JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written in Sabacché and issued from a
ciber in nearby Tekit, Yucatán, MÉXICO

September 1, 2008

INLAND MANGROVE VIREOS
During most walks through the scrub here at least once you hear a buzzy, scolding CHI-CHI-CHI-CHI-CHI birdcall, but you can hardly ever see who is making it. Usually this bird sticks to thick, low cover and moves about a little skulkingly. When he does venture into open space just a glimpse of his small size, yellowish underparts, olive upperparts, white wingbars and short, pointy beak clue you that he's a warbler or a vireo. If you see him well enough to notice his relatively plump shape and sluggish movement, and especially his beak too stout and curved on top to be a warbler's, you know you have a vireo.

He looks a lot like North America's white-wingbarred, yellowish-bottomed vireos except for one thing: The broad areas between his eyes and his beak -- his lores -- are bright, lemony yellow. These yellow lores are very conspicuous, especially since around the eyes there's only a hint of a ring.

It's the Mangrove Vireo, VIREO PALLENS, distributed from Mexico to northwestern Costa Rica. He's found throughout the Yucatan, even in the peninsula's arid center, so by no means, here, is he restricted to coastal mangrove swamps. Most Yucatec Mangrove Vireos live in scrubby woods and overgrown brushy fields exactly like what we have around Sabacché.

This isn't the only bird with "mangrove" in its name to be found here 60 miles inland (100 kms). A Mangrove Cuckoo hangs around a thicket not far from my back door.

Mangrove Vireos occur in two disjunct populations and there's some difference between them. Maybe the most striking divergence is that Pacific Coast birds are indeed found only in coastal mangrove swamps. Why don't Pacific birds range inland the way our Yucatec ones do? Has a genetic mutation in the Yucatan population imparted greater habitat flexibility to our birds?

*****

YUCATÁN SPINY LIZARD ON PATROL
One late afternoon I was sitting in the scrub just letting time pass because of the heat, too hot to move, too hot to think, just sit and hope a breeze comes, else just let the sun sink lower and maybe then move on...

Then at the corner of my eye something small came rushing across the forest floor, quick and light, completely disharmonious with the moment's heaviness, the torpor, the timelessness. It was a slender lizard about a foot long, one with very familiar general features, but in small ways a little different from others of the type I've seen. It was one of the "spiny lizards," similar to the North's "fence lizards," clearly a member of the genus Sceloporus.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/reptiles.htm links are provided to pages showing four other Sceloporus lizards we've run into in Mexico so far. The genus Sceloporus is huge, not well understood, and with many intergrading forms, so in these Newsletters I'm always tickled to provide details to the future graduate student who'll come along and clarify the Sceloporus situation.

Despite the mind-numbing heat, this little critter atop a limestone rock 15 feet from me couldn't have looked more alert and more at the peak of his form. Looking squarely at me he seemed to recognize my presence, and when he showed no signs of scurrying off I readied my camera, started scooting toward him, and from about ten feet away took the portrait shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901yu.jpg.

He's a Yucatán Spiny Lizard, SCELOPORUS CHRYSOSTICTUS, distributed in the hot lowlands from northern Guatemala and western Belize through the Yucatán Peninsula, being most common here, the northern Yucatán. One feature separating the species from other spiny lizards is the white throat and chest. Most adult members of the genus Sceloporus, at least males in our area, bear a pair of brightly colored belly and throat patches.

The instant I snapped the picture he leaped onto the ground and darted right by me, not three feet away, a pure blur. By the time I'd turned my head and focused on him again he was atop another stone about 20 feet away, again surveying his domain.

Campbell, in Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize, says that the species eats insects and arachnids, but also has been known to eat smaller individuals of its own species. He suspects that females may lay multiple clutches of eggs each season, most nests containing two or three eggs. To me this combination of multiple annual nests and sometimes-cannibalism sounds like a fine-tuned mechanism for population control: When times are good, produce several nests; when times are bad, eat the surplus.

*****

STRANGLER FIG LATEX FOR TOOTHACHE
Last Monday after issuing the Newsletter in Tekit I took a bus to the tiny village of Ochil, then had to wait an hour for the next bus back to Sabacché. A couple of men from Sabacché happened to be making the same trip so they invited me to go with them to Ochil's little park where sometimes beneath a big shadetree a breeze managed to stir. Apparently this layover was a weekly event for them, for as soon as we reached the tree one of the men let out a hoot and a whistle, which were noted by a clot of men lounging across the street. In no time they were visiting us, bringing a big jug of firewater, which they proceeded to pass among themselves.

The big shadetree turned out to be one of several strangler fig species in the area. Maybe you remember that strangler figs start out as epiphytes, send down root/stems, the root/stems fuse together as they grow, and finally a tree with a smooth, normal looking trunk is formed. The whole process is outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/stranglr.htm.

The various stems of our strangler were still in the stage of fusing together, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901sf.jpg.

In that picture, the dark, hairy-looking stuff is masses of branching, fibrous roots dangling in mid air. Earlier there were arm-thick stems but someone macheted them, probably just for the fun of it, and now roots sprout from the exposed cambium. If the mass of fusing-together trunks in the picture is allowed to grow for a few more decades, someday there'll be a regular trunk with bark like elephant skin, and it'll be hard to believe the trunk ever looked like this.

Not wanting me to be left out of the group, one of the guys walked over, snapped off a strangler leaf, pointed to the milky latex emerging from the leaf's petiole and told me the juice was used for toothache.

"You daub the juice on your tooth and it helps a little," he said. "Of course before long the tooth starts hurting again, but then you daub some more juice on it."

You can see the strangler's milky latex oozing onto my finger from where the leaf was snapped off the stem at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901sg.jpg.

While you're looking at that picture you might notice the "stipular ring" encircling the stem. Stipules are tiny, much-modified leaves that usually serve to protect flowers and stems as they emerge from buds. Once the flowers or stems have emerged, typically the stipules fall off, leaving modest scars. Most woody plants have no stipules or else only small ones, which leave tiny, usually overlooked "stipular scars" right above where the leaf's petiole joins the stem. But figs are one kind of tree with relatively large stipules, which leave scars completely encircling the stems. If in your house you have a Ficus elastica, which is a kind of fig, you might see if you can find its stipular rings.

Latex freshly issuing from a fig's wound is watery but once it airs awhile it thickens, and eventually becomes surprisingly sticky. It'd make decent glue for keeping papers together. I'm guessing that fig latex daubed onto a tooth cavity momentarily plugs it, keeping air from reaching the nerves.

*****

WILD YAMS FLOWERING
Out in the scrub you see lots of wiry-stemmed vines with heart-shaped leaves climbing other plants as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901wz.jpg.

In that picture it's clear I'm not talking about morning-glories, which are often vines with heart- shaped leaves arising from wiry stems, for the flowers are definitely not morning-glory-like. Anyone familiar with Temperate Zone plants will recognize the vine as a wild yam, genus Dioscorea.

One distinguishing feature of Dioscoreas is that their leaves have several strong veins arising at the point of petiole attachment and fanning out. Moreover, other veins connecting the strong veins form vaguely rectangular cells. In most leaves cells formed by reticulating secondary veins are irregular in shape. Dioscorea's somewhat rectangular cells create a "ladder effect" between the strong veins, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901wx.jpg.

The slender flower spikes arising all along the stem in the first picture also are distinctive for Dioscorea. If you look closely at one of the tiny, widely spaced blossoms in a spike you see that it's a neat little flower with six greenish-yellow, petal-like lobes, three stamens with pollen-producing anthers, but no female parts -- no pistil consisting of stigma, style and ovary. In fact, the tiny flowers in the slender spikes of the first picture are all male flowers, for this species puts its male and female flowers on separate plants -- it is dioecious.

I had to search awhile before finding a female plant, and I have no idea why female plants should be so hard to find. You can see the very different female flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901wy.jpg.

In that picture the female flowers are the three-winged, thumbnail-sized, Chinese-lantern affairs on the left. Each developing ovary is topped by three stubby, brown styles with stigmas.

In Eastern North America after the first frost you often see handsome chains of similar-shaped but mature and straw-colored fruits dangling from bushes, blowing in cold, early-winter wind. These are produced by Dioscorea villosa, also called Wild Yam.

The "yam" part of the name refers to the edible tubers produced by many Dioscorea species. I've always found North America's Wild Yam tubers too small, hard and fibrous to fool with, and from what I can feel with my finger around stem bases of plants here here, it's about the same with this species. However, I'll bet that either species grown in rich, loose garden soil and well nourished might produce something savory and nutritious.

Dioscoreas are unusual enough to have their own plant family, the Wild Yam Family, the Dioscoreaceae. Sometimes sweet potatoes are referred to as yams, but of course they're something else entirely, members of the Morning-Glory Family. The genus Dioscorea was named after Dioscorides, a Greek physician and naturalist of classical times.

*****

SCARLET-BUSH ABLAZE & READY FOR USE
All through tropical America, from Mexico to Paraguay, if you're traveling down a road where there's enough rainfall to support forest at least 20 feet high, the vegetation is weedy and the soil is halfway rich, if you see a much-branched shrub with rich-green, leafy, non-woody branches ending in bright clusters of slender, red flowers, a good first bet is that the plant is HAMELIA PATENS, in English sometimes called Scarlet-Bush. You can see one of our roadside beauties at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901ha.jpg.

One reason Hamelia patens is so conspicuous is because it has a long flowering season. As an evergreen shrub with herbaceous shoots up to 12 feet high, it just catches your attention again and again.

Hamelia patens is a member of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, characterized by its stems bearing conspicuous, sharp-pointed stipules between opposite leaf bases, and the flowers being "inferior" -- corolla and stamens arising above the ovary, not at its base as in most flowers. Doña Martha, who calls the plant Kanán in Maya, has a high opinion of the species' medicinal value.

"Combine its leaves with those of Pomegranate and Guava, brew a tea from them, and you can cure skin soars by washing the skin with the tea. The tea is also good to wash around in your mouth when your mouth is enflamed and painful. And if you cut yourself, you heal better if you toast its leaves in the comal, grind them to a fine powder, and sprinkle the powder in the wound."

I have seen that people who really know about medicinal herbs typically combine two or more herbs together for a cure, seldom depending on a single plant. In this case it's interesting that while Scarlet-Bush and Guavas are native Tropical American plants, Pomegranates originated in Asia, so the blending of these three plant leaves by the Maya clearly came about after the Spanish Conquest.

It's also interesting that Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México mentions different uses for the plant. There the plant is recommended for swollen, aching legs, and for removing "bad humors" from the body.

*****

A HENEQUEN MEETING
Last Friday my friends Louise and Clementina came from Mérida to talk to women in Sabacché about returning to work with henequen fibers as they once did. Louise and Clementina make beautiful, expensive handbags from henequen fibers, which you can read about and see at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/henequen.htm.

I thought you might enjoy a glimpse at the meeting, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901hq.jpg.

We've decided to give it a try. Maybe I'll have some progress to report from time to time.

*****

FIREWOOD GATHERING IN THE SCRUB
When I first arrived here I couldn't figure out how people survived at all. Now I understand that a fair percentage of households have at least one person who works in another town, usually Mérida, staying there all week and returning only on weekends. Unlike most of Mexico, not many people from here go to the US.

Among men who live here all the time, by far the most important business activity is firewood gathering in the scrub. Each morning at dawn -- as I jog I meet them on the road even before the sun rises -- men filter out of town heading into the scrub. All morning, from all directions, you hear chop, chop, chop, chop...

The other day, kilometers from town, down a weedy trail I came upon the pile of firewood shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901ln.jpg.

By chance, as I took the picture, a man came out of the scrub carrying firewood on his back, visible at the upper left in the picture. The man, in his 60s, explained that each tied-together bundle of firewood would bring 7 pesos, about 69 US cents. When you see the isolated places the wood is carried from and how hard they have to work to remove spines, cut the trunks into appropriate sizes and split the trunks, you understand that the men work very hard for their 69 cents. When you learn that they must pay a large percentage of what they earn to have a pickup truck come in and carry the firewood to market, you can hardly imagine anyone willing to work for so little.

"People need the firewood," the man explained. "Without firewood they wouldn't have their beans, tortillas, tamales and roasted pig!"

That seemed to be what kept this fellow going, even if he had doubts about how little money he was clearing. He knew he was contributing greatly to the community, and, in the end, he and his family somehow survived, so it all works out in the end, even at 69 cents a load.

*****

A PETERED-OUT WET SEASON
Previous Newsletters from here have mentioned this being "in the heart of the rainy season." If you look at my "Rainfall & Temperature" chart for the Yucatán at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/climate.htm you'll see what I mean.

Despite this being the statistical heart of the rainy season, since I've arrived at Sabacché we've not had a single good rain -- just a few sprinkles and a very modest shower. Many cornfields, especially a few miles south of here, are totally lost and if it doesn't rain soon the whole area's corn crops will be lost. The herbaceous layer out in the scrub should be very green and lush now, but in many places it is dead and straw- colored, as in the heart of the dry season.

The above Rainfall & Temperature chart also shows that the hottest time of the year should be in the late dry season, around May. Once the rainy season begins in June, afternoons tend to be so cloudy and stormy that average temperature drops.

Therefore, since I've been here not only has it remained inexplicably dry, but also debilitatingly hot. High 90s every day, with very heavy humidity. At night inside my mosquito net I lie naked on the relatively cool cement floor, pooling in my sweat. It's a little hotter inside the net than outside, but mosquitoes are bad, and this is a malaria hotspot. Still, sometimes I have to put my head outside the net just to breathe, and let the mosquitoes do what they will.

*****

OPENED-MOUTHED PEACOCKS
During the hottest part of each day, surreally, a pair of Peacocks comes to sit in the heavy shade beneath the Guaya tree just outside my back door. They sit like swans on water, their heads high, their beaks open, their throats pulsating as they pant, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080901pc.jpg.

I can't see a Peacock without recalling my time in India, in the mountains, dignified Buddhist shrines at the heads of isolated valleys tended not only by golden-robed monks keeping sandalwood incense burning but also by wandering Peacocks just like the ones outside my door as I type this. Time and again there were incense and candles, a monk sweeping the trail, and forever-lounging Peacocks.

Looking at the Peacocks in the shimmering heat outside my door creates inside me a certain poignant feeling, the same way the Buddhist shrines in India did, but of course the feelings are very different. Mingling the two feelings in my mind right now creates something new, something as novel and unexpected as blue iridescence on a Peacock's chest, or a Buddhist temple's surprising sense of harmony with its valley.

When it's this hot in a world where time melts into irrelevancy, toying with memories and the feelings of memories brings fresh breezes where no fresh breeze stirs.

And, if you ask why I submit to overheated, malarial nights in a village ever so deep in endless, hacked-over scrub, maybe I'll reply in nostalgic terms of Buddhist Peacocks beneath Mexican orange trees.

*****

DEER IN THE SCRUB
The other day I saw a mature, female White-tail Deer out in the scrub. I've never seen a deer in the Yucatan because people here hunt them year-round, despite the law against it, so they're rare. After firewood gathering, hunting seems to be the most important male activity here, maybe even more than working in the cornfields.

When I casually mentioned to a group of men that I'd seen a deer, they wanted to know where. I wouldn't tell them because I knew they'd go try to kill her. By now I think most males in Sabacché have approached me individually and asked where I saw that deer, but I've not told anyone. "The gringo's deer" has become a village joke, in a good-hearted sort of way, the men just shaking their heads over my obstinacy and peculiar thinking.

This scrub, being perpetually hacked over so that it produces endless browse right at deer-head level, is perfect habitat for deer. With the deer's top predators exterminated -- the Jaguars and Mountain Lions -- if people stopped killing deer, in very little time the scrub would produce a deer bounty. But men here will never give the deer a chance. Here wildlife management laws are viewed as unrealistic, classist, anti-family government intervention.

When I suggest that if a few individual deer should be allowed to live and reproduce so that eventually the population will grow and everyone can have much more venison to eat, I get a blank look. "He just doesn't get it," the look says. "Killing deer puts food on the table, so people needing food should kill all deer all the time."

We're all familiar with this kind of short-circuited reasoning: "Win the war against terrorism by making war over there before it comes over here," and "Help the rich get richer so prosperity will trickle down to the poor... "

Mother Nature appears to have programmed humanity so that about half of us accept such thinking, while the other half can see right through it. It seems that both mental predispositions, at least during the course of human evolution, have been equally necessary.

That's not the case today, however. In every respect, because of humanity's newly acquired ability to destroy Life on Earth, ignorance and lazy thinking can no longer be tolerated.

My only hope for continuing Life on Earth is that I'm right about the Sixth Miracle of Nature igniting during our times -- the miracle that enables thinking beings to learn from experience, and solve problems rationally.

As postulated in my Six Miracles of Nature essay at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/o/6miracle.htm the Fifth Miracle consisted of "Life becoming conscious of itself." The Sixth Miracle, just now in the process of coming into being, is "Mere consciousness evolving into the ability to learn and to reflect."

The challenge of our time, then, is to assure that more and more of our fellow humans receive the education and life experiences needed to enable the Sixth Miracle of Nature to come into their lives, too.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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