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 12, 2007

SPARKLING-TAILED WOODSTAR IN THE SALVIAS
Last week I told you about the hummingbirds who visit a certain big population of violet-flowered salvias near my dwelling. Early last week it finally stopped raining, I returned to the salvias and found a hummingbird species working the blossoms I'd missed earlier, a real doozy.

It was a Sparkling-tailed Woodstar, PHILODICE DUPONTII, sometimes known as Dupont's Hummingbird, and sometimes placed in the genus Tilmatura. The species is endemic to foothills and highlands from central Mexico to Nicaragua and its looks make it worthy of the dreamy imagery the name "Sparkling-tailed Woodstar" evokes. One is shown on a Nicaraguan postage stamp at http://www.bird-stamps.org/images/stamps/nicara/_81299.jpg.

Two features of this hummer grab your attention right off. First, like the Bumblebee Hummingbird we met in the Querétaro highlands, Sparkling-tailed Woodstars are slow-moving, bumblebee-like birds.

The male's tail is the second bizarre thing. From the side the tail looks like a slender black stick with three white bands stuck into the bird's rear end. When the bird flies he cocks that tail upwards at maybe a 35° angle. When he lands, however, especially if he begins preening, you see that the slender tail is sharply forked all the way to the rump, scissor-like. Immature males bear shorter tails with one or two white bands, while females get along with short, shallowly cleft, round-tipped tails.

Both sexes also bear broad, white patches on the sides of their rumps, or lower backs, enhancing the big-bee resemblance.

This species seems shier than most. The ones I saw remained inside dense salvia clumps only briefly and occasionally flying up to see if I'd gone yet. With such unique field marks, however, all you need is a glimpse to make a hundred-percent-sure identification.

By the way, I don't know who is responsible but someone has been very creative naming our hummingbirds down here. Besides Sparkling-tailed Woodstars, whose tails don't sparkle at all, there are starthroats, mountain- gems, emeralds, sapphires, woodnymphs, coquettes, jacobins, sabrewings, hermits, barbthroats and more.

*****

HONEYBEES ROBBING SALVIAS
One afternoon as I watched hummingbirds feed among the salvias suddenly it occurred to me that something strange was going on: Despite the fact that salvia blossoms are so beautifully adapted for hummingbird pollination, as explained last week about those two seesaw-like anthers, actually more bees were buzzing around the salvias than hummingbirds. In fact, there was a variety of bees, including large bumblebee-like ones and regular honeybees.

It didn't take long to see that every bee was completely ignoring the salvias' highly adapted floral anatomy and were getting at the nectar using brute force. The bees, like the Cinnamon-bellied Flowerpiercers I spoke of a few Newsletters ago, were robbing the flowers. Larger bees ripped holes in the corollas' bases but the usual way smaller honeybees committed their nectar-theft was to force their pointy proboscises down between the loosely attached corolla's base and the calyx, the calyx being the cuplike thing from which the corolla emerges.

You can see a honeybee forcing entry at the base of a salvia flower instead of decently entering from the front and thereby helping the flower by pollinating it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112rn.jpg.

When I pulled off a corolla and looked into the bottom of the calyx with my handlens I could see the four tiny "nutlets" constituting the blossom's ovary. (This is typical of members of the Mint Family, and salvias are mints.) At the nutlet bases something was glistening, and I took that to be nectar.

From what I could see, more salvia nectar was being robbed than was being removed during legitimate pollination processes. Still, I bet that all the flowers got pollinated simply because there were so many hummingbirds, mainly White-eared Hummingbirds at that spot, who pollinated each flower they sought nectar in, even when the flower's nectar already had been robbed.

It was the hummingbirds, then, getting the short end of the deal. However, they were so numerous and fast working that they didn't seem to be suffering much.

*****

A WINDOW-SITTING SPINY LIZARD
Last Thursday was the first really sunny day we've had since the flooding and it sure was wonderful. At these elevations and at this season sunny days are cool and crisp, and the sky couldn't be bluer. By "cool" I mean it was 48° at dawn and in the mid sixties during the afternoon.

Wandering the grounds looking for butterflies to photograph I turned the corner of an abandoned building ornamented with invader slogans and surprised a 10-inch long lizard enjoying the sun as much as I. He scrambled up the wall and I was sure he'd get away before I could get my camera set, but he made the mistake of trying to get through a window's pane of glass. As he spun his wheels I managed to snap the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112sc.jpg.

With that blue collar around his neck he reminded me of the Mountain Spiny Lizard, Sceloporus jarrovi, we saw back in the Querétaro highlands, whose picture remains at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070428ly.jpg.

That seems a smaller, less robust species than my window sitter. Window Sitter clearly belongs to the genus Sceloporus, however, and in English we'd call him a spiny lizard. The only Sceloporus listed for the Reserve is Sceloporus taeniocnemis, and I suspect that the list maker had in mind this species, especially because he remarks that the species is common around dwellings.

However, Sceloporus classification is in a mess. Window-sitter looks very much like the common, widely distributed Blue-spotted Spiny Lizards that basked on stone walls back in the Yucatan and I read that in the highlands of Guatemala that species occurs to 2,300 meters in elevation. Therefore, until I learn better, I'll be thinking of Window Sitter as belonging to one of several local subspecies of the Blue-spotted Spiny Lizard, SCELOPORUS SERRIFER

*****

BLOOD TREE
The walk to town continues to be a pleasure, especially on cool, sunny days with the sky so blue. Nowadays the most eye-catching flowering plant is a six-ft-tall, bushy composite with yellow blossoms whose beauty I've already extolled back in Querétaro where it also was a robust, pretty roadside weed. There it was called Acahual. It's Tithonia tubaeformis, and its picture is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061211a.jpg.

The most eye-catching tree is conspicuous because of its sheer abundance in disturbed, eroded areas, its large, heart-shaped leaves and, most importantly, the foot-tall, rat-tail-like flower spikes arising from the tips of the trees' upper branches, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112cd.jpg.

People here call the tree, which averages 20-30 feet tall, "Palo de Sangre," or "Blood Tree." In other parts of the country it's "Sangre de Drago," or "Dragon Blood." Any plant bearing such names nearly always exudes red sap or latex. As soon as I looked closely at the tree I could easily believe it might produce colored sap because it was clearly a member of the Euphorbia Family, many members of which, when wounded, "bleed" colored, sometimes skin-irritating, eye-blinding or poisonous juice. The tree's scientific name is CROTON DRACO.

Of course I wanted to see the "blood." I broke off a leaf and was surprised to see a clear, mucilaginous sap emerge that didn't redden with time. I nicked a small, woody branch and the same clear liquid oozed out. An invader I knew was macheteing weeds on reserve land not far away so I asked him why "Blood Tree" didn't bleed.

"It's full of blood!" he replied, and to emphasize his remark he chopped his machete into the air the way you'd hack at a tree's trunk, then stood there wide-eyed as if blood were spurting everywhere. "You want me to show you?" he asked, pointing his machete at a nearby tree.

I didn't want the tree to be needlessly hacked so I declined his offer, but later I found a big tree and nicked a thumbnail-size hole in its smooth, soft trunk, and out oozed reddish "blood," which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112ce.jpg.

Now I know that the red sap emerges only from trunks of larger trees. I've never seen a tree that restricted its colored sap to its trunk, producing clear sap in younger parts.

My Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico claims that the tree's bark has febrifugal properties (lessens fever) and drinking a tea of the cooked bark hardens the gums. The men renovating the ruined dwelling I'm occupying say that that may be true but around here if you have gastritis you need to drink about half a cup of the sap, or boil the bark and drink the tea.

*****

HARES-FOOT-FERN
Probably the most common and conspicuous fern growing on tree trunks and branches here is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112ph.jpg.

That's the genus PHLEBODIUM, maybe the species AUREUM, in English sometimes it's called Hares-foot-fern.

The picture shows a sunlight illuminated frond with round "fruit-dots," or sori, clearly visible on the frond's undersurface. Sori are locations where the fern's spore-producing sporangia cluster.

It's good to see sori because they're useful in fern identification. Sori come in a bewildering variety of shapes, sizes and arrangements upon the frond's surface. When I see sori such as these -- round, with no indusium (cover over the sorus), and neatly arranged in single file -- I immediately assume that the fern is a member of the Polypody Family. If you know North America's Common Polypody or Resurrection Fern in this same family, you'll agree that Phlebodium's sori look just like theirs. In fact, Phlebodium ferns used to be placed in the genus Polypodium, to which Common Polypodies and Resurrection Ferns also belong.

Phlebodiums are robust ferns, which they must be to survive on naked tree trunks as well as in the airy, exposed tops of older trees where often you see their fronds dangling from among dense bromeliad gardens. Often I find them growing on the ground. When I probe the ground around these terrestrial ferns often I find the remnants of the old tree trunk the ferns had been climbing when the tree fell. Most epiphytes, when their tree falls, are goners. But Phlebodiums are tough enough, and flexible enough, to survive.

This heartiness may explain why horticulturalists have paid attention to the fern, for the species' fronds don't strike me as particularly pretty. One form developed from our wild kind is silvery, or "glaucous," while another's frond margins appear cut into narrow, pointed lobes.

*****

CRINUM LILIES
One four-ft-high, good-smelling ornamental plant putting on a show here nowadays is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112cr.jpg.

You can see a close-up of one of that plant's flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112cs.jpg.

This is a member of the genus CRINUM, of the Amaryllis Family. Species in the genus are often referred to as Crinum Lilies, even though Crinum isn't a member of the Lily Family and therefore not a lily. Most species in the Amaryllis Family have entirely "inferior" ovaries, while those in the Lily Family are mostly entirely superior or only partially inferior. If you're interested in pursuing these differences my diagram distinguishing inferior from superior ovaries can be accessed at http://www.backyardnature.net/inf_sup.gif.

Once you're convinced you have a genuine member of the Amaryllis Family, you still have to figure out which genus you're dealing with, for there are about 90 of them. Fact is, our Crinum looks a heck of a lot like a typical amaryllis (genus Amaryllis), especially in the way its large, funnel-shaped blossoms cluster atop a tall, slender, leafless stem, or "scape."

There's one neat trick that easily separates Crinums from Amaryllises. Crinum scapes are solid, while Amaryllis scapes are hollow.

Among Crinums the predominant color is white, though they can be striped or tinged with red. Among Amaryllises it's the opposite, mainly red but ornamented in various ways with white.

When you see a plant of the general form shown in the photo, keep Crinum in mind, especially if you're in the tropics. My old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that perhaps 80-100 Crinum species are known, while only about 70 species of Amaryllis are recognized. My impression is that if you see such an impressively flowering plant in a North American pot or garden, probably it's an Amaryllis, but if you see it gracing a shaggy tropical spot near someone's house, the best bet may be that it's a Crinum.

*****

MELAMPODIUM AMONG THE BEANS
In an earlier Newsletter I described Inés's pretty, weedy field of red-flowered Botil Beans. Lately bright yellow patches have emerged within the broad canvas of dark green splattered with bean-flower crimson. The yellow swaths remind me exactly of late fall in eastern North America when certain fields prettily erupt with large populations of yellow-flowered Spanish Needles. In fact, I'd been assuming that these were Spanish Needles in Inés's field, if not the same weedy northern species then something close to it. But then finally I took a close look at a blossom and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112ml.jpg.

To be fascinated by what's shown in that picture you need to be acquainted with basic composite-flower anatomy, for both Spanish Needles and this flower are composites, or members of the Composite Family. You may want to review my composite-flower anatomy page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm.

There you're reminded how each composite "flower" is actually a cluster of tiny flowers, each flower with male and female parts. The tiny flowers can be of two types: "Ray flowers" and "disk flowers." Some composite blossoms produce both types, some have only ray and some only disk. In the picture, the outer "petals" are ray flowers while the blossom's "eye" is composed of closely packed disk flowers.

This flower's peculiarity is that its ray and disk flowers produce "seeds" (actually special fruits called achenes) exactly opposite to the way it's usually done. The iconic composite blossom with both ray and disk flowers is the sunflower. You know that sunflower "seeds" (the achene fruits) are produced in the sunflower blossom's broad "eye," each disk flower producing a single achene. You may not have realized that the sunflower's yellow ray flowers radiating from the eye are sterile -- produce no fruits.

In contrast, in this Spanish-Needle-like flower in Inés's bean patch, disk flowers in the "eye" are sterile (stamens producing pollen but ovaries remaining undevloped) while each ray produce an ovary that develops into an achene. Not only that, but the achenes are whoppers -- big, roundish, shiny things. If you look back at the picture you'll see how they form a circle around the sterile eye, like little black peas.

Especially in the top flower you can see that a few achenes have plucked from the circle. Such oversized fruits must represent quite a meal to a small, seed-eating bird. Nearby a small flock of Black-headed Siskins appeared to be waiting for me to leave the patch of yellow flowers and I'll bet that they had those plump achenes on their minds.

So, the plant is a species of the genus MELAMPODIUM. In Spanish some Melampodiums are called "Ojo de Perico," which means "Parakeet Eye." I don't find Melampodiums in either Weakley's Carolina flora or Jepson's California flora, so the genus must be a tropical or tropical American specialty.

*****

A MYSTERY PICTURE
Can you figure out what's going on in the photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071112pp.jpg?

I'll only say that the picture isn't staged in any way, and what's going on is completely natural.

*****

"ME LÍ OYOTÉ"
I resolved to learn a little Tzotzil so I stepped outside and spoke to the men renovating the dwelling I'm occupying. They speak Spanish among themselves but they'd told me that most of their parents still speak some Tzotzil, and they themselves know a little.

"How do you say 'Good morning'?" I asked. They looked confused and soon it was apparent that not a single man knew how to say it.

I'd been reading a novel from the departed missionaries' abandoned library. The story is based in southern Africa about a hundred years ago and in one place the hero says that in the language of the Zulus there's no standard way of saying "Thank you." If one is grateful for something, one must find appropriate words for that exact context. I don't know if that's true, but maybe something like that is going on in Tzotzil with regard to "Good morning."

The next day an old man appeared at work and the foreman brought him to me because he spoke Tzotzil. The old man was protesting in Spanish saying that I'd never remember. "No, this one knows how to write words onto paper," the foreman assured.

The old man taught me the sounds for "Good morning," which, written as if it were Spanish, are "Me lí oyoté." I'm just guessing as to how many words the phrase consists of, and the old man himself couldn't say.

"But the words don't mean exactly 'Good morning,'" my teacher said. "They mean 'Here I am.'"

So, mystery solved. Like the novel's Zulus, Tzotzil speakers have a whole different headset with regard to what to say when you meet someone.

The first time I used the phrase I felt the difference between "Here I am" and "Good morning." I've read that "Good morning" is a contraction of the sentiment "I hope that you are having a good morning." "Good morning," then, is so impersonally abbreviated that it leaves out the speaker, doesn't mention the person meant to hear what's said, and even squelches the verb, which otherwise would make clear that a message of "hope" is being offered.

On the other hand, when you meet someone and say, "Here I am," then human psychology expects something to follow. One commits to pursuing a train of thought or an action, and one takes responsibility for being present. "Here I am" is not something just to say and walk away from. "Here I am" as a greeting suggests a whole world view, one firmly rooted in the speaker's membership in a community, alien to those of us who use "Good morning."

For me, this is the great charm of learning other languages: They provide frameworks from which we can glimpse completely new perspectives on life in general. This enlarges us, giving us greater flexibility of thought and action in everyday life.

It happened that my first chance to use "Me lí oyoté" was with no one less than the invader chief. He was so astonished to hear Tzotzil coming out of me that he lost his usual cool, melted into a grinning, boyish discomfit and, as his eyes darted back and forth the way a smart person's do when a trick or trap is suspected, replied in a torrent of Tzotzil, of which I understood not a word.

I'll never forget the look on that man's face.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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