JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

June 22, 2007

TROGONS ALL DAY LONG
Last Friday with some other teachers based at the Reserve I went to give classes in the isolated mountain settlement of San Juan de Los Durán. I'd been looking forward to the trip not only because San Juan is in a pretty area with interesting plants and animals but also because here in the Jalpan Valley at the end of the dry season the days had been oppressively hot for a long time, and I knew that the air at San Juan would smell of pine resin and be blessedly cool and fresh -- which it was.

After a combined birding and flower-interpretation walk Saturday morning my work was done so I strapped on my backpack and started hiking the 50 kms, or 31 miles, of narrow gravel road back into the valley. For two days I walked, camping at night, then when I reached the main road I caught a bus back to Jalpan.

Each dawn and dusk there was a flurry of birdsong, the most conspicuous singers being Brown-back Solitaires with their complex, echoic, bubbly, fluty calls, Rufous-capped Warblers issuing series of accelerating chips sometimes ending in trills, and a Canyon Wren's piercing, cascading series of rich notes.

During the middle of the days' long hours these and other birds were generally silent, except for one very notable exception: Trogons. The trogons' simple kyow-kyow kyow-kyow calls continued monotonously hour after hour, all through both days.

Yet, during the first day I didn't see a single trogon! Trogons are notoriously hard to spot because of their living strategy. Their main foods are fruits, foliage and insects plucked from trees' outer branches during brief, sallying flights. They rush up to their meal, grab it while briefly hanging in mid air, often using their body's weight to help leverage the meal off the stem with a snapping action, then they streak back to their perch where they stay very, very still, their green tops camouflaging them among green leaves.

At San Juan the forest is mostly pine interspersed with oak and the trogon species calling there was the Mountain Trogon, some pictures of which you can see at http://www.manybirds.com/guatemala/bigjpegs/Mountain_Trogon.jpg.

Soon after leaving San Juan the road rose and passed more into the mountain's rain-shadow, causing the land to become more arid and the vegetation to change. As pine forest gave way to juniper forest the trogons' kyow-kyows lost their nasal quality and became somewhat raspy. The deal was that Mountain Trogons inhabit the relatively humid pine forests around San Juan but the rain-shadow's drier juniper forests are the domain of Elegant Trogons, which can be seen at http://www.astrobirdphoto.com/searizona/eleganttrogon.htm.

Don't be surprised if you can't see much difference between the two species, for they're very similar -- surely "sister species," or species derived from a common ancestral species, shared by no other species. The two species share a similar distribution, just with the Elegant more specialized for arid habitats.

As I was descending into the valley finally an Elegant Trogon darted right before me, his scarlet breast resplendent in the sunlight. Trogons are such plump birds and their tails are so long and stiff-looking that they're easy to recognize as trogons. However, to know which trogon species you're seeing you need a good look at the tails. The undertail feathers are "bar coded," the bar patterns of each species being characteristic. Unusual among trogons, the Elegant's tail is coppery colored above, and in that day's sparkling mountain air my bird's tail shined like a new penny.

*****

EVENING-PRIMROSE TREES
Descending the steep slope from the juniper and pine uplands into the hot, arid valley, the vegetation continually changed. One small tree species, growing to about 15 feet tall, was more attention-getting than all others because the trees were decked with teacup-size flowers that when fresh were pure white but after pollination turned deep, crimson -- so that every tree bore both white and red blossoms. You can see a white flower just beginning to change to red at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622hu.jpg.

I couldn't imagine what magical tree this was but the moment I got close enough to see the blossoms' structure it was apparent what family the species belonged to: With an inferior ovary, four petals, eight stamens with big anthers affixed to their filaments at their middles, and long, fleshy sepals swooped back along the pedicles, the species had to be in the Evening Primrose Family. Though you don't think of members of that family as being trees, basically here was a tree evening-primrose. It was HAUYA ELEGANS, the "elegans" of course meaning "elegant."

I figured that such a pretty and unusual tree obviously adapted to droughty conditions would be much represented on the Internet as a widely planted ornamental. However, all I could find about it was some obscure references to its being collected here and there, with no indication that it's being planted anywhere. I can't even find an English or Spanish name for it, which is unusual. Have I stumbled upon a plant just waiting to be discovered by horticulturalists? Imagine how homeowners in droughty areas would jump at a small tree abundantly producing both red and white, large flowers!

*****

NON-DWARF DWARF ROCK PALMS
Another eye-catching plant in very dry, thin soil where white limestone outcropped on steeper slopes was the 10-ft-high fan-palm shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622br.jpg.

That's a Brahea, and there's only one Brahea listed for our region, which is BRAHEA MOOREI. However, I can't find any reference to this species producing such a monumental trunk as the one shown in my picture. Pictures on the Internet usually portray trunkless plants, or ones with very short trunks, sometimes running along the ground. In fact, the usual English name given for Brahea moorei is Dwarf Rock Palm.

Either The Braheas in this area are much older or for some reason more developed than the ones people elsewhere have seen, or it's a different species altogether. This makes my botanist blood gurgle, but I'm in no position to figure it all out.

Even here most specimens are trunkless or very short-trunked. However the occasional trunked plants such as the one in the picture manage to impart to the landscape a real exotic flavor.

*****

RAPANEA FERRUGINEA
At the risk of over-treeing you, I have to mention one more small tree that really caught my eye while hiking through the upland juniper forest. When you see its picture you'll understand why. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622rp.jpg.

The excellent thing about this 10-ft-tall tree is that its fruits, which have the size, color and wrinkledness of store-bought peppercorns, cluster abundantly and closely along the stems. The only other tree I know to do this is the US Southeast's Waxmyrtle, which belongs to an entirely different family.

The plant in the picture is RAPANEA FERRUGINEA, a member of the Myrsine Family, a not-much-known family restricted to the tropics and subtropics. Apparently it has no common English name.

*****

SPANISH PLUMS ARE RIPE
You may remember from the Newsletter of last May 12th my saying that the Spanish Plum trees were "impossible to ignore" because their leafless branches bore such an abundance of oval, green, inch-long fruits. The picture showing that condition in May still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070512sp.jpg.

Jalpan's Spanish Plums are finally maturing and I'm eating my share. Last weekend as I hiked through a village in the valley below San Juan, Zoyapilca, I met two old women and a young man coming down the road, each carrying two buckets filled to their brims with Spanish Plums. On my walk to the market there's one place where the sidewalk is dangerously slick with squashed, fallen plums. Three plums are shown in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622ci.jpg.

Though Spanish Plums belong to an entirely different plant family from northern plums, you can see why they're called plums. They look and taste like northern plums, and similarly can be eaten raw and made into preserves. However, note the large, hard, white, blocky seed, which is very unlike the northern plum's lens- shaped pit. Spanish Plums belong to the mostly tropical Cashew Family, in which we find not only cashew and mango trees but also sumac, Poison Oak and Poison Ivy.

Here people call the fruit Ciruela, which means plum, and they always tell you that there are two kinds, a yellow one and a red one. Here the yellow one is much more common. This is the yellow-fruited form of SPONDIAS PURPUREA.

Nowadays the trees' pinnately compound, walnut-tree- like leaves have emerged and the plentiful yellow fruits set amidst fresh, emerald green leaves are very pretty. An infusion of the leaves, by the way, is effective in treating viral herpes infections, as reported at http://www.cravoecanela.com/Herpes_2.html.

*****

PLACE OF THE SPIRITS
There's a certain spot along the gravel road to San Juan where the shadowy, somber juniper forest suddenly erupts with colorful blue-and-white, wind-flapped, perforated banners hung on lines across the road. The banners announce a fenced-in space around the curve decorated with many more banners, and containing a kind of stone alter standing before a small, red-brick shrine. You can see the spot surrounded by junipers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622vf.jpg.

The red-brick shrine is a vault with a door that closes securely with a heavy metal latch. When you open the door, which stays unlocked, you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622vg.jpg.

In many ways this shrine is typical of those found throughout the Mexican countryside, though it's larger and more decorated than most. Clearly someone is keeping the bouquets fresh and the candle lit, despite there being no nearby dwellings.

In the picture, the center statue, with feather-like features radiating from her body, is a standard Virgin of Guadalupe, and the statue on the far left is of course a standard Virgin. However, I can't figure out the significance of the picture at the right. I'd be glad if someone familiar with Catholic iconography could explain it to me.

When I first saw this place I asked why it was located in such an isolated stretch of the woods and was told that people in the area regarded the spot with awe because ghosts had been seen there. Others told me that bad things happen to people who happen to pass through there at the wrong time and another said that certain people from out of state gather there to practice hechicería, or black magic. When friends learned that I'd be hiking down that road more than one told me that by no means should I camp near this spot, because of the dangers.

As it turned out, I did camp near the place, and the only memorable sighting was that of a White-tailed Deer, which was pretty good for poaching-crazy Mexico.

*****

MEXICAN CUT PAPER
You might pay special attention to the banners flying at the above location. You can see how each banner is ornamented with geometrically aligned perforations at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070622pp.jpg.

It happens that artistically cut paper is a traditional Mexican art-form. During Aztec times strips of paper representing the seasonal appearance of new foliage were hung in the courtyards of individual homes. You can see modern cut paper, known as Papel Picado, at http://www.mexicansugarskull.com/mexicansugarskull/PapelBanners.htm.

You can read more about the art and tradition at http://www.mexconnect.com/mex_/travel/dpalfrey/dppapelpicado.html.

The banners around the shrine were less ornate than what's shown on the above page but are very typical of what can be seen all over Mexico, especially during festivals. The banners are made of plastic-coated paper, or maybe they are entirely of some plastic-like material. They can be of any color but in this area usually they are blue and white. Though many Mexicans can't or won't say why the colors blue and white predominate, at least some have told me that these colors represent the Virgin, or Catholicism itself.

*****

RAINY SEASON TIPTOEING TOWARD US
During this last week nearly every day or night we've had a little drizzle or a brief shower, and most days have been so cloudy that the temperature hasn't risen as high as it has recently. Some days impressive storms formed over the ridges surrounding us, often with lightening striking rather close, but here in the valley we never got more than a shower out of it. Some nights it drizzled. I'd thought the rainy season might begin suddenly with majestic, monsoonal storms, but this year the season is starting late and is sneaking in. The change is still very welcome, though, and the relief from the heat and dust is wonderful.

*****

WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE'S NOTHING TO DO
During last weekend's hike I hiked through three or four little settlements and some of them were as dusty, odoriferous and hangdog looking as can be imagined. Though I tried to avoid gawking sometimes I'd hear someone in or outside a hut next to the road and it was good manners to look in that direction and greet whomever was there. Again and again I got this mental snapshot: A young woman very well dressed and made up would be just standing there doing nothing, or young males might be lounging about with their shirts open, airing their bellies.

So, how do you spend your time if you're in a place where there is no employment, it's too arid for decent agriculture, fruit trees grow pretty much on their own and wandering chickens, pigs, goats and cattle don't really need much attention? Or you're part of a culture structured so that most needs are taken care of automatically by machines or professionals doing their jobs, and for one reason or another you don't have one of those jobs?

Trogons and iguanas spend most of their time just sitting, doing little beyond digesting. It seems to me that Mother Nature doesn't mind Her creations having long stretches of "doing nothing." Certainly I'm not automatically against it. In fact, compared to activities such as stripmining coal, logging old-growth forests, or recreational shopping, "doing nothing" amounts to enlightened behavior.

Still, if you don't exercise your body, you get weak, sick and you don't look good. If you don't exercise your mind and spirit, even worse things happen. Therefore, what should one do when confronted with a lot of free time?

Building on last week's notion that if we are to save Life on Earth, "Only thoughts and behaviors blossoming from art, science and spirituality can save us," I think that the most appropriate pastimes are those rooted in art, science and spirituality (not religion). Develop your artistic gifts, try to understand something that's a mystery, keep thinking about the meaning of it all...

But, here's an even more engaging question: Why bother even discussing these matters?

One reason that lately I'm reexamining my own life, sorting my behaviors into those which are programmed and which arise from free-will thought, and figuring out how to spend my free time is this: In my home state of Kentucky a large museum has opened with displays asserting that 6000 years ago humans coexisted with dinosaurs, and that evolution is a lie. Over 4000 people visited it on its first day. The museum's website is at http://www.creationmuseum.org/.

So, worldwide, well funded forces supported and directed by powerful people are at work to confuse the masses by discrediting science, and to replace artful, evolving, adaptive thinking patterns and behaviors with rigid, dangerous fundamentalist dogma.

"Basic training" for participation in the war against this darkness begins with first getting our own heads straight about what we ourselves believe, why, and what difference that makes.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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