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 24, 2008

YELLOW-WINGED CACIQUES
If the most flamboyant bird here is the White-throated Magpie-Jay, surely the species making the most notable sound is the Yellow-winged Cacique (ka-SEE-keh). Howell describes the voice as "A nasal, crowing, up-slurred RRAHNK and RAAH, a mellow whistled TYOO or TIYIH, a hollow, slightly plaintive WHEEOO?, a clipped CH-TEWK, a ringing CHEHNK, a short, hard, churred rattle, often followed by bell-like notes, KI-ERRR INK-INK-INK... "

The part I like is the bell-like notes. They make me visualize several diaphanously thin sheets of chilled silver tossed onto the ground making a frosty, metallic chiming. There's a haunting, effervescent quality to the notes.

It's easy to visualize a Yellow-winged Cacique. Take a North American Common Grackle, which is just a shade shorter than our cacique, replace the grackle's black iridescence with flat black, paint on brightly yellow wing-patches, rump and tail coverts, provide the bird with a pale bill and a jaunty but often-not-seen crest, and you have a Yellow-winged Cacique. It's a species worth seeing, too, since it's endemic to Mexico's hot, arid, Pacific lowlands, just barely extending onto the Guatemalan coast.

Caciques belong to the same family as grackles and orioles. Up North sometimes you wonder how grackles and orioles could end up to the same family. In fact, if you could hybridize a gaudy oriole with an all-black grackle you'd end up with something like a cacique. This is another instance of when our northern bird groupings sometimes seem to incorporate wildly different species, but when you consider the grouping's more numerous and diverse tropical relatives, relationships become clearer.

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ALVARADOAS FRUITING
Throughout much of hot, dry, scrubby Mexico right now a tree growing to 30 feet tall is fruiting so prolifically and conspicuously that you can hardly miss it. It's the Alvaradoa, sometimes called Mexican Alvaradoa in the US, where it may barely extend across the border into southern Arizona. It's ALVARADOA AMORPHOIDES of the mostly tropical Quassia Family, the Simarubaceae. In North America the best-known Quassia-Family member is the invasive Ailanthus, or Tree-of-Heaven, introduced from eastern Asia. You can see a fruiting branch of an Alvaradoa near my dwelling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324av.jpg.

With its pinnately compound, Black-Locust-like leaves at first glance it looks like a member of the Bean Family. However, its fruits, instead of being legumes containing beans, are dry samaras like ash fruits. A samara is a winged fruit that doesn't split open -- it's "indehiscent." Alvaradoa's male and female flowers grow on separate trees, so the trees are "dioecious."

Plantas Medicinales de México reports the use of a tea brewed from the bark to cure the itch, and a tea of its interior wood used as a stomach tonic.

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PASSIONFLOWER VARIATIONS
About 500 species of passionflower, genus PASSIFLORA, of the Passionflower Family, are recognized, so there's a lot of variation on the passionflower theme. Nowadays a fairly common, somewhat weedy passionflower vine flowering and fruiting here is the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324pa.jpg.

Blossoms on that plant are only about two inches across, so they're smaller than the Maypops or Wild Passionflowers often seen in the southeastern US. The most unusual thing about the pictured species concerns its three bracts, or modified leaves, just below the flowers. They're so repeatedly divided into needlelike segments that they give the impression of the flowers being subtended by a spiny collar. Unopened flower buds and mature fruits appear to be encased within a very spiny armature. You can see such a fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324pb.jpg.

The spines are more apparent than real, however, because they're very soft -- they're all bluff. Animals appear to have discovered the deception, however, for often you see gnawed-open fruits, their tasty contents completely removed. Remember that even the South's Maypop fruits taste good when they're fully ripe, and that the "Granadilla," one of the tropics' favorite fruits, is a passionflower fruit.

Though passionflower blossoms look very complex their basic structure is similar to the Standard Blossom, which is the most average flower I could think of for teaching flower anatomy. I provide a nicely illustrated page just on passionflower anatomy at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_passn.htm.

Not far from the above passionflower species with its pseudo-spiny collar yet a second passionflower species was weedily twining up an acacia. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324pc.jpg.

As you can see, its flowers are about the same size and have the very same structure as the other's but the colors are different and its three subtending bracts aren't at all divided into segments. What a treat it'd be seeing all 500 variations on the passionflower theme!

For those of you still in an Easter frame of mind it may be appropriate to mention that the passionflower name derives from the Y-shaped structure atop the flower's ovary, composed of three stigma-bearing styles. The styles are similar enough to the cross design that they remind the religious of "Christ's passion."

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SUGARCANE FLOWERS
My Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that sugarcane doesn't flower in North America. Down here you often see it flowering, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324cf.jpg.

The inflorescence on the right in the picture is about two feet tall. Many of you will recognize the inflorescence's shape and the white-fuzzed fruits as being similar to those of broomsedge and plumegrass. That makes sense since they're all closely related.

Don Bartolomé tells me that around here two kinds of sugarcane are grown but only one produces flowers. Weakley's Flora of the Carolinas lists four distinct species of the genus Saccharum cultivated under the name of sugarcane, with many varieties and hybrids of the four. The Latin name usually given is SACCHARUM OFFICINARUM. I can't say whether the two types grown here are different species or just different varieties of one, probably of Saccharum officinarum.

Roadsides here are particularly trashy looking right now because the big sugarcane trucks always travel so heavily loaded that canes perpetually fall off. When a car flattens a sugarcane stem in the road you can see just how much sugar-water is inside, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324cg.jpg.

One nice thing, though, is that the whole landscape smells faintly of molasses.

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DRY-SEASON SLOPE-BURNING
Just about everywhere in Mexico where farmers tend land on slopes they're burning their fields at this time of year. Sometimes the number of fires and the amount of smoke spreading across the landscape is hard to believe.

Seasonal burning has roots in slash-and-burn farming practiced in antiquity. A forest plot was cut, or slashed, and burned. The first crop on the newly exposed soil was tremendous because nutrients in the forest's charred remains enriched the soil, and weeds, insects and diseases hadn't infested the plot yet. But the next year fewer nutrients were available and weeds, insects and diseases were starting to invade. After maybe five to ten years conditions will have deteriorated to the point where the plot would abandoned. Then the forest would gradually return as the soil reestablished its nutrient load and regained its former texture, and eventually the plot would be slashed and burned again.

Slash-and-burn served the ancient Maya well when their population density was low. As human numbers increased, however, resting time between slashings diminished, until today there's no resting time at all -- just yearly dry-season burning on an ever-deteriorating soil.

Farmers say that seasonal burning enriches the soil and to prove it they point to tender, succulent, green sprouts that emerge soon after burning, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324bu.jpg.

But, each time a field is burned, cinderized plant bulk that should have decomposed naturally and contributed spongy, nutrient-absorbing organic matter to be mixed into the soil by earthworms is washed downstream as ashes and nutrients in solution. Even the soil's exposed mineral part washes downstream to clog reservoirs.

On seasonally burned slopes rocks gradually emerge from the soil like bones from a wasting body. Slowly what once was a diverse ecosystem soaking up and holding rainwater like a sponge becomes exposed rock and hard-baked dirt on which extremes of temperature and water availability, and lack of available nutrients makes life hard to impossible even for simple forms of life.

My experience is that you can't convince farmers here that burning, in the long term, hurts the land. Those tender, succulent, green sprouts emerging soon after burning is all the proof they need that their burning does its job of revitalizing the land.

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EATING MOJÁN
Last Friday my friend Antonio came trundling down the road on his old bike, carrying a hard, green fruit in his hand. When I asked him about the fruit he bit the corky skin off one end and spit it away, retrieved from the fruit what looked like a plug of cotton, and ate it. I always expect Antonio to show me something new so already I had my camera ready and you can see that exact cotton-eating instant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324mo.jpg.

"Ulcers," he said in his usual jerky manner of speaking. "Eat the seeds, no ulcers."

Then he split the fruit to show me the seeds suspended inside the fruit surrounded by white fuzz, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324mp.jpg.

The seeds tasted exactly like grains of sweetcorn a little past their prime and too hard to boil: basically tasteless, starchy, with a semi-hard corn texture. You just don't pay attention to the cotton when you eat the seeds, some cotton always going along for the ride.

I knew without Antonio telling me that this was a Moján fruit because when I got here the Mojáns were flowering with very large, beautiful, white blossoms. For a couple of weeks they were the stars of the landscape. I didn't write about them, though, because I couldn't identify them. The name Moján means nothing outside the local culture.

Clearly Moján is a member of the tropical Bombax Family, the Bombacaceae, in which we also find the majestic Ceiba and Baobab trees. In one book it keys out to Pseudobombax ellipticum, but I can't confirm it. Maybe you remember the picture of my campfire spot at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324dk.jpg with two trees in the background, one leafless and the other fully leaved. The leafless, African-savannah-looking one is a Moján.

I asked Antonio if the cotton was useful. Not really liking words he pantomimed daubing the cotton into alcohol and swabbing an animal's skin with it before giving an injection.

"Once two English-speaking gringos from Mexico City came here in a big Suburban," he said. "I sold them three big sacks of fruits to take back with them. Good medicine."

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OLD NATURAL TERRACES
One of my first pictures from here showed a little stream cascading very prettily over a series of natural, carbonate pool-rims. That image still sits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080204cc.jpg.

You may also remember the pictures of a variety of fossils found in rocks right outside my door, online at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/rocks.htm.

I've kept looking at fossils and cogitating about pool-rims until now I've figured out something interesting: The whole quarter-mile-wide level area occupied by the community of 28 de Junio is a natural terrace held in place by a series of many, old, more or less parallel-running carbonate pool-rims. This fact dawned on me when the brushy slope below us was burned. A picture of several barely emergent carbonate pool-rims exposed by the burning can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324dk.jpg.

Except for their much greater size, those carbonate pool-rims are just like those being formed today at the little stream in the first picture. Moreover, today the fossilization process is still going on.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324dl.jpg you can see where a tree limb has fallen across a small stream, with leaves lodging behind the limb creating a small, temporary dam. At the picture's lower right, gray, carbonate-rich muck is gathering on vegetative material. A close-up of the mess is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324dm.jpg.

Inside the gray, worm-shaped things in that picture, sometimes you find white, slender tree-roots, sometimes still-green plant stems or leaf petioles, and sometimes nothing. The wormy structures look soft and squishy but they're hard and brittle. When a mass of such stuck-together gunk dries out it becomes fossil-rich rock such as that shown in the second and third pictures at the second link above.

From all this I conclude that in the past a lot more water ran through our area than now. I suspect that it was because of greater rainfall in the past. I asked Don Bartolomé if he could tell me anything about past floods or heavy rains here.

"Back when all this was covered with a forest full of deer and tepescuintles (piglike rodents) and before sugarcane came in the valley," he said, "each July my grandparents would move all their firewood inside. They knew that sometimes during the next too months it'd rain hard day and night and the firewood would never dry out if left outside. Nowadays the only time we get rains like that is when hurricanes come."

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TENTING
Since leaving my hermit haunts in Mississippi in 2004 the only times I've "felt at home" have been when I was inside my tent. Whether in a weedy field, along a beach, atop a windswept volcano or within the cracked walls of a roofless ruin, once I zip up my tent door, remove the mosquitoes who entered with me, and lean back with my head on my backpack, I'm home.

I'm still sleeping every night in the community's reserve, in my tent. Some nights I'm beneath a big Ramón tree and all night long acornlike fruits fall all around me, sometimes bouncing off the tent, and many kinds of Ramón-fruit-eating animals, especially rodents, rustle the leaves all around me. Sometimes I'm at the edges of fields, sometimes beneath ferny-leafed acacias. Inside the tent, however, it's always "homey."

One late afternoon this week I pegged my tent in the community's banana plantation. It was such a scenic location that I took a picture, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324tt.jpg.

It being the dry season, so far I've not used the rain roof. The top of my tent is made of netting I can see through so during these full-moon nights sometimes I awaken in what seems like a softly glowing light-bulb. That night, silhouettes of banana leaves moved back and forth against the full-moon sky as calmly as ruminating elephants and the night was full of cricket chimes and whip-poor-will-like Pauraque calls.

It's amazing what worlds are available to anyone with a tent, a backpack, and a sleeping bag.

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TOE-NIBBLING FISH UPDATE
Several readers suggested names for the little minnow-like fish that nibble my toes in local canals. Both Karen in Mississippi and Sleazel in Florida identified them as ASTYANAX MEXICANUS of the Characidae. At least in Belize the fish are known as Billum.

Buford somewhere in cyberspace wrote

"They swarm around any meat, living or dead, that enters their waters, and go after any little extension of that body whether it is dead skin, parasites or warts. But beware... Don't go skinny-dipping with these guys, Or you will get a nasty surprise!"

Sleazel had different advice:

"They are vicious little @#$%& not unlike their cousins the Piranhas, and will aggressively harass anything within their realm, including you, which is why they are so good at picking off seed ticks! I just sit there naked as best I can letting them munch nads!"

"If one attempts to fish in a river infested with billum (and all are) they will see the lure or bait flying overhead and intercept it the moment it hits the water making it impossible to catch larger fish. Try it yourself, throw a pebble across a stream."

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MYSTERY PICTURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080324my.jpg what do you see?

Of course it's part of some kind of hairy critter, but what about that point down at the bottom right, away from which all the hairs seem to spiral?

The hairy critter is Platero, a burro whose ear-bases I scratch each time I pass him on my way to and from the reserve. What I don't know is why that mysterious point at the picture's bottom right exists. On Platero the point lies in the center of the bridge of his nose, between his eyes and muzzle.

I've always been intrigued by these spiraling-hair centers because humans have them, too, on the backs of our heads, and I'm one of that human minority with two of them. I'm "double crowned," as my mother used to tell me, a feature shared with my Grandfather Conrad. When I was a kid I used to imagine that this meant that I had twice the brain and thus more brainpower than average people, but once I got to college and organic chemistry class I was disencumbered of that notion fast.

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SUVS, CORN AND BIOFUEL
Commenting on our recent biofuel topic Lee in the Yucatan sends an interesting statistic:

Filling the tank of an SUV with ethanol requires enough corn to feed a person for a year.

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HAPPINESS
Last Monday after issuing my Newsletter from Pujiltik and buying fruit at the market I was hiking up the dirt trail to 28 de Junio, the sunlight stinging and the heat heavy. A fellow stepped from a sliver of shade below a sugarcane wall, proposing to accompany me awhile just to chat.

He'd spent some time harvesting tomatoes in Florida so he knew a bit about the US and he came up with a thought I've often played with: That, relatively speaking, life is much harder here but somehow people here, on the average, seem happier than up there. To make his point he told me how delicious it'd be when he reached home in a few minutes and could sit beneath a shadetree with his shirt unbuttoned enjoying a few breezes and, since it was Easter Week, maybe he'd even splurge and split a beer with his brother-in-law.

"And some tortillas and some chili, ¡chiiiiiin-GA... !" he said with an "ain't-life-wonderful tone of voice.

The fellow reminded me that with regard to the concept of "happiness" humans can be very elastic. It may be a good time to keep this in mind because, from what I hear on BBC Shortwave, economic conditions up North are squeezing many people who may have bought into the notion that "money + possessions = happiness." Among some, a happiness crisis may be pending up there.

For my part, my own often-repeated formula for long-term "happiness," is: Try to live in harmony with the most obvious paradigms apparent in Nature.

My own take on "What Nature Teaches" boils down to these uncomplicated suggestions:

That's what I see plants and animals everywhere doing; those are basic principles for beautifully sustainable, evolving life.

I'd be interested in hearing what others regard as "Nature's teachings" appropriate to the topic of "happiness." Maybe a discussion could be begun at our backyard-nature "Google Group" at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net