JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER

Written at Yerba Buena and issued from a ciber in nearby
Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 1740 meters in elevation, ± LAT 17° 11' 27"N,  LONG -92° 53' 35"W.}

October 29, 2007

OUR LOCAL ROBIN "THEME "
The first half of this week it rained day and night. Sometimes it was torrential but mostly it was the kind of billowy fog-drizzle you'd expect on the coast of England, not upland southern Mexico. On the Gulf slope avalanches blocked roads while here trees toppled and electricity came and went. During one long blackout I took a walk in fog-rain to see what the birds were up to.

Big trees with trunks and branches heavily festooned with bromeliads, ferns and orchids formed colorless silhouettes in the fog. Sounds were muted and all one heard was rain splattering on the ground and leaves. Every pine needle and ever blade of grass, the tip of every ray-flower on every composite blossom bore a silvery droplet, and after a while so did every hair in my beard and eyebrows, and atop my hands.

Eventually the somberness was broken by a small flock of robins behaving like kids in a playground as they ranged through treetop after treetop, an occasional pair making a lusty chase that ended in nothing. Their nasal kweh-kweh-kwehs cut through the fog, sounding just like any playful little band of backyard American Robins in the north.

Though they sounded almost exactly like American Robins and their silhouettes in the fog looked like American Robins, they weren't. They were Rufous-collared Robins, sometimes called Rufous-collared Thrushes, TURDUS RUFITORQUES, a species endemic just to the highlands of Chiapas, Guatemala and rarely spotted in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. Often as I'm typing, a few feet outside my window, Rufous-collared Robins hop in the grass with their high-raised heads turning this way and that, looking for prey down in the grass. In so many ways Rufous-collared Robins are exactly like American Robins, except for conspicuous rufous collars, which basically are the American Robin's "red breast" extended onto and around the neck, as seen at http://www.xelapages.com/gbrc/Rufouscollarthrush.gif.

American Robins, Turdus migratorius, don't live this far south. They're one of those north-centered species whose distribution follows Mexico's highlands southward only as far as the lowland Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

In the title I mention our local robin "theme." I'm referring to my oft-repeated notion that the Creator is an artist, and living things constitute Her art. In bird terms, robins -- by which I mean the genus Turdus -- constitute a theme the same way a melody might in a Bach fugue. As Bach gave us many delicious variations on his fugues' themes, the Creator has given us variations on themes of Her species.

Just in Mexico we have eight variations on the robin theme -- eight species of the genus Turdus. There's an all-black one, like Europe's Blackbird, endemic to southern Mexican cloudforests. There's a "Clay-colored" one found all through the Gulf lowlands, and a "White-throated" one with black stripes on the white throat, and one, Turdus graysoni, that in the whole world is found only around San Blas in the state of Nayarit on the Pacific coast, and the Tes Marías Islands just offshore. Some species have yellow eye-rings but most don't, some have yellow legs while ohers have flesh- colored ones or dark ones. None of the others have our Rufous-collared's rufous collar, though.

The most widespread of all our Turduses is the American Robin, so that's Mexico's main robin melody. The Rufous-collared Robin outside my window right now is a lovely Chiapan/Guatemalan highland variation on that Turdus theme, maybe one with a marimba, pine-scented beat.

*****

LIST OF BIRDS OF UPLAND CHIAPAS
When I was in the Yucatan I set up the "Plants & Animals of the Northern Yucatan Peninsula" web site at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/. That's become a very popular site, highly ranked by search engines. Now I'm establishing a similar site for upland Chiapas and you can see what I have so far at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/.

On that page note the link to the list of birds of upland Chiapas, which contains 456 species. Of those species, 61 are supposed to live no higher than 1500 meters, so the species list changes a lot depending on at what elevation you consider the highlands to begin.

About 52 of the list's species migrate through the Chiapas highlands while about 114 species overwinter but do not breed here.

*****

BLACK TUPELOS FRUITING
In Querétaro often I mentioned the mountaintop forests in which many relict species left over from the last Ice Age survive, where a dominant tree was North America's Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua.

Here I'm living in just such a mountaintop "sky island" dominated by Sweetgums, along with many other species thought of as typical of eastern North American forests. The reason is the same as in Querétaro: When the last Ice Age's glacier withdrew, the North American species who had taken refuge at lower elevations at these latitudes could either follow the cool weather back north, or go up in elevation. Either way they'd remain in the cool climate they needed.

Despite being much farther from North America than was Querétaro, our Chiapas sky-island forests have just as many species typical of North America's eastern forests as did Querétaro. In fact, because it's rainier here, the forests are lusher and maybe there are even more North American species.

One such relict species very common and conspicuous here is the Black Tupelo, also called Blackgum, NYSSA SYLVATICA. It's fruiting now, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029bg.jpg.  

Though the leaf in that picture is fallishly red, hardly any other leaves in our forest are anything but green. We're still in the rainy season here and things are as green as Kentucky in June. However, Black Tupelos are among the very first trees to show a red leaf or two in advance of fall, so it won't be long until the rainy season ends and our trees become more colorful, maybe even lose some leaves.

Note the black spots on the leaf in the photo. Surely they're fungal in nature. Such spots are very typical on leaves of North American trees as well. I'm thinking that when the Black Tupelo species migrated south during the last ice age it brought with it this fungus.

What a pleasure seeing Black Tupelos here. When I was a kid on the Kentucky farm each morning I awaited the school bus beneath two big Black Tupelos, one male and one female. It's a shame the pretty, juicy fruits are so bitter. However, you can imagine how birds love them.

*****

INDIAN PIPE
Many of you will recognize the plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029mu.jpg.

That's Indian Pipe. The last I heard, people here were calling it MONOTROPA UNIFLORA, which is the very same name used for the plant traditionally considered to be distributed in much of North and South America, and eastern Asia. However, studies in genetic sequencing indicate that several species may be involved, so who knows what name our plants may end up with?

Though anatomically I can't see any difference between Chiapas's and North America's Indian Pipes, the one's I've seen up there have been white, or maybe with just a tinge of pink in them. Up there I've never seen a bright red one like those here.

In Mexico Indian Pipes live in the humid mountains, typically occurring below pines and oaks. You can see that the plant entirely lacks chlorophyll. There's been a debate about how the species gets its food, since it can't photosynthesize what it needs. A closely related species, Monotropsis odorata, obtains its nutrients through an association with a mycorrhizal fungus, so maybe that's the case here.

In the picture, below the Indian Pipe you'll see yet another of our Ice Age relicts, and something all too familiar to eastern North Americans -- Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans.

*****

BRACKEN
Our most common fern here also should be familiar to North Americans, not because it's an eastern-forest relict but because it's surely the most common fern species in the world, found practically worldwide. It's Bracken, also known as Brake, PTERIDIUM AQUILINUM. You can see a typical Bracken frond near my dwelling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029pt.jpg.

Note the frond's overall triangular shape and how it's divided into three large subdivisions, each of which are further divided into smaller sections, some of which in turn are themselves divided into small, distinct segments, or pinnae. Such thrice-divided fronds are said to be tripinnate. Bracken fronds can grow three feet high and higher.

Despite the fern's coarse aspect, its fronds unfurl in the same delicate, rolling-out fashion of other fronds, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029pu.jpg.

You may know how fern spores are often produced in distinctively shaped "sori," or "fruit dots," on a frond's undersurface, with the sori distributed in characteristic patterns. All this is explained on my fern page at http://www.backyardnature.net/ferns.htm.

Bracken uses a different system. Its spores arise from long, slender sori clustered inside the fronds' curled-under margins. If you have Bracken in your area, tear across a frond margin, look at it across the break, and you'll see it.

*****

LOBELIAS LIKE PINK FLAMINGOS
Breedlove's "Flora of Chiapas" lists 15 species of Lobelia for the state. In eastern North America the best-known Lobelias are the red-flowered Cardinal-flower and the much smaller, blue-blossomed Indian Tobacco. Most of our Chiapan Lobelias seem to be of the small, blue-flowered kind, but one common, red-flowered species is unlike any Lobelia I've ever seen, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029ll.jpg.

That's LOBELIA LAXIFLORA, a common wildflower in much of Mexico and growing at a woods' edge here.

With those very long, gracefully arching pedicels and the similarly gracefully curving blossoms, the flowers remind me of the Yucatan's pink flamingos. In fact, I wasn't sure I even had a Lobelia until I dissected a blossom and saw the matchstick-like structure shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029lm.jpg.

In that picture the tilted, yellowish-red thing is the split corolla while the matchstick-like structure is the flower's grown-together stamens. The cream-colored bottom part consists of the stamens' filaments while the brown, ridged "head" is formed by the united, pollen-producing anthers forming a tube or ring around the female style. When botanists see stamens grown together in this exact manner they automatically think "Lobelia!"

Since we know that the whole point of flowers is for the species to have a method for mixing the genes of two plants with different genetic inheritances so that evolution can proceed, you might wonder why Lobelias would place their male stamens in such very close proximity to the female parts. What happens is that the male and female parts mature at different times. Even if a flower's pollen lands on its own female stigma, the stigma will be to young to be receptive.

My Plantas Medicinales de Mexico, which calls the species by the name of Chilpanxochitl, regards its root bark as toxic and narcotic, making an "energetic" emetic, and tending to paralyze the respiratory system.

*****

INÉS'S MESSED-UP ROSE-OF-CHINA
While we're on the subject of grown-together stamens, take a look at a flower on one of Inés's Rose-of-Chinas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029rc.jpg.

Rose-of-Chinas aren't roses at all, but rather Hibiscuses, specifically HIBISCUS ROSA-SINENSIS, and the species probably did originate in China. They're such gorgeous plants that now they're grown worldwide in hot climates, and have been bred into many horticultural forms.

In fact, the blossom in the picture is from a plant whose genes plant breeders have tinkered with in order to get a flashier blossom than those of standard Rose- of-Chinas. Flowers of normal Rose-of-Chinas have their male stamens mounted on a cylinder, or column, around the female style, as shown in the top, left photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_hibsc.htm.

What's happened with Inés's plant is that genetic manipulation has caused stamens on the blossom's staminal column to form petals instead of stamens. In the picture, notice how on the column arising in the flower's center and pointing to the right stamens are mingled with petals, and notice that some of those petals have brownish, lumpy areas along one of their sides. Those brownish, lumpy spots are "almost- stamens." One side of the petal is pure petal but the other side is almost a stamen.

It turns out that, because early in the evolutionary history of flowering plants petals arose from primitive stamens, much of the genetic information that makes a petal is the very same information used to create a stamen. Thus plant breeders just needed to fiddle with genes producing stamens on the normal Rose-of-China's staminal tube and, presto, a blossom with more flower petals than normal resulted.

Plant breeders use this trick a lot, probably most successfully among the roses. At the bottom of my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_roses.htm you can see a spectacular instance of a rose stamen with one side of its anther normal, but the other side clearly trying to be a petal!

I don't like "double-flowered" varieties of anything. Nature spent millions of years evolving blossoms to be the unique things they are, and now humans are re-evolving them just for bigger, gaudier flowers. Now not only hibiscuses but also buttercups, camellias and other completely unrelated plants produce similarly bright and colorful, but monotonously same-looking blossoms.

*****

GRINDING PINOLE
Several times while in Querétaro I mentioned drinking atole (ah-TOH-leh), which was ground seeds or grains of various kinds mixed with water and cooked until a thick, tasty emulsion was formed, often flavored with sugar or honey, cinnamon and/or other condiments. Atole is an indigenous American drink and people here drink it, too. My favorite from Querétaro, made from ground sunflower seeds, doesn't seem to be present here, though.

Pinole (pee-NOH-leh) is another indigenous American drink, probably more typical here than in Querétaro. Friday when I dropped by Inés's she was holding a big crock of yellow corn kernels she'd just parched atop her earthenware comal, or griddle, and I asked what she was up to. "About to make pinole," she said, and you can see her grinding the parched kernels while turkeys gather below waiting for spilled grains at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029pi.jpg.

The simplest pinole is made with nothing more than finely ground parched corn (we reground the first grinding to make it finer) added to water and drunk. The poorest of campesinos carry with them to their fields a little bag of pinole, some water and nothing more. However, people of greater means add sugar or honey, cinnamon and other things.

In fact, Inés wanted to grind some fancy pinole, too, so our second crock of parched corn had sprinkled atop it some cinnamon bark and cacao seeds, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029pj.jpg.

In that picture the tan, woody-looking, elongate flakes are strips of bark from the Cinnamon-tree, Cinnamomum zeylanicum. That's the way people buy cinnamon here, and when you grind it up the cinnamon odor is much fresher and more pungent than can be produced by the bottled product northerners have to settle for.

The black, crack-skinned beans on the left are cacao seeds from downslope where Cacao trees, Theobroma cacao, are grown in the lowlands of Tabasco State. To make chocolate the beans are removed from the fruit and fermented. Our beans hadn't been fermented but Inés had parched them so they'd grind into a dry powder along with the other ingredients.

As I ground the three ingredients a wonderful fragrance of wholesome parched corn mingled with sweet cinnamon and pure, unadulterated chocolate blossomed around me. People who have experienced only the North's foods flavored with overpowering measures of industrial-strength condiments simply can't imagine how appealing a fresh pinole can smell concocted with modest, tradition-sanctioned amounts of simple spices.

Inés said that many people would have ground cloves, black peppercorns and sugar into their mixture as well, but she's an Adventist who believes that such ingredients harm the body, plus the result wouldn't be as tasty anyway.

*****

THE PERFECT TORTILLA
After we'd ground the parched corn for pinole we ground more corn kernels that had been soaked until they were large and soft, to make masa. Masa is the moist corn paste tortillas are made from. Later in the day Inés brought me some tortillas she'd made from our masa, prettily wrapped in an embroidered white cloth. One tortilla, which she called a "gruesa," which means "thick," was not only especially thick but also made with butter and salt. It was wrapped apart from the others and she told me to be sure to bake this one well and to eat it hot.

I think her subtext was, "This is the perfect tortilla, so you better treat it right." You can see that perfect tortilla the next morning baking on my metal comal atop bricks in my fireplace, next to my sooty pot of hot cabbage/potatoes/carrots/oatmeal/soy-protein/eggs stew at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029to.jpg.

You might be interested in my Tortilla Page at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/food/tortilla.htm where you can read about tortilla variations, and see tortillas being made by hand and machine.

It was indeed a perfect tortilla, even though I ate it with chunks of boiled cabbage, not beans, which is the usual complement. I'm often asked why I don't fix beans for my meals. I love beans, but they require a lot of cooking. I prefer to use my time in other ways, plus I don't like using so much firewood. Our locally grown cabbage and potatoes cook much faster.

*****

THE CLOTHES-WASHING TROUGH
I haven't had a good place to wash my clothes since Komchén in the Yucatan, so I'm happy to once again have a washing trough that's just what I need. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071029cw.jpg.

The important feature of that trough is its ribbed bottom. It's amazing how those ribs remove stains if your laundry is sudsy and you lightly move your cloths back and forth over the ribs. Of course it takes a little practice to know how much rubbing to do. I wore a few holes into my clothing before getting it just right.

Especially because Mexican detergent is much more powerful than northern detergent, washing by hand in a ribbed trough goes much faster than you'd think. The reason Mexican detergent is so strong is that Mexico's lax environmental laws permit detergent to have high levels of phosphorus. Phosphorus not only gives detergent more kick but also a nutrient, or fertilizer, that causes eutrophication of streams and lakes -- streams and lakes get clogged with algae and sometimes oxygen levels plummet, killing off fish.

Here sometimes you see large, dead rivers whose surfaces are completely covered with foamy white soapsuds.

*****

TALKING WITH THE INVADERS
I was told that a government biologist would be arriving on a certain day and that he and I should survey what remains of Yerba Buena Reserve. The idea has been to establish a nature trail through it, and for me to monitor migrant birds in it, in conjunction with an international study focusing on overwintering wood-warblers of the genus Dendroica.

"But isn't all that land still under invader control?" I asked.

"Yes, but a new governor has been elected, he's promised to give the invaders land elsewhere so they'll move out and everything needs to move forward."

This didn't jive with the militant attitude I see the invaders taking every day. I spoke to others about it, including Inés, who flatly said, "If you go onto the reserve land the invaders will regard it as aggression."

So I went to talk to the invader leader, and he agreed with Inés. He told me that when the government biologist arrived we should go visit him.

Next day, the biologist arrived five hours late. All morning the leader had kept the other invaders waiting for us, but they'd all left about half an hour before we got there. Bad start for us. Now the leader called his group back together, about half returning, all men, 25 of them.

We formed a big circle, most invaders standing with their arms crossed across their chests and with grave looks on their faces. Speaking Tzotzil, the leader explained who we were and asked the men if we should be given permission to enter reserve land they'd confiscated. A discussion of about 45 minutes ensued in which very little was said about our studies, but a great deal about the past's broken promises and misunderstandings.

Standing there in intense, high-elevation sunlight, the sun in my eyes, deliberate-sounding Tzotzil alternating with musical Spanish, I felt as if I were in an old, scratchy, black-and-white daguerreotype showing representatives of the US Cavalry in powwow with Sioux tribesmen of the Old West.

The men conducted themselves in a dignified manner and presented their case clearly and convincingly. Basically they told us that the government had broken many promises, and their physical possession of the land was their only bargaining chip, so yielding on any point would only weaken their position.

In short, until they get land elsewhere the biologist and I will NOT be permitted to design a nature trail or conduct a study of overwintering Dendroica warblers on the confiscated reserve land.

I suspect that all this soon will blow over and in a few years everyone will have forgotten about the conflict that so absorbs us now. But it'll be many years before the trees the invaders cut grow back, and millennia before deep, rich soil returns to the steep slopes they've converted to cornfields and weeds.

It's nearly always like that: In human communities conflicts come and go, enemies eventually become allies and vice versa, and everyone eventually forgets or gets confused about who did what to whom. Nature, however, bears her scars for a long time, and her extinctions endure for an eternity.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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