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.}

January 14, 2008

"DONALD DUCK" WRENS
They call the way Donald-Duck laughs, or the way kids make hilarious, halfway rude-sounding squeaks by forcing air from their cheeks past their molars into the backs of their open mouths as they move their lips. Howell describes the voice as "gruff, rasping and rollicking chatters, sheh-eh eh-eh-eh, or cheh- cheh... " but that doesn't come close. They're just funny sounds made all day long in everything from gardens to pine-oak woodland by big Band-backed Wrens, CAMPYLORHYNCHUS ZONATUS.

By "big" I mean up to 8 inches long (20.5 cm) compared to the House Wren's 4-¼ inches (11 cm). Take a brown House Wren, add black-and-white zebra stripes across the back and tail, and bold, black spots on the breast, add a white eye-stripe, almost double the size, and you get a Band-backed Wren.

Band-backed Wrens are common here, and that's OK with me because they cheer up anyplace they happen to be. Like a lot of wrens they're not only noisy but also nosey, unable to contain their curiosity when someone comes down a trail, so they come orbiting around you making their funny sounds.

The genus Campylorhynchus is an important one. The only Campylorhynchus wren in North America is the Southwest Desert's Cactus Wren, which often is the only bird you hear or see when walking through the desert at mid-day. In Mexico we have seven Campylorhynchus species and wherever they occur they're among the most conspicuous of species because of their noisiness and commonness.

When all the Mexican Campylorhynchus species are illustrated on one page you see that they're so similar that you think you'll have trouble in the field distinguishing them but that's not the case. The main reason is that the species are mostly "allopatric," which means that their distribution areas don't overlap. Nearly always in Mexico if you encounter a really big, really noisy, curious wren, it's one of the seven Campylorhynchus species.

Viewing all the Mexican Campylorhynchus distribution maps next to one another you get the strong impression that once there was one mother Campylorhynchus species that fractured into subspecies, and eventually distinct species. Maybe this occurred as one or more ice ages ended and various wren populations moved into and coevolved with ecosystems as they formed.

Band-backed Wrens are distributed from southeastern Mexico to northern Ecuador.

Among the most fun-to-see Campylorhynchus wrens are the Yucatan Wren endemic to the Yucatan's northernmost coast, and the Giant Wren endemic to a narrow band of the Pacific Slope of... Chiapas! The Giant Wren is up to 8.8 inches long (22 cm), compared to our Band- backed's 8 inches, and if I can get down to the coast you can bet that this is one species I'll be looking for.

*****

SLEEPING IN THE CLOUDFOREST
One afternoon this week I climbed up to the cloudforest and camped overnight. There at 2100 meters (6900 ft) it looks and feels like a different world from the pine-oak-Sweetgum forest where I live at about 1740 meters (5700 ft).

In a way, the striking differences between the two elevations are surprising. For, in October when I camped on the volcano Nevado Toluca in central Mexico and reported on the light's similarly surreal brilliance and the landscape's similar otherworldly feeling, I was at 4050 meters (13,287 feet), nearly twice the elevation of our cloudforest. On the other hand, the town of Toluca itself on the valley floor at 2679 meters (8790 ft) was still higher than our cloudforest, yet it looked and felt like any other dusty, upland Mexican city.

Therefore, our cloudforest's otherworldliness must come from something other than its elevation. Its position on a ridge over which humid winds off the Gulf of Mexico pass must be the secret ingredient. High humidity from the Gulf's rising air causes the tall trees' branches to be overladen with thick mats of mosses, ferns, bromeliads, orchids and the like. These spongy masses absorb sound, creating a somber, awe-inspiring cathedral effect, and maybe the cloud-condensation process cleans the air so perfectly that crystalline air results.

Whatever the causes, and despite all the abuse it's suffered, there's simply something in that cloudforest giving it a mysterious, somehow magical feeling.

When the local folks heard that I'd slept there they were amazed and asked about snakes and jaguars. But of course there was nothing unusual, just the silence of a moss-padded forest, the darkness of a moonless night, and the scratches of an occasional mouse trying to climb my tent walls. I'd expected it to be cold and dewy but the temperature there dropped only to 55° F (13° C) and the vegetation at dawn was dry, though when I descended the slope I ran into heavy dew lower down.

*****

RATTLESNAKE FERNS
We don't have rattlesnakes here but we do have rattlesnake ferns, two of whom you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080114bt.jpg.

The fronds in that picture are about 15 inches high, triangular in shape, and are first divided into three subsections, then those subsections are divided once or twice again. The dried leaf atop one frond is from a Sweetgum.

I've heard two explanations for their being called rattlesnake ferns. One is that their spore-producing spikes point skyward the way an upset rattlesnake's rattle might. The other is that those same spikes often are held bent to one side, pointing toward the nearest rattlesnake nest. Whatever the case, this fern has nothing to do with rattlesnakes. It's just a primitive form of fern with a curious way of presenting its spore-producing spikes, and as such it's always a pleasure to find.

The only rattlesnake fern listed for Yerba Buena is Botrychium decompositum, but the ferns I'm seeing look like North America's common rattlesnake fern, Botrypus virginiana, which used to belong to the genus Botrychium. Since so many North American species are surviving in our "sky island" of relict organisms left over from the last ice age, I'm betting that our fern is the same as North America's Botrypus virginiana, or a subspecies thereof.

The fern's erect, stalked, spore-producing spikes are only one of its interesting, primitive features. When you scrape away a little humus from around the fern's base you see that its roots are unusually short and fleshy, like dingy spaghetti.

These unusual features reflect the fact that rattlesnake ferns arose so early in evolutionary history that the fern world hadn't yet "figured out" how to arrange its spore-producing sporangia in the modern manner of having neat little fruit-dots or sori on frond undersurfaces, and neither had they yet discovered how to produce the slender, much-branching, very efficiently absorbing roots typical of modern ferns.

*****

YERBA BUENA'S ENDANGERED MAGNOLIAS
In much of the world if you have a mountaintop cloudflorest you're going to have a magnolia species living there and listed as threatened or endangered. Many magnolia species are mountaintop specialists. From an ecological perspective mountaintops are islands, and unique species tend to evolve in island situations.

Up in Querétaro our cloudforest magnolias were Magnolia dealbata and Magnolia schiedeana. The magnolia listed for Yerba Buena is MAGNOLIA SHARPII, so probably that's what's glowing in morning sunlight at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080114mg.jpg.

The leaves in that picture are about 15 inches long, so they're smaller than the giant leaves I wrote about for Magnolia dealbata, a picture of which is archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061229mg.jpg.

Several trees in the cloudforest bore large leaves somewhat like the ones in the picture so I had to use a little botany to assure myself that this really was the rare magnolia being searching for. However, only a little botany was needed, for even unflowering magnolia branches can be identified easily by the fact that their twigs are surrounded by little scars called stipular rings (one ring associated with each leaf scar). Also, magnolias buds are "naked," having no scales. Typically they're fuzzy-rusty-brown, the rusty-brown being hairs on the bottoms of the future leaves.

If you see these features and still aren't convinced you have a magnolia you can always crush a fresh leaf and smell the fresh, spicy aroma so distinctive of the species.

Magnolia sharpii is endemic to the highlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala.

You may be interested in a web page listing threatened and endangered magnolias, with M. sharpii listed, at http://www.bgci.org/conservation/Magnolia_list/.

An article entitled Half the World's Magnolias under Threat of Extinction can be accessed at http://www.bgci.org/conservation/news/0343/.

*****

MIDGET AVOCADOS
What do you think about the sliced-open avocado shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080114av.jpg?

Probably you think that that's an awfully scrawny avocado -- all seed and no "meat" -- and that avocados are supposed to be pear-shaped, not spherical like this one.

To me what's interesting is that instead of buying that fruit from the market I picked it up next to my tent in the cloudforest. This is a "wild avocado," a fruit dropped from the tree I camped below.

Avocados are fruits of the genus Persea. My old Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that about 50 Persea species exist, mostly in the Americas but a few in Southeast Asia, and there's one in the Canary Islands. Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists 14 Persea species for Chiapas. The University of East Anglia 1986 expedition to the reserve identified PERSEA SHIEDEANA as an emergent member of the high cloudforest so I'm assuming that that's what I have.

In traditional markets here you see all kinds of avocados -- black ones, green ones, spherical ones, pear-shaped ones, really long ones, big ones, small ones, smooth ones, bumpy ones... As with bananas and many other fruits, once you start paying attention you realize that there's a lot more out there than you ever dreamed could be. The market Avocado, Persea americana, is native to the American tropics, and from that single species many horticultural variations have been developed.

A fellow I met in the woods called my fruit an "aguacate de mono," or "monkey avocado." I don't think I'll ever see a monkey eating Yerba Buena's wild avocados but a really nice bird reported from here, which I've not seen yet, is the Emerald Toucanet, a smallish, green toucan with a big, yellow-and-black bill. Since toucans love this kind of fruit, finding this monkey avocado next to my tent encourages me to think it won't be long until I spot an Emerald Toucanet.

*****

"WILD NASTURTIUMS"
The trail to the cloudforest passes through a hard-to-get-through area that's been deforested and now is growing back with giant grasses, tangled vines and rank weeds fifteen feet high. In one area about the size of a small house this vegetation is overgrown by an exuberant, herbaceous vine that actually is quite pretty right now as it begins issuing the interesting red-orange and yellow blossoms shown with dewy leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080114tp.jpg.

From the first I knew that this was something very close to the Garden Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, for members of the Nasturtium or Tropaeolum Family possess some very distinctive features.

For one thing, most members of the Tropaeolum Family climb over other vegetation by means of "coiling petioles." Petioles are leaf stalks, and you can see in the above picture how the leaves' long, slender petioles snake around the vine's stem. In the background you can even see a blurry petiole practically tying itself into a knot.

Many Tropaeolum Family members also produce "peltate leaves," which means that the petiole, instead of attaching to the leaf-blade's bottom edge, attaches to the leaf's undersurface, sometimes even in the blade's center. In the picture you can see where the petiole attaches to the leaf's lower face because of how veins radiate out from a point well within the roundish leaf.

Tropaeolum flowers are unusual, too. Most distinctive is that one calyx section of each blossom -- one of the sepals -- is modified into a long "nectar spur" jutting well behind the flower's face. Also, in most other flowers the calyx is a small, green, cuplike affair positioned inconspicuously below the showy corolla, but in the picture you can see that this flower's fleshy, orange-red calyx is actually its most conspicuous part. The flower's five petals are the yellow, collar-like things arising inside the reddish calyx. In this particular species the petals are fringed with long, sharp teeth (they're "fimbriate"). You can't see it in the picture but the top two petals also possess conspicuous dark spots at their bases.

When nectar gatherers take nectar from deep inside the nectar spur they have to brush past the pollen- producing stamens and the fruit-producing stigma, style and ovary, thus pollinating the flower. In the picture some of the stamens' yellow anthers are visible at the blossom's throat-opening.

Baileys says that the Tropaeolum Family embraces only one genus, Tropaeolum, which contains about 50 species native from Mexico to Chile. The Garden Nasturtium hails from South America. No Tropaeolums are listed for Yerba Buena but Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists three species for the state. Besides the Garden Nasturtium there's Tropaeolum emarginatum and T. moritzianum, so maybe the picture shows one of the latter two.

*****

FIREWOOD GATHERING SLOWED
This week the Adventist organization overlooking Yerba Buena began paying three men to keep firewood gatherers off the property. The first day the men encountered 20 people robbing firewood but by the weekend there was hardly anyone. Also, because it's been so muddy, the owners have had to halt cutting trees. Though the reserve now is pathetically hacked- up, all this is very encouraging.

*****

WORMS & MAGICAL REALISM
I was talking with one of our workers when he grabbed his stomach and almost fainted. After some questions I diagnosed his problem as probably a bad case of intestinal worms. From there the discussion drifted into traditional cures and from there into witchcraft and local legends touching on the supernatural.

Here where native people in traditional dress walk among others wearing sunglasses and using cellular phones, and lethal poverty coexists with obscene excesses of richness, and powerful people display little or no education or talent, "magical realism" of the kind García Márquez wrote about is in the air, the sunlight, the very dirt we walk on.

I am surrounded by people of outstanding character and solid minds who at any moment of any day may tell me things the Northern mind simply can't accept. Impossible cures by barefoot curanderos, impossible feats of clairvoyance by neighborhood seers, impossible transformations of ordinary people into beings with demonic strength or character...

One night this week our three forest-protectors told me about a local creature something like a half- formed, half-alive monkey with mere slits for eyes. It emerges at dusk and after three spastic jumps on the ground suddenly it sprouts wings and flies off as a bat. If it's unable to finish its three jumps, it dies. One of the men has found remains of the thing with tiny wings sprouting in its armpits, obviously having died just before finishing its three jumps.

I've given up saying that snakes don't sting with their tails. Even my Grandpa Conrad told me about such snakes in Kentucky back in the 50s, about "hoopsnakes" who take their sharp, venomous tails into their mouths, form themselves into hoops, and roll down hills. Moments before spinning into your presence they straighten out and become poisonous spears that impale you.

In earlier years I have been here when level-headed eyewitnesses reported certain students at the Adventist university downslope becoming possessed, uttering impossibly bass-voiced blasphemies and fighting off teachers with impossible strength.

More than ever I am convinced that one of the greatest threats to Life on Earth is that we humans are so susceptible to -- often even prefer -- pure fiction.

In my opinion, one of the first steps of anyone wanting to mature to a higher level of sophistication should be this: To get straight in the mind what is really believed as truth, what might or might not be truth, and what is patently untrue.

Once the small handful of truths each person possesses are intuitively recognized, then those truths should be set aside in the mind, honored as sacred, and one's life should from that point on be based on them.

Isn't it true that in the whole Universe the only place where lies and half-truths are found is in the minds of unperfected sentient beings such as us? 

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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