JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

April 21, 2007

WALKING PAST THE CONVENT
Several times I've mentioned the Mission de Santiago de Jalpan -- the big cathedral downtown -- and placed links to pictures showing its impressive facade and tower. This is a different place from the Santa Rita de Casia Convent on the north side of town about a quarter of a mile upslope. I've often seen the large, rock-wall-surrounded, white, barracks-like building from across the valley, and last Sunday I went to take a look at it.

I wasn't sure whether the convent was a ruin or still operational. When I saw the one-lane gravel road with weeds between its two tracks leading up to the building I began thinking it might be a ruin. However, as I ascended the road I saw that all the downslope- facing windows of the two-story building were hung with heavy white drapes, and some of those drapes were twisted at their bases in such a way as to form what looked suspiciously like peepholes. When I passed by the convent's open front gate I saw that the building's front was very well maintained with its narrow yard landscaped with handsome plants. It reminded me of an elegant, expensive hotel built in the colonial style.

When I heard echoic, monotonic chanting coming from within I knew that this convent was the real thing. Having read books such as Humberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" I could just imagine the big building's shadowy interior ambiance, even though not a hundred yards downslope on that Sunday morning a young man in a dump truck was noisily unloading a pile of rocks. The truck was equipped with a sound system blasting Spanish hip-hop.

In a broad swath above the convent the slope's scrub had been cut and a trail led to a structure at the top. You can see what I found there at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421cr.jpg.

The dried-up remains of a bouquet of bright flowers occupied the alcove on the right while the left one held a flickering candle with rocks piled before the flame as shelter against the wind. From the alter I enjoyed an aerial view of the convent below and was surprised to see that, far from being a ruin, the building was being enlarged with a whole new wing.

When I descended the road an hour later I fleetingly saw a nun dressed all in white except for a black head covering, or veil. The chanting continued, but all the peepholes had disappeared.

I was curious about the nun's all-white habit with the black veil. On the Internet I found a kind of "nun fieldguide" in the form of a website selling dolls dressed in the habits of nuns of many orders. Apparently the all-white habit with a black veil is typical of various Dominican orders. You can see over 250 different nun habits, accompanied by thumbnail descriptions of the nuns' orders and where they serve at http://www.blessings-catalog.com/nundolls.html.

Santa Rita de Casia is the patron saint of impossibilities.

*****

ANACAHUITE, THE "TEXAS OLIVE"
Along the gravel road up to the convent a small tree with a dark, gnarly trunk was putting on a show with its two-inch wide, white, yellow-throated blossoms, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421co.jpg.

In some places this is called Anacahuite, and up north it's often labeled Texas Olive and marketed as a pretty tree able to survive in sunny, dry places. In fact, judging from nursery web pages, it's almost become a mainstay of hot-weather, xeric landscape gardening. The tree is CORDIA BOISSIERI of the Borage or Forget- me-not Family.

If you were with me in the Yucatan you might remember the red-flowered Ciricote so conspicuous in the dry- season scrub. Ciricote was Cordia sebestena, and Anacahuite is Cordia boissieri, so the two trees are very closely related.

On certain hot, dry, scrubby slopes in this area the white-blooming Anacahuites are so spectacular that you're put in mind of spring Dogwoods flowering up North -- despite the slopes' shimmering waves of heat and the air's dusty bite.

*****

A VISIT TO COCOS
Last Monday I hitched a ride with one of the Reserve's delivery trucks up to the isolated mountain town of Santa María de Cocos, to see what shape the hiking trail was in. Cocos lies below gigantic Sótano del Barro, one of the deepest sinkholes in the world, with a vertical fall of about 1475 feet (450 meters) and an opening of some 1968 feet across (600 meters). The opening is irregular so measurements depend on who is measuring. Whatever the final dimensions, it's an enormous pit and the Reserve helps people in Cocos provide lodging and tours to visitors wanting to view it. Descending into the hole is forbidden, however, to protect the fragile ecosystem, especially the colony of Military Macaws who nest in it. You can barely make out the pit's opening just below and to the right of the highest peak in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421sb.jpg.

In that picture, Cocos lies in the valley at the extreme right.

I didn't hike up to the Sótano but I did descend to the river about a mile steeply downslope from town, and I hiked the always-steep, 15-mile gravel road connecting Cocos with the main highway across a high mountain ridge.

Driving into the community we didn't meet a single other vehicle. I don't know how people in Cocos survive economically. I asked Pancho, who was driving, and he didn't know himself, suggesting that maybe money sent back from the US kept families afloat. Cattle and goats roam the hillsides and down in the river valley there were cornfields. I saw a man tilling very rocky soil with two mules pulling a plow that consisted of a bent metal rod with a small blade that cut the ground. The rod was equipped with a handle the man used to keep the plow upright. The man had to walk sideways, one hand stabilizing the plow, the other holding the ropes that controlled the mules.

You should see how one farmer built an aerial corn-storing platform in and between two trees -- to keep his corn dry and away from animals. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421ct.jpg.

The hike over the mountain to the paved road was wonderful, with views of very deep, steep-walled valleys that made my toes tingle just thinking of trying to hike through them with a backpack. At the top of the main ridge, white, jagged, pitted limestone emerged from the soil creating a very rough but picturesque landscape, like a natural rock garden. One family made the most of the setting, growing flowers among the rocks, and erecting a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe incorporating among the natural limestone rocks planted red roses and bougainvilleas, purple periwinkle and other flowers, intermingled with plastic blue roses, and Christmas ornaments and burning lights around the Virgin. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421vg.jpg.

You can always identify the Virgin of Guadalupe by the featherlike items appearing to emanate from her body.

When I finished the hike Tuesday afternoon the thermometer on my backpack read 110° (43.3° C) in the shade. However, in the extremely low humidity it didn't feel bad at all, except in the sun when there was no breeze. A really humid Mississippi 85° is less comfortable.

*****

FIVE TUMBLEBUGS IN A ROW
I think more cows and burros use the trail from Cocos to the valley floor than people, for there was plenty of manure on it, fresh and dried-out. One pile was so fresh that tumblebugs were still working on it. I got down on my belly and took the best picture I could of one, though my camera isn't much for close-ups. You can see a manure-encrusted tumblebug (on the ball's right) using his hind legs to push the ball up the trail at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421tb.jpg.

Tumblebugs are scarab beetles -- members of the insect family Scarabaeidae. The ones I've seen have all been thick-bodied, black beetles. When they find poop they mold it into balls, roll the balls away and bury them for future eating or maybe for laying their eggs in. When the eggs hatch, the kids find themselves surrounded by food. Lots of tumblebug species exist, and some specialize in tumbling pre-formed, pellet-like droppings of rabbits, sheep and deer.

On my tumblebug trail, five tumblebugs in a row were rolling their balls up the path, one behind the other, about 15 inches apart, and it was a funny thing to see. The trail was fairly steep and occasionally a ball got out of control and rolled backwards, carrying its tumblebug with it. And two balls each were being pushed by two bugs instead of one. Sometimes the two more or less canceled out one another's efforts, but other times one bug hung on while the other tumbled it with the ball. In fact, in my picture if you look beneath the pushing bug you can see a second tumblebug, upside-down, basically just in the way. These particular tumblebugs make manure-tumbling seem a pretty disorganized, grungy business.

Still, some tumblebugs are elegant. The sacred Scarab of the ancient Egyptians is a dung beetle native to Mediterranean countries.

*****

ADOBE
Cocos is an isolated place where some of the old traditions and living strategies hang on. I saw several adobe homes, and each house struck me as potentially cozy, though probably pretty dark inside, and sooty because of there being no chimneys. I tried to visualize living in one, especially during cold nortes. People in Cocos have a problem with their water supply and I wondered how flea populations could be controlled in an adobe home where there wasn't enough water to regularly wash clothing and bedding material.

Still, adobe appeals to me as a building medium if only because it doesn't depend on cutting trees or having supertankers running between China and the West Coast.

Adobe is usually considered to be a building material composed of clay mixed with some organic material such as straw. Typically the mixture is mixed with water, then poured into wooden frames and dried in the sun until the wet clay turns into dry, hard bricks. Buildings made with adobe bricks are especially appropriate for hot, dry climates. They store and release heat slowly, thus during hot spells they retain pre-hot-spell coolness, and during cold spells retain pre-cold-spell warmth.

Often I pass an abandoned, degenerating adobe structure near the reservoir, and the other day I took a picture of what's left. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421ad.jpg.

Notice how those walls' upper bricks are disintegrating into plain old dirt, while the more sheltered bricks below retain their shape. I like the idea of returning to being basic dirt once your service days are over. Often adobe buildings here have their outside walls stuccoed and brightly painted, and are topped with corrugated tin roofs. Such structures hold up pretty well. The more you know about adobe -- at least in our hot, dry climate -- the more you like it.

How does an adobe wall connect with a slanting tin roof? At Cocos I got a good picture showing how. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421a4.jpg.

One fact to keep in mind when considering the structure shown above is that that building didn't have a chimney. People just let cooking smoke drift out of whatever cracks are handy. Those cracks under the tin roof are useful.

*****

THE WORD "ADOBE"
"Adobe" the word has en unusual etymology. Of course we got it from Spanish, but Spanish speakers received the word from the Arabic al-tob meaning "the brick." Lots of Spanish words have Arabic roots as a consequence of those centuries when Arabic-speaking Moslems occupied southern Spain.

The Arabs, in turn, appear to have taken al-tob from the Coptic word for brick, tube. The Copts are Egyptian Christians. The Copts, in turn, probably took the word from ancient Egyptian, for there's a hieroglyphic word of similar sound and meaning.

*****

BURRO RETICULATIONS
At Cocos I saw many mountain slopes looking like the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421bd.jpg.

Notice the pale, reticulating network of footpaths ornamenting the slope. Those trails mostly were made by free-roaming burros and cattle. During my recent hike between Cuatro Palos and Bucareli, through a mountain landscape about as rugged and isolated as you can find, I was never out of sight of such footpath reticulations. No cattle were out there, just burros.

I suppose that a formula someplace can explain why free-roaming burros eventually impose upon a landscape intricate, geometrical footpath-patterns. A hiker on such a slope mainly thinks two things about such trails: On every square inch of the landscape they provide access to burros who nibble on everything that isn't spiny or bitter, and; two, too often the hiker ends up on a burro trail instead of the main trail.

The Sierra Club's position paper on "feral burros," at http://www.sierraclub.org/policy/conservation/feral.asp states:

Feral horses and burros should be eliminated from key wildlife habitat, including the desert bighorn habitat of the American Southwest, and from designated natural areas. In other situations, their numbers should be carefully regulated to minimize conflict with wildlife, livestock and other range values.

Like most normal people, I think burros are nice animals, smart, and fun to be around. But the above picture hints at the fact that's painfully obvious over enormous areas here: That humans have created a colossal ecological disaster by introducing burros into ecosystems where they don't belong, and killing off the predators that otherwise would control burro numbers.

I agree with the Sierra Club's position, not because it's an agreeable solution but because, like so often is the case (as with the war in Iraq), irresponsible human behavior has put people who come later into the position of being forced to choose the least bad among several very bad options.

*****

A HORMONE-CRAZED BRONZED COWBIRD
For the last couple of weeks here at Reserve HQ a certain Bronzed Cowbird has been making a nuisance of himself. Early each morning he attacks his own reflection in car mirrors, even his much-distorted likeness in curved, shiny bumpers. I know it's the same bird because somehow he's lost all the feathers on one of his legs, presumably from repetitively scraping his leg against a hard, reflective surface. We've all seen birds up north do this, but I'm surprised to see a Bronzed Cowbird behaving in this manner.

For, Bronzed Cowbirds, like their northern Brown- headed Cowbird counterparts (they belong to the same genus), are nest parasites. Females lay their eggs in the nests of other species, then the other species rears the earlier-hatching cowbird's young, often to the detriment of their own less offspring. Probably you've seen those pictures of a duped parent feeding a cowbird juvenile much larger than the parent, as at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/conservation/tanager/parasitism.html.

My surprise in seeing a Bronzed Cowbird attacking his own image arises from this question: Since cowbirds don't build their own nests or feed their own young, and I see small flocks of mixed males and females flying about behaving very amicably with one another, of what need is there ever for a male to fight another male -- especially in the sustained, leg-defeathering manner I'm witnessing here?

Since Bronzed Cowbirds extend into the US only in the border states and southern Louisiana, relatively little study has been done on them. However, there's plenty of literature on Brown-headed Cowbirds, since they occur throughout most of North America. On the Internet I find reports of male Brown-headed Cowbirds attacking one another -- and causing as much head-scratching among behavior-oriented birders as my Bronzed is causing down here.

In an online edition of part of the September, 1973 edition of "The Wilson Birder" there's an article by Peter L. McLaren of the University of Toronto entitled "Physical Combat in the Brown-headed Cowbird." The species is described as territorial during part of its breeding season, but, according to the literature at that time, "Battles of any intensity are apparently unknown."

McLaren describes a hard-fought battle between two males he saw in a local park, lasting for three minutes and 15 seconds. After reviewing reasons why Brown-headed Cowbirds don't need to fight, to explain the battle he had just witnessed McLaren writes:

Thus, when fighting does occur, it may be because the individual has either not correctly interpreted an opponent’s display, or its sexual (aggressive) drives are too strong to be fulfilled by a display. If this is in fact so, then an encounter of the duration and intensity described above becomes all the more unusual.

These are just guesses as to why male cowbirds would fight one another, but I can't come up with any better explanation. For our cowbird to have kept this up during every sunny morning for two weeks, it's even more extraordinary. It is so inexplicable that I have confirmed my identification several times, but it's hard to go wrong with this species: Red eyes, cowbird bill, inflatable ruff on the hind neck, and that raunchy, high-legged, pelvis-grinding movement he does when displaying. Couldn't be anything else. It's all a mystery and I'd appreciate hearing from others with ideas. A Bronzed Cowbird inflating his ruff is at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic204-36-2.html.

But, lots of questions surround cowbird behavior. For instance, since the young are reared by other species, how do they recognize their own kind when it comes time to reproduce?

Other questions deal with what we should do with cowbirds, if anything, since their nest parasitism has been shown to be a primary cause of lowered reproductive success of birds nesting in forest- interiors in fragmented habitats.

*****

COSTILLÓN BANANAS
The other day my friend Marina brought me some bananas she and her husband grew at their mountain rancho. Thick-skinned, thick-bodied, six-inch long fruits that instead of being round in cross-section were angular, they were of a type I've never seen in a North American market. You can see Marina and her bananas, which she called Costillones or "Big-ribbers," with Camila the dog in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070421ma.jpg.

I'm never surprised to see new types of bananas because I know there are lots of them. At the bottom of the page at http://mgonline.com/banana.html you can find a list of 117 named banana varieties. You can see a good selection of them grown in Hawaii at http://www.hawaiifruit.net/BananaPix/index.htm.

Marina's Costillones have a somewhat spongy flesh and a bland, slightly sour taste. They're similar to those I've seen elsewhere that are meant to be baked, not eaten raw, but Marina says that here Costillones are eaten raw. My friend Julio says the best way to eat them is in a licuado -- blend them in milk, add honey and cinnamon, and come up with something like a banana smoothie.

*****

FROST DAMAGE UP NORTH
A couple of weeks ago a major cold snap hit the eastern US. I hear that back in Kentucky 90% of this year's peach and apple crops have been wiped out. My old birding friend Jarvis has just driven from Indiana to his home in North Carolina, and this is what he reports:

As might be expected, the early spring flowers showed no sign of damage. As I traveled south into Kentucky and Tennessee I saw trees with dead leaves in many places. I think the most extensive damage was in eastern Tennessee and probably Tulip Trees were most extensively damaged. Tulip Trees that had been yellow-green a week earlier were covered with brown leaves this week. I had never seen so many trees with dead leaves in the spring. As I traveled through the mountains of North Carolina, mountains that had patches of pale green on them a week earlier were mostly brown. The leaves were dead on many oaks, Tulip Trees, and other species. Black Cherry and Amelanchier sp. {Serviceberry} had fully grown leaves, but I saw no damage to Black Cherry and almost no damage to Amelanchier.

*****

THE RESERVE'S NEW WEBSITE
Recently I've handled the technical part of setting up Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve's new website at http://www.sierragorda.net.

The site is still in the process of taking shape but already you might enjoy taking a look at it. I think you'll be astonished at the range of forward-thinking projects being handled here. Note that the front page is in Spanish, but you have an English option. Eventually through this site we'll be marketing locally produced handicraft and ecotour packages, as well as selling carbon and environmental offset packages.

This latter effort will boil down to inviting people to pay for planting trees here to compensate for the carbon dioxide the buyer is responsible for.

*****

SEEING BUT NOT SEEING, KNOWING BUT NOT KNOWING
Especially in backwoods areas such as Cocos, an interesting thing happens to me frequently enough for it to leave me speculating on the human character. That is, I'll be talking to someone in Spanish, expressing myself rather fluently and understanding everything the other person is saying, and that person will appear to be understanding everything I'm saying, but then that person will ask me if I speak Spanish.

A couple of times, trying to gain insight into why this happens, I've said no, I don't speak Spanish, and then we just continue talking, and nothing more is said of the matter. Though the people who ask me this are always the types who haven't seen much of the world beyond their local community, they are often clearly intelligent individuals performing complex tasks.

I'm pretty sure I understand the root cause of this amazing phenomenon. The basic problem is that these people are seeing and hearing what their preconceptions insist they must see and hear from a foreigner -- unintelligible otherworldliness. They know that I'm a foreigner, and most foreigners don't speak Spanish, so there's a question as to whether I speak it, even though I'm standing right there talking to them in Spanish.

The easiest, safest thing is to let the local belief system trump one's own efforts at interpreting unusual circumstances, such as the appearance of a gringo on a backcountry trail.

But, one doesn't need to be a backcountry person to be blinded and befuddled in this manner. In fact, I'm convinced that the vast majority of people on Earth behave the same way, nearly all the time, just that the blindness manifests itself in different ways. In my own culture the phenomenon expresses itself most clearly in this fact: A huge percentage of North Americans live consumption-focused, unsustainable, resource-wasting lives, yet they are so focused on doing and thinking what everyone else is doing and thinking that they simply don't see the need to change their behavior, much less admit the immorality of continuing it.

On a United Nations website on climate change at http://unstats.un.org/unsd/environment/air_co2_emissions.htm it's stated that the average Mexican produces about 3.71 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The average Swede who, some travelers who have experienced both cultures (such as myself) would say, enjoys a quality of life superior to or at least equal to that of the average US citizen, produces about twice what an average Mexican does, 6.17 tons. Even the average German, who insists on no speed limits on open stretches of the Autobahn, produces only 10.49.

Yet the average US citizen produces 19.87 tons, about twice the European average.

An old man with whom I've been conversing in Spanish the last ten minutes looks at me and asks if I speak Spanish. The North American looks at me and asks what's really wrong with driving a car so much, having an oversize house, and buying all kinds of junk that soon gets thrown away or forgotten.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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