JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

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

September 28, 2007

ANOTHER RUN TO THE BORDER
It's been six months since my last six-month visa was issued so last Monday morning I boarded the first of several buses that would take me to the US/Mexico border and another six-month visa.

I've been wanting to walk around the pretty little town of Xilitla (hee-LEET-la) in San Luis Potosí state east of here, just across the easternmost and highest ridge of the Eastern Sierra Madres, so my first ticket took me there. Xilitla is always bustling with a colorful street market because people from communities from many miles around go there for shopping. Being on the Sierra Madres' eastern slope, more rain falls there than here so the vegetation is lusher, trees bigger, and you see birds and insects there not found on this side. Coffee bushes grow around people's houses.

To me the most spectacularly flowering plant in Xilitla that day was the tricky, orange-blossomed one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928ps.jpg.

A close-up shows the cup-size blossoms at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928pu.jpg.

What's tricky about this sighting is that the first picture above does not show a medium-size tree topped with its own orange blossoms but rather a medium-size tree thickly inhabited by woody bushes growing parasitically among the tree's upper branches. The flowering bush is a kind of glorified mistletoe, actually a member of the Mistletoe Family, the Loranthaceae. It's the genus PSITTACANTHUS, P. schiedeanus, I'm guessing.

Last Monday afternoon certain slopes around Xilitla emitted an orange glow in the midday sun, which was very pretty against the mountains' lush greenery. Several times I've been told by folks here that after a recent drought mistletoe populations mushroomed, and now many trees are so heavily parasitized that they're dying. After seeing the orange-hued slopes around Xilitla I think that might be true.

*****

HORIZON CLOUDS
From Xilitla I bused downslope to the lowland town of Ciudad de Valles, then took an overnight bus north to Matamoros on the border, arriving there about an hour before dawn. By the time the sky started lighting up I'd hiked across town to the banks of the Rio Grande, which Mexicans call the Río Bravo, and which forms the border here between Mexico and Texas.

As the sun rose I was hiking northward atop a levee that ran along the river on the Mexican side and I couldn't take my eyes off clouds on the eastern horizon. They were towering, slate-gray ones boiling up over the Gulf's warm waters just beyond Brownsville, Texas's outskirts across the river. Up north, because of haze, you hardly ever see clouds right on the horizon.

I suspect that most people who grow up with a good view of surrounding flat land turn into different sorts of people than those who come of age surrounded by hills or buildings. The farm I grew up on in Kentucky was situated in the middle of a Pleistocene lakebed, so being able to see long distances is meaningful to me. But a ring of haze nearly always separated our Kentucky flatness from the sky. Last Tuesday morning, Matamoros's hazeless, flat landscape struck me as something powerful and soul-bending. I liked it.

You can see that horizon across the river beyond some houses on the outskirts of Brownsville, Texas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928mc.jpg.

*****

THE RIO GRANDE AT DAWN
The last time I went for my visa I didn't bother to cross into Texas. This time the soles were coming off my shoes and I couldn't find size 13s in Mexico, so for new shoes and other things I needed to visit the US. As I hiked across the International Bridge separating Matamoros, Tamaulipas from Brownsville, Texas, exactly where a marker said that Mexico ended and the USA began, I stuck my camera's lens through the chain-link fence and got an early morning shot of the Rio Grande, with the US on the left, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928rg.jpg.

Usually when I cross here it's during the dry season when the water is lower than the picture shows, maybe about knee-deep and no problem to cross. You can make out a tall fence on the US side. That road you can see on the US side is dirt. The Border Patrol regularly "drags" these roads smoothing out the dust so that footprints of people who've crossed the river show up. That's a pretty low-tech immigration-control technique, but it works very well.

Even at that early hour the waiting line for pedestrians entering the US was about half an hour long, and I suspect that people in cars had to wait much longer. The customs folks looked dog-tired but when the guy X-raying my rucksack asked me if there was anything else inside other than what I'd told him and I said, "I sure hope not," he laughed, and I was glad to see that even during these days a harried US customs agent can laugh.

When I reentered Mexico no one at any time bothered to ask for identification or to see what I was carrying, not even when crossing the "inside border" about 20 kms south of town, where the final customs check is supposed to be made.

*****

TWO TREES TO KNOW ALONG THE LOWER RIO GRAND
If you ever visit this area and you like to know what trees you're seeing, let me tell you about the two species I saw most of during my hikes to and from the Matamoros bus station.

The first is Mesquite, PROSOPIS JULIFLORA. Just last week I told you about our Querétaro mesquite, but that was Prosopis laevigata, a different species from what they have in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. You might enjoy comparing the leaves of Texas's Mesquite, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928mq.jpg, with Querétaro's P. laevigata's smaller ones, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070921mq.jpg.

In that first picture, of Texas's Mesquite, I'm holding the petiole of a single compound leaf. Atop the petiole two leaflets arise, and each leaflet is divided into many pinnae. You can see that the leaves of P. juliflora and P. laevigata share identical basic structure, but the relative sizes and general "feeling" of them is different.

The second tree to know along the Rio Grande is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928jt.jpg.

That's Jerusalem-thorn, PARKINSONIA ACULEATA, a member of the Bean Family, just like the mesquites. The curvy things looking like green eel-skeletons are unfurling, compound leaflets. Like the mesquites, Parkinsonia leaves are DOUBLY compound. A short petiole bears one to four PAIRS of leaflets. Well, in truth, sometimes even mesquite leaf-petioles bear two pairs (four leaflets), so, really, the basic structure of the mesquites and Jerusalem-thorn is the same. Pinnae of the Jerusalem-thorn's leaflets, however, are teeny things that fall off as soon as it starts getting a bit dry. If you visit the area during the dry season your Jerusalem-thorns may appear as nothing but naked bouquets of spiny branches.

*****

BROWNSVILLE STREET TREES
I had a whole list of things to buy in Brownsville, so I fit in with the crowd. Downtown Brownsville caters to Mexicans crossing the border to buy what can't be found in Mexico, or which is much less expensive. Again and again I walked into stores, spoke English, and was not understood until I switched to Spanish. Brownsville's street trees have a Mexican feeling, too, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928cw.jpg.

The tall, slender-trunked palms in the background, unless they're introduced horticultural species, are native Texas Palmettos, SABAL TEXANA.

The small tree with strikingly large, white blossoms is the Texas Olive, CORDIA BOISSIERI, which we found growing here in April, where it's called Anacahuite. Very nice flowers of the Brownsville tree are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928cv.jpg.

The short palm on the left with the trunk covered with broken-off bases of old frond-petioles is a young Washington Palm, genus WASHINGTONIA. Down the street near the Greyhound Bus Station a more mature Washingtonia was flowering and showing the typical "shag" of dead fronds mantling the trunk's upper part. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928wp.jpg.

A picture gallery identifying palms found in Brownsville and the Lower Rio Grande Valley is at http://home-and-garden.webshots.com/album/57639011jPfmwc.

*****

THE BUTTERFLY AT MY SCREEN WINDOW
The other day I was typing away when a small butterfly entered my casita, streaked between my nose and the keyboard, and began bouncing against the screen window next to me. You can see the very butterfly at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928sk.jpg.

At first glance my visitor looked like it belonged to the large subfamily of North American butterflies to which the abundant Red Admiral and Painted Lady belong, so I figured it was a member of the subfamily Nymphalinae. Therefore, at the wonderful "Mariposas Mexicanas" website ("mariposas" means butterflies) at http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com I searched all of that subfamily's pictures but found nothing like my window-bumper.

Then I sent the above picture to Mike Strangeland, who administers the Mariposas Mexicanas website. In a couple of hours I got a response. Mike wrote, "... that's one of my most favorite butterflies in Mexico... I know he looks like a Nymphalinae but he's actually a skipper, ATARNES SALLEI (Orange-spotted Skipper)."

Skippers, I thought, were dumpy looking little butterflies, basically half-moth, half-butterfly, with wings held at 45-degree angles and with greatly oversized, blunt heads. I'd never seen a skipper as butterfly-looking as this.

"Yes it seems there's a little convergent evolution going on in the butterfly world and sallei is a good example," Mike explained. For some reason this skipper needed to look like a Nymphalinae and he was doing a good job.

Mike was so tickled with my photograph that I decided to send him another I'd taken awhile back but never got around to writing about, and I was about to delete it from my hard disk.

"Please never trash any butterfly photos from Mexico, send them all to me," Mike shot back. "There have been about 30 new species of butterfly discovered in central and south Mexico over the last 10 years or so and half of those were discovered in the past 3 years. It's a very exciting time to be studying and photographing butterflies, so please photo everything you can get close to and send them to me!"

Well, a wandering naturalist in Mexico could hardly have anything more titillating written to them. Now I'll start paying more attention to butterflies.

By the way, the picture I almost deleted but sent to Mike instead turned out to be something Mike couldn't identify. It's been several days since I sent it and Mike is always very prompt, so maybe it's a pretty good one!

*****

ON THE PLEASURES OF OBSCURE LITTLE NATURE FORUMS
The other day once again Silviano appeared at my door carrying something interesting. You can see the critter at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070914mn.jpg.

It's a Praying Mantis, of course, but something about this one seemed a bit different from the ones I'm accustomed to seeing in North America. Mainly, the conspicuous vein extending down an otherwise veinless wing seemed odd. I photographed the discovery, checked into a mantis forum on the Internet, posted the picture, and you can see the exchange that took place at http://mantidforum.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=8157.

Suggestions were made for two names, one person said it was too small to be one of the names, I confirmed this by looking at pictures on the Internet, pictures for the second name matched, however, and distribution data placed the species in our area, so it looks like Silviano's discovery is a STAGMOMANTIS LIMBATA. The species is distributed in arid habitats from Arizona through Mexico to at least Cuernavaca south of Mexico City. In English it's called the Bordered or Arizona Mantis.

Having a name for something is magical, for then you can look it up and see what's interesting about it. Searching on the magical words Stagmomantis limbata I found an abstract of a research paper where females of this species were placed in cages to see if males would be drawn to them by the females' wind-carried chemical pheromones. Males were indeed attracted, ending up atop the females' cages. Moreover, they found that males were much more attracted to well-nourished females, who produced more pheromones, than to hungry ones.

Several times getting help from hobbyists and experts at special nature-oriented forums such as this mantis one has been key to my learning interesting stuff. For some forums you need to sign up, receive a user name and a password, but if the forum is a good one it's worth the minor hassle.

You might be interested in taking a glance at some of the following special nature forums:

A BUTTERFLY FORUM:
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/butterfly/

A BIRD FORUM:
http://www.birdforum.net/

INSECTS IN GENERAL FORUM:
http://www.insectnet.com/cgi/dcforum/dcboard.cgi

SPIDER FORUM:
http://forums.insecthobbyist.com/forum.php?catid=17

NORTH AMERICAN NATIVE PLANTS:
http://forums.gardenweb.com/forums/natives/

It's easy to find such forums. Just use a search engine searching on keywords such as "spider forum" and you'll be surprised at what comes up.

*****

NAMELESS BABY AT LA TRINIDAD
Last Sunday Pancho, a visiting photographer and I went up to La Trinidad, the tiny mountain community famous as the jumping-off point for those wishing to visit Hoya de La Luz, one of Mexico's most impressive "deep pits," which I described in the Newsletter archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061229.htm.

Pit fanciers may be glad to know that now, at least with a 4x4 with lots of road clearance, you can drive all the way into La Trinidad, so now Hoya de La Luz is only about 1.5 hour of hiking from the trailhead. La Trinidad and Hoya de La Luz are above Xilitla, San Luis Potosí state.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928tr.jpg you can Pancho at La Trinidad standing beside a Maguey agave sending up a flower shoot. Behind the Maguey is a two-room house equipped with solar panels for electricity. The señora there invited us for coffee and tacos. As we talked she hand-patted her tortillas into existence using locally grown blue corn kernels, then she roasted the tortillas on a comal over a wood-fire atop a four-legged, elevated fireplace. You can see one of the tortillas smeared with local hotsauce on my leg at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070928bt.jpg.

The photographer, seeing all the kids standing around, asked the señora, who looked maybe 35 or 40, how many kids she had. Thirteen. A baby was in the backroom on one of the house's two beds. The baby was a grandchild, the mother being one of the kids helping with the tortillas, and she was either 13 or 14.

The photographer asked what the baby's name was. Didn't have one.

As we descended from La Trinidad I wanted to confirm my guess that the family was waiting to name the kid until they could get to town and have it baptized, so I asked about it. "I don't know why it's still unnamed," the photographer said. "It's not because of their religion. I've always wondered, is it laziness, or what? Sometimes I think it's just that the new kid is more like a new dog, just another body in the house. Thirteen kids in that house... ! Sometimes in these isolated communities babies go for two or three years before they get a name!"

I remember once reading about such a thing, maybe in a village in Asia. Someone explained that the mortality rate was so high among children that parents often waited until they were more or less sure that the child would live before they gave it a name.

Losing a named child somehow was harder than losing one without a name.

*****

I AM LEAVING SIERRA GORDA
My stay with the good people and in the spectacular landscape of Querétaro's Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve has been an enormous pleasure. However, I first arrived here about this time last year, and now I'm starting to see things I've already seen. I've seen the tall corn up by the entrance gate with marigolds sown along the fringes. I've seen the rainy season here gradually peter out and I've seen how The Day of The Dead (Halloween) is done here.

So, the naturalist in me craves new plants and animals, and the general wanderlust that's always afflicted me sets me on the road once again.

I'll not tell you where I'm going, but I will say that surely my Newsletters will change now. My access to the Internet will be limited where I'm going so I'll no longer be able to browse much for good links providing more information about my topics. Identifying plants and animals will be even more difficult in this new place than here. My life will be more unstable now so I doubt that my Newsletters will arrive as regularly as in the past. Especially next week's may come late.

But, hang on. This is going to be fun, I think.

*****

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