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 10, 2008

ROADRUNNER
When you watch a roadrunner foraging for lizards you think, "He's behaving just like an American Robin looking for earthworms in a suburban mowed lawn... "

The big, lanky bird runs fast for a couple of seconds, stops five or six seconds with his head held high and an intense look on his face, then runs for another couple of seconds, stops once more looking hard at the ground before him, and on and on. It's something how such unrelated, physically dissimilar birds can end up acting the very same.

In the US's arid Southwest there's just one roadrunner species, simply called Roadrunner in many field guides. It's Geococcyx californianus, and it extends south into central Mexico. Here farther south we have a second species, Geococcyx velox. The northern one is larger, up to 24 inches long (61 cm), and is often referred to as the Greater Roadrunner, while our smaller southern species, growing to only 20 inches (50.5 cm), is the Lesser.

It's typical that all you see of a roadrunner is a blur when he darts across the road before you, looking almost as much like a big lizard as a bird. If you're lucky enough to see one foraging, and that's when you have to admire the bird's alertness, streamline form, cocky crest and the bold, dark-brown streaking on a pale tan body. The ones I'm seeing here show much more intense pale blue spots behind the eyes than is shown in the field guides.

Sometimes you hear roadrunners more than see them. Both species make a slowing-down, descending series of 3-7 low, moaning coos, ooooah, ooooah, ooooah... almost dove-like, but louder.

If all you know of cuckoos is the North's Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos, you might be surprised that roadrunners are full-fledged members of the Cuckoo Family, the Cuculidae. However, if you're familiar with our anis, which also are members of the Cuckoo Family, you know that the family is a diverse looking one.

A traveling salesman on a bus once told me about a fellow who put some roadrunner eggs beneath his old hen. The baby roadrunner grew up behaving just like a chicken, until the day he ran off.

*****

BARN SWALLOWS AT DUSK
Here any day you can see Tree Swallows swooping about, sometimes 15 or 20 in a disperse flock and sometimes excitedly calling to one another chrip, chrip, chrip...

This week, and not previously since I've been here, about an hour before dusk the Tree Swallows' usual last-minute foraging was augmented by large numbers of Barn Swallows. At any one time you might see ten to twenty Barn Swallows occasionally swooping for bugs but in general they're all heading toward the west.

Is this spring migration? Barn Swallows are only winter visitors here, overwintering from central Mexico to the southern tip of South America. Flying westward here means flying up Chipas's Central Valley to where it's not far from the Pacific coast. Are these birds following the coast to California?

Howell writes: "Winter movements need study." So maybe these notes will someday help someone figure out how our pre-dusk flights fit into the broader scheme of things.

*****

SPECKLED RACERS, AGAIN
Since being here I've seen surprisingly few snakes -- only four or five. Moreover, they've all been the same species, and this species is one we ran into up in Querétaro. It's the Speckled Racer, DRYMOBIUS MARGARITIFERUS, a Querétaro picture is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/07/070526sr.jpg.

I'm getting the impression that Speckled Racers are one of Mexico's most common snakes. Around here I can understand why they're so common. In Spanish often they're called "Raneras," or "Froggers." Our many weedy-margined irrigation canals support plenty of frogs for this frog-eating snake.

That doesn't explain why I've not seen other snake species, however. I'm thinking that this area's heavy use of agricultural chemicals keeps down predators such as snakes and hawks (very few hawks seen, too), so maybe the real question is how do these Speckled Racers survive in such a chemical soup when other species don't?

*****

TOE-NIBBLING FISH
The other day while washing my clothes in a canal certain little fish were particularly interested in nibbling my toes. My picture, taken just to remind you of the summery, fish-nibbling-toes feeling, resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310fi.jpg.

If any fish experts out there can identify this species I'd love to know what it is. Not only is it surprising to find so many so far upstream in an artificial canal, but also I'm amazed that they have survived the area's high pesticide use.

*****

CACOPHONOUS FIG-TREE
Back in the Yucatan I introduced you to strangler figs. We saw how they start out as little bushes growing epiphytically on a host-tree's limbs. They send viny roots earthward, the roots grow and merge with one another, and eventually the little bush becomes a tree that out-competes and overtops, or strangles, the host tree, eventually replacing it. The resulting fig tree looks like any normal tree developing the usual way. A picture showing a Yucatec strangler after it's replaced its host but before its many roots have merged into a normal trunk is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/stranglr.htm.

Strangler figs are common here and right now some are producing prodigious amounts of small, spherical figs. Remember that our American figs produce much smaller fruits than the does the Common Fig of commerce, which is a native of the Mediterranean Region, plus they produce different-shaped leaves. You can see a fig-bearing, leafy branch from one of our big strangler figs, the figs smaller than a fingernail, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310ff.jpg.

During most of the fig-fruit's development it's hard and green but now many of them are orange and semi-soft. When they're completely mature they turn dark brown and really soft. The brown ones don't last long, though, because birds eat them. Unfortunately, to human tastes they're so bland and pithy that they're not worth fooling with them.

Still, those big stranglers are bird-paradises. Not only do they offer an all-day banquet to all comers but also, in stark contrast to most other trees here, the figs' leaves are as green as at the peak of the rainy season, and they're produced so close together that they form dense shadows inside the trees, which birds crave during the midday heat and glare.

Many bird-types visit the stranglers but at mid-day the most common species in the big one next to the church are Great-tailed Grackles and Social Flycatchers. Both of these species are famous for their ceaseless, often shrill calling, so at mid-day when most of the world here is withdrawing into heat- induced torpor the big strangler is like a circus on free-to-kids day. Beneath the tree there's of a continual shower of fig fragments and bird doo.

Remember that fig fruits, including the big ones bought at the market, are very unusual anatomically. You know how a composite flower such as a sunflower is actually composed of many tiny flowers crammed together on a flattish disk. Fig fruits start out in a similar way, except that many tiny pistils are stacked next to one another on the inner surface of a spherical object. Think of the edges of a sunflower's flattish disk curving upward and then coming together, leaving the sunflower's disk flowers inside the structure all pointing toward the sphere's center.

You can see a split-open fig from our church tree, with each tiny, grainy thing being an ovary with its pointy style directed toward the fig's open center, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310fg.jpg.

You might wonder how the pistils preceding the maturation of these strange fruits, which technically are called syconiums, ever get pollinated. The syconium has a small opening opposite its pedicel attachment, and a certain species of tiny wasp enters the fruit where it walks around inside it distributing pollen from other syconiums and gathering new pollen.

*****

COWFOOTS FLOWERING
A common, pretty bush flowering nowadays in disturbed areas is a Bean Family member belonging to a genus whose members are often known in Spanish as Pata de Vacas, or cowfoots. The cowfoot genus is BAUHINIA. You'll understand where the cowfoot name comes from when the see the roundish, cleft leaves shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310bh.jpg.

I'm always tickled to see those cowfoot-shaped leaves because they announce the genus Bauhinia with such certainty. I know of no other group of plants with such a leaf shape. Breedlove's Flora of Chiapas lists over 600 species belonging to the Bean Family, the vast majority producing compound, sometimes twice- or thrice-compound, often look-alike leaves, but only the twelve Bauhinia species listed for Chiapas have those cowfoot leaves.

Bauhinia's pretty flowers are a little reminiscent of the North's unrelated honeysuckles. For one thing, the newly opened, not-yet-pollinated flowers are white, but once they've been pollinated they quickly turn reddish. When honeysuckle blossoms are pollinated they turn yellow. In both cases, the already-pollinated flowers are less bright than the white ones, thus helping focus the attention of pollinating insects on blossoms still needing to be visited.

This Bauhinia species is a vigorous, aggressive weed here. It grows so fast that it turns up in cornfields head-high and flowering after being established there only since the last planting season. Sometimes downslope from a mother tree you see dozens of younger plants forming a thicket, where a relatively high percentage of the parent's seeds have germinated.

One gets a feeling that if the Earth undergoes the catastrophic environmental collapse many foresee because of global warming, this tough little Bauhinia species might be one of a few species surviving, and for that sake alone I'm glad it has such pretty flowers. The people who come after us are going to need all the loveliness in their lives they can get.

*****

WATER-PRIMROSE
In mud alongside our irrigation canals right now a knee-high, somewhat weedy herb is issuing two-inch wide, four-petaled, yellow blossoms such as those seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310lw.jpg.

Wildflower fanciers up North should recognize this as a species of Water-primrose, or Seedbox, genus LUDWIGIA, of the Evening Primrose Family. At the right in the image you can see the plant's long, slender, immature fruit topped with four persistent sepals. When the fruit splits, large numbers of tiny seeds will pour out.

The name Water-primrose is appropriate because this species' flowers and fruits are very similar to those produced by evening primroses of the genus Oenothera, of the same family. The most obvious differences between the genus Ludwigia and Oenothera are that in Ludwigia the sepals arise from directly atop the fruit, nicely shown in the photo, while among evening primroses, genus Oenothera, sepals arise from a kind of collar, or calyx tube, crowning the ovary. Also, Ludwigia sepals usually are persistent, while those of Oenothera are deciduous.

Sometimes Ludwigia fruits are very short and squarish, at least squared immediately beneath the four sepals. In late fall if your leg brushes against a mature Ludwigia of this type hundreds of sandgrain-like seeds will spill from dozens of small, boxlike, capsular fruits, and the plant almost names itself, "seedbox." The neat word for the shape a fruit that's roundish on one end but squarrish on the other is "obpyramidal."

I associate Ludwigia's bright yellow flowers with hot, humid summers and, since they're usually in swampy places, mosquitoes. When I saw our Ludwigias flowering here I knew I needed to mention them, just to evoke that hot, sweaty, mosquitoey association for Northern, winter-bound readers

*****

MEDICINAL-HERB GARDEN
One project I'm helping the community develop is a garden of medicinal herbs. So far only about 20 plants have been set out. It'll be awhile before the garden becomes useful, both as a source of medicine for the community and as an attraction for paying overnight visitors, which is another project I'm helping with.

I've found that plant uses vary from culture to culture, region to region and even community to community. If you start believing everything you're told everywhere, before long the impression grows that nearly all plants are good for nearly all kinds of medicine. Therefore, I'm saying nothing about which plants should be set out. All plants in our garden are chosen by people in the community itself.

You might be surprised at some of the plants being chosen. Probably most of you know the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310bl.jpg.

Though Plantas Medicinales de México says little about this plant, only that it's used here and there to encourage sweating to bring down fevers, here it's regarded as one of the most important medicines. It's nothing less than good old Basil, Ocimum basilicum.

When my friend Antonio heard that I had ear fungus he showed me how to shred Rue leaves, Ruda graveolens, roll Basil leaves around them as if rolling a cigarette, and stick the thing in my ear.

Another person prescribed for the same problem boiling up a tea composed of Aloe, "Sosa" (Solanum sp., a large-leafed one with spines along the midribs) and Basil, using the purple-flowered Basil but not the white-flowered one. Then wash the ear with a Q-tip drenched in this tea.

It's interesting that Rue, Basil and Aloe are all natives of the Old World. These remedies definitely have not been passed down since pre-Columbian times.

I tried Antonio's remedy for a week and now my infection is much better. But is that because I'm in arid territory now? My infection always is worse when it's humid. Well, the dry season is about to end so I'll probably have plenty of chances to try the second remedy as well.

*****

CORN-DOGS
The welfare of dogs isn't a high priority around here. Especially around garbage dumps you see large numbers of skulking feral ones. At night you hear them all across the landscape, sometimes barking communally, sometimes fighting, sometimes just howling like sad, hungry dogs with nowhere to go.

This community has its share of night-barking dogs. Doze off and dogs awaken you yelping. In the middle of the night whenever dogs in the next village start up a whole pack of ours comes running down the middle of the road, their paws pounding the ground like little horses' hooves, barking like crazy. I lie there in my mind's eye seeing their heads thrown back, their gleeful eyes amazingly large, tongues hanging out, big grins on their faces in the moonlight, damning them all, wanting to sleep.

During the day they aren't so active. The term "hangdog" comes to mind for every dog you see.

If someone throws a dog a tortilla, he feels pretty lucky. I've mentioned how ears of corn are piled knee deep in one of the rooms in my dwelling. If I leave my door open a certain dog has learned to sneak in and steal an ear. Then he lies around all day gnawing on it as if it were a T-bone.

The worst thing is how guilty the dog looks. A cat when caught doing something naughty can manage a "Who, me?" look or a "So what?" look, but dogs discovered misbehaving just get that doleful look that says, "I'm such a bad dog... " and that's pathetic. Especially when it over a gritty ear of corn.

The other day a family here ground up some corn-ears, cob and all, to soak in water and feed to their pigs. When their backs were turned a skinny dog came gulping down the dry meal as if it were gravy. If you can bear it, you can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080310cd.jpg.

The dog must have liked his cornmeal. The next day the blue tarp in the picture covered the meal and I came upon the same dog gnawing a hole in the tarp to get at the meal.

*****

SLEEP
This week the nightly dog-chorus got so bad and my lack of sleep started becoming such an issue that I began sleeping in the medicinal-herb garden up in the reserve. That's far enough from the community for the shrillest barks and howls to be lost beneath peaceful cricket chimes. I'm still enjoying the benefits of my first good night's sleep in a long time, and that's worth discussing.

For, it's clear that sleep or the lack of it profoundly affects a person's world view, self concept and mental and physical health. During my dog days I couldn't think and reflect nearly as lucidly as I can now after a decent night of sleep. My attitude toward reality in general has mellowed. My body and mind are enjoying a spurt of vigor. On the spiritual level, I feel more alive and therefore of more value to the ever-self-monitoring Universal Creative Force, for Whom I am a nerve-ending, along with all other living things.

A recent shortwave BBC program quoted a study showing that most North Americans receive far less sleep than they need. With regard to hours awake this fits the usual North American paradigm of "quantity over quality," and that's a shame. From the sensation- hungry Universal Creative Force's perspective, our culture must feel like a continental-size numbness.

Quantity of sleep is part of the issue, quality the other. Each of us has his or her own natural rhythm and emotional texture. If we sleep with a neighbor's music boom-boom-booming, then that neighbor is forcing someone else's chosen rhythm onto us. If the music is aggressive or childish or sloppily conceived, it damages the preparation of the next day's naturally peaceful or sophisticated or elegant soul.

When a sleeping person is denied the right to have himself or herself each night refreshed and reconstituted according to his or her own natural tendencies, the most highly evolved and tender of all Earthly forms of diversity -- that of individual human spirits -- is abused and squandered.

The topic of "sleep" is appropriate for a nature- oriented newsletter because precisely now in the history of Life on Earth, when that Life is being threatened by human activity, humans need to be thinking, feeling and caring with the greatest possible intensity.

But, from what I've experienced this week, intensity of living is the very thing denied to anyone deprived of quality sleep.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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