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JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

May 5, 2007

SONG OF THE SPOT-BREASTED WREN
I hear Spot-breasted Wrens more than I see them. Down at the reservoir's end where the slopes converge, the water grows shallow and finds its source in a piddling little stream meandering through mud, and the willows rise to become regal trees, that's where I hear them. If your computer can eat mp3 audio files (Windows Media Player) you can hear one now at http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/Mexico/SBWRs2.mp3.

Those of you with a special interest in the Yucatan, note that the above address belongs to the "Bird Songs of the Yucatan Peninsula" site, accessible at http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/Mexico/Mexico.html.

You can see what a Spot-breasted Wren looks like at http://www.birdsofhonduras.com/photos/eisermann/eisermann_ThrMac.jpg.

The Spot-breasted Wren's song is about as loud, sharp and enthusiastic-sounding as a little bird can manage. Liking second growth and forest edges, he's fairly common but he likes to hide. A typical hangout is a densely leafed shrub overgrown with vines or strewn with debris so that the bush's interior is so dark that even if you manage to focus your binoculars on him, he's nothing but a silhouette. If you're lucky you'll glimpse a rusty cap, or see an eye glaring at you with a white stripe over it, or maybe you'll see black spots on a white breast moving behind leaves, but usually that's about all you see.

However, with you out in the sun and him inside his shadowy redoubt, he may sing and sing a very loud swee hu-a WEE-a-wew, swee hu-a WEE-a-wew, swee hu-a WEE-a- wew... so lusty-sounding, so nearby, and so unseen.

Mexico is home to about 32 wren species divided into eleven genera. Spot-breasted Wrens belong to the genus Thryothorus along with the Carolina Wren, who doesn't make it this far south. If you know how loud and piercing a Carolina Wren's voice is, you'll have an idea of the power of the Spot-breasted's call.

Spot-breasted Wrens are distributed from northeastern Mexico south to Costa Rica, including all of the Yucatan, where I often heard them way out in the scrub, but seldom saw them.

*****

VISITED BY A ROSEBELLY LIZARD
One hot, sunny afternoon this week as I worked at the computer and cicadas made a real racket in the Sweet Acaias, I heard the pattering of tiny feet as something streaked through my open door, ran across my concrete floor and my bare feet, and tried to climb up the wall beside me to reach my window. However, a blue, plastic shopping bag lying below the window had to be surmounted, but the bag was too smooth to climb. The creature just spun his wheels noisily until he gave up and lay there in a nest of blue plastic looking up at me as if to say, "OK, I'm a lizard, and I'm in a mess... "

I was tickled with this visit because I've been wanting a close look at this species. Back during the cooler months I saw lots of plain-looking lizards whom I identified as Mesquite Fence Lizards. One of those is pictured curled up cold-stunned on the adobe oven at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070223fl.jpg.

Now that it's much hotter and drier, the main lizards I'm seeing are a different species -- much more boldly striped, and longer. My visitor was this new species. By the time he'd recuperated from trying to climb the blue plastic bag, and begun wandering across my floor, I had my camera ready. You can see the resulting picture, taken right beneath my chair, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505lz.jpg.

This wasn't the first time I'd tried to photograph this species. Just a couple of days earlier I'd been walking along the reservoir when a male appeared atop a white limestone rock holding his head so high that at first I thought he was chomping on a golden-winged butterfly, with a wing bent downward at each of his mouth's corners. But then I saw that the "wings" were the lizard's belly patches. Here was a male full of hormones displaying from a spot where the whole world could admire him, especially females. When I reached for the camera, he jumped from the rock and streaked across the road.

These hot-weather lizards appear to be Rosebelly Lizards, SCELOPORUS VARIABILIS, distributed from southern Texas through eastern Mexico to Costa Rica. A website in Texas describes males as having "two pink belly patches partly rimmed in dark blue which extends onto sides of body to form dark spots in armpit and in groin." What I saw was golden, not pink, so who knows what's going on?

Why did this lizard rush into my room and try to reach my window on the other side? I learned the answer to that while my visitor still lay atop his blue, plastic bag. Another lizard of the same species, apparently having chased my visitor into the room, appeared at my door's entrance, wouldn't enter, but definitely glared in our direction. I'd guess that my first visitor was either a female trying to escape a too-persistent suitor, or a low-ranking male being driven from the other's territory. Probably the latter.

*****

DEVIL'S WEED OUTSIDE MY DOOR
If you're of a certain age you probably read one or all of Carlos Castaneda's books, particularly The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, first published in 1968. The Yaqui people originally lived in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora and part of Arizona. Don Juan was a brujo, or witchdoctor, who taught the narrator of the book how to refine his awareness of the Universe. It's unclear how much of Castaneda's writings are real or pure fantasy, and also it's unclear whether there was a real Don Juan.

Don Juan used hallucinogens as part of his practice, and one of the most powerful he called Devil's Weed, sometimes also called Toloache. These names can apply to various species of the genus Datura. In English we call the Daturas jimsonweeds. Don Juan's jimsonweed probably was DATURA INOXIA. Five blossoming plants of Datura inoxia grow right outside my door as I type this, right in the center of my field of vision when I look outside, standing there as if they were waiting for me. Right now I go photograph one so you can see. the picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505dt.jpg.

That glowing, white blossom at the plant's head is 6.5 inches (16.5 cm) high. Surely someone threw seeds there, for I seldom see the plant elsewhere. Each dawn each datura plant bears one or two blossoms, which wilt by late morning. Each dawn, it's like being greeted by five gnomes, half smiling, half malicious- looking, playing white violins, somberly, soporifically.

Folks here regard the plants as young Angel's Trumpets, which are the small trees with very large, white, drooping flowers I introduced in this year's January 19th Newsletter. Angel's Trumpets are members of the same family as Datura inoxia, the Nightshade/ Tomato Family or Solanaceae, and also are poisonous and hallucinogenic, but they are an entirely different species.

Like me, Don Juan had mixed feelings about Devil's Weed:

She is as powerful as the best of allies, but there is something I personally don't like about her. She distorts men. She gives them a taste of power too soon without fortifying their hearts and makes them domineering and unpredictable.

If you Google Datura inoxia you'll find as many warnings about poisoning as you will mention of the plant as hallucinogenic. One reason is that the dosage needed to feel the effects is pretty close to that which poisons, and it's very hard to judge the active ingredients' concentrations in wild plants.

I have instructions on exact preparation of the plant, but I'm not interested in concocting a dosage for the same reason I'm also against drunkenness and being a pot-head: Brains are the only resource we humans have to keep us from blindly destroying Life on Earth. If we screw up our brains, there's less chance we'll survive.

*****

CAT'S CLAW IN FULL BLOOM
Down at the end of the reservoir where Spot-breasted Wrens sing and the vegetation is darker and ranker than elsewhere, scrambling into trees there's a woody vine so gloriously decked with brightly yellow, two-inch-long flowers that you feel glad just seeing it all. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505cf.jpg.

The vine almost reminds me of the Yellow Jessamine that used to flower so prettily in Mississippi about when Purple Martins arrived in spring, but this is a much more robust plant. It's MACFADYENA UNGUIS-CATI, often called Cat's Claw in Englis. It's a member of the Bignonia Family, along with North America's Trumpet Creeper vine and Catalpa trees. In the tropics Cat's Claw can be confused with the much-planted Allamanda, which is another vine with large, yellow, tubular flowers. Anatomically, however, the blossoms are very dissimilar, and the two species reside in different families.

You can see where the vine gets its Cat-claw name at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505cc.jpg.

That picture shows that the vine bears opposite, compound leaves. Each leaf consists of two leaflets, and where the leaflets' stalks, or petiolules, unite often there emerges a three-fingered, grappling-hook-like "compound tendril." Each tendril "finger" ends with a very sharp, stiff, curved hook. Most leaves do not bear these three-parted tendrils. The cat-claw tendrils are mostly restricted to elongating shoots.

This is another of those native Mexican plants behaving neighborly in our local ecosystems, but in other parts of the world becoming a troublemaker. Australians regard it as "one of the most destructive exotic vines" degrading their rainforest communities. Even in the US Deep South many consider it a noxious weed. One writer in Florida posting to a gardener's forum calls it an "extremely horrible plant. It is a Category I Exotic Pest Plant in Florida." Someone in Arizona writes, "I have seen it actually lift the shingles off of roofs. It also attaches itself with the 'claw' to stucco homes and walls and when you try to remove it the stucco comes off with it!"

You can read more comments aboutn it, pro and con, at http://davesgarden.com/pf/go/1769/index.html.

What a contrast those words are to our pretty, unobtrusive vines draping themselves so prettily on our trees, causing no trouble at all and only bringing pleasure to pollinators and people.

*****

LIANAS
I feel a bit awkward referring to Cat's Claw as a vine. Back when I worked at the Missouri Botanical Garden we made a distinction between herbaceous vines such as morning glories and passionflower plants, and woody vines. Woody vines were called lianas (lee-AHN-uhs).

However, we were working with tropical plants, and the term "liana" mostly designates high-climbing, tropical, woody vines -- like Cat's Claws. My impression is that the term "liana" is so infrequently used in the Temperate Zone that if you were to call a high- climbing, woody grapevine or wisteria a liana it might raise a few eyebrows, even among botanically inclined people. Some would say that a high-climbing, woody vine is only a liana if it's tropical, but others would call any woody vine growing anywhere a liana.

I like the term liana because it's more precise than "vine," and not as clumsy as "woody vine." I suppose the concept will have to crystallize more before it becomes clear whether a grapevine up north can be called a liana.

*****

FROGFRUITS, FOGFRUITS
As the dry season draws on the reservoir's water-level stands about 15 feet lower than when I arrived here. Certain spots that earlier lay submerged beneath shallow water now provide broad, grassy lawns for picnickers and campers, the grass kept short by burros and goats. In less frequented spots grass often is replaced by ankle-high tangles of the herbs shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505ff.jpg.

The flower heads in that picture are pea-sized, so the flowers themselves are tiny things. If you could look at an individual blossom with a good handlens you'd see that it's shaped like a little dog-head, like a verbena flower. In fact, the plant is a member of the Verbena Family. It belongs to the genus PHYLA, and probably is PHYLA NODIFLORA. In English, members of the genus Phyla are often referred to as Fogfruits or Frogfruits. Phylas are common throughout the US, except in the northwestern states. Of course in Australia our Phylas are invasive.

I'll bet there's an interesting story behind the plant's two names, fogfruit and frogfrut. I wouldn't be surprised if one of them came into being because of a typo committed long ago by someone preparing a flora manuscript. When I Google "fogfruit" I get 815 page-returns but when I look up "frogfruit" 2040 pages turn up, so "frogfruit" seems to be winning out.

I'm glad that "frogfruit" is winning if only because nowadays many of our frogfruit tangles shelter myriad tiny, immature toads. In places you can hardly take a step without smashing one. When you walk, sometimes the ground around your feet seems to ripple with hopping- away baby toads. Maybe "toadfruit" would be an even better name.

******

A BANDED PEACOCK, AND HOW I IDENTIFIED IT
On the torrid afternoon when I took the above frogfruit picture, not only was the frogfruit tangle teeming with tiny toads but also a certain species of familiar-looking butterfly was visiting frogfruit flowers en masse. You can see one in the above frogfruit picture. (http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505ff.jpg).

That butterfly is the Banded Peacock, ANARTIA FATIMA, distributed from southern Texas to Panama. It's found very commonly in disturbed habitats, at forest edges and along the banks of natural watercourses -- "riparian" habitats like where I saw it. Even though the adults live only for two to four weeks, the species is so prolific that it's seen throughout the year.

The reason I said the Banded Peacock was familiar looking is that the species belongs to the same butterfly family and subfamily as the Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Common Buckeye and several other similar-looking butterflies often seen in my US haunts.

Since no "Fieldguide to Mexican Butterflies" exists and I don't claim to be a lepidopterist, how did I identify this Banded Peacock?

Because it was so similar to those North American species mentioned above I went to the Mariposas Mexicanas website (the word "mariposa" is Spanish for "butterfly") at http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/ clicked on the Subfamily Nymphalinae of the family Nymphaldae, to which all the above-mentioned species belong, then simply compared pictures until I had a decent match. That website is the closest thing we have to a "Fieldguide to Mexican Butterflies."

Once I had a name I confirmed the identification by looking it up on the newly reconstituted "Butterflies and Moths of North America" website at http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/

This latter site provides wonderful distribution maps, and you can even call up maps for Mexico. However, it seems to feature only those Mexican species whose distributions extend into the US -- such as our Banded Peacock. (My mystery butterfly of last week remains a mystery, but I thank all those who made an effort.)

What a very powerful tool for naturalists the Internet has become, especially for those of us in parts of the world where printed fieldguides are nonexistent.

*****

A BIRD MYSTERY
Fritzie in New York directed me to a webpage of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology where a hybrid warbler is shown, and the mystery is, "What two species produced the hybrid?" You can see the mystery bird at http://allaboutbirds.org/mystery.

Follow links on that page to learn who the parent species were, and how they were determined by studying DNA in the mystery bird's feathers.

*****

POINCIANA DETONATIONS
In this year's January 5th Newsletter I described the abundant, woody, two-ft-long, rather unsightly fruit- pods, or legumes, hanging on our leafless Poinciana trees, and littering the ground beneath them. At that time I promised that later those same trees would become the "absolutely gorgeous, flamingly-red- blossomed trees" so famous worldwide as one of the most beautiful of all ornamental species. Well, the Poinciana's time has come and now the early-bloomers are indeed gorgeous. I hadn't noticed their bud- bursting, so their unexpected appearance all across town is like the detonations of beauty-bombs dropped randomly from high above, and maybe that's what they are. You can see a tree I pass on banana-buying days at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505pc.jpg.

The tree's 3.5-inch wide flowers and handsome, 18-inch- long, ferny, bipinnate leaves are shown close up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505p5.jpg.

This is DELONIX REGIA of the Bean Family. Being so widely planted the species bears many English names, including Royal Poinciana, Peacock-flower, Flametree and Flamboyant. In Spanish it's Flamboyán. It's an African tree, from Madagascar, and it doesn't tolerate frost. Jalpan's Poincianas have been utterly leafless the last few months but I read that in other tropical areas with adequate year-round rainfall Poincianas are practically evergreen. In Australia, where it seems every foreign plant can become an ecosystem-threatening invasive, it's a weed-tree pushing aside native species who can't compete with the Poinciana's dense root network and shade.

Despite Poinciana being abundantly planted in the tropics worldwide, it's on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. That's because in the remaining forests of western and northern Madagascar where the speices grows naturally, people cut it for making charcoal.

In the above close-up of Poinciana's flowers you can see that the blossoms' long, upward-curved, pollen- producing stamens are very conspicuous, as well as the brightly red petals and sepals. This week I gave a day- long nature-study workshop to a group of local teachers and for our flower-interpretation session we went to a little park next to the reservoir, sat on a stone wall in coolish shade with a breeze off the lake, and used Poinciana flowers as our model for studying flower anatomy. What a delight!

*****

EATING SQUASH FLOWERS
Thursday morning Don Gonzalo appeared at my door with a handful of orange-yellow squash flowers. He keeps some vines growing along a fence down below and he'd snipped off the non-fruit-producing male flowers for me to top my solar-oven meal with. I asked him why he didn't eat them himself and he said something like, "When I eat squash flowers, I eat a LOT, not just fool around with a few flowers like this." You can see the Don's flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070505sq.jpg.

In that picture, in the lower left, a flower prepared for eating is shown. Its green stem and calyx have been removed, as well as its column of grown-together stamens, which lies just to the corolla's right.

I've eaten squash-flower tamales, which were pretty good, and I've dipped squash-flower corollas in batter, fried them, and eaten them with garden tomatoes, and that was great. However, flowers just strewn atop solarizing chard turn out pretty bland.

Some delicious-sounding recipes for preparing zucchini flowers (any squash flower can be used) can be found at http://www.virtualitalia.com/recipes/zucchini_flowers.shtml.

*****

THOUGHTS ON A DAVID ORR ESSAY
Here, as in Europe, May 1 is regarded as Worker's Day, so people take off from work. Since May 1 fell on a Tuesday this year quite a few folks around here stretched last weekend into a four-day holiday.

Still, on Tuesday I conducted an all-day nature-study workshop for teachers. You'd be astonished to see how hard it is for people in small, isolated villages to get the education they want, and how eager and appreciative many are to receive what little someone like myself can offer.

In this context, my old friend Jarvis in North Carolina sent me an essay by David W. Orr, a noted environmental lecturer and writer. Orr's essay made these points:

Orr sums things up:

Because we cannot think clearly what we cannot say clearly, the first casualty of linguistic incoherence is our ability to think well about many things."

The essay appears in "Conservation Biology, Vol 13, No. 4, August 1999."

In my own system of using words and thinking, the above insights flow irresistibly into a river of philosophic conviction in which the following is an undeniable truth:

To save Life on Earth we must struggle to get our minds clear, think deeply and honestly on many subjects, make an enormous effort to articulate to others what we're understanding, and then actually live the lives we perceive as the most dignified and honorable.

*****

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