JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

September 7, 2007

OSPREY BRINGS AN AUTUMN FEELING
Until a couple of weeks ago our rainy season had been a piddling one. Hurricane Dean changed that, ushering in day after day of drizzle and showers. Last Friday while walking along the reservoir in the rain I saw an Osprey sailing in and out of white showers drawing across the lake. You can see several pictures of Ospreys flying at http://www.wnywildlife.com/alabama/osprey/osprey.php.

Ospreys occur here only while migrating and in the winter, so this bird reminded me that somehow already the summer rainy season is mostly over, and that now days are shortening as the winter dry season approaches.

When I was a kid in Kentucky Ospreys appeared only as they migrated between their wintering grounds much farther to the south and their nesting grounds much farther to the north so, to me, Ospreys are "change birds." Last Friday when I saw that Osprey I was like Pavlov's dog reacting to a ringing bell: The Osprey automatically induced in me a sense of change. Also, I wondered where he'd just come from, what swamps, and towns and busy interstate highways he'd just sailed over.

In Mexico Ospreys live year-round along the northwestern coast and the Yucatan's eastern coast. Northern birds winter all along the coasts of both sides of the country, and here and there in the uplands, including at Jalpan's reservoir.

Last Friday, as the Osprey reconnoitered the reservoir's misty shoreline, a Wilson's Warbler -- also a winter visitor here -- flitted and chipped in the Sweet Acacia behind me, shaking silvery water droplets from deep-green acacia leaflets. When I walked away several Spotted Sandpipers flushed from a nearby bank and of course they also were winter visitors.

*****

60 BLACK VULTURES JUMPING
On another rainy day this week I walked past a pasture in which over 60 Black Vultures were scattered in the grass among grazing cattle, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907vu.jpg.

What the photo doesn't show is that every second or so a vulture would jump into the air, seem to spread its wings as if trying to frighten something in the grass before it, and then land in that grass, look into it and sometimes peck there. I was too far away to see exactly what was happening.

However, I've observed egrets and herons wading in shallow water and a Cooper's Hawk on dry land flashing their wings, apparently trying to scare prey from before them. It looked like the vultures were doing that, though I can't be sure. If I had to guess, I'd say that the vultures were feeding on small, juvenile toads, of which multitudes appeared on the rain-soaked road that day.

It wouldn't be too surprising for this to be case, for Black Vultures are known to take living prey. A page at http://www.sheepusa.org warns sheep farmers that Black Vultures "subdue, capture and eat live prey, including birds, skunks and opossums, turtle hatchlings and fish," plus there are stories about them killing livestock.

In fact, Black Vultures have a bit of a thuggish reputation. Black Vultures can't locate decaying carcasses by smell the way Turkey Vultures do. Often Turkey Vultures locate a carcass by its odor, descend to eat, and when Black vultures see the landing Turkeys they land en masse, drive away the less aggressive Turkey Vultures, and eat their fill.

*****

SELF-SHEARING SHEEP
On the road to the market a fellow keeps sheep in a grassy fenced-in area. Most days I pause a while to see how the critters are doing. One of the sheep is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907sp.jpg.

That particular sheep interested me because she was shedding. I think of sheep as producing wool, which has to be sheared. Yet this sheep's wool was matting and falling off on its own. Was this a self-shearing sheep, where the owner only had to pick up the wool from the ground before selling it?

A bit of search-engine work suggested that the sheep in the photograph may be the Katahdin breed, famous for their fleece falling off without shearing, for the sheep's tolerance to intestinal worms, being very adaptable and low-maintenance, and for twins usually being born. Apparently the fleece isn't of good enough quality to be sold. Katahdins are raised to be eaten, and that sounds right for here since there's no wool- weaving tradition in these mountains, but there are plenty of roadside establishments selling wood-fire-smoked, "ranchero"-style mutton.

You can see if you agree with my breed-identification. While researching the breed I came across a fine website serving as a sheep identification field-guide. It's at http://www.sheep101.info/breeds.html.  

That site informs us that "There are more breeds of sheep than breeds of any other livestock species. Worldwide, there are more than a thousand distinct sheep breeds, more than 40 in the United States alone."

Browsing that site I realized that sheep farming is another of those subjects that at first seems simple and direct, but in fact is very complex and marked by remarkable diversity. Just choose some of the breed- links at the above page and read about their special qualities.

From what I can see, the words "wool" and "fleece" can be used interchangeably. The word "polled" means "having no horns."

*****

YELLOW BELLS BLOOMING
In the foothills one of the most conspicuous flowering species nowadays is the bush or small tree whose rain- soaked flowers, slender fruit and pinnate leaves are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907tc.jpg.

Where the species enters Texas and Arizona it's sometimes called Yellow Bells, as well as a host of other names. It's TECOMA STANS, a member of the same family as Trumpet Creeper and Catalpa, the Bignonia Family. It occurs in arid habitats as far south as Argentina. Here in places it's weedy, forming big blobs of yellow along roads. In fact, despite it being the Official Flower of the US Virgin Islands, the plant is weedily invading Florida, southern Africa, Pacific islands and, of course, Australia. Its slender fruit pods produce abundant small, wind-dispersed seeds with papery wings making it easy for the species to advance into new territory.

My "Plantas Medicinales de México," calling the plant "Tronadora," devotes extra space to the species because traditionally here it's been considered an antidiabetic -- it lowers the blood-sugar level in diabetics. In diabetic mice, extracts of Yellow Bell have been shown to provide significant effects, as reported here.

*****

PRINCEWOOD FLOWERING
Along the reservoir road one of the prettiest and most conspicuous trees flowering now is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907ex.jpg.

That's Princewood, EXOSTEMA CARIBAEUM. You can see that the white, starlike flowers with long, curling petals make the plant so striking -- especially during this week's somber, rainy days. It's unusual how the flowers stay white only briefly, then turn brown and the brown flowers hang on for so long. Also noteworthy are the long, slender, curved flower buds, one of which can seen in the picgure's lower left corner.

Princewood is a member of the same family as the coffee plant, the Rubiaceae. If you think about it, the dark green, leathery leaves arising two at each stem node and the white flowers are just like coffee plants.

My Plantas Medicinales de Mexico, which calls the tree Copalchi, says that here Princewood bark has been used traditionally against malaria. Modern research has confirmed that, at least in the test tube, bark extracts do show antimalarial effects. Other research has found that stem and bark extracts show "significant hypoglycemic and antihyperglycemic effects," like the above Yellow Bells.

Princewood grows naturally only in Mexico, the Caribbean and southern Florida. In Florida it's listed as an endangered species.

*****

WILD BEGONIA
Just as seeing the season's first Osprey cast me in an autumn frame of mind, seeing any begonia always brings for half a second poignant memories of my Grandma Conrad. During winter she always grew big, succulent- stemmed, healthy and lustily flowering begonias in metal lard-cans set beneath her living room's southern window. When I'd visit on winter days the coal-fired fireplace opposite the begonias would crackle and the begonias would glow in the watery light filtering through the window. I remember sitting in the dark, cozy little room as a kid gazing at the begonias, wondering what it might be like in the faraway, tropical land they came from.

We have wild begonias here. Last Saturday I hitched a ride with Pancho, who was carrying supplies to ladies in a highland village whose sowing cooperative is being helped by the reserve. Leaving Jalpan we saw that surrounding mountaintops were all chopped off by clouds. Along muddy, gravel-and-dirt roads we bounced and slid into those clouds and when we got to the ridge top and I left the truck the cloud-fog was so dense we could see only a few truck-lengths away. It was drizzling and 63°. During the rest of the day I hiked back into the lowlands just for the pure pleasure of seeing the roadside flora up close, and of descending through clouds into a lush, vibrantly green valley through which a little stream roared carrying white water.

I hadn't walked half a mile before finding my first begonia, a small, slender one with big flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907bg.jpg.

Apparently it's too dry in the valley for begonias, for I've not seen them there. Begonias like moisture, and up on that ridge among the clouds begonias have their moisture. Eight begonia species are listed for the Reserve. On the Internet I find descriptions and photos of seven of those eight but the one in my picture isn't any of those. What's in the picture is either the last one, Begonia franconis, or an unlisted species.

Whatever its name, it was neat that chilly, rainy Saturday morning on a high limestone ridge in the clouds remembering Grandma Conrad's lard-can begonias beneath the window opposite the fireplace.

*****

DESCENDING INTO THE VALLEY
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907cl.jpg you can get an idea of how the mountains rose into the clouds that day. Notice the little community at the clouds' bottom in the picture's center. In that little town you could be walking down a street and meet a cloud.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907cm.jpg you see a typical little mountain community, its scattering of huts connected by mud tails, maybe a gravel road snaking up to the lowermost building.

It's impossible to grasp the feeling of that community without hearing it as I did descending from the clouds: Roosters crowing, turkeys gobbling, dogs barking, kids squealing, Great Kiskadees screeching, radios with their speakers overloaded and busted long ago, and -- even from my elevation -- the odors: Woodsmoke, mud, human and critter manure, the odor of rampant, moist herbage, of roasting corn tortillas...

Descending into the valley was like bringing your face closer and closer to a bowl of simmering, too-spicy soup, until the face is actually in the soup, and then you find you can eat the soup, it becoming part of you, you of it...

*****

NICHES IN ODD PLACES & MORE ON CRISTEROS
Especially in the mountains where car accidents often happen along our narrow, winding roads, you see lots of memorials to people who died accidentally. You can see a typical one, which I passed last Saturday, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907x1.jpg.

That one occupied a vertical limestone cliff right at a sharp bend in the steeply descending road. Just looking at it you could imagine how the accident happened, that if it were to happen anyplace on that road, it'd be there. As you can see, the memorial excavated into a limestone face contains a cross decorated with tied plastic bows. Behind the round thing also bearing plastic bows is a glass with a candle in it. When I walked up to the hole several butterflies flew out, having sought to escape the rain there. This kind of memorial is called a niche.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070907x2.jpg you see another kind of memorial, this one consisting of a wooden cross decorated with red Poinciana blossoms. That picture was taken during the dry season, next to the reservoir, where someone had drowned in a very isolated, hard-to-get-to part of the lake.

Often free-standing memorials similar to the above niche are fashioned from cement or steel, looking like little dog houses with crosses inside, and maybe also holding a picture or two, the candle and sometimes an empty pulque bottle.

I asked Silviano if the niches and memorials served any purpose other than to remind us of the dead people and he said no. However, while he was on the subject of dead people he told me a bit more about the Cristero Rebellion I mentioned a couple of Newsletters ago, and which took place from 1926 to 1929. Silviano is from Cocos, the town where I collected the Cristero-cave history.

Silviano says that near Cocos there's a mass grave of people killed by Cristeros. I explained my confusion, saying that because country people usually are very religious I couldn't understand why Cristeros, who claimed to be defending Catholicism, killed so many religious country people like those at Cocos. "They weren't religious enough for the Cristeros," he replied.

He also said that the federal troops trying to limit religious expression at that time used firearms, while the Cristeros fought with machetes.

Finally he said that there's a hole in the earth near Cocos where federal troops were buried alive. Apparently they were hiding there when Cristeros sealed them in and covered over the entrance.

*****

TOAD-SQUASHING MORALITY
Last Sunday it drizzled all morning as I hiked the reservoir road. Rain walks reveal alternative worlds always around us that emerge only when it rains. The hut where usually I feel purple annoyance as I walk by because of dogs who attack passers-by, in the rain stunned me with orange-hued homey feelings as sleepy, Sunday-morning conversation filtered through the house's pole walls, the odor of strong coffee mingled with that of roasting tortillas, and the dogs banished outside the door looked at me forlornly drenched and forsaken.

Thumbnail-size immature toads everywhere made it hard to walk without stepping on them. Each car on the road that day must have squashed hundreds of them. The toads reminded me of a mail I'd just received from Bea in Ontario. She'd written that as a nature-teaching mom she'd been struggling with the question "How much can a child safely handle nature without harming it." Is it right to let a kid hold frogs when you know it may be damaging their slimy, important-to-them coating? Or put caterpillars in a jar, when you know how exacting the caterpillars' environmental needs are?

Bea's letter, in turn, had brought to mind a philosophical crisis I'd passed through myself when I was a teenager back in 60s, in Kentucky, driving a car for the first time. How I loved sailing through Kentucky's hot, silky summer nights, the windows down, the radio blaring, the headlights starkly illuminating tall fescue grass along country roads billowing in and out as the car's accompanying air-bubble smashed into it.

But, the next morning, look at the windshield, all the splattered bugs. At that time I was deciding to be a vegetarian and was much impressed with Mahatma Gandhi's ideas on the beauty and sacredness of other creatures' lives. In that heightened state of sensitivity to other lives, how could I justify killing so many night-moths just to indulge my driving through the Kentucky night? For a while I quit driving altogether.

It took me a while to accept that, since I also was an animal, I had certain rights, and one of those rights certainly was mobility. I did quit discretionary driving, but also I went back to driving when I needed to.

Last Sunday morning I was thinking about all that, but also I was remembering what I'd just heard on internet radio (I'm a paid-up member of National Public Radio) where a guy promoting a traditional community's rapid gentrification had said, "We're a capitalist society and that means that if you have money you're allowed to do with it whatever you want."

Last Sunday's rain walk, then, turned out to be an exercise in making sense of a world where from moment to moment we must deal with extreme opinions. Thinking about Bea's letter and what the guy on the radio said obliged me to remember that there's always a Middle Path. There's a Middle Path between killing any creature that gets in your way, and perpetually wearing a mask to save tiny insects from being inhaled and killed -- a practice I've witnessed in the Jain community in New Delhi, India.

To my mind, the day after day, year after year struggle to develop your own insights and then calibrate your behavior to those insights is the most meaningful task any person ever undertakes. And if, beyond that, you can make out a Middle Path coursing through your understandings, and you try to follow it, that's beautiful.

Kent University offers an interesting but dense page on "Evolutionary Ethics & Biologically Supported Morality" at http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/TEth/TEthByro.htm.

You can read Mahatma Gandhi's thoughts about dealing with the realities of wars and the killing of animals at http://www.mkgandhi.org/momgandhi/chap93.htm.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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