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 21, 2008

GOATSUCKERS OF CHIAPAS
By "goatsuckers" I mean the bird family containing the nocturnal and twilight-appearing (crepuscular) species known as nighthawks, nightjars and whip-poor-wills. The technical family name of the birds, Caprimulgidae, translates to "goatsucker," reflecting the ancient European belief that these weird-looking birds sucked milk from pasturing goats at night.

I got to thinking about Chiapas's goatsuckers Saturday morning when for the first time I stepped from my dwelling a little before dawn and distinctly heard a sound familiar from summer nights back in Kentucky -- the heartfelt call of the Northern Whip-poor-will, Caprimulgus vociferus.

I was a little surprised to hear the bird here because Howell writes that it's "Unlikely to be heard in region, except perhaps in spring migration when may give a slightly burry whir-pr-iweeu... " I suspect that Saturday morning's calling was triggered by it being unusually warm that day, as well as by our lengthening days trigging spring's hormones. Northern Whip-poor-wills are commonly heard throughout much of eastern North America on balmy summer nights. The species overwinters in the US Deep South, through much of eastern Mexico, all the way to Panama.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/birds-ch.htm I list seven species of the Goatsucker Family to be looked for in Chiapas above 1500 meters. They are:

# MEXICAN WHIP-POOR-WILL, permanent resident
# CHUCK-WILL'S WIDOW, winter visitor
# BUFF-COLLARED NIGHTJAR, permanent resident to 1800m?
# NORTHERN WHIP-POOR-WILL, winter visitor
# LESSER NIGHTHAWK, permanent & winter visitor
# COMMON NIGHTHAWK, migrant & summer visitor
# PAURAQUE, permanent resident to 1800m

Some authorities lump the Mexican Whip-poor-will with the Northern Whip-poor-will.

It's interesting that the Common Nighthawk is a summer resident here, same as in North America. Of 456 species on my upland-Chiapas list, well over a hundred are winter visitors while only nine are summer visitors. Common Nighthawks overwinter in South America.

*****

SKIPPERS
The other day I photographed the skipper shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121sk.jpg.

The neat thing about that picture is that is shows the most obvious features that make a skipper a skipper.

First of all, skippers are thought of as a kind of butterfly. Taxonomically, skippers are members of the family Hesperiidae, of which Mexico is home to about 788 species.

As the picture shows, skippers differ from most other butterflies in that their head, thorax and abdomen are massive, while their wings are proportionately small. Their antennae arise far apart atop their broad heads and their antennae are often tipped by a slender, tapering, hook called the apiculus. Because their heavy bodies are borne by such small wings, instead of flitting and gliding like other butterflies, they dart or "skip" about in fast, jerky flights, hence the name.

Often resting skippers hold their wings at in-between angles instead of horizontally like moths, or directly over their backs like other butterflies. Sometimes, as in the picture, their forewings are held at one angle while their hindwings are at another, giving the skipper the look of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet. I doubt that this aerodynamic similarity between skipper and fighter-jet is coincidental.

Since people at the Mariposas Mexicanas website (Mexican Butterflies) have been identifying my butterfly pictures, I've been surprised by what a large percentage of our butterflies turn out to be skippers. I've even set up a special page just featuring "Skippers of Upland Chiapas," accessible at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/butter02.htm.

You may notice that the skipper in my picture isn't featured on that page. That's because so far the Mariposas Mexicanas experts have been unable to identify it. The Skipper Family is not only huge but also probably the hardest to identify of all butterfly groups. Often identification is impossible without microscopic examination of male genitalia. My old Peterson Fieldguide says that "...in some groups positive identification of every specimen is a practical impossibility."

The Mariposas Mexicanas website can be accessed at http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com.

*****

PODOCARPUS
A twig of one of the cloudforest's most distinctive and interesting trees is shown in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121pd.jpg.

That's PODOCARPUS MATUDAI, a gymnosperm, and a member of the Podocarp Family. I'm not aware of any common English name for members of this genus, other than "podocarp." Brockman's Trees of North America doesn't list any podocarps native to North America, though several species are planted as ornamentals. The yews, in an entirely different family, are the closest group of plants North America has to the podocarps. Most podocarps are native to the Southern Hemisphere.

The tree from which the twig was taken was fair sized, about 3.5 feet in diameter. Flowers and fruits were absent. Most podocarps come in male or female trees -- are dioecious. Fruits are usually drupe-like, looking a bit like olives.

Here Podocarpus grows only in the upper cloudforest zone. I'll bet a penny that if I could check on the Internet I'd find that the species is endangered.

*****

FLOWERING CASTOR-BEANS
Back in Mississippi I grew Castor-Bean plants not only because with their three-ft-across, star-shaped, shiny leaves, strange flowers and astonishingly vigorous growth they're such exotic-looking plants, but also because they enjoy some fame for keeping moles from the garden, and I needed that service. Sometimes in the backs of farm magazines you see Castor-Beans sold as "Mole Plants." Tunneling moles are supposed to run into the roots and find them either so disgusting that they turn back, or so poisonous that they die. The roots may well be poisonous, for the fruit's thin, plastic-like coat contains ricin, a deadly poison. The name ricin is based on Castor-Bean's Latin name, RICINUS COMMUNIS.

In Mississippi I was proud of my plants for reaching about 12 feet high before the frost got them. Down here Castor-Beans grow as branching trees 30 to 40 feet tall. Despite their stems being herbaceous the plants live for several years.

Castor-Beans belong to the Spurge or Euphorbia Family. Flowers in that family are unisexual, with either the same plant bearing both male and female flowers (monoecious) or plants bearing only male or only female flowers (dioecious). Monoecious Castor-Bean plants have female flowers over male flowers, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121ri.jpg.

In that picture the burry, green things at the top are capsular fruits developing from the female flowers' ovaries. The red, fuzzy-looking items are feathery, or "plumose," styles tipped with stigmas. Pollen grains germinate on the stigmas, send pollen tubes down through the styles, and fertilization takes place in ovules inside the spiny ovary. A close-up better showing the red styles, like upside-down starfish, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121rj.jpg.

The brownish-green, acorn-shaped things in the picture's lower left are flower buds. To the buds' right some of the buds have opened, exposing large numbers of slender, dingy-yellow stamens.

If you peek beneath one of a Castor-Bean's big, palmately-lobed blades, at where it attaches to its petiole, you'll see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121rk.jpg.

The twin, waxy, yellow goblet-like things are glands. I think the way these work is that ants visit them to sup on the secretions, then when a herbivore comes along chewing the plant's pretty leaves biting ants are present to protect the leaves.

*****

POINSETTIA FLOWER ANATOMY
Our native-Mexican Poinsettias, which are flowering now, belong to the same family as Castor-Beans, the Spurge or Euphorbia Family. Therefore, it can be interesting to compare Poinsettia flowers with those of the Castor-Bean.

The Poinsettias possibly blooming in your house right now are herbaceous greenhouse productions of what in the wild grows to be a woody shrub ten feet tall and higher. You can see the thick, woody, flowering branch-tip of a 10-ft-high tree near my place at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121eu.jpg.

In that picture the red things are not flower petals but rather modified leaves called bracts. Because actual Poinsettia blossoms are very small and inconspicuous, the red bracts take over the job of attracting pollinators. Now take a look at the close- up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121ew.jpg.

Neither are the yellow-green, cuplike things shown in the picture at the base of the large red bracts flowers. The cuplike thing labeled as a "cyathium" is a structures unique to the genus Euphorbia, of which the Poinsettia is one. Poinsettias are EUPHORBIA PULCHERIMA. The cyathium grows around several small individual flowers, somewhat similar to how a fig's flowers develop inside the fleshy fig.

So far there's little similarity between Castor-Beans and Poinsettias. But now we do come to a similarity, and that is that each plant bears strictly male flowers and strictly female flowers; both Poinsettias and Castor-Beans are monoecious. Unlike the Castor- Bean with its female flowers positioned above its male ones, however, Poinsettias cram their male and female flowers together inside the cyathium. The flowers are much reduced, each male one consisting of a single stamen while each female flower consists of a single pistil; neither flower type bears a calyx or corolla.

In each cyathium there are usually several male flowers but only one female one, and that female is attached in the cyathium's center. Moreover, the female flower does something extraordinary: It sits atop a stemlike pedicel that grows so long that it bears the female completely outside the cyathium, as shown in the above picture, where the female flower is labeled as the pistillate flower, because it consists of nothing but the pistil (stigma, style & ovary).

As in Castor-Bean flowers, the red starfish thingy atop the upside-down ovary is the feathery style. In the above picture you also see stamens and immature styles poking from other less-developed cyathia.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121ev.jpg you see yet another similarity between Castor-Bean and Poinsettia flowers: They both produce waxy looking, yellow, goblet-like glands. It's just that Castor-Beans put their glands at the top of their petioles, while Poinsettias stick them on their cyathia.

Do you enjoy as much as I the esthetic experience of knowing to look for such things as unisexual flowers and waxy, yellow, goblet-like glands -- because of the family relationship -- but then finding the anticipated flowers and glands distributed in surprising places and with completely unexpected configurations?

*****

SQUASH-FLOWER CITY
The other day in one of the invaders' cornfields I noticed the male squash flower shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121sq.jpg.

What are all those little black flies doing inside that blossom? Since squash flowers are deliciously edible even for humans, I'm guessing that the flies are feeding on the flower after it has shed its pollen and now is in the process of melting away, or "deliquescing."

The flies were similar to fruit flies, which are attracted to such things, so that supports my hypothesis.

*****

EPAZOTE WORM TREATMENT
I've lost a good bit of weight since arriving here and that makes me think that maybe I have worms. In this part of the world if you want to de-worm yourself you drink Epazote tea. Epazote (eh-pa-ZO-te) is sometimes called Mexican Tea, and it grows as a weed in much of North America. It's CHENOPODIUM AMBROSIOIDES in the same family as beets and spinach, the Chenopodiaceae. When Raul, a Tzotzil-speaking friend, heard I was looking for some Epazote, the next morning he appeared at my door with a bouquet of young plants he'd just pulled from around his house, shown in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121ez.jpg.

"Tomorrow morning before breakfast put these, roots and all, into boiling water and make a tea with them. Drink the tea and wait an hour or so before eating, then drink more before going to bed, and repeat the process tomorrow."

When you crush Epazote leaves they emit a rank, biting odor, so I'd expected the tea to be bitter. However, it tasted like Spinach, so it wasn't bad at all. In fact, Epazote is the main seasoning in cooked beans and is believed to "remove the air from them" -- it keeps down the flatulence. Here people believe that there are at least three kinds of Epazote: One that's best for beans; another that's best for worms, and; the other is in-between. Since it's such an important feature of traditional culture it's not surprising that distinct medicinal and culinary races may have been developed.

When I supped on my steaming Epazote tea it made my stomach growl and gurgle. Unfortunately I have to use a toilet where everything disappears into a black pit, so I can't confirm that the treatment worked. I'll repeat it in a few weeks, though, and maybe then I can proceed more empirically. Whatever my experience with it, it's known that Epazote contains an alkaloid called Chenopodine, which induces roundworms to release their hold on intestinal walls and pass from the body.

Maximino Martínez's classic Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports several medicinal uses of the plant beyond worm-treatment. You can make a poultice of the leaves for the chests of people suffering from asthma, it helps in digestion, using its tea as a mouthwash eases a toothache, it calms down nervousness, and can be used as a general tonic.

*****

GLUTINOUS & RUGOSE
At the woods' edge I sat waiting for the firewood wardens, to show them the trail to the top. The valley before me was dazzling with upland sunlight beneath a blue sky. Quiet it was, bees, wasps and hummingbirds busy at work among the salvias all around me. At midday, having waited a good while, I was drowsy, almost ready to lie back in the dry, shiny pine straw. But then I realized that something had appeared beside me that hadn't been there before. It was a kind of silent glowing, peaceful and friendly, like a gnome come out of nowhere to stare at me smiling.

Casually I turned my head and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080121rg.jpg.

As I'd sat there a beam of sunlight had moved until it illuminated a certain leaf that earlier had been in the shadows. The whole leaf now blazed translucently against satiny black shadows behind it, but what really caught my eye was the leaf's detail. I put my face right up to the leaf and saw how veins divided like streams, between the veins hillocks arising, yellow-sunlit on one side, black shadows on the other. And the hillocks and shadows formed patterns, and patterns within patterns, and here and there insect gnawings and fungal infections disrupted the patterning, but it seemed to me not in a disordering way, but complementarily, like laughter in a conversation heard at a distance, or farmhouses in a rural landscape.

And, landscape it was, landscape of a leaf, and the same moment I realized that leaves have leafscapes it also occurred to me that from the perspective of someone the size and complexity of a galaxy or an electron, the leaf and I might appear pretty much of the same scale and interest. Maybe the omnipresent, eternal Universal Creative Force feels the same evenness of mind when She considers, say, human events on Earth, and those in the digestive tract of any given earthworm:

Earth/earthworm = landscape/leafscape.

The glowing-elf leaf, by the way, was a fragrant, gummy-feeling one arrayed on a woody member of the Verbena Family, genus Lippia. Leaves sticky with gland-tipped hairs are said to be "glutinous," and if they're wrinkled like the one in the picture they're said to be "rugose."

*****

HUMMINGBIRDNESS
At age 60 I'm aware not only of my body changing but also my mind. For example, sometimes when I'm watching a hummingbird hoping it'll land so I can get a good look at it, it'll simply vanish. My mind isn't quick enough to register its quicker bursts of flight. Similarly, at the computer I'll click on a certain program and as I wait for the proper screen I realize that the proper screen already has appeared, just that my mind hadn't caught the change. These things didn't use to happen.

On the other hand, nowadays a flitting-by hummingbird means more to me than it used to. For example, the word "hummingbird" instantly brings to mind the Ruby-throats at my mother's kitchen-window feeder back in Kentucky long ago, and the name "Long-tailed Hermit" evokes large hummingbirds with curved beaks and pointy tails, which I was watching feeding at red-flowered hibiscuses alongside the dark green jungle at the Maya ruins of Palenque in torrid lowland Chiapas one winter morning when that gal from Chicago came along, the bank vice-president in her broad, pink hat and white slippers, the same morning the space-shuttle Challenger exploded... On and on, hummingbird associations.

But, it's more than just memories and associations. Now I recognize a definite hummingbirdness, the presence of a certain hard-working, fast-moving, gay etherealness present not only in the bird world but throughout reality in all its dimensions. There's hummingbirdness during certain strains of inspired music, in the way certain molecules are structured, in certain people's demeanor.

And there's more than just hummingbirdness. There's wind-in-trees-ness, summer-cloud-ness, Bach fugueness, big-river-ness, empty-beach-ness, on and on. When I was young, the individual manifestations of all these manners of being -- the birds or fugues by themselves -- were just themselves. Now I understand that each separate thing, each moment, each feeling is a lovely variation on a simple but profound theme eternally flowing throughout the Universe.

Moreover, there's actually a limited number of themes, and as I age that number diminishes as, say, I realize that summer-cloud-ness is the same as empty-beach- ness, that both are really just space-for-feeling-ness. I suppose that eventually I may see that there's only one theme in all of human-detectable reality, and that's pure existence.

What does it all mean? At age 60 already I see that that's a wrong-headed question, for, really, there's no question at all.

There's a recognition, however, that all this stuff -- this reality, this life, this passing from one moment to another -- is very artfully staged by something, the thing I call the Universal Creative Force. Moreover, each of us has a good seat for watching what's going on.

So, at age 60 I'm missing a few hummingbird wingbeats, but there's more texture, depth and meaning to what I do see, as I catch onto the theme thing, and gain insight into what the whole show is all about.

And that's a decent trade.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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