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.}

November 5, 2007

COLD FRONT #4 & THE DAY OF THE DEAD
Mexicans assign their cold fronts numbers. Most cold fronts peter out before reaching this far south, the same latitude as Guatemala, but over a week ago Cold Front #4 not only made it this far south but also stalled out right above us. As I issued the last Newsletter a week ago it was raining and most of the time ever since it's kept raining.

Downslope on the Gulf of Mexico side the state of Tabasco is 80% underwater and the major city of Villahermosa has been mostly abandoned. Lowland Chiapas also is flooded. One of Inés's brothers lost everything and his family now is among many thousands of refugees.

Last Thursday I ran out of food and had to walk to town, rain or not. It happened that Thursday was the first day of the four-day celebration of the Day of the Dead.

In other Newsletters I've described how people construct and decorate altars in their homes, then place on the altars pictures of dead people and things the dead liked, maybe cups of chocolate, bottles of tequila or, if they liked to dance, maybe a dancing figurine. Inés tells me that here there's an extra twist. The altar consists of seven steps, each step supposed to lead the wandering spirit back to the netherworld where they belong.

Inés was a bit cagey about going into details because, being a good Adventist, she says she doesn't believe in all that stuff. Because of the rain I didn't get to circulate much to see things for myself, but I did run into a group of boys in a rainy woods stuffing pine needles into bags, the greenery destined for their family altars.

In other parts of Mexico I've been in during the celebration marigold blossoms have always been a conspicuous part of altar decoration. Marigolds reach their flowering peak at this season, creating lovely, orange streaks in the dark green landscape where they're traditionally planted along the edges of cornfields.

When I got to the market area next to the Cathedral it was raining hard and most of the vendors had scattered. From all the marigolds littering the ground it was clear that earlier there'd been heavy commerce in them. You can see a soggy corner of the market that day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105dd.jpg.

*****

A YELLOW-THROATED WARBLER IN THE "CIBER"
I use the word "ciber" for the place from which my Newsletters are issued because the English word "cybercafe" doesn't fit down here. Here I've never seen computers associated with cafes. The ciber I usually use is a little room next to a photocopying shop with an open wall on the street side. Remarkably, Pueblo Nuevo with its muddy streets and no modern-looking businesses hosts four cibers and they're usually pretty busy with young people.

Anyway, last Monday as I issued last week's Newsletter a Yellow-throated Warbler, DENDROICA DOMINICA, landed in the ciber's door and hopped across the muddy, tiled floor to within a foot of my feet. With his yellow throat, white eyebrow and black mask, his identify was unmistakable. You can see a Yellow-throated Warbler at http://www.birdsofoklahoma.net/Yellow-throatedWarbler.htm.

During my Mississippi hermit days, Yellow-throats were among the first summer residents to arrive in early spring and all summer they kept high in the pines above my trailer, their repetitive calls loud and clear throughout the days. At Hacienda San Juan in the Yucatan they were common and conspicuous high among the fronds of Royal Palms along the entrance road. And now here was this one at my feet on a muddy floor in a cold, rainy Pueblo Nuevo ciber.

Could it sense that the entire upcoming week would be cold and rainy, and that it needed to take unusual risks to locate a dry place?

Back at Yerba Buena I looked up the Yellow-throat's winter distribution. It winters along the US Gulf Coast and the Caribbean, deep into Central America. A funny thing is that in Mexico it winters in the hot lowlands bordering the Gulf of Mexico, as well as here in the Chiapas and Guatemalan highlands, but it avoids the foothills. Why the hot lowlands and the chilly highlands, but not the middle elevations?

I'll bet the ice ages had something to do with this curious overwintering pattern. A wild guess might be that the lowland-wintering population results from migration patterns established after the second-to-the- last Ice Age, while the highland population, to avoid competition with the lowlanders, became established after the last Ice Age, or vice versa.

*****

A CLEARWING WITH REALLY CLEAR WINGS
Back in Querétaro I introduced you to a clearwing butterfly, a member of the Clearwing "tribe," the Ithomiini, of the Brushfoot Family, the Nymphalidae. That clearwing, Dircenna klugii, actually had semi- opaque wings you could barely see through. Here we also have Dircenna klugii, plus a species I suspect to be Episcada salvinia, and this one has wings as transparent as cellophane

UPDATE: It turned out to be a Greta annette -- White-spotted Clearwing

Last Thursday on my way to town I saw this one in weeds along the road, in the rain. The light was poor and my camera couldn't get close. You can see the results at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105cw.jpg.

*****

THE LOW OAK IN PINE-OAK-SWEETGUM
As one ascends or descends mountain slopes, vegetation zones continually change. Researchers have named the particular forest type I'm living in as Pine-Oak-Sweetgum because those are the dominant tree species. I've added a description of the forest type, including a list of other woody species also found in it, at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/plantcom.htm.

At my elevation at the forest zone's lowest limit, the main oak is the broad-leafed, sharp-toothed one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105qu.jpg.

I think that that's QUERCUS CANDICANS, "candicans" meaning "white," referring to the leaves' undersurfaces which are covered with a dense, wooly, fuzzy-feeling surface of tiny, branched, matted hairs, very much like the north's Black-oak leaves.

This is a humid forest so tree trunks and limbs are often very heavily mantled with bromeliads, ferns, orchids and other epiphytic species. Note that these are not parasitic. They do not rob host trees of nutrients. They only grow upon the limbs. You can see a nice bunch of bromeliads inside a Quercus candicans right above my outdoor toilet on a rainy, foggy day at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105br.jpg.

*****

HUMMINGBIRDS IN THE RAIN
Wednesday I took a walk between downpours, when the rain had diminished to just a heavy fog-drizzle. I went to a weedy spot where I knew a large population of violet-blossomed Salvias was flowering, for among those Salvias there's always a bright commotion of hummingbirds. Hummingbirds just love Salvias. You can see rain-soaked spikes of Salvia flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105sv.jpg.

Who knows which Salvia species this is? Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that around 700 species exist, among them being annuals, biennials, subshrubs and shrubs, with flowers coming in all colors, though rarely yellow. I knew my plants were Salvias because their flowers bore only two stamens in the unique configuration shown on my pollination page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_polln.htm.

Even in that day's chilly, dingy fog-drizzle the patch of Salvias was ebullient with hummingbirds. The two main species were eastern North America's overwintering Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and our own Azure-crowned Hummingbirds, which are endemic to foothills and highlands of east-central Mexico to Nicaragua. Every now and then a gigantic -- relatively speaking -- Magnificent Hummingbird would buzz through, too. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are described as 3.5 inches long while these Magnificents are all of 5 inches.

Overwintering Ruby-throats are identified here in their winter plumages by their short, straight bills, all- white breasts, greenish tops, tails with white-tipped outer feathers (outer rectrices) and a single white spot behind each eye (a post-ocular spot). Ruby-throats behave in a generally subdued manner, maybe like you'd expect of someone who's just flown hundreds of miles from the north and has a whole winter ahead of nothing but eating and staying alive.

The Azure-crowneds and Magnificents, however, zipped about with as much energy and chattering sassiness as Ruby-throats exhibit during their northern summers around nectar feeders.

You can see an Azure-crowned Hummingbird at http://www.tsuru-bird.net/hummers/hummingbird_violet-crowned_m_1a.jpg.

You can see a big Magnificent Hummingbird at http://www.naturescapes.net/022004/jb0204.htm.

*****

MAMMALS AT YERBA BUENA RESERVE
The 1986 study by students from the UK's University of East Anglia listed mammals they had reason to believe existed in the reserve. Much of their information came from invader "vigilantes," always ready to defend the land they'd confiscated, and always the most likely to see critters wandering across the fields. The students listed seven species of bat, as well as rats and other rodents, plus the following larger mammals:

So far, being barred from the reserve itself by the invaders, I've seen none of the above species except for the Red-bellied Squirrels, which are very common in the trees around Yerba Buena's buildings. This is the same species we had in the Querétaro uplands, though different from the one in the Yucatan. This week I watched one gathering broad, coarse Quercus candicans leaves for a nest. My impression was that he was just repairing his roof between downpours.

*****

A LUSTY HOPHORNBEAM
Surely the most fascinating feature of our Pine-Oak-Sweetgum forest is its high percentage of relict species that are identical to, subspecies of, or sister species of, species typical of the forests of eastern North America, Sweetgum being the most conspicuous.

For example, take a look at the sodden tree branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105os.jpg.

You may recognize the clusters of flattened, leafy, hoplike bladders as fruits of the Hophornbeam, genus Ostrya. However, have you ever seen such long fruit clusters? And the leaves don't look quite right, either. Studies done here don't list any Ostryas so I don't know if this is considered a relict Eastern Hophornbeam, or a different species.

How interesting yet how frustrating to be living amidst all this but not have fieldguides or decent Internet access so I can figure it all out!

*****

A MODEST DOGWOOD
Also like North American forests, we have our dogwoods. A rain-drenched branch of our species is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071105cd.jpg.

This is CORNUS DISCIFLORA, and if the only dogwood you know is the West Coast's Pacific Dogwood or eastern North America's Flowering Dogwood -- both species famous for their spectacular clusters of flowers -- you may think that the flowers in the picture have had their large, white "petals" (actually bracts) fall off. However, this is as showy as our species gets. The branch in the picture is in "full flower."

You'll remember that even in the Pacific and Flowering Dogwoods the actual flowers are those tiny items in the flower-like things' centers. Four white, petal-like, modified leaves, or bracts, make the cluster of flowers look like one large blossom with four white petals. In Cornus disciflora there are no bracts, so there's no pretension that the flower cluster is a single spectacular blossom.

In the picture, notice that each little thingy (the flower) in each cluster has a slender, cream-colored item (a style) poking from it. Atop each style resides the stigma, which is where pollen grains germinate after pollination. Once the flower is pollinated and fertilization occurs in ovules inside the ovary, the ovary will begin developing into fruits similar to the colorful fruits produced by Pacific and Flowering Dogwoods.

Actually, Cornus disciflora's modest presentation of flowers is more typical of dogwood flowers in general than those of the Pacific and Flowering Dogwoods. "Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants" lists 14 dogwood species in cultivation in North America, of which only four gather their flower heads above petal-like bracts.

Bailey says that there are about 40 dogwood species -- 40 species of the genus Cornus. There's one that's a low herb, one with alternate leaves instead of the usual opposite, several with white, blue or black fruits instead of the stereotypical red...

Dogwoods can do lots of things other than produce flower clusters trying to look like single, big blossoms with four white petals.

*****

BEA'S SUGAR MAPLES
The other day Bea in Ontario wrote to me about how powerfully she was being affected by her local landscape's autumn beauty. She was especially touched by a woods of yellow Sugar Maples glowing intensely beneath a deep-blue sky.

Who knows why the gorgeousness of this particular autumn in Ontario affected Bea more profoundly than in other years? Why knows why this year she's discovering delights and pleasures in Nature's corners and niches that until now she's overlooked, passed by, simply ignored?

I've experienced such intense periods of sensitization to Nature myself. It's a feeling very like what religious people must experience when they're "reborn," or mystics feel at various yogic stages on the path to nirvana. There's enormous relief in finding that there's something beyond everyday human experience that's beautiful through and through, something offering teachings that can guide one through a lifetime, something always there that FEELS solid and GOOD.

Of course I would say that the fundamental difference between Nature and religions and yoga is that religions and yoga are human inventions arisen from and adapted to human psychology, and are thus blind to or at least insensitive to realties beyond immediate human interest.This limitation lies at the root of our environmental disaster. Nature, in profound contrast to relgions and yoga, is the Universe itself, the whole body of work of the Creator.

A point to be made is that the almost-ecstatic state Bea describes never returns with the same intensity as when experienced the first time. The sad thing is that most people who find the delicious feeling Bea describes drifting away, when their enthusiasm for life begins fading once again, when they start forgetting the insights their sharp feelings once gave them, they just accept the losses as natural, as part of getting old.

It doesn't have to be that way. The awakening Bea is experiencing constitutes just one door one can pass through. It's the first "rebirth" that should open the door to a subsequent "rebirth," and then after that there should be yet another. Each "rebirth" is even more beautiful, meaningful and transformative than the previous one.

The first "rebirth" derives from what we can experience with our physical senses: Bright colors, engaging textures, moving melodies, odors of life itself -- Bea's golden Sugar Maples, birdsong, the odor of rich soil on a perfect autumn day.

The second "rebirth" arises from intellectual inquiry. One learns about the evolution, taxonomy and ecology of maples, one learns about the dynamics of bird populations, one learns about the complexity of soil, of galaxies beyond our own, of subatomic particles... Seeing that Nature is so complex, yet all Her interrelated, interdependent parts harmonize and function perfectly together, one is filled with awe.

The third "rebirth" is a spiritual one (not religious). The implications of Nature's beauty and perfection lead to the inescapable insight that something is going on in the Universe far beyond the influence and understanding of humanity.

And, whatever that "something" is, it's so dazzling, profound and eternal that it would seem to make sense that the goal of any intelligent, sentient being should be this: To harmonize one's behavior with Nature's teachings, or paradigms (love of diversity, recycling of resources, cooperation among mutually dependent parts, etc.).

Being touched by a grove of Sugar Maples on a sunny autumn day should be just the beginning.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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