JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

June 29, 2007

INVASION OF BIG-BOTTOMED ANTS
The rainy season's first soaking rain came eight days ago. The next morning, last Friday, I walked to town to buy fruit and was amazed by what I saw on all the streets and sidewalks: Millions and millions of dark, amber-colored insects lay dead. A few remained alive but they were so lethargic that they seemed ready to die at any moment. They were the size and shape of wasps but up close they were clearly ants, despite their inch-long wings. You can see some dead ones on the sidewalk next to a floodlight at the cathedral at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629hv.jpg.

Ant colonies produce lots of winged male ants to mate with a few winged females. Once mating takes place the females fly off to find ground suitable for tunneling into and starting a new colony, but the males simply die. Therefore, the dead ants in the picture are dead males after the previous night's nuptial flights. You can review the ant life cycle at http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/TOOLS/ANTKEY/biolmeta.html.

Apparently the emergence of our ant species' winged males and females is coordinated with the advent of the rainy season, for everyone I spoke to knew about the big, winged ants who emerge with the first rains. Don Gonzalo called them hormigas voladoras, which just means "flying ants," but I also heard them called Tatanrías.

Back at my computer an image search using the keywords "flying Mexican ants" immediately turned up a picture of my ant, posted at the ant forum of the What's-That-Bug website (http://www.whatsthatbug.com) by Stefanie here in north-central Mexico. Dave Gracer, who promotes the eating of insects at his entomophagy website at http://www.slshrimp.com/ identified the ant as the genus Atta, or leaf-cutting ant, and said that it was edible. Dave also wrote that in Colombia our ants are called Hormigas Culonas, or "Big-bottomed Ants." You can see in my photo that our ants' abdomens are indeed big and rounded. In fact, judging from the size of the greasy spot they form when run over in the streets I'd say that there's a good bit of food value in each ant.

A search on "Hormigas Culonas" turned up an entire Colombian website just on Big-bottomed Ants. It's at http://www.hormigasculonas.com/english_version.htm.

In pitiable English the producer of that site extols the ants' good taste: "When the towns smell to the toasted ant frangances, it does people in the region say: CULONAS ARE BEING ROASTED!"

People here eat them, too, though not as avidly as once they did. It's funny how often people at first react with a laugh when I mention their edibility, but then later in the conversation offer their own recipe. Consensus seems to be that culonas are best lightly salted, then roasted atop a comal (a flat, metal plate, often an excised metal-barrel head, suspended above a fire). Just spritz with hot-sauce and eat.

Cristina at the Reserve says that the ants stink when they gather in such numbers. The Columbian website author expresses a different opinion about the odor, saying somewhat cryptically, "maiden sex smell that wake up the senses; reminiscence of loving rituals fragrances of any lover that want itself." I think he's saying that this ant also has aphrodisiacal properties.

You might enjoy reading what I wrote about leafcutter ants back in the Yucatan at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ant-lfcu.htm.

*****

BIZARRE GURGLING BESIDE A WET TENT
Last Saturday afternoon after conduction a morning workshop on computers I strapped on my backpack and headed to the far end of the reservoir. The heat and humidity was like Mississippi in July and it seemed certain that the magnificent thunderstorm booming lustily over the ridge to the west would be drenching our valley in an hour or so. However, as so often is the case, the storm simply dissipated above the peaks, leaving the valley dry. At dusk my hot tent's walls sagged in drenching humidity and it cost an effort just to lie there breathing and sweating. The night's myriad insect stridulations sounded muted and drained of energy.

Deep in the night I awoke to rain pattering on my roof and a fresh breeze gushing through my door. At least four frog and toad species mingled their calls with thunder and the sound of rain sweeping through the trees around me. The very air tingled and it felt good wrapping the sleeping bag around me, feeling snug in the chill air.

At daybreak it was still raining. Clay-colored Robins, White-winged Doves and Great Kiskadees sang all around me while I lay there listening to their songs, raindrops on my tent, and the delighted frogs. It was a perfect Sunday dawn and I didn't want to be any other place on Earth. Then as I was about to doze off again, my reverie was shattered by one of the most bizarre, upward-swinging, jungly-sounding gurgling birdcalls I've ever heard. If your computer eats mp3 audio files you can hear the exact thing yourself at http://web2.uwindsor.ca/courses/biology/dmennill/Mexico/MOORsong.mp3.

I'd heard that song a lot in my life, though I hadn't expected it here, this far north. It was the Montezuma Oropendola, a foot-long, dark chestnut bird with a yellow-fringed tail and, on the male, harlequin face- markings. When you hear its call echoing in a valley filled with mist you get goose-bumps. You can see a male Montezuma Oropendola at http://geometer.org/cr2003web/pages/oropendola.html.

Leaning from the tent I focused my binoculars on the single male perched atop a big snag rising from the reservoir's water not 30 feet away. He was preening in the rain, looking as wet and unconcerned about being soaked as a bird can look, maybe even enjoying it. For 15 minutes he perched there preening and gurgling in the rain.

Oropendolas are closely related to orioles and they build pendulous, baglike nests made of plant fibers just like orioles. However, the nests are much larger, sometimes up to six feet long, and they're colonial, usually all in a single tree, with up to 140 nests per colony. One of the classic, unforgettable images from the neotropical lowlands is that of a gigantic Ceiba tree hung with oropendola nests, such as seen at http://lhostelaw.com/djl/belize/991003be_nesttree.htm.

******

WANDERING WOOD STORKS
I'd never seen or heard an oropendola in Queretaro so that male must have been a wanderer. Oropendolas are fairly common across the mountains to the east, in the Gulf lowlands.

When the rain ended a couple of hours later I packed up, walked around the corner, and there was a flock of Wood Storks feeding in shallow water next to a mudflat. You can see the very ones, with several smaller, white, immature Little Blue Herons over at the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629ws.jpg.

An individual stork is shown closer up at http://www.southeasternoutdoors.com/wildlife/birds/wood-stork.html.

These are fairly big birds, with wingspans of over five feet. I'd seen occasional Wood Storks at the reservoir before but never in such numbers. The picture shows only part of them; later a flock of about 40 birds flew by. Probably the reason they're not here most of the year is the lack of habitat. Only when the reservoir's water is very low, with lots of level mud exposed, can they forage the way they like to, wading in shallow water and probing with their long beaks.

You can't look at a stork without thinking "primitive." Especially because of the black, featherless head and neck you can almost feel the dinosaur in them. I grew up with the notion that storks were presented early in field guides because they were among the first bird- groups to evolve, while perching birds appeared in the field guide's backs because they're so recently evolved. This concept has changed.

One current idea of the "Bird Evolutionary Tree" is at http://www.explorebiodiversity.com/BIRDS/BirdsofWorld/Systematics.htm.

"Evolutionary trees" such as the above give us an idea of the path evolution took as the various bird groups arose. Such trees are based on the assumption that "the more genes two taxa share, the more closely related the taxa are."

Another assumption about evolutionary trees is that the fewer branches occurring between the tree's root and a final group of organisms at the end of a branch, the more primitive that group is. A group appearing only after many branchings is regarded as having arisen relatively recently. For this to be true in all cases it's necessary for evolution to have proceeded at a constant rate across all taxa. That's not necessarily the case, however, so trees such as the one shown above must be regarded as only good guesses.

Remembering the limitations, then, the above tree suggests that kiwis, ostriches, ducks and woodpeckers are relatively primitive, but pelicans and loons, our storks, herons, ibises and spoonbills, no mater how primitive they may look, are actually pretty modern. Perching birds, or Passeriforms, appear near the middle of the tree, so that group is neither particularly primitive nor modern.

If you'd like to understand evolutionary trees better, a great place to learn the basics is at Berkeley's http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/phylogenetics_01.

*****

EATING MAGUEY FLOWERS
This week Don Gonzalo appeared at my door with yet another local delicacy, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629mb.jpg.

He'd brought immature, unopened maguey flowers, maguey being the giant agave grown here mostly for pulque production, pulque being the local poor-man's fermented drink. In the picture, between my fingers I'm holding a sliced-open blossom inside which you can see one of the six long, yellow anthers full of developing pollen. Just to the right of the flower-half in my fingers is the other flower-half containing a long, slender, pale green, round-ended object, which is the style -- part of the female pistil. On the bowl's left side you see flowers still attached to the branching inflorescence Don Gonzalo macheted from the flower stalk, which can grow up to 40 feet high. The right side of the bowl is filled with blossoms with their bitter bottoms, or ovaries, pinched off.

Don Gonzalo told me how the flowers should be prepared and it sounded pretty good. However, I had no spices so I just dumped them atop eggs frying in my solar oven. Well, simply cooked in a solar oven and eaten alone they're OK but not great, a tad bitter.

A Spanish-language web page on traditional Mexican food-flowers says that Maguey flowers properly cooked have a delicate chicken-like flavor. The flowers make good enchilada and toasted-taco filling, after being baked and lightly salted. They can be sprinkled raw atop certain salads and are tasty in certain soups. If you read Spanish and have some Maguey flowers handy, the page describing ways to prepare the flowers is at http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx/notas/721-El-sabor-de-las-flores.

*****

SPINES ON SPINES ON SPINES
Wandering on the scrubby slopes here you don't want to lose your balance and grab at the stem shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629pa.jpg.

Not only does the stem shown there possess spines on spines on spines, but also the final spines are curved so that anything that gets punctured will probably get ripped, too. This is one of the most aggressively spiny stems I've ever seen. But spininess isn't this plant's only distinction: It's also a perfect example of a "half tree, half vine" state.

If you follow the spiny stem in the picture upward you'll see that soon itz branches soon start leaning into neighboring trees, and eventually become so slender and lithe that they really are nothing more than vines. You can see a viny, leafy branch-tip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629pl.jpg.

The plant is PISONIA ACULEATA, a member of the Four-o'clock Family, the Nyctaginaceae, along not only with Four-o'clocks but also Bougainvilleas. Of course in English it's known as Cat-claw and Devil's-claw, but the name that seems to appear most in the literature is "Pull-back-and-hold." It's also known as Catchbirdtree, for reasons I hate to think about.

The species is nearly "pantropical" -- native throughout the New World's tropics but introduced in many other places. In the US it reaches southern Texas and southern Florida.

*****

GERMINATING ANNUALS
The rainy season is rainier now. Last Tuesday we got a real gully washer, even with pea-sized hail. You can see one result of the new rainier weather at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629an.jpg.

That picture, with a burro turd for scale, shows sprouts of annual plants whose seeds have lain dormant in the soil all through the dry season and now are germinating. The situation is analogous to what happens in the North when Nature thinks the last hard frost has passed. From the various shapes of each plant's first two leaves (the cotyledons) you can see that a number of species are represented here.

Two weeks ago this spot didn't hold a single plant, but now almost too many are coming up. However, after the burros step on a few and the goats and chickens nibble some more, probably only one or two plants will be left.

*****

LITCHIS ALMOST MISSED
About a month ago pickup trucks began appearing parked along roads with men beside them selling bags of something halfway looking like dry, red strawberries. They were litchi fruits, litchi sometimes written as lychee, leechee, lichi and other ways. These roadside litchis came from "La Huasteca," the Huastec-Indian lowlands across the Sierra Madres to the east, in San Luis Potosí state.

The first time I tried to eat a litchi, immediately I discovered two things about them. First, the red skin is so tough that if you bite the fruit the fruit tends to explode like a bitten egg. Second, inside there's a big, hard seed. You eat a litchi by removing the tough skin rather easily with your fingers, and then you can bite into the white flesh, avoiding the seed. You can see a pretty bowl of litchis filled partly with whole, red fruits, partly with white, seed-bearing flesh, and partly with hard, black, shiny seeds at http://www.montosogardens.com/brewster_lychee_fruit_small1.jpg.

The litchi's white flesh tastes pretty good, having a wet, slippery texture like grapes, and it separates easily from the seeds, which are mildly toxic, I read.

The fellow who raises fighting roosters next to Reserve Headquarters has a litchi tree with branches accessible from the sidewalk. When litchis were first being sold from trucks along the road the rooster-farm tree's fruits were still immature so I figured our local litchi season would come along later, and I resolved to put off buying a bag until they appeared in the local market.

However, eventually the roadside vendors vanished but litchis never did appear in the local market, not even when the rooster fellow's tree matured and its fruits started disappearing. Finally someone told me that litchis aren't sold in the market, just along roads.

So, I missed litchi season, but I did manage to take a picture of a fruit on the rooster tree, next to a stem recently plucked by somebody else. The picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070629li.jpg.

Litchi trees, LITCHI CHINENSIS, are from China. One reason the English name is written so many ways is that Litchi is transliterated from its Chinese name. The species is a member of the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae.

*****

SANTO NIÑO DE ATOCHA
Thanks to Pat in Colorado, and John, Susan and Elvira at various places in cyberspace, for identifying the subject in the framed picture shown inside the shrine at last week's "Place of The Spirits." The mystery personage was the Santo Niño de Atocha -- "the Blessed Child of Atocha," Atocha being a district of Madrid.

A website says of the Santo Niño that "The Child is said to roam the hills and valleys, particularly at night, bringing aid and comfort to the needy, and thereby wearing out his shoes." For this reason the saint is usually shown barefooted or wearing sandals and sitting down.

You'll remember my saying that some people have reported wandering ghosts around the shrine area. Thus a picture of the wandering Santo Niño in the shrine sort of makes sense. In fact, it's rather pretty how the local apprehension about ghosts has morphed into the veneration of this particular saint. It's like a new species (reverence for the Santo Niño) arising when stress is placed upon an original species (ghost sightings among religious people).

You can read more about the Santo Niño de Atocha at http://atcc-torcc.org/ninoatocha.htm.

Elvira tells me that "Every saint in Mexico has its own church somewhere, the Virgin of Guadalupe church is the Basilica in Mexico City and his {the Santo Niño's} church is in Fresnillo, Zacatecas."

Pat said she identified the image by Googling the keywords "Mexican saints," then browsing the images that came up. The concept of "Mexican saints" had never occurred to me. While Googling the matter myself I stumbled upon an interesting, illustrated essay interpreting the matter of Mexican home-altars and saint veneration from a historical perspective. It's entitled "Telling Stories, Building Altars: Mexican American Women's Altars in Oregon" and can be viewed at http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ohq/107.4/ricciardi.html.

Up to this point everything about the framed Santo Niño picture in the isolated little shrine snug amidst the junipers meshed with traditional Catholic beliefs and I was beginning to doubt all I'd heard about black magic being practiced there. Then came the letter from my friend Sandros in Alaska, a Mexican with wide-ranging thoughts and experiences. He said he didn't know the Catholic story for the Santo Niño de Atocha, but for the followers of the Santeria and Yoruba religions that picture portrays the God known as Elegua.

You can read about Santeria at Santeria http://w3.iac.net/~moonweb/Santeria/TOC.html.

A discussion of the West African religion Yoruba is at http://server1.fandm.edu/departments/Anthropology/Bastian/ANT269/Yrelig.html.

Elegua, a childlike trickster God, is profiled at http://www.godchecker.com/pantheon/african-mythology.php?deity=ELEGUA.

Santos says that the reason the Santo Niño de Atocha is known by some as Elegua is the same reason why the Virgen de Regla is also venerated as Yemaya (The Yoruban Orisha of the Living Ocean, considered the Mother of All): When Africans were brought to the Americas they were forbidden to pray to their old Gods, so they took American Gods and "brushed them up," as Santos says. Then as the Africans worshiped their old Gods while looking at Christian paraphernalia, their masters let them alone. So, that picture of the Santo Niño -- is it really there to portray Elegua for those who practice hechicería in the juniper grove?

This whole exercise with the shrine amidst the junipers and the mystery picture reminds me of my youthful efforts to figure out which religion was "the real one" so I could join it. In the end I beheld such a hodge- podge of often conflicting and self-conflicting beliefs that it all started looking pretty silly.

My own spirituality began blossoming when at last I realized that nothing any religion had to offer was as meaningful, inspirational and beautiful as the starry sky at night, a storm over a mountain, an oropendola chortling at dawn, a child's laughter, or the way voluptuous life evolves to ever-more-sophisticated levels here on our green, fragile little Earth. To me, none of that walking-on-water, riding-to-Heaven-on-a-camel or Mother-of-All preaching had the spiritual content of a single green blade of grass glowing in life-sustaining sunlight.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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