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 26, 2007

WHITE-CROWNED PARROTS AT DUSK
I didn't know it was Thanksgiving in the US until last Thursday when I hiked to town to buy bananas, and downloaded my email while there. Thursday was a sunny, warm, windy day here, and I hiked through the mountains exploring a newly found trail, and I was certainly thankful for that day.

Here the Sweetgums and Blackgums, or Tupelos, are starting to put on a little color but otherwise it's as green as can be. It's like early September in Kentucky -- until you see the bromeliads and orchids on tree limbs, and then you know you're not up there.

You know it, too, when at dusk shrill, excited screeches shatter the calm as a flock of maybe 30 thick-bodied birds with broad wings held at right angles from their bodies approach from down in the valley. Even though all you can see is black silhouettes you know they can't be anything but parrots or parakeets. My list of upland-Chiapas birds at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/birds-ch.htm lists two parrot and four parakeet species potentially to be seen here. A quick glance with binoculars shows that these sky-screechers have short, squared tails, so they're one of the two species of parrots, not any of the sharp-tailed parakeets.

Of the two parrot species potentially to be seen here the White-fronted Parrot is a large Amazon type (27 cm long) while the White-crowned Parrot is a smaller (24 cm) member of the genus Pionus. By "Amazon type" I mean a member of the large genus Amazona. Bird fanciers often refer to "Amazon parrots" when they're talking about "typical parrots."

If you've seen lots of flying parrots, the moment our evening flock comes into view you can tell that these are smaller than most species because of their quicker maneuverability. Also, it'd be unusual for such large flocks of the big Amazons to form. Even when all you see is black silhouettes it's clear that, if they're either larger Amazons or smaller White-crowned Parrots, these are the smaller ones, portreyed in a painting at http://www.1-costaricalink.com/costa_rica_fauna/white_crowned_parrot.htm.

In that illustration the bird's red shoulders are a figment of the painter's imagination. The birds' shoulders are bronzy-brown shoulders. Otherwise the colors are OK. They're pretty birds.

In their tight little flock they wheel through the sky right at treetop level until abruptly they vanish into the crown of a tall tree. They screech and screech and you wonder what they could be saying they haven't said a thousand times that same day, but their level of enthusiasm continues at the intensity of kids screaming at a playground. Nothing is more social, more needing of attention of fellow members of the community, than a parrot or parakeet, so when you see how gleefully they interact you feel bad if you've ever kept one alone in a cage. Atop these tall trees they don't let you get too close. You inch closer and closer until maybe you can see their white crowns but then they explode from their treetop, screeching like crazy, and head back into the valley. Only the lucky ever see the birds' amber eyes, bluish chest, red tail coverts and those off-color shoulders.

This is about as high in elevation as White-crowneds get. I can't see this species without recalling my 1996 birding trip when I penned the following in hot, humid, lowland Oaxaca:

At dusk I steal into an abandoned coffee plantation with security very much on my mind. I am intensely focused on watching for someone following me, on not being seen, of choosing a random spot and camouflaging the tent as best I can. As darkness falls I hear parrots in the "mother tree" above me and stick my head from the tent's door. Two White-crowned Parrots are fighting, one dangling from a Peperomia-covered limb by a single toe while the other attaches itself by the beak to its adversary's wing, and what they're saying is clearly parrot-cussing.

Notes and drawings from my 1996 birding trip reside at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/

*****

OUR SENSITIVE, ROADSIDE MIMOSA
The low, thorny, arid-land scrub forest we had in both Querétaro and the Yucatán was largely populated with diverse spiny-stemmed, feathery-leafed trees bearing powder-puff-like flower heads. These look-alike trees belonged to various Bean Family genera, foremost among them Acacia and Mimosa.

Relative to Querétaro and the Yucatán, upland Chiapas is cool and rainy, so the native forest here isn't at all scrubby. We do get spiny, scrubby vegetation, though, on deforested mountain slopes where erosion has left thin, sterile soil that loses its water as soon as it rains, thus artificially creating semi-desert conditions. Also, certain spiny, scrubby species appear along roadsides.

Along our roadsides our most common scrubby, spiny- stemmed, powder-puff, Bean Family species is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071126ma.jpg.

That' MIMOSA ALBA. Because its stems bear short spines, this is one of dozens of plants Mexicans call "Uña de Gato," or "Cat's Claw." Mimosa alba is unusual among scrubby, spiny-stemmed, Bean Family species in that its leaves are sensitive -- you touch them and they droop and close. Several Mimosa species have touch-sensitive leaves, probably the most famous one, sold under the name of Sensitive-Plant, being Mimosa pudica. Our Mimosa alba is less enthusiastically sensitive than the Senstive-Plant, but you can indeed see its leaves drooping and closing when you touch them. Current thought is that drooping leaves are less likely to be eaten by grazing herbivores who might regard them as diseased.

Mimosa alba is also unusual among scrubby, spiny, Bean Family trees in that its leaves aren't feathery. Like other Mimosas, its blades are doubly compound (bipinnate) but instead of the first divisions forming numerous subdivisions which are themselves divided into hundreds of tiny leaflets, usually, as the photo shows, the first division just forms two subdivisions, then each of those two are divided into four leaflets. Therefore, most Mimosa alba blades have only eight leaflets, of which two are much reduced, and this makes the species very easy to identify.

In the spherical flower heads shown in the picture the pink, slender bristles are the flowers' stamens -- pink filaments atop which appear tiny, whitish, pollen- producing anthers. If you part the flower head so you can see into its interior you'll find individual tiny flowers with each flower bearing four stamens. This differentiates Mimosas from Acacias; Acacia flowers bear many stamens.

Mimosa alba is a common weed-tree throughout tropical Mexico, and far south of here.

*****

CLEAR PLASTIC BAGS OF CACATÉ
On buses carrying you upslope from Villahermosa to here you pass through many colorful little villages as the road zigzags up and up. When I arrived here in October, at about mid slope, vendors started appearing hawking small, clear-plastic bags of blackish, more or less spherical, mothball-size things. Everyone was calling out, almost like roosters crowing, "Cacatés... Cacatés... "

When the bus driver stopped for a rest he and several passengers bought some bags, then stood around cracking the black things between their teeth and agreeing how good their cacatés tasted. At the next stop I bought a bag myself, found the cacatés' shells harder than I wanted to subject my molars to, and the white, oily flesh inside somewhat bitter and salty. You can see several cacatés in the palm of my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071126cc.jpg.

Since local people seemed to love cacatés I brought Inés a bag as a little gift. Turns out she keeps a large, plastic garbage bag of them for serving to guests. Also, in Pueblo Nuevo's open-air market there's always one to several people selling clear-plastic bags filled with cacatés. They're almost like bags of popcorn at the movies: People act surprised if you don't buy one from them.

UPDATE: Eventually Erika Vohman, Executive Director of the Maya Nut Institute, wrote saying that they were the seeds of ARTOCARPUS CAMANSI, very closely related to the Breadfruit tree, and in English usually called Breadnut trees, despite that name also being used for the Ramón.

At first I didn't have the slightest idea what cacatés were. Eventually I was told that they were a fruit I knew very well, but in the raw state. Back in the 70s when I served as the naturalist for Maya-ruin tours in Guatemala's lowland Petén region I ate great numbers of them collected from the forest floor. In lowland Guatemala and in the Yucatán the tree they're from is called Ramón. It's BROSIMUM ALICASTRUM, a member of the Fig Family.

Inés tells me that the black, hard-shelled fruits sold here are brought up from the lowlands and prepared in three ways. First, the fruits can be dried in the sun, then stored for a long time and eaten with no further preparation. Second, the black fruits being sold have been boiled in salt water, then dried. Third, the boiled, dried fruits can be opened, then the white flesh canned in water.

*****

BLACKBERRY SUCCESSION
The other day Iván from Spain arrived exploring the idea of growing blackberries commercially here. Several blackberry species are native to here so it may be a decent idea. He'd been told that enormous blackberry patches grew near here 30 or 40 years ago. When I told Iván that blackberry thickets are transient phenomena I was obliged to go into the whole concept of plant succession. That was fine with me because the ecological concept of succession is beautiful to think about.

For, if you destroy a forest leaving open, naked soil, before long certain weeds invade the open area and form a thick cover. Within a few years woody shrubs appear among the weeds, eventually overshadowing the weeds and replacing the weed community with a woody thicket. Later certain fast-growing trees grow up among the shrubs similarly overshadowing them and eventually replacing them. Then one day, if everything goes well, a mature, forest -- a climax forest -- appears and thereafter keeps replacing itself.

There's nothing random about the species constituting each successional stage. Each community of plants and animals stabilizes and enriches the soil, preparing it for a following community composed of a greater number of species, and exhibiting ever-more-complex interactions and interdependencies among the species. The first flush of weeds in a newly abandoned field is a heroic team of first-responders. They arrive at the scene of a terrible violence, do their work, then they turn the recuperating soil over to the next team of professionals, whose goal similarly is to stabilize and enrich the soil in preparation for the next more complex community.

It's as if the community has a mind, and the thing on its mind is to keep evolving toward the climax community -- the self-perpetuating community with the greatest number of species of all. The phenomenon of plant succession, then, supports the notion that among the great teachings of the "Nature Bible" is that diversity and sustainability are sacred.

Within the framework of plant succession, blackberry plants are specialists in invading weedy, especially grassy, fields, providing wonderful wildlife habitat, and for setting the stage for the first flush of fast-growing trees. You may remember from my Mississippi hermit years how blackberry canes inexorably invaded the "broomsedge field" but behind the wave of advancing blackberries fast-growing Sweetgums and Loblolly Pines always appeared overshadowing and eventually taking the place of the blackberries.

So, what I told Iván was that just because blackberry thickets were present in a certain valley 40 years ago, that doesn't mean that they'll still be there. On the other hand, since blackberries appear maybe four or five years after deforestation, and there's enormous deforestation here, we'll certainly find blackberries somewhere.

*****

DRYING COFFEE BEANS IN THE STREET
Last Monday when I visited Pueblo Nuevo to issue the Newsletter I visited a "frutaría," or fruit store, to buy a few pounds of bananas and other things. You can see what was on the street before the frutaría at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071126cb.jpg.

Those are coffee beans drying in the open air.

In and around Pueblo Nuevo I see coffee shrubs next to people's homes but really this is not coffee-growing country. It's too high and chilly here for growing coffee commercially. The frutaría owner had bought these beans from somewhere warmer downslope, now is drying them himself, and later will grind them, roast them and sell packages of freshly ground coffee in his store.

One reason I like this particular frutaría -- the blue and red one at the right in the picture -- is that the owner can just look at a bag of bananas and tell you how many bananas need to be added or subtracted in order to have the 1.5 kilo or whatever quantity you're buying. He's never wrong and can do the same thing with carrots, potatoes and chili peppers.

*****

IF YOU BUY FROM AMAZON.COM...
During the upcoming gift-buying season, if you buy from Amazon.com I hope you'll consider accessing the company through my web pages. Buying through my pages adds no cost at all to your purchase, but I receive a commission of about 4% on books sold. That helps defray the expense of keeping my websites on the Internet.

You can find links to many kinds of nature books at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.

You can also buy everything from music CDs to computers and refrigerators at Amazon.com. To look for something special use the keyword search engine at the top, right of my page at the above link.

Thanks.

*****

CAMERA KAPUT
Last Monday after taking the coffee-beans-in-the-street picture my wonderful little digital camera generously given to me by Jerry in Mississippi died. I'm working on buying another but it may take a few weeks. That's why I have so few photos this week. Just hold on; the pictures will return.

*****

GATHERING FIREWOOD
All day long, seven days a week, I hear machetes and axes chop, chop, chopping at what's left of Yerba Buena Reserve. Sometimes when I'm jogging at dawn, way up in the cloudforest, chainsaws whine away. During the day various groups of men pile heaps of logs along the highway, then at certain intervals pickups arrive, the logs are loaded and spirited away. I use the word "spirited" because this isn't supposed to be happening in the developing reserve. The pillaging is of such a scale that clearly most of the wood is being sold commercially, not taken home to local people's kitchens.

When the invaders occupied the reserve they kept other firewood gatherers out, allowing only themselves to collect. Now that they've abandoned the area not only do they return gathering firewood but people from town no longer fear entering. It's a free-for-all, everyone trying to get firewood before someone reestablishes order.

Atop all that, Yerba Buena's owners are felling large trees in the much smaller tract across the road from the reserve, where I live. Throughout each day large trees crash to the ground with all the attendant popping of other trees' branches as they're ripped off, the raining sound of bark and epiphytes cascading from the sky, the shaking of the earth itself. The logs being removed are large, straight ones that go right to the sawmill. A forester marked the trees with sustainable production in mind, but clearly he wasn't thinking in terms of maintaining reserve/ecotour ambience, or protecting the very fragile and unique cloudflorest community we have here. Felling these large trees creates holes in the forest that lets in sun and wind, drying out the forest, making it inhospitable for bromeliads and orchids.

Sometimes when a giant falls I ask myself what I'm doing staying here.

After I think about it awhile, I realize this: What's happening here is no different from what's going on everyplace else. It's just that here it's all done at such an elemental level that you can see the effects of people's appetites. When the big trees fall you can go look at the new hole in the forest, smell the crushed herbage, see the dislodged epiphytes and see the disoriented birds and squirrels whose nests have disappeared.

In contrast, when people in North America and Europe turn up the thermostat more than it needs to be, they don't see the meter at the power plant saying that more energy needs to be generated. They don't see the air- polluting coal that has to be mined, mostly through ecosystem-obliterating strip-mining, to produce the energy they're calling for, or the spent radioactive nuclear fuel that later will have to be disposed of somehow, in someone's "backyard." They're not confronted with the environmental violence that'll have to be committed someplace on Earth, at some time in the future, in their name, responding to that wrist-turn at the thermostat.

For my part, I prefer being here, where the violence at hand is other than by remote control. When a tree falls so close that it jars the ground you're standing on there's no room for hypocrisy or self deception. If you use the wood from that tree, there's no escaping the knowledge that you are an accomplice to the removal of that tree, and to the destruction of the biotic community that once depended on the tree.

Conversely, if you put on a jacket instead of adding an extra log to your fire, you know that not far away a tree and its community of living things survives a little longer, thanks to you.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

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