JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

July 6, 2007

BUMBLEBEE HUMMINGBIRD
Last Sunday morning I awoke in my tent in a drizzly, foggy, chilly cloudforest at about 6500 feet (2000 m) in elevation, atop one of the main ridges of the Eastern Sierra Madres near the boundary of Querétaro and San Luis Potosí states. When the rain ended I folded up my tent and descended into the valley following an old logging road. Passing through a revegetating clearing, a loud bumblebee's buzz caught my attention. I'd not heard bumblebees here, in fact couldn't remember having even seen any really big bees here, so I gave this one a hard look. It was a male Bumblebee Hummingbird, SELASPHORUS HELOISA, endemic to the Mexican highlands north of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. You can see a picture of such a male at http://www.oiseaux.net/photos/manuel.grosselet/colibri.heloise.1.html.

This isn't the world's smallest bird, but it's close to it. The smallest is considered to be the Cuban Bee Hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae, weighing less than a penny. The Bumblebee-size hummer before me last Sunday surely didn't weigh much more than that.

Besides causing a loud buzzing the bird's flight was slow and heavy relative to other hummingbird species. The bird lit on a limb in plain view not ten feet from me and then to my amazement a second one landed so close to the first that they could have crossed beaks if they'd wanted. So round-bodied and shifting from one foot to another and looking around like tourists while they twittered, I couldn't keep from thinking of hobbits.

After maybe 15 seconds they buzzed off, passing right over my head, were they were joined by yet a third hummer, a different species. This newcomer was much larger than the other two and it made sounds that to my ears seemed like scolding. In fact, while it scolded it zigzagged so close to our pair that it looked like harassment to me. The new hummer was one of our most widespread hummingbird species, the White- eared, a little larger than the North's Ruby-throated Hummingbird, thus looking like a giant next to our Bumblebee Hummers.

Quickly the White-eared vanished while the other two kept buzzing here and there, not seeming worried at all about the White-ear's animosity or my presence. I left them in peace but a minute or so down the road I ran into another pair, and this time the male landed not six feet away and began preening. He fanned his brown, black and white tail and spread his glittering, rose-pink gorget with violet-blue highlights so that it looked like an upside-down, iridescent butterfly opening its wings beneath his beak. What an extraordinary mingling of unwieldy pudginess and sheer elegance and charm!

A curious feature of this bird's flight is that he hovers with his body held horizontally but with his very stubby tail cocked nearly vertically.

*****

THE BIRDS OF JULY 1
Long-time readers may recall that wherever I am I like to make a birdlist on July 4th. One attraction of such a list is that it records only nesting birds -- no migrants or mere visitors. Since at the Reserve July 4th is just another workday (Mexican Independence Day from Spain is September 16th), this year I decided to make my list last Sunday, July 1. Since I saw only species adapted to the special environment in which I found myself that day I saw a limited number of species, but the species seen were interesting ones. In the following list I provide links to those species not represented in North American field guides. The birds are listed phylogenetically -- related species next to one another.

LOCATION: Secondary pine/oak forest becoming cloudflorest along ridges, just south of El Madroño, Querétaro, Mexico, ±2000 meters elevation, sunny in the morning, afternoon stormy.

  • RED-TAILED HAWK, spooked from leafless oak snag

  • SPOT-BREASTED WREN, 2 scolding from roadside thicket http://www.rainforest.org/resources/gallery/birds1/10sbwren.html  

  • BUMBLEBEE HUMMINGBIRD, pair putting on a show http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/Bumble-beeHummingbird(DM).jpg

  • WHITE-EARED HUMMINGBIRD, zips through harassing Bumblebee Hummingbirds

  • MOUNTAIN TROGON, many along slopes calling with their nasal cow-cow-cows http://www.ansp.org/~wechsler/Mexico.html

  • ACORN WOODPECKER, squawking one in top of pine

  • OLIVACEOUS WOODCREEPER, creeping up oak trunk http://chandra.as.utexas.edu/~kormendy/brazilss/OlivaceousWoodcreeper2597ss.jpg

  • TUFTED FLYCATCHER, preening in shadowy pine
    http://www.avesphoto.com/website/PA/species/FLYTUF-1.htm.

  • GREATER PEWEE (COUES' FLYCATCHER), family of 3 or 4 beek-beek-beeking among pine tops

  • BROWN-CRESTED (WIED'S) FLYCATCHER, swooping for flying insects

  • GRAY-BREASTED (MEXICAN) JAY, 3 soaring among pine tops calling wenk?-wenk?-wenk?

  • BROWN-BACKED SOLITAIRE, singing complex, bubbly song http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/picpages/pic138-66-2.html

  • BLACK-HEADED NIGHTINGALE-THRUSH, several males on slope singing fluty song similar to Hermit Thrush's, a female carrying beakful of insects as for nestlings, the male's open mouth when singing as orange as it is yellow, note the red-orange eye ring
    http://www.mangoverde.com/birdsound/picpages/pic138-85-1.html

  • CLAY-COLORED ROBIN, several with fluty singing http://www.flickr.com/photos/mountainpath/59213755/

  • GRAY SILKY, several calling in treetops http://www.birdinfo.com/MexicoImage_016.html

  • WARBLING VIREO, many singing along slopes, vigorously deworming trees

  • SLATE-THROATED REDSTART, 3 or so gleaning caterpillars from treetops http://identify.whatbird.com/obj/886/_/Slate-throated_Redstart_Breeding_Male.aspx

  • GOLDEN-BROWED WARBLER, family of 4, juveniles quivering wings wanting to be fed by adult foraging in undergrowth
    {link}

  • FLAME-COLORED TANAGER, song like a loud, hoarse Red- eyed Vireo http://www.tucsonaudubon.org/birding/afield13.htm

  • COMMON BUSH-TANAGER, building nest in oak, Quercus crassifolia http://panamabirding.com/shows/birds/pic.php?b=471&p=t

  • BLACK-HEADED GROSBEAK, singing & plucking caterpillars from oak branches

  • RUFOUS-CAPPED BRUSHFINCH, pair giving warning calls from bushes along road http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/Rufous-cappedBrush-finch(CM).jpg

  • BLACK-HEADED SISKIN, male on snag preening next to open weedy area http://www.oiseaux.net/photos/william.frohawk/chardonneret.a.tete.noire.1.html

  • To my mind, the star of the above list is the Bumblebee Hummingbird. I should also mention the real abundance of Warbling Vireos, who were singing their complex calls everywhere I went, all day. Golden-browed Warblers were also very common, singing loudly.

    I was surprised by the lack of woodpeckers. Pine-dominated parts of this forest suffer greatly from bark-beetle infestation. Elsewhere chemicals have been used to control the beetles and I've been told that that killed woodpeckers, so I wonder if this might explain why so few woodpeckers inhabit a forest with many oaks?

    *****

    AWAKENING IN A CLOUDFOREST
    It was quite nice awakening last Sunday morning in a cloudforest. Despite the fact that it'd rained all night and was raining then, and that the air was fairly chilly, in the upper 50s, inside my sleeping bag I was dry, almost toasty. I lay with one edge of my tent's door-flap peeled back so I could watch the forest as daylight arrived.

    Of course I knew what to expect with the coming of light because I'd seen it the previous evening -- avalanches of fog moving among trees heavy with dangling moss and lichens, and with basketball-sized bromeliads perched on tree trunks.

    Still, that morning I was surprised by how those big bromeliads, TILLANDSIA IMPERIALIS, looked so congenial on their perches out in the fog and drizzle, somehow looking as cozy as I felt. As the light increased, the bromeliads' red centers started showing up like glowing embers in a nest. When the rain finally ended and the cloud-fog quit rushing around me, but it was still so dark that the flash on my camera went off, I took a picture of a gracious little bromeliad group next to my tent, and maybe you'll sense their affability, too. That picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706t7.jpg

    Later I found a Tillandsia imperialis that'd fallen from a tree -- it happens a lot, whole limbs often breaking off with them -- and now it looked healthy enough growing atop a rock. Its picture is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706t6.jpg

    In that photograph you can clearly see that the red parts aren't flowers, but rather modified leaves, called bracts. At the bases of the shorter, brightest bracts, wedged against the central stalk, the blunt, pink objects are capsular fruits. The flowers already have been pollinated, shriveled, and fallen away.

    For the cloudforest to be so chilly and void of pools and streams, there sure was a lot of mosquitoes. I'll bet that most or all of them spent their aquatic larval "wiggletail" stage in pools of water collected in the Tillandsias' scooplike leaf bases. More mysterious to me is what all those mosquitoes suck their blood from. I saw a Gray Squirrel and birds, but nothing else, though of course most mammals there are nocturnal.

    *****

    A VINY LILLY
    Right below the ridge-top cloudforest zone the prettiest wildflower I saw was a lily-type plant with a cluster of crimson-and-yellow blossoms at the end of clambering stem stretching into a sunbeam, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706bo.jpg

    That's BOMAREA HIRTELLA, sometimes called Climbing Alstroemeria, but mostly known just as Bomarea. In the old days Bomareas were placed in the Amaryllis or Lily Families but now they're in the Alstroemeria Family, which didn't exist when I was in school. Among the features separating members of the new family from amaryllises and lilies is the fact that the plants arise from fleshy rhizomes instead of bulbs, corms or fibrous roots. Also, the plants produce leaf-bearing stems.

    *****

    FRUITING TERNSTROEMIA
    Very common on moist, lower valley slopes are large, evergreen shrubs or small trees with thick, dark-green leaves clustered at twig tips, to a Northerner's eyes looking like rhododendrons. However, the fruits -- which these days have just split open -- aren't like rhododendron fruits at all. I think the plants are TERNSTROEMIAS. You can see the unusual fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706te.jpg.

    Those fruits need a bit of interpretation. Just right of center notice the star-shaped, cream-colored item. That's a flower's thickened, persistent calyx. The corolla withered and fell away long ago, and now the narrowly pear-shaped fruit has matured and split open. Upon splitting, a slender column remained in the fruit's center, surrounded by a few large seeds, each covered with a pulpy, red material (the aril). The seeds tumbled from their position but remained dangling from the column, attached by slender threads.

    Mantle your seeds with a red, spongy, edible-looking material and set them dangling in free space... It's hard to think of a more effictive manner of offering seeds to potential disseminators such as birds.

    Three Ternstroemia species are listed for the Reserve but I have no way of knowing which this is. However, most Ternstroemia fruits don't split open. One that does is an Asian invasive found in the US Deep South and other semitropical locations, so I'm wondering if our plants might not be that species, Ternstroemia gymnanthera. You can see one's opening fruits at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ldplants/tegy10.htm

    Ternstroemias are closely related to Camellias and the shrub producing leaves used as tea, the Tea plant. They're members of the Tea Family.

    *****

    A GOOGLE-EARTH VIEW OF THE CLOUDFOREST AREA
    Back at the Reserve I used Google Earth to view the area I'd just returned from. That view appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706em.jpg.

    I'd camped on a ridge in the center of the dark green zone. Despite the abundance of cornfields and logged slopes along the road zigzagging north and south on the far right, most if not all the area shown in the image lies within the Reserve. Declaring an area as a Biosphere Reserve doesn't guarantee that ecosystems within the area will remain intact.

    UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserves must include three elements:

    I reached the cloudforest area by hitching a ride on a Reserve truck going to a village at the southern terminus of the snaking road at the right in the above picture. The truck was sent to pick up flattened plastic bottles to be recycled in a program sponsored by the Reserve.

    Step by step, with efforts such as those being made here at Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, the healing of Earth must take place.

    You can read about the biosphere reserve concept at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_reserve

    *****

    PLANTING CORN
    Last Tuesday afternoon I took a walk along the reservoir, partly to catch a cool breeze but also just to admire the towering thunderheads mushrooming up above the mountains all around. When I got to the Reserve's entrance gate I saw that our neighbor was planting corn, what many call maze. Some of you may recall a picture I took of this very cornfield last October showing how marigolds grew beside very tall cornstalks. That picture still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061023m.jpg.

    The two men sowing the seeds Tuesday were hot and tired, and seemed curious about me, so I struck up a conversation, hoping to learn about their corn- planting techniques.

    The cornfield had been cleared a couple of months ago, then three or four weeks ago they'd laboriously turned up the soil. I know it was laborious work because the soil here is so stony that all soil-turning has to be done by hand. Last Tuesday each man had a pole with a chisel-like attachment at its end, poking holes into the soil, where the seeds were dropped. You can see the older man making a hole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706sp.jpg.

    That good man was kind enough to show me the seeds he was planting. He held out his heavily calloused hand and in his palm there lay three grains of variously colored corn, four beans of three colors, and a squash seed. A kind of electric shock flashed through my system, a shock of recognition that I was in the presence of something transcendent, a kind of distillation of knowledge and experience surviving from the dim past. I asked the old man for a picture of that hand and by pure luck I got what may be the prettiest hand-picture I've even seen. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706sh.jpg.

    I realize that the men were using traditional methods only because they didn't have money for pesticides and fertilizers. Probably with them it's the same way it was with my own family when I was a kid on the Kentucky farm. We couldn't afford a tobacco-setting machine so we planted all our tobacco plants in holes made by wooden hand-pegs whittled from catalpa-tree branches, and we didn't like it when people told us how interesting our pegs were. I suspect that the men Tuesday were even ashamed to be seen planting their corn traditionally instead of having a tractor with a plough come in.

    When I walked by the field later I saw something else worth reporting: The men had crumbled marigold blossoms all along the field's edge. The marigolds that last October I'd thought might be native plants gone weedy -- marigolds are native Mexican plants -- had been sown there. Of course marigolds are known for their ability to repel insect pests. Northerners would do well to plant marigold fences around their gardens just as shown in last October's picture.

    *****

    SCORPION
    The other day Silvestre came to my casita window carrying a scorpion in a bottle. He'd found the scorpion while cutting grass with a hedge-trimmer. You can see the scorpion 0n my plastic oatmeal-bowl at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070706sc.jpg.

    It was a small scorpion measuring only 3/4 inch (2 cm) from the front of the head to the backmost part of the curled up tail. Speaking of the curled tail, note the sharp, curved stinger inside the coil, arising from the last tail segment.

    Probably this is a juvenile CENTRUROIDES GRACILIS. Adults of this species are larger and all black. It's a native Mexican and Central American species but has been introduced into Africa and elsewhere, including the southern US, where sometimes it's known as the Slender Brown Scorpion or the Florida Bark Scorpion.

    In many countries I've run into the common wisdom that small scorpion species tend to be much more venomous than larger ones. Centruroides gracilis agrees with that idea, for it's known as inflicting a sting much worse than those of our bigger species.

    There's a forum page with posts from people who have been stung by this species at http://www.arachnoboards.com/ab/archive/index.php/t-445.html.

    A page in PDF format on the species' life cycle is at http://www.americanarachnology.org/JoA_free/JoA_v10_n3/JoA_v10_p223.pdf.

    *****

    RELATIVE NUMBERS OF NAMED SPECIES
    Running across a summary of the numbers of the Earth's named species, not counting microorganisms, I fired up Excel on the computer and prepared a pie chart showing the relative sizes of each group. You can see that at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/species.gif.

    To me the most surprising feature of the chart is the slice showing that beetles account for 22% of all named species. Flies, wasps, butterflies and moths contribute sizable slices of the pie as well. In fact, the insect world by itself provides over half of all known macroorganism species. Notice that vertebrates supply only 1%. Also, it surprises me that plants, including algae, account for only 18%. More beetle species have been named than all plants and algae!

    Why do so many beetles exist -- about 350,000 named species? For a long time it was assumed that beetles co-evolved with flowering plants, who arose about 150 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period. However, recent genetic studies show that plant-eating beetles arose only some 75 million years ago, during the late Cretaceous. Therefore, instead of gradually coevolving with flowering plants, late-arriving beetles explosively speciated into long-preexisting plant-provided niches.

    *****

    THE FIVE TRAININGS FOR MINDFULNESS
    The other day Hilary in Mississippi sent me the link to a website for a Buddhist Center near Memphis, in Batesville, Mississippi. Reading over the teachings of the Center's teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, I was touched deeply, as I always am when reminded of Buddhism's core teachings.

    I have seen that Buddhism in many places has degenerated into a religion where people pray to Buddha statues, asking for Devine intervention in their daily lives. However, it seems to me that Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, but rather an insight or philosophy.

    On the Center's webpage "The Five Mindfulness Trainings" are described. The first reads, "Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals."

    The second, as if patterned upon Nature's recycling of resources, says, "I vow to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those in real need."

    The third, as if patterned upon the interdependency of all Nature's components, says, "I vow to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families and society."

    The fourth, as if recognizing the joy arising from knowing and living by the Laws of Nature, says "I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy and hope."

    The fifth, as if recognizing the pain and destruction caused to Life on Earth by consumption-oriented societies requiring cut forests, stripmined land and the release of so much carbon into the air to feed their appetites, reads "Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming."

    These teachings are ecologically sound. They are sustainable. They are harmonious with patterns expressed in the fabric and structure of Nature. The teachings are not inert commandments handed down from above, but rather invitations to sensitize, and then change ourselves once we understand things more clearly -- to evolve to higher levels of being, as Nature always has evolved.

    Here is the link to that page: http://www.dharmamemphis.com/magnoliavillage/guide_to_mindfulness.htm.

    *****

    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