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.}

December 17, 2007

BLUE-HOODED EUPHONIAS
One of our prettiest birds is the Blue-hooded Euphonia, EUPHONIA ELEGANTISSIMA. "Elegantissima" means "really, really elegant." The bird is sparrow-shaped but somewhat smaller than a House Sparrow. I can't find an Internet picture showing the gorgeous male's turquoise- blue hood, blue-black face and throat, rufous forehead, ochraceous-orange underparts and glossy blue-black upperparts, but a small, fuzzy picture of a relatively drab female at least showing the blue hood is shown here.

Right next to Inés's door, in a Sweetgum with fallish yellow leaves, most mornings I can see a male Blue- hooded Euphonia in all his rainbow glory foraging inside big clumps of orange tropical mistletoe. Try to visualize that Technicolor scene, especially the big globes of orange mistletoe amidst yellowing leaves lighted by intense morning sunlight beneath a deep, deep, high-elevation-blue sky.

In Mexico we have five euphonia species. Back in Querétaro's scrubby woods we saw black and yellow Scrub Euphonias, as reported in my Newsletter of December 11, 2006. Here's something I wrote then about some Scrub Euphonias seen in a Sweet Acacia:

"At first I thought the peeping birds must be chasing insects among the acacia's flowers but the binoculars showed that BB-size, orange, succulent mistletoe fruits were being sought."

What's interesting is that our Blue-hooded Euphonias' eating habits are exactly like that, even though our mistletoes parasitize Sweetgums, not acacias, our mistletoes' fruits are white instead of yellow and their leaves are orange instead of green. It looks like Euphonias simply have a passion for gummy mistletoe fruits whatever the color and species of mistletoe!

Euphonias as a group are small, stubby tanagers. In other words, the genus Euphonia resides in the Tanager Subfamily of the big Emberizid Family, of the Perching Bird Order. If your birding field guide is an old one it won't mention Emberizids because that's a newly constituted family, incorporating such thick-billed species as Cardinals, sparrows and tanagers. A list of birds observed here at Yerba Buena, recognizing the big Emberizid Family with the Emberizids near the end, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/birds-yb.htm.

Euphonias don't normally appear north of the US border. Our Blue-hooded species is distributed from northern Mexico to western Panama.

*****

DYING WASPS
About three weeks ago wasps began entering my dwelling through cracks between the roof and walls. Before long nearly every day I'd find dead ones on the floor. One day I noticed that in one corner of the ceiling maybe fifteen were clustered, just sitting there, and every day more dead wasps appeared on the floor.

I've often seen this same thing in the north. At http://www.backyardnature.net/wasps.htm you can read about the life history of "paper wasps" (species who build nests of paper) of the genus Polistes, which my dying wasps very well might be. An interesting feature of the Polistes life cycle is that in late fall or early winter all members of the wasp colony die except for the already impregnated queen, who overwinters the best she can, then starts a new colony the next spring.

Up north when I see masses of dying paper wasps I assume that cold temperatures and frost is killing them. However, here we're not going to have killing frosts or very cold temperatures, but they're still dying!

I just wonder if my dying wasps may not represent an ice-age relict population from North America, still genetically programmed to deal with North America's winters? Maybe they're like the relict Sweetgums, Blackgums, Hornbeams and many other species we have here atop our mountains, in so-called "sky islands." When things warmed up at the end of the last ice age, communities of plants and animals that had been displaced southward from North America could either follow their appropriate climatological zone back northward, or migrate up mountain slopes, in order to remain in the temperate climate they were adapted for. Maybe my dying wasps' ancestors migrated up these mountain slopes from the lowlands, which today are too hot for them.

So many questions like this arise every day here. If I were a graduate student looking for a project I couldn't find a better subject to study. For one thing, with global warming putting stress on all ecological systems, down here atop our tropical mountains we have many North American species already adapted for relatively warm winters. Someday ecologists in the north may want to save eastern North American forests by introducing some of our species. Who knows?

I just know that it's especially important that our ecological "sky islands" with so many plants and animals with unique genetic heritages should be preserved. And that makes the accelerating destruction of what little is left here even sadder, even harder to deal with.

*****

THE PASTOR'S ORCHIDS
A couple of Newsletters ago I invited readers to figure out the identities of two orchids blossoming here now, since my limited internet connections prevent my own browsing. Pat in Colorado identified the orange- blossomed one growing weedily along roadsides as EPIDENDRUM RADICANS, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/o-e-radi.htm.

Last Monday while in the "ciber" issuing the Newsletter and checking out Pat's ID, when an image of Epidendrum radicans's orangish flowers appeared on my screen, at the computer to my right I heard an "Ohhhh... " followed by a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a fellow looking at me smiling saying, "I like orchids, too. At my house just a few blocks away I have some you might want to see, and at my rancho outside of town I have a lot... "

It was Pastor Adán Perez Morales, a Seventh Day Adventist preacher. You can see the Pastor in the orchid-growing shed behind his house holding an abundantly flowering OCNEIDIUM PHYMATOCHILUM at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/o-o-phym.htm.

These days as our summer rainy season gives way to the winter dry season, few orchids are flowering. However, in the Pastor's shed three species were producing flowers, so I photographed them and, along with the weedy Epidendum radicans Pat identified, these four species are initiating a new subsection of my Plants & Animals of Upland Chiapas pages. You may enjoy browsing my first few orchid pages, linked to from http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/orchids.htm.

Now that I have someone to help me get a handle on the local orchids (He owns the fabulous, well illustrated Las Orquídeas de México), roaming the mountains will be even more fun.

Thanks, Pat.

*****

ROADSIDE MASTIS
You can see one of our most common and conspicuously flowering roadside weeds here at the end of the wet season, a member of the Composite Family with yellow disk flowers and white ray flowers radiating outward, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217ba.jpg.

That's BIDENS AUREA, known in central Mexico as "Acahual," a name applied to many similar daisy-like plants. Here in Chiapas most commonly it's called Mastis. The species name "aurea" means "golden," and I read that often the ray flowers are yellow, not white as in the picture.

In the picture, notice the dark brown, spherical cluster of bristly fruits, or achenes, at the left. Those fruits look a lot like the "stick-tights" produced by North America's fall-flowering, yellow- blossomed Spanish Needles. In fact, Spanish Needles and Mastis belong to the same genus, Bidens.

Keep in mind that these needle-topped achenes are specialized fruits typical of the Composite Family, not seeds, though most people think of them as seeds. Achenes are dry, indehiscent (don't open up), one-seeded fruits. When we eat "sunflower seeds" we're cracking open the achene's hard coat, or pericarp (the hard wall of the ripened ovary), expelling and eating the soft seed.

With a handlens you can see that each needle atop our Mastises' achenes is "retrorsely barbed." That means that each needle is covered with tiny, backward- pointing barbs, so when a needle enters animal hair or human socks, the needles tend to stay put.

As with North America's Spanish Needles, here often you see large sections of fields or roadsides gloriously hued with this species. In Chiapas, despite this being an introduced species, beekeepers are especially fond of Bidens aurea because its flowers produce abundant pollen and nectar. It grows mainly in disturbed areas in the pine and oak-pine zones.

By the way, the red thing in the picture is an unopened Ipomoea coccinea flower, a kind of morning-glory, kept in the picture just for the fun of it.

*****

SENNAS
Most places in Mexico, including the Yucatan, Querétaro and here, you're likely to see Sennas. These are large bushes or small trees with pinnately compound leaves like those of ash trees, and orange-yellow or yellow flowers about the size of North America's Redbud flowers. You can see leaves and flowers of one of our sennas flowering right now at weedy woods edges at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217so.jpg.

A close-up of one its 25¢-size flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217sn.jpg.

In the flower picture notice that the blossom isn't radially symmetrical -- can't be cut across the center from all directions with mirror images resulting on each side of the cut. Most blossoms, like tulips and daffodils, are radially symmetrical, thus referred to as "regular" or "actinomorphic" flowers. In contrast, our blossom can only be cut in one way in order to get mirror images, which is down the center from top to bottom. Such bilaterally symmetrical flowers are said to be "irregular," or "zygomorphic." However, our blossom isn't nearly as zygomorphic as a typical flower from a snapbean vine. It's "weakly zygomorphic."

The most asymmetrical part of the Senna flower is its stamens -- the male parts that produce pollen. Anthers on Senna stamens, instead of opening along slits down their sides to release pollen like most anthers, open at their tops. In the picture notice how the two bottom stamens have enlarged to look like elephant tusks, with the upper stamens remaining small or suppressed. In that picture, to the left of the blossom, notice the long, slender legume which is more or less round in cross section. This is a typical Senna legume.

The small tree in these pictures is probably SENNA HIRSUTA, a weedy species commonly found throughout much of Mexico. I can't be sure about the name because I have no field guides, and Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists 30 Senna species just for here! In the American tropics the genus Senna is practically ubiquitous. A few even extend into North America. Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists seven species for that area. When I was botanizing in Kentucky we placed Sennas in the genus Cassia. I guess someone figured out that the name Senna had precedence.

Sennas are members of the vast Bean Family and the Caesalpinia Subfamily. When you see a Bean Family member with fair-sized, yellow to orange, weakly zygomorphic flowers with a couple of elephant-tusk stamens, think "Senna."

*****

ANONA/ CHERIMOYA
Down below my dwelling in a fencerow next to the garden stands a small tree bearing the 4-inch-wide fruit seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217an.jpg.

People here call that an Anona, and books refer to it as a Cherimoya. It's ANNONA CHERIMOLA. Up north Papaws are members of the same Annona Family and display something of the same texture, same sweet taste, and same big, black, hard seeds embedded in succulent flesh.

You can see that the fruit is dimpled all over with shallow, regularly distributed depressions. These dimples reflect the fact that flowers in this family produce several to many separate pistils, a pistil consisting of a stigma, style and ovary. That's a little unusual, since most flowers produce just one pistil. Blackberry flowers also produce numerous pistils, but when those blossoms are pollinated the many individual pistils mature into juicy little black bags that cluster together to form the blackberry fruit. The Custard-Apple fruit is like that, except that the pistils are more grown together. If you need to review basic flower structure, see my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm.

Therefore, the Cherimoya's dimples coincide with boundaries between the flower's grown-together pistils. Cherimoyas have been grown for so long by so many cultures that many cultivated races have arisen. Fruits range from nearly globular to conical, are dimpled like ours to nearly smooth, and sometimes can be covered with rounded, protruding bodies, or tubercles, marking the original pistils. Smooth-fruited races might be confused with Custard-Apples, except that Cherimoya leaves are velvety below while Custard-Apple leaves are practically hairless.

Cherimoyas are native to the Peruvian Andes but are grown worldwide in subtropical areas for their sweet fruit. Other important, delicious fruits in the same genus Annona are: the spiny Soursop or Guanabana; the Sugar-Apple or Sweetsop whose fruits break apart because the cohering pistils aren't fused together like the Cherimoya's, and; the Custard-Apple, similar to the Cherimoya but lacking the conspicuous dimples and not as delicious.

"Las Plantas Medicinales de México" reports that the fruit's seeds are poisonous and can be pulverized to use as an insecticide.

*****

SEPTEMBER IN THREE POINTS
Our Sweetgums are starting to turn a bit yellow, about like they would back in Kentucky in September. You can this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217s3.jpg.

When I see yellowing Sweetgum leaves glowing beneath such a splendidly blue sky I'm filled with a sense of nostalgia. Somehow sun-glowing Sweetgums represent a certain feeling that's been important during much of my life, the feeling of long September woods-walks in Kentucky, of sitting around my hermit campfire in late fall in Mississippi, etc.

Of course, it's not quite the same. For one thing, notice that a good number of the leaves in the picture are three-pointed.

You've seen that in our relict "sky islands" some plants are considered the exact same species found in eastern North America, some are different subspecies of the same species, and others are "sister species," which means that our species and the North American ones are regarded as having arisen from common ancestors. This dynamic reflects the fact that some organism groups evolve faster than others. Apparently Sweetgums evolve slowly while those of our species represented by sister species in the North evolve fast, and those being the same species as in the North but different subspecies evolve at an average rate.

Chiapas's Sweetgums are regarded as the very same species as occurs up North, Liquidambar styraciflua. However, I've often noticed that, on the average, northern plants tend to produce more five-pointed leaves while our Chiapan plants have more three-pointed leaves. Our Chiapan plants seem to be evolving toward a new three-pointed subspecies, but experts don't regard them as having evolved that far yet.

*****

TOMANTZIN
Last Wednesday, the 12th, was a big day here. It was Mexico's day for celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe. I can't imagine how many exploding rockets people in town set off during a 24-hour period, the booms awakening me at 3AM from two miles away. Iván, in charge of Yerba Buena's blackberry operation, returned from town that day shaking his head and saying, "Man, you should have seen all the drunks!" There were also long lines of pilgrims on the highway walking great distances, led by decorated pickup trucks carrying the Virgin's image.

I didn't realize how important the celebration was until I saw that the three tree-cutting men working for Yerba Buena's owners weren't working that day, even though they work on rainy days and are supposed to be Adventists who don't recognize the Virgin's overweening importance. In the afternoon two of them went off drinking, leaving the third behind because he's trying to overcome a history of alcoholism. He looked so sad and abandoned that I went down to talk with him.

I asked him why people shot off rockets and he simply said "for devotion." The pilgrims were walking, he further explained, in the hope that if the Virgin sees how they're suffering in her name maybe she'll do them some favors, or, maybe they're thanking her for past favors. He also said that the 12th, the Virgin's day, was even more important than Christmas. The festive dish he said he was missing by being away from his family on the Virgin's day was Mole de Pollo, or Chicken Mole, "mole" pronounced MOH-leh.

Iván has a book explaining how Mexico's indigenous people made the transition from believing in their own religions to accepting the Catholicism forced on them by the conquering Spanish. For example, the natives already worshipped the Goddess Tomantzin, who was the mother of all gods, the mother of Nature, etc., so it was easy for them to accept the Virgin. The first generations after the conquest looked at Virgin statues but in their minds prayed to Tomantzin. Later generations forgot all about Tomantzin. Still, a man in town here once told me how his parents, devout Catholics, still prayed to the Sun God.

I don't think it's an accident that the Virgin's day, Christmas, New Years and many other important celebrations occur at this time of year. We're approaching the Winter Solstice, which is when the Sun begins its return trip back northward, days in the Northern Hemisphere start getting longer, and the annual cycle begins all over. To people close to the Earth the Solstice is the most meaningful day of all, the most appropriate of all days to celebrate, for it marks the rebirth of the annual cycle.

Many religions have hijacked the Solstice's significance and time of year to make their own beliefs more plausible. All kinds of things are celebrated on dates around the Solstice, yet the Solstice itself is allowed to slide by unnoticed.

Not here. In a few days on the Solstice I'll celebrate a day of reflection and thanks. And if a Mexican asks me why I'm abandoning my usual routines I'll gladly tell them about the Solstice, and their own Tomantzin.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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