JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

August 3, 2007

BLACK RED-TAILED HAWK
Last weekend I hitched a ride on the recycling truck up to El Madroño, to where the main highway crosses the Eastern Sierra Madre before plummeting into the Gulf lowlands. This time instead of climbing into the cloudforest I headed to a lush little cove in a valley where trees had been cut from a house-size spot and grasses and wildflowers had grown back, forming a little meadow. In the afternoon with the sky intensely blue, the sun stinging my skin but the air cool, I couldn't resist lying in the grass and just watching clouds.

The first thing to draw my attention, though, wasn't a cloud, but a Black Vulture circling me. Or, was it a Black Vulture at all? It certainly looked like one, but somehow it flew differently. The binoculars, moreover, didn't show white "window patches" on the wings, which Black Vultures have. And the bird's tail feathers backlit by sunlight glowed with a bright, rusty hue. The bird was a black Red-tailed Hawk, and it was circling with another hawk of the usual whitish/light-gray color.

I've seen black Red-tailed Hawks before, but not often. The last one I remember observing was soaring around the crater of the volcano called Nevado Toluca in central Mexico, at 15,036-ft (4583 m) in elevation. I'm getting the impression that this "dark morph" most frequently appears at high elevations.

Many pictures of dark Red-tailed Hawks can be found on the Internet, but I can't find any showing exactly what I saw last weekend. Both last weekend's bird and the volcano one looked perfectly black to me, except for the reddish tail. The ones on the Internet show pale spots and blotches. Maybe my birds, seen so starkly against the brilliant, high-elevation sky, showed up as sheer silhouettes even though they had some white feathers.

The Red-tail's "dark morph" has its own name, the Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk.

Seeing a normal pale Red-tail circling with the black morph, you can't help wondering what's to keep the much rarer black form from disappearing as its genetic material mingles with and disperses into the much more abundant pale-bird gene pool. I don't know what the deal is with Red-tails, but it's understood that the appearance of blue-morph Snow Geese (the Blue Goose recognized as a distinct species in older books) is controlled by a single gene, with dark being partially dominant over white. If a dark morph mates with a normal white goose, the offspring will all be dark. If two white geese mate, they have only white offspring. If two dark geese mate, they have mostly dark offspring, but some white ones.

*****

CLEARWING
Maybe the prettiest butterfly seen last weekend paused on a twig long enough for me to get the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803cw.jpg.

Unfortunately the most striking feature about this butterfly doesn't show up well in the picture. That is, the critter's wings are semi-transparent, or translucent.

UPDATE: Andrew Warren of the Mariposas Mexicanas Website identifies it as a male Dircenna klugii of the Clearwing tribe, the Ithomiini, sometimes known as Klug's Clearwing.

I'm pretty sure the butterfly is a member of the Clearwing "tribe," the Ithomiini, of the Brushfoot Family, the Nymphalidae. It's similar to Ithomia heraldica of Panama to Nicaragua. To see if you agree on the similarity, you can see an Ithomia heraldica at http://www.cs.umb.edu/~whaber/Monte/Ithomid/Itho-hera.html.

Whatever its name, when the butterfly flits through sunlight with red, yellow and blue flower colors translucing through sparkling wings, the effect is very nice indeed.

*****

HOUSE GECKOS HERE, TOO
You may remember from my days in the Yucatan that often in the rooms I occupied there were House Geckos, HEMIDACTYLUS FRENATUS, and they who could erupt at any hour of the day or night with their sharp, wall- ricocheting Krrrk krrrk krrrk krrrk krrrk krrrk calls. We have them over here, too. There's one in my tiny casita who preys on fruit flies around the bag where I store banana peels for composting. The other day Silvestre caught a House Gecko while hedge-trimming. He was a tiny juvenile, about an inch long and with a bobbed tail. You can see him navigating the hairs on my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803gk.jpg.

*****

MEXICO'S "CAESAR'S MUSHROOMS"
Of all poisonous mushrooms, members of the genus Amanita are the most deadly. Amanitas are responsible for 95% of all fatalities resulting from mushroom poisoning. With the rainy season's arrival mushrooms are popping up everywhere, and last week near El Madroño I saw two or three Amanita species, the most common and prettiest being the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803ac.jpg.

Despite the dire warnings I just gave about Amanitas, the Amanita in the picture is a "Caesar's Mushroom," and "Caesar's Mushrooms" have accounted for the best mushroom-eating I've ever enjoyed, back in Mississippi where during some seasons they were very common. "Caesar's Mushrooms," unlike most Amanitas, aren't the least poisonous.

I didn't collect last weekend's Caesar's because I'm still a bit skittish after being poisoned by Chlorophyllum molybites last summer in Kentucky (http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060824.htm). Also, I'm putting "Caesar's Mushroom" between quotation marks because there's enormous confusion about which species this fungus really is, as explained at http://www.mushroomexpert.com/amanita_jacksonii.html.

I read that in Mexico we may have four or so mushroom species all looking like the one in my photograph and none the "real" Caesar's Mushroom, though that's what they've been called by English speakers. Whatever they're called, since ancient times they've constituted an important part of indigenous Mexican cuisine. By the way, you should see the rainbow of mushrooms available in the huge Merced Market in Mexico City where Indians from all around bring their best finds to sell at the best prices.

Anyway, the only Amanitas I'm going to eat are those looking like our "Caesar's" and served by a local person who knows the local mushrooms, eats some himself, and who likes me.

I've seen our several Mexican Amanitas lumped under the name-of-convenience of AMANITA BASII.

By the way, the Amanita in my photograph is a "textbook mushroom" in that it displays so beautifully the important features of "gills" beneath the "cap," a "ring" around the stem, and the stem arising from a "cup." Most mushroom species display only one, two or none of these features. When you're identifying mushrooms it's always important to notice which, if any, of these features are present. More examples of rings and cups are shown on my mushroom identification page at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/mush-id.htm.

To see lists of mushrooms found during mushroom- collecting trips in central Mexico, and some pictures, take a look at http://www.mexmush.com/finds.htm.

*****

OLD MAN OF THE WOODS
Last weekend in the moist, magnolia-populated little cove I visited, all alone in the middle of a trail there was an Old Man of The Woods, whom you can admire at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803om.jpg.

If you have trouble making sense of that photo, it's a mushroom with a black, shaggy cap, STROBILOMYCES cf. CONFUSUS. The "cf." in the name stands for "confirm," in recognition of the fact that two look-alike species exist and I'm just guessing that this is the one with the more southerly distribution, one extending into Costa Rica.

I assume that the mushroom's name is a comment on its cap's shagginess, as well as its tendency to be found alone, all dark and broody-looking, in such isolated places as that shadowy little cove. Books say that the species is edible, but very bland, and not making a pretty dish, so few people bother to pick it.

By the way, while my US server was issuing last week's Newsletter it went offline. I'm guessing that up to 800 subscribers didn't get that issue, so they never saw the picture of what surely is one of the most unusual mushrooms on Earth. That image remains archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070727wf.jpg.

Last week's Newsletter, along with all previous editions, resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

*****

A LITTLE EUROPE IN MEXICO
The little cove in which I camped last weekend is frequented enough for a house-size, open, grassy area to be maintained n the valley floor. Here and there in the meadow lie old piles of horse manure, the grass especially green and tall around them thanks to nutrients leaching from them. During my stay the tiny meadow was pretty as could be with several wildflowers blossoming. You can see a typical view into the grass at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803w4.jpg.

In that picture the pink blossoms are contributed by the Rose Evening Primrose, OENOTHERA ROSEA, native from the Texas border south throughout tropical America.

The lavender blossoms in the center belong to Common Selfheal, PRUNELLA VULGARIS, a medicinal herb traditionally used for throat ailments and now recognized as a treatment for herpes simplex. It's native to Europe, Asia and North America.

The yellow flower at the top, right is a buttercup, possibly the Creeping Buttercup, RANUNCULUS REPENS, with ten petals instead of the usual five, a condition not too rare among buttercups. That species hails from Europe.

The yellow-eyed, white-rayed composite is the Common Daisy from Europe, BELLIS PERENNIS, widely used in homeopathic medicine for the treatment of kidney problems, rheumatism, arthritis, bronchitis and diarrhea.

Looking into the little cove's vegetation cover, the mingled yellow, pink, lavender, red, blue and white blossoms reminded me very much of beautiful meadows near the snowline of the Alps -- and for good reason, since most of the species I could identify were from Europe.

Such meadows are beautiful, but when I lie in American meadows populated with so many European invasives it's always a little troubling. It's more than the fact that alien species have pushed aside native ones. What's really sad is that now that the invasives are established I'll never know what loveliness the natives could have prepared. Moreover, those who come after me will get to experience even less native gorgeousness than I.

*****

A MONOTYPIC FERN WITH NO ENGLISH NAME
In that humid, shadowy, pretty little valley with many big-leafed magnolias, in the moistest, most shadowy corners where white limestone rocks jutted from moss-encrusted soil, a seldom-seen fern was common. You can see it, still wet at midday from the night's rain, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803ll.jpg.

The fern is LlAVEA CORDIFOLIA, and I can't find a common name for it. It's found in Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica.

Average ferns have their spore-producing "fruit dots," or sori, on the undersides of their fronds' leaflets, or pinnae. This fern has segregated its sori onto very slender, cordlike pinnae at its fronds' tips. On older fronds the fertile parts were dark brown, giving the appearance of being diseased.

Some other ferns also produce different-looking spore- producing pinnae on their fronds -- such as the Interrupted Fern, Osmunda claytoniana -- but I can't think of any who do it quite like this. In fact, this unusual placement of the fertile pinnae helps explain why there is only this single species in the entire genus Llavea -- and sometimes the genus Llavea has resided alone in its own family, the Llaveaceae.

When a genus is represented by only one species, it's said to be "monotypic." Often with monotypic species it's a good guess that once several species existed, but all but that one went extinct. That's the way it is with Ginkgos, for instance. Once many ginkgo species existed but now there's only one, Ginkgo biloba.

So, already I was feeling as if I had stepped back in time when I entered that secluded little valley. When I found Llavea so well established in its refuge, the feeling only grew.

*****

TROPICAL SODA APPLE
One three-ft-tall plant along the trail leading into the valley was almost the opposite of the rare, fragile, monotypic fern described above. It was the weedy Tropical Soda Apple, SOLANUM VIARUM, which is about as gangly and spiny as an herb can be. See it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803sa.jpg.

Many herbs bear spines, but it's unusual for big spines to arise from major leaf-veins as well as the rest of the body. In the woods near El Madroño I saw only three or four Soda Apples, but judging from what's happening in other places this is just the beginning of an invasion, now limited to appearing along trails but soon to extend onto slopes being logged because of dying trees.

This species is native to Brazil and Argentina but as a very unwelcome weed it's invaded many other tropical and subtropical areas, including the southern US. You can imagine how hard it is on a cow who chews into one of those leaves. You can visit a page showing fields invaded by Tropical Soda Apple in Georgia, plus people trying to root it out, and kill it by dousing it with a pathogenic species of bacterium at http://www.invasive.org/browse/subthumb.cfm?sub=2446&start=1.

Not only are Tropical Soda Apple's thorns dangerous to herbivores, but the the seeds can host several plant diseases such as Cucumber Mosaic Virus, Potato Leafroll Virus, Potato Virus Y, Tomato Mosaic, and a potato fungus. Each Tropical Soda Apple plant can produce more than 50,000 seeds. Fruits are eaten by livestock and wild animals, and a single cow patty can hold up to 150 seeds.

Yet, there are people who grow big fields of Tropical Soda Apple, on purpose. In fact, US Patent #20030226180 is for an efficient, large-scale process for growing this plant. Tropical Soda Apple is medicinal. In India it's grown commercially as a source for Solasodine, used by pharmaceutical companies as a starting material for the production of steroid compounds used for everything from contraceptives to arthritis and behavioral disorders.

*****

OAK GALL DESTRUCTION
In last year's December 29th Newsletter I told you about the awful die-off of pine trees in the Sierra Gorda uplands along the Eastern Sierra Madre chain, caused by bark beetle infestation. I also mentioned that the oaks were in a bad shape, oak twigs being so heavily infested with a kind of insect-produced gall that trees were dying. A gall close-up was provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061229of.jpg.

Last weekend I saw how the oaks continue to die. A picture of our main oak species, the Mexican Oak, QUERCUS AFFINIS, with all large branches heavily infested with galls (dark knots along the stems) and dead, but young shoots arising from the main trunk, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070803gq.jpg.

On certain slopes the trees look healthy but on others it looks to me as if forests are being replaced by 10- ft-high, impenetrable thickets composed largely of Ternstroemia. You might recall that on the higher slopes of Slate Mountain back in California's Sierra Nevadas I used to do battle with similarly impenetrable thickets of manzanita. From Nature's view, maybe such thickets replacing forests are like scabs forming over wounds.

*****

CLOUD WATCHING
I told you about lying on my back in the meadow last Saturday afternoon, in that isolated, sheltered little valley. After watching the circling Red-tailed Hawks, I watched clouds.

For, right over the next ridge to the east, where the slope plummeted to the Gulf Coast lowlands, warm, moist air streamed westward off the Gulf over San Luis Potosí's steamy plantations, ranches and forests, and collided with the Eastern Sierra Madres. Wind managing to gush over the high rim -- that ridge beneath the deeply blue sky right to the east -- formed white clouds self-absorbedly roiling, surging, majestically curling into themselves like spumy waves barely splashing across a barrier, and then, right above me, they dissipated into this side's drier air. It was hypnotic, in a sense more profound than being at the beach watching big waves, because the sky is even more enormous than the sea, more threatening with its deeper mysteries.

I'd been watching clouds the whole day, in fact. When I'd arrived it'd just stopped raining and the whole valley was choked in dingy cloud-fog. But by 10:00 AM it was starting to clear and by noon the entire sky was blue, except for a few white clouds peeping over that eastern ridge. At 3 PM the theater described above began, then around 4 PM the first thunder sounded, and by 6 PM it was raining. It rained most of the night, a most peaceful rain very homey sounding all around my tent.

Some busy souls might condemn my wasting so much time looking at clouds, thinking about them, letting my own feelings ebb and flow with them, until in the darkness that night I felt like rain myself sweeping through the forest, fogging up the little glen, my dreams and the day's cloud-workings all becoming the same thing.

But, I say there are paradigms to be impressed with in cloud-doings, music to be heard and understood, and thoughts and feelings to be received from across the mountain crest. There are parts inside me that would never be loosened and rearranged were it not for big- hearted instruction and big-handed example-making of the kind moist clouds overtopping mountain ranges are capable of.

And what paradigms do I mean? For example, the way a daylong cloud-theater resolves into an evening rain needed by the whole community. The way there's a dance between morning's diffuse fog, midday's intense contrasts, and the night's rain of abstractions. How an alert soul feels so good just looking at the sky, which has significance just in itself.

In the end, it all comes down to figuring out what we humans are put here on Earth for. I've already told you my theory about us living things being "nerve endings" of the self-exploring Universal Creative Force. We're put on Earth in order to FEEL things, to explore Creation's every tiny nook and cranny, to conjecture, to imagine, to love and hate, to be giddy with desire, and to be car-sick and lonely sometimes -- do all those things the Universal Creative Force Herself can't do just because She's so everything, everyplace, all the time. She needs us partly-aware creatures to see things from skewed perspectives denied to an Omnipresent Entity.

Really, I can't make sense of it at all unless it's simply that: We're supposed to live, and experience.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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