The ground below them turns rapidly blue, and some gardeners might object to that quantity of litter."

What an amazing diversity of headsets we humans are capable of. It's scary sometimes.

Anyway, you can see that in this area several things are flowering and fruiting now, despite us still being in the dry season. I think the strategy of a good number of species is this: Have fruits mature at about the beginning of the rainy season, which arrives here next month, so seeds can germinate in well-watered soil.

*****

BUSH STILL MISUSING ENVIRONMENTAL INFO
Periodically I reduce my subscription list to this Newsletter by directing readers to the Union of Concerned Scientists online paper "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: An Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science," which very conscientiously documents many ways the Bush Administration suppresses and misrepresents environmental information in order to further its own political goals.

You can download the full report in PDF format here.

The shorter Executive Summary can be downloaded here.  

At my new daily-updated nature-news-feed page at http://www.backyardnature.net/i-rss.htm I see that the BBC "Science & Nature News" feed provides a story on "Wrangling delays climate report." This report finds that the Bush Administration continues as always, this time trying to soften the language in a report supported by the vast majority of countries coming to the conclusion that global warming already is affecting the Earth's climate, and that changes soon to come can be devastating in some places. China and India, who insist on the right to pollute as we polluted during our developmental stage, also want to soften the report. The report is set to say that a temperature rise above 1.5C from 1990 levels would put about one-third of the Earth's species at risk of extinction. One clearly sees the manmade future in store for our global environment. The report is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6524251.stm.

There's a fine animation showing how the Greenhouse Effect works here.

*****

A PERFECT BLACK-NECKED STILT
Especially on hot, sunny days in the early afternoon I sometimes take breaks visiting the reservoir dam, which is only about a three minute walk away. Nowadays the reservoir's water level lies about six feet below what it did when I arrived because water is being drawn off for irrigation. There's a good deal of very shallow water, which attracts wading birds.

The other day when I got to the dam's far end there was a single, elegant little Black-necked Stilt standing stiffly in the shallow water. If you don't know why I say a Black-necked Stilt is elegant, look at http://www.roysephotos.com/BlackNeckedStilt.html.

You can see the bird's North American summer distribution map at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/BBSMap/ra2260.gif.

At the end of the dam there's a concrete overflow structure with a sort of viewing area. That day I lay on the viewing area's sizzling concrete and with my binoculars feasted my eyes on the stilt -- a black-and-white-tuxedoed little bird with slender, shockingly red legs, a perfectly proportioned, needlelike, cocky little bill definitely up-turned, and white, bushy-looking eyebrows...

I lay there with ants beginning to bite wondering about this: Why should one bird species give the impression of having a more perfect appearance than any other? For example, on the page of my field guide illustrating the Black-necked Stilt also one finds the Black Oystercatcher and the Lapwing. The latter two species are handsome, interesting-looking birds, but I'd never consider them as "perfect" just based on their looks. But, yes, there's something "perfect" about that Black-necked Stilt.

Here's how I have it figured out:

Throughout the Universe there flow a certain number of elemental themes. I visualize these themes as being like ribbons of every color and texture slowly undulating in open space. An example of a universal theme might be "gaiety." Another, "nobility." There's "harmony," "aggression," "generosity" ... on and on. Moreover, when I think about it, each of these themes is paired with its opposite, which also constitutes a theme -- "somberness" with "gaiety," "meanness" with "nobility -- always the yin and yang of things inextricably paired.

The themes noted above are expressed in terms of human traits -- "gaiety," "nobility" -- but the Universe's themes are expressed in all kinds of ways. The quality I call "gaiety" sometimes manifests itself beautifully in pieces of music, but also it appears in a blue- flowered Jacaranda heaving in the wind on a sunny day. This "feeling" can also express itself abstractly, as in the spirit displayed in the robustly branching phylogenetic Tree of Life where, say, the orchid branch suddenly explodes with joyous diversification of blossom designs and colors. In fact, nowhere does the thing I called "gaiety" express itself as rambunctiously as in the fact that the Universe itself consists of something instead of nothing, and that that something lustily, singingly, dancingly evolves.

People appreciative of music know that some pieces are more successful than others in expressing something -- the "something" being some kind of universal theme, such as "robust young love" or "nostalgia." Therefore, maybe I sense something "perfect" about the Black- necked Stilt because that species, like some exceptional pieces of music, expresses a universal theme more "artfully" than some other bird species.

What could be the theme the Black-necked Stilt so perfectly represents?

I guess it's a minor theme, not as general as "gaiety" or "nobility." Maybe it's "elegant cockiness" or "playful conservatism."

Refined Japanese in ancient times displayed their understanding of the connection between things of the material world and abstract notions when they ceremonially associated fragrances of incense with particular poems or moments of history, in the exquisite ceremony know as "listening to incense" (http://www.hikoshin.org/kodo/taste/monko.html). In a similar manner, today any reflective person can find smiling associations between the Universe's elemental themes and certain people, songs, tree species... and bird species.

The fulfillment of this proposition is arrived at when we not only recognize universal elemental themes, and reflect on them, but also choose which themes we can most nobly identify with, and then live our lives in harmony with those themes.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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