JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in the community of 28 de Junio and issued from a ciber in
Pujiltic, Chiapas, MÉXICO
{at about 800 meters in elevation, ± LAT 16° 18'N,  LONG -92° 28'W.}

March 3 2008

SALTATORS
These mornings if you walk on the tree-shaded dirt trail down between the irrigated cornfields and pastures or wander the fire-ravaged, scrubby slopes and woods edges, one bird seems to be making more noise than all the others. "Noise" isn't a nice way to describe a birdcall that must constitute heartfelt and lucid communication to the bird, but if you'd hear it you'd understand.

Typically the calls are of two qualities. The noisiest is a loud, sharp, smacking or squeaking sound like what you get screwing the palm of your hand over a wet balloon -- CHOWK! or CHEUK! The other sound is a "gruff, accelerating, rolling laugh or chortling chatter," as Howell describes it. If you're bird- listening more than bird-watching you get the impression that the most conspicuous bird around here is the one making these sounds. The birds are saltators -- Black-headed Saltators, SALTATOR ATRICEPS, to be exact.

Thinking in terms of taxonomic affinities, Howell describes saltators as "fairly plain tropical grosbeaks of forest edge and second growth." Genetically they almost may be grosbeaks, but their beaks aren't nearly as oversized-looking at those of Rose-breasted or Evening Grosbeaks. To me saltators possess the size, shape and beak dimensions of towhees more than grosbeaks.

Mexico is home to three saltator species but around here I've only seen the Black-headed one, which is distributed from Mexico's central Gulf lowlands south to Panama. Our Black-headed species is easy to identify because it looks like a pea-green-backed, gray breasted towhee with a black head, and with a diamond-shaped, white throat-patch completely surrounded by a black border. Typically three to five birds fly around excitedly smacking and chortling.

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TANAGER RAINBOW
Saturday during my campfire breakfast a medium-size bird with a light-blue body and dark blue wings flew up next to a Tropical Mockingbird calling in a scrubby tree. The light-blue bird was a Blue-gray Tanager. Not far away gorging himself on the pea-size fruits of a fig tree was a Yellow-winged Tanager, the wings actually black, pea green, purple and yellow, the head and back purple, the belly pea green.

What colorful birds these tanagers are! Northerners know how bright all-red male Summer Tanagers are, and how pretty the Scarlet Tanager is with his red body, black wings and tail. And then out west there's the Hepatic Tanager a little darker red, and what a treat seeing the Western Tanager with his yellow body, red head, and black wings, back and tail. Females of the above species are of various yellow-green designs.

In Chiapas's northern Gulf lowlands the Crimson-collared Tanager is black except for a dark red hood and rump, and the male Scarlet-rumped Tanager is similarly all black with only a bright red rump. In western Mexico the Rosy Thrush-Tanager, shaped like a thrush, is brownish above but with rosy-red underparts. Taxonomically our mostly green Honeycreepers are regarded as tanagers as are the mostly black and yellow euphonias.

Mexico hosts 30 species of the Tanager Subfamily, the Thraupinae, which belongs to the Emberizid Family. Few bird groups are so colorful and so ubiquitous -- though you seldom see them in large numbers. One reason for their success as a group is surely their flexibility, as indicated by their generalist beaks. Their beaks are neither exceptionally large or thick, or small or slender. Tanagers mostly eat fruit but also seeds and insects. In a world of many niche- specialists, tanagers appear to specialize in being flexible generalists.

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MONARCHS IN CHIAPAS
Monarch Butterflies are common here, one being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303mn.jpg.

I doubt that the individual in the photo will ever migrate to North America, though. My understanding is that US and Canadian migrants overwinter on cool, moist, forested mountaintops far north of here, in central Mexico. Our populations don't make the trip.

One reason Monarchs are so common here is that their host plants, the milkweeds, also are common, especially the species whose yellow and orange blossoms are being visited in the picture. That's ASCLEPIAS CURASSAVICA, sometimes known as the Tropical Milkweed. It's a native of South America but is now established in disturbed, weedy places throughout much of the world's tropics and subtropics, including all through Mexico.

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CLEMATISES FRUITING
Here and there along woods edges you see refrigerator-size masses of white fuzz, and when the fuzz lies between you and the sun it's a translucent eyeful. The fuzz adorns fruits of clematis vines, also called Virgins-Bower, members of the Buttercup Family, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303vb.jpg.

In that picture's upper right corner the inset shows a head of whiskered fruits, the whole cluster developing from a single clematis blossom. The fuzz threads atop the fruits serve as parachutes to help the fruits disperse on wind the same way dandelion fruits do with their own parachutes. Dandelions are members of the Sunflower or Composite Family while Clematises are members of the very unrelated Buttercup Family, so the similarities are purely the result of convergent evolution.

Clematis is just one of very many plants fruiting here during the last few weeks of the dry season. Fruits and seeds dispersed now will be well positioned to sprout when the rains came.

Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists four Clematis species. The most common one is Clematis dioica, which the one in the picture well may be. Mexicans often call abundantly white-fuzzed fruiting vines "Barbas de Chivo," which means "Goat's Beards" or "Cabeza de Viejo," "Old-man's Head."

Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports that powdered clematis roots are a "magnificent diuretic," expelling kidney stones.

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"CAPULÍN"
"Capulín" is in quotation marks because it's a name used for many small, usually unrelated trees throughout Latin America. Basically any tree fruit that's red and cherry-size is called "capulín" (kah- poo-LEEN). The capulín I'm talking about is MUNTINGIA CALABURA, a member of the tropical Flacourtia family, the Flacourtiaceae. I'm bringing up this particular species because its inch-wide, white flowers and red fruits are very conspicuous here nowadays, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303mu.jpg.

It's always interesting to meet species with no close relatives up North, because such species always have features not seen up there, or else have the features scrambled in interesting ways. Muntingia calabura takes the scrambled approach.

For, its leaves are three-veined from asymmetrical bases like the North's hackberry leaves, but its flowers and fruits remind you of the Rose Family's cherries and plums. When you break open a fruit, however, you find that its single cell is crammed with tiny seeds enmeshed in paste, as in a fig, so they're not cherry-like at all.

The red fruits look very inviting and in fact they don't taste bad. At first they're sweet but then comes a slightly bitter aftertaste, and that keeps you from gorging on them. Birds gorge, anyway. It's hard to find a mature fruit not mangled by a bird. Especially overwintering Orchard Orioles fill the trees near my campfire each morning.

One reason the small tree is so common here is that it specializes in scrubby, disturbed, often weedy environments, and that's exactly what we have plenty of. The species flowers and fruits most of the year, but there's a definite peak toward the end of the dry season.

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ANTONIO'S "CARLOS SANTO" & "RIÑONERA"
Folks in 28 de Junio have begun work on a community museum, an ecotour package to be marketed in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a website and a medicinal herb garden.

The other day my friend Antonio accepted the task of going to dig up a medicinal herb next to his pasture, to be transplanted into the herb garden. Along the way he couldn't refrain from pointing out other useful plants. One of them was a yellow-flowered Prickly-poppy, genus ARGEMONE, as shown by Antonio at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303aa.jpg.

Antonio called it "Carlos Santo," or "Saint Charles," and said that there's nothing better to give a women in labor having a hard time getting the baby out. I wouldn't be surprised if it really works, for Prickly- poppies belong to the same family as Opium Poppies, whose opium in small dosages tends to calm down and make drowsy.

Like Opium Poppies, Prickly-poppies when cut exude a milky juice, orange-colored in our species. Las Plantas Medicinales de México mentions uses for Prickly-poppies ranging from curing diarrhea to clearing clouds in the eye to suppressing coughs. Also it's been used in hospitals as an aid to hypnosis, and to calm nervous patients.

Moments later Antonio plucked another plant, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303ar.jpg.

That plant he called Riñonera, or "Good-for-Kidneys." If your kidneys are inflamed, drink a tea of this.

This is one of nine HELIOTROPIUM, or Heliotrope, species listed in Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas. Heliotropes are members of the Borage or Bluebell Family, the Boraginaceae. In the picture notice on the inflorescence's left side how heliotrope flowers arise on the upper side of the inflorescence stem, and how the tips of stems bearing immature flowers tends to curl like a scorpion's tail -- they're "scorpioid."

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CAN YOU FIGURE OUT...
Can you figure out what's going on in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303my.jpg?

That's one end of a legume of the Bean-Family member known in most of Mexico as Guaje (GWA-heh), sometimes in English as Wild Tamarind, LEUCAENA LEUCOCEPHALA. In last year's March 2 Newsletter, archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070302.htm, you may remember my telling how Don Gonzalo in Querétaro loved to eat Guaje seeds.

In the picture you see a thin, immature Guaje fruit held against the blue sky. The large, pear-shaped, dark blotch on the far left is a seed inside the pod while the smaller dark spots are aborted ovules -- ovules that for some reason didn't get fertilized or developed some other problem. The black, slender nose on the pod's far right is the shriveled remains of the ovary's style and stigma. Remember that ovaries develop into fruits, ovules into seeds.

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ANONAS ARE RIPE
You might remember from last December 17th's Newsletter the picture of the immature anona fruit hanging on a tree. The picture still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/071217an.jpg.

Now the anonas are ripe and I'm eating my share of them. You can see a ripe, broken-open fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303a_.jpg.

You know an anona is ripe when it turns orangish yellow and the flesh yields a little when you squeeze it. As the picture indicates, the thing about eating an anona fruit is that you need to be resigned to spitting out lots of seeds, which are about the size, hardness and slipperiness of persimmon seeds. I suspected that most people here don't rush out and pick the abundant fruits on our numerous trees because of all those seeds and the need to spit them.

However, a properly ripe anona is so delicious that I'm willing to put up with the seeds about once a day. I just find myself a seat with nothing but grass and weeds for about ten feet in front of me, and start smacking and spitting.

*****

RAINDROP ESTHETICS
Last Tuesday at dawn we were surprised by an unusual dry-season shower, just enough to settle the dust and populate the landscape with almost-forgotten, musty, humid-season odors. It's amazing how many odors just don't manifest themselves when it's too dry.

Wandering along a trail my attention was drawn to silvery water beading atop large, succulent, triangular leaves of the plants most Northerners call Elephant Ears. The designs were so pretty I photographed them, thinking that those of you still experiencing winter might enjoy being reminded of the lush, green, summer-shower feeling.

I photographed a large section of the leaf, then back at the computer used Photoshop to copy the most esthetically pleasing part of the picture, cropping out the rest. You can see the uncropped image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303sw.jpg.

The finished image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080303sv.jpg.

As I was about to delete the uncropped picture it occurred to me that it might be interesting to analyze why certain parts of a picture might seem more esthetically pleasing than others. After all, both pictures portray part of a succulent green leaf with silvery water beaded atop it.

A small part of the original picture was rejected because it was simply out of focus. However, most of the cropped area was removed because it didn't say anything.

One thing speaking to me in the second, or finished, image is the pattern established by the leaf's arching, parallel veins. They establish a kind of movement with a certain rhythm -- a rigid periodicity. The veins are like soldiers marching across a parade field.

But overlying this aggressive predictability is a system of water droplets randomly spaced and randomly sized. The droplets constitute an esthetic reply to the parade-field soldiers.

This mingling of contrasting elements affects me in a way similar to randomly scattered leaves atop a sky- mirroring pool of water, or soft, randomly arrayed summer clouds in a broad, flat sky.

"Randomness against predictability" is just one esthetic theme that's fun to play with. There's "vagueness against preciseness," "heaviness against lightness," "hotness against coldness"... On and on, and sometimes you can mingle three themes, or more, though that's harder. Sometimes just one theme can be very striking, as in the curve of a daffodil stem.

Once you've been analyzing pretty views awhile, suddenly you realize that beauty is everyplace, even in out-of-focus, say-nothing areas.

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BEAUTY OF THE SIXTH MIRACLE OF NATURE
It's typical for seemingly unrelated pieces of information to start trains of thought that may linger in me for days before an insight blossoms. That happened this week when Jarvis in North Carolina wrote to me about a study showing that ever fewer people in North America are visiting parks, hiking, hunting and fishing, while computer games and other electronic media appear to fill the void. Then I heard a BBC shortwave program referring to another study concluding that our consumer society encourages young people to judge themselves according to the clothing they wear and what they own, resulting in many young people developing bad self-images. Finally Bea in Ontario wrote about recognizing the wrong-headedness of many of our traditions and institutions, but fearing that if she rears her child according to her insights the kid may suffer from being so different from her peers.

The insight I finally came up with is this: One feature uniting the above three situations is that they all offer opportunities to participate in the actualization of the Sixth Miracle of Nature.

First, it's to be expected that most people would be more attracted to electronic media than to the biological world. That's because electronic media are configured to be human-centered while Nature treats us as just one tiny element of an enormously complex web of interdependent parts. If you're insecure, the right computer game can convince you that you're a hero. If your hormones are raging, porn can relieve the pressure. Nature, in contrast, doesn't reward self-delusional and self-gratifying behavior, and typically even punishes it.

Similarly, nothing is more human than consumerism. It's what humans have done since the dawn of humanity, hunting and gathering, trying to possess. Our genes program us to consume.

With regard to traditions and societies, remember that they are in place because they've survived long periods of being tested in a Darwinian manner. Traditional behavior has survived while untold numbers of novel ideas and untraditional behaviors have gone extinct. In the past it was sustainable to do what always had been done, and what everyone else was doing.

And yet, intuitively we all know that in the long run outdoor people are happier and healthier than those who root themselves behind TVs and computers. We know that long-term happiness arises from other than great material wealth, and we know that today our conservative traditions such as "blind faith in authority" are causing untold grief as we fail to adapt to the fast-changing world around us.

Years ago in this Newsletter I wrote about "The Six Miracles of Nature," which remains online at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/o/6miracle.htm.

The Sixth Miracle of Nature manifests itself when mere consciousness of the kind a clam or mouse might have evolves into an ability to learn and to reflect. While the first five miracles, such as "something coming out of nothing," happened long ago, the Sixth Miracle is flickering into existence right now.

Whenever any human struggles with existential problems and adapts his or her behavior to resulting insights, that's the Sixth Miracle actualizing right now. That's humanity right now advancing toward spiritual maturity.

When anyone glimpsing the superficiality of electronic media gets up, goes outside and takes a walk to "get it together," it's a miracle.

When anyone walks away from a well-paying job in order to do work fulfilling to him or her, it's a miracle.

When a family orients itself toward a spiritual ideal despite knowing what it means to fall out of step with the surrounding community, it's a miracle.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim