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

September 22, 2008

THREE LOOKS OF THE YUCATAN JAY
At a certain spot in the scrub near my casita you can nearly always see a flock of eight or so Yucatan Jays, CISSILOPHA YUCATANICUS. You're hiking along, a bird gives a warning call, and into higher branches flush several mostly blue and black birds chattering and scolding CHA-CHA-CHA and rattling CHAHAH-URR-RR just as you might expect noisy, nosey jays of any species to behave.

Yucatan Jays have been common and easy to see in most of my homes across the Yucatán. Back at Komchén I wrote, "At dawn, right outside my porch, usually there are a couple of horses grazing, just waiting for me to feed them my banana peelings. There's a white horse and a dark brown one, and the brown one very often has six to twelve Yucatan Jays riding him. Sometimes a jay descends the horse's tail looking for whatever might be suspended in the long hairs. Sometimes a couple of jays sit for a long time just watching the horse's tail-hole. ... Most of the jays riding the brown horse appear to be enjoying the trip. They perch in a line along the horse's spine, looking around, squawking, preening and billing their neighbors."

Despite their commonness and familiar ways, they're endemic -- in the whole world found only in the Yucatán Peninsula and adjacent Belize, northern Guatemala and a little into the northern Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The flock near my casita is composed of birds exhibiting three distinct colorations, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922yj.jpg.

The black-billed bird at the top, left exhibits the typical adult appearance. The yellow-billed bird at the right is an immature bird, the main differences being that his bill is yellow and the ring around his pupil -- his "orbital ring" -- is yellowish, instead of black as with the adult. The inset at the lower left shows another immature Yucatan Jay, but younger than the first one, with yellow beak and white head and lower parts. The yellow beaks of young birds become black by their third winter. Howell in A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America reports the mostly white plumage as seen only from July through September, so I was lucky to capture it.

In sorting out the above color differences I needed to be a bit more discriminating in the use of certain terms than I have been, the terms being "immature," "juvenile" and "juvenal."

Howell defines "immature" as a general term for non- adult birds; "juvenile" birds are those in their first feathered, or "juvenal," plumage, and; "juvenal" is the term used for the first feathered, or non-downy, plumage of a young bird. Therefore, both of the non- adult birds in the picture are immatures," but only the one with a lot of white is a "juvenile."

Yucatan Jays are "cooperative breeders," a term applied to species in which several individuals, usually closely related, help with nest building, incubation, feeding young, etc. "Immature" Yucatan Jays help their parents take care of their even younger siblings, the "juveniles" in their "juvenal" plumage.

It shouldn't be surprising to find any species of jay exhibiting a more-complex-than-normal social structure. Jays belong to the same bird family as crows and magpies, and most birders agree that those are among the most highly evolved and intelligent of all birds.

*****

GALLIVANTING LONG-TAILED WEASELS
At about 10 AM the other day when I was out in the scrub mapping trails it was starting to get awfully hot and I was already getting tired, so I sat down awhile and leaned against a tree. Everything was quiet except for a Hooded Warbler recently arrived from North America, flitting nervously but silently among an acacia's ferny, breeze-tickled leaves. And then along came a Long-tailed Weasel, MUSTELA FRENATA.

I was mostly hidden behind a tree so he got to within ten feet of me before his eyes popped open and he put on his brakes so hard that for half a second I thought the rear end of his long, low-strung body might flip over his head. But, no, for an instant our eyes met, recognition that a potentially deadly mistake had been made flashed across his face, and then he simply turned around and ran very fast back down the trail.

What a bold facial pattern he had! A broad, black band ran from eye to eye across his snout, conspicuously bordered with pure white. Looking at him face-on the black and white markings presented a harlequin effect. I hadn't remembered weasels having such a strikingly patterned face.

You can see a Long-tailed Weasel like mine at http://museum.utep.edu/chih/theland/animals/mammals/mustelafren.htm.

Read about weasel ecology and natural history here.

Three or four days later in mid morning as I hiked a rocky trail about a kilometer away, yet another Long- tailed Weasel ran across my path, not even glancing up and down the trail to see if anyone was there. A second later another followed the first. Both were fat and sleek, and their fur thick and shiny.

And then Friday, a week after my first sighting, once again I was on a different trail in the scrub and, again around 10 AM, yet a FOURTH weasel came bounding down the middle of a rough, rocky track, this one a bit skinnier than the others and the coat, clearly visible in bright sunlight only ten feet away, was a bit ratty but a bright, rusty red.

I've gone years without seeing a weasel and now here were four in three sightings within a week of one another, all seen in the open on trails, and all spotted at mid morning, despite my regarding the species as mostly nocturnal. This must be the time of year when Long-tailed Weasels in the Yucatán are afflicted with hormones causing them to gallivant about on sexual missions, otherwise I just can't explain what I've seen.

Just the old-timers in Sabacché seem to know about Long-tailed Weasels, so the species must keep a low profile here. That's what I'd expect if only because most males here are eager to kill whatever happens to be moving, plus the old hunters eat them. Those old- timers also know of the weasel's chicken-killing habits.

When I was a kid back in Kentucky, a lot of mornings my father came in grim-faced saying he'd found another old hen with her head missing (the predator hadn't been able to pull her body through the chicken-house hole he'd created), and we always assumed that that was the work of weasels. My father found it hard to keep our hen house weasel-proof. Eventually he began leaving dead chicken bodies filled with strychnine all over the fields and in the woods. That did seem to end the weasel problem, and surely it was the end to many other things, as well.

*****

GOLDEN-SHOWER TREE FLOWERING
In the September 8th Newsletter I told you about the Lebbeck-Tree prettily flowering next to the village's plaza. As the Lebbeck-Tree fades another species is coming online, putting on even more of a show. It's the Golden Shower Tree, traditionally named CASSIA FISTULA but now probably sunk into the genus Senna. The twenty-ft-tall Golden Shower Tree's glory lies in its two-inch-wide, canary-yellow blossoms densely clustered in foot-long racemes, and its handsome, foot-long, dangling, pinnate leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922ca.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922cb.jpg you see a close-up of a flower's sexual parts. The long, slender, green, U-shaped item is the ovary -- the future legume. The other things sprouting from the blossom's center are male stamens consisting of curving, stalk-like filaments holding out baglike anthers, which open to release powdery pollen.

Stamens in this genus are different from those of most other genera in that in a single blossom they grow in very different sizes and configurations, as the picture shows. In certain closely related species some stamens are sterile, having lost their pollen- producing anthers so that now the headless filaments serve mainly as handles for visiting pollinators. Senna fistula's flowers bear ten fertile stamens, but of different sizes.

The Golden Shower Tree's fruits are attention-getting, too. They're two feet long, very slender and roundish in cross-section, like enormous string-beans, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922cc.jpg.

This is one instance when the outside world knows about the medicinal value of a plant growing here but the Maya don't. For, Golden Shower Trees are alien here, being from India. So far the Maya don't seem to know that the pod produces between its many seeds a pulp that makes an excellent laxative. In the old days when pharmacists compounded drugs from raw ingredients "Cassia pods" from this tree were a mainstay. When mature, the pods turn black.

*****

ROADSIDE APHELANDRAS FLOWERING
If you're traveling down a road or walking a trail here where the thin, dry soil is much disturbed and weedy, and you see a slender, knee- to waist-high "weed" topped with spikes of very red flowers, a good bet is that the plant belongs to the genus Aphelandra, for which I haven't found an English name. There are several species. One growing near my casita is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922ap.jpg.

The habitat description I just wrote for Aphelandras is similar to what appeared in this month's September 1 Newsletter when I introduced you to the red-flowered Scarlet-Bush, Hamelia patens. Unrelated Scarlet-Bush is larger, more branched and occurs in moister, less disturbed sites than does Aphelandra. Still, beginners sometimes get them confused just because both are common, red-flowered, roadside plants. You can compare the above Aphelandra image with the Scarlet-Bush at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hamelia.htm.

Some might also confuse it with Scarlet Sage, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/salvia-c.htm.

But, Scarlet Sage is a square-stemmed mint with only two pollen-producing stamens, while Aphelandra flowers bear four fertile stamens.

Aphelandras are members of the Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae, a mostly tropical family. A good field mark of the Acanthus Family is that usually a bract, or scoop-shaped modified leaf, grows at the base of each flower in the spike. You can see such a bract on an Aphelandra that already has flowered, lost its corolla and now its fruit is maturing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922aq.jpg.

In that picture, a bit left of center, a loopy, brown, stringlike thing -- the style -- emerges from the cylindrical calyx crowned with five sharp sepals. Below the calyx the large, hairy, sharp-toothed item slashing across the image and pointing toward the upper right is the bract. On the bract's near side you see two sharp, dark-tipped teeth. If you grow Garden Acanthus you may find these miniature bract teeth similar to those subtending blossoms of the larger, more robust garden favorite.

Another good field mark for the Acanthus Family is that long after pollination has occurred and the corollas have fallen off, those long, loopy styles remain atop the ovary. The persistent styles are conspicuous in both the above pictures.

Who knows why the Acanthus Family seems to need its bracts and persistent styles? The vast majority of other flowering-plant families either don't have them or let them shrivel up and drop off as soon as pollination is completed.

*****

DIGITAL CAMERAS & BIRDING
I was surprised by how well the picture of the Yucatan Jay turned out. Until a whim to see what the telephoto abilities of my Wal-Mart, off-the-shelf, $235 Canon PowerShot SX100 IS camera were, I hadn't even tried photographing birds. When I consider that those jays were about 50 feet away and I was holding the camera in my hands -- not using a tripod -- the fairly decent results just boggle my mind.

Of course the shot will never grace Audubon Magazine but it's certainly good enough to put on the computer screen as I confirm my identification, holding the field guide next to the image.

In fact, from now on when I'm birding in places where I'm likely to see unusual species, I'll keep my camera ready. Especially if it's something like a flycatcher where there are many look-alike species, or a hawk whose species display confusing immature plumages, it'll be worth taking a picture so later I can compare my image with what's in the field guide, point-by-point. If there's a big flock of shorebirds in a mudflat, I'll take a snapshot of the whole bunch, then later look at each individual in the shot, hoping to find someone exciting mixed in with the usual species.

One reason my bird shot is as sharp as it is, despite its being taken at such a distance and being hand-held, is that instead of using automatic settings I used manual. I pushed the shutter speed up to 1/2500 of a second, a normal snapshot speed being maybe 1/125 of a second. I did that because the higher shutter speed (the less time the camera shutter remains open), the less the camera moves during that open-shutter time, and the sharper the picture is.

Since faster shutter speeds cut down on light entering the lens, you have to compensate by opening the lens wider -- using a lower f or aperture value. An aperture value of f/2.8 admits much more light than f/8).

Very high shutter speeds do cause images to be a bit grainy and the colors less vibrant, but that's better than having the images blurred, which would be the case at a slower speed. If I used a tripod to steady the camera I'd be able to use a much slower speed and the picture would be less grainy and washed-out.

Even my mid-range camera has more features than I'll ever use. However, anyone who can master the simple relationship between shutter speed and aperture value, and figure out how to quickly and nimbly manage those functions on his or her camera, will find a whole new dimension of birding opening up.

Don't forget my page on digital cameras at http://www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm.

Also, even if your picture turns out grossly under- or overexposed, poorly framed, or suffering from a host of other problems, often you can save the image using a good image editor such as PhotoShop. You may want to take a look at my page on graphics programs at http://www.backyardnature.net/graphix.htm.

*****

DIGITAL CAMERAS & ANTS
While photographing the Aphelandra several ants stood unmoving among the flowers and bracts, apparently taking nectar. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080922an.jpg.

That picture also amazed me. First, once again I'm reminded that when you begin paying attention to ants you discover that they are as different from one another as dogs from cows. Some, even common ones, display amazing behaviors and anatomical features. To see a variety of ant faces and body types and have several very useful online links that help in identification (such as "The Ants of North America: Keys to Genera & Species" website) and other links that describe marvels of the ant world, go to http://www.backyardnature.net/ants.htm.

But, the main point here is that digital cameras also help us see tiny things in unforeseen ways. It's worth mastering the setting adjustments, mastering shutter speed, F-stops, resolution, and all the rest, for when you get a mid-range digital camera or better, really you've acquired a new set of eyes. But to see new things with them, you must study how to use them.

The initial image resulting when I took the above ant shot wasn't nearly as impressive as what you see at the link. First, the ant occupied only a small part of the picture so I had to "blow her up," or enlarge her, before I started seeing details. That was possible without losing detail because I'd shot the picture using high resolution. Also, the ant's head had been in a shadow so that in the original image it was completely black, not showing eyes or those interesting wrinkles across the forehead. Using PhotoShop I "burned" or overexposed the head area, bringing out the details.

On the Graphics Programs page linked to in the last section I show how to change a bad picture with a tiny ant in it into an interesting image.

*****

SPAM WARS
During recent weeks my Newsletters sent via email have been very erratic about arriving at their destinations. The trouble is mostly with servers trying to filter out spam. Many filters assume that anything issued en masse, such as this Newsletter, is spam, and delete it.

I expect the problem to only get worse. Eventually these email-delivered Newsletters may have to be abandoned, and readers will need to go to the archives on the Internet to read them.

If someday you realize you haven't received your Newsletter and you'd like to read the latest, you can find them online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

*****

WEEKEND DRUNKS
On weekends most but not all men in Sabacché get drunk -- sometimes during the week, too. On drinking days, all day long men sit or lie in small groups beneath favorite shade trees passing around the bottle, everyone a bit dazed, sometimes peacefully nodding off and on. Only a few occasionally get belligerent, which is profoundly different from their usual polite, soft-spoken selves.

This is fairly typical of small villages of mostly indigenous people in this part of the world. Occasionally you enter a village on a weekend and see very few drunks, and then you know that someone has made a lot of effort to bring sobriety to town.

Sometimes the people themselves realize that drunkenness is causing the community problems and a forceful leader or dynamic committee brings social pressure to bear to keep people sober. This was the case back in 28 de Junio in Chiapas.

More typically, religion comes to town. You may remember from my March 8, 2005 Newsletter when my friend Vladimir and I visited the mountain town of Pantepec, Chiapas. The first day we entered town we were struck by the men's appearance: About half were grubby, slouchy and often drunk, but the other half were clean and always seemed engaged in something productive. There were few in-between cases. In Pantepec, about half the town had converted to Seventh Day Adventism, and Adventists preach fervently against sloth and drunkenness.

If I'd been born in Pantepec and if I'd grown up knowing only what I could learn in the muddy streets of that isolated little town, I hope I would have had the gumption to join with the Adventists, maybe even becoming a preacher, trying to nudge my people toward something better. In Pantepec, I wouldn't have had the resources to see religion in context, as only a step toward spirituality. Religiosity would have been the most positive force in my life there.

But, I have ended up here, and almost by accident with a voice in cyberspace. My audience is not dispossessed indigenous people still rather cut off from the rest of the world, but rather you, who can Google almost any information you want, who can learn how large, complex and beautiful the Universe is, and surreal the behavior of subatomic particles, and see in the News how religiosity works out in the modern world.

Therefore, today, here, this thought: As in Pantepec the only force anyone found strong enough to battle habitual drunkenness was religion, in our more information-rich, more broad-horizoned world, where dangers to us all are much more clearly understood than in Pantepec, the only force transformative enough to battle entrenched human behaviors destroying Earth's biosphere is spiritual advancement.

And the great font of spirituality is and always has been experience with Nature.

Open yourself to flowers and birds, crystals and fossils, children and happy adults, natural cycles and a million blossomings, and true, intense, Life- affirming, Life-on-Earth-saving spirituality simply comes.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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