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

September 29, 2008

BIRD FEAST, COURTESY OF ARMY ANTS
Last Monday our rainy-season drought came to an end; suddenly the weather is exactly as it should be, most mornings very humid and fairly cloudy, storms building in the afternoons, a brief electrical storm around 4 PM, then drizzle on and off, sometimes heavy rains coming out of nowhere in early evening. Saturday morning after a night of showers as I returned from jogging at dawn it was so cool -- 74° F (23° C) -- that men were wearing their sweatshirts.

The Maya say that rains make the ants move, and that seems to be the case. They're referring to army ants, which we've often seen before. Several army-ant stories are linked to on my Mexican Insects page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/insects.htm.

So, Saturday morning as I was hiking out of town I paused along the road to figure out why in that spot several birds seemed to be hanging around. Then came that too-familiar burning, stinging sensation down at the feet: I was standing in a river of army ants.

As soon as I pulled off each ant individually and scratched my ankles a bit, I hid behind a nearby rock and waited. Soon the birds I'd seen earlier returned, for the army ants had been providing them with a feast. Best I can ever see, the birds just try to stay out of the ants' way. What they like is that before the advancing streams of ants always there's a mad rush of potential ant prey -- grasshoppers, spiders, tarantulas, scorpions -- abandoning their usual hideouts, which the ants inevitably discover. These fleeing victims make easy meals.

First returned a Social Flycatcher who perched on an electrical line until something good appeared. Then he’d dive, do a second or two of battle, fly back to the wire, finish swallowing, then he’d wait again, and again and again. You can see him waiting at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929b1.jpg.

Second came three Groove-billed Anis. At first they weren't sure I was a rock and perched gawking at me on a nearby stone wall. One thought that while he was there he'd avail himself of the warm morning sunlight by spreading his wings against it to dry himself from the night's rains. You can the shaggy-looking basker at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929b2.jpg.

Last to come was a yellow-eyed Great-tailed Grackle with a not-too-great tail, who landed among the ants and ran from place to place, sometimes doing a little dance, apparently trying to shake off ants, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929b3.jpg.

*****

A FRIENDLY SUMMER TANAGER
Much fewer migrant birds have arrived for the winter than I was expecting. However, Friday morning when a certain drably colored bird appeared in branches close above me and displayed much more curiosity about my presence than the native slingshot-wary population, I figured I had a visitor from up North. And it was true: As soon as the bird filled my camera's viewfinder I saw that it was either a female or immature Summer Tanager, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929st.jpg.

Actually, I wasn't sure which tanager it was until I studied my Howell's A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, especially the distribution maps. Then I saw that Summer Tanagers overwinter here, Scarlet Tanagers only pass through on their way to South America, and Hepatic and Western Tanagers don't normally occur here. My friendly visitor was more golden brown than yellow-green, so that made it a Summer, not a Scarlet. Also its beak was more massive than the Scarlet's.

Surely this bird had grown accustomed to humans up North, for its curiosity and willingness to show itself was remarkable. What a world it would be if all animals felt they could trust humans -- and really could -- and came to accompany us on our walks the way this one did me for several minutes.

*****

BLUE BUNTINGS
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929bu.jpg you can see a common little bird around here showing up in weedy areas. It's the Blue Bunting, CYANOCOMPSA PARELLINA, a species endemic to lowland Mexico and northern Central America. It's different from the common buntings of North America -- the Indigo in the East and the Lazuli in the West -- in that it's much darker and has a more massive beak.

Among all the small, dark birds found here, the male Blue Bunting is distinctive with the "powder blue" or light blue areas on his face, shoulder and rump. Females are brown little birds extremely hard or impossible to separate from other small seed-eaters in the field. At least at this time of year the species is quiet and retiring, just here and there popping up into the weeds, especially next to woods, as I walk by.

In North America about seven species names include the word "bunting," while in Mexico we have about nine. So, what really is a "bunting?"

Most but not all members of the genus Passerina are regarded as buntings. However, you can see that our Blue Bunting is in the genus Cyanocompsa, plus other species in entirely different subfamilies also are called buntings -- the Lark Bunting, for instance.

Maybe the Lark Bunting suggests the key to what a bunting is. Though Lark Buntings are most closely related to sparrows, which are mostly small, thick- beaked, brown-striped birds, Lark Buntings themselves are almost entirely black except for their wing patches.

Therefore it seems that any small, thick-billed, sparrow-shaped bird that is predominantly black or very dark, no matter what his taxonomic relationships with other birds are, is likely to be called a bunting.

But then there's the gaily colored Painted Bunting and Orange-breasted Bunting, who seem to be called buntings just because they're in the genus Passerina...

In the end, it's the same old story: These common names make little sense. If you want to be precise, use Latin, and even that system is full of weird exceptions and anomalies.

*****

A PAPER-WASP NEST
Almost at head level on the lowest branches of the very dense, dark-green Guaya, Talisia olivaeformis, tree in my backyard there's a paper-wasp nest about the size of a human adult's head, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929pw.jpg.

One neat feature of this nest is that you can see how as it was constructed it simply incorporated twigs and leaves occupying the space of the future nest. At the nest's top, look at how twigs enter the nest; they exit on the opposite side. At the nest's bottom you can see how the growing nest is in the process of engulfing a leaf.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929px.jpg you can see into the entrance. When this image first appeared on my screen the entrance showed us as nothing but a black hole, but with PhotoShop I overexposed the hole until the hexagonal cells inside showed up. Toward the picture's bottom wasps agitated by my presence are swarming out so fast that they're only blurs. Only one stung me, and it wasn't very painful, about like a "sweat-bee's" sting in the North. These little beings are not at all eager to sting.

My neighbors tell me that in the old days people would tear open the nests for the cells filled with grubs developing into adult workers. The grubs were considered good eating.

*****

TWO CACTUSES AND A WREN NEST
Out in the scrub, especially in rocky places chewed and stomped severely by cattle, there are two ubiquitous cactus species, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929cc.jpg.

First of all, look for the wren nest, a ball of brown straw with a black entry hole approximately in the picture's center. Such covered nests with holes at the side or slanting downward are common out in the scrub.

The smaller, yellowish green, flat-jointed cactus up front, clearly one of the prickly-pears, I'm assuming to be OPUNTIA INAPERTA, sometimes called Nopalia gaumeri, notable for its slender, elongate pads. It's not flowering or fruiting now and here grows seven or more feet high.

The larger, much branched, cylindrical-jointed cactus behind the prickly-pear must be CEPHALOCEREUS GAUMERI, because I'm fairly sure it's a Cephalocereus, and C. gaumeri is the only Cephalocereus listed for Dzibilchaltún Ruins not too far to the northwest. Cephalocereus species often are referred to as old-man cactuses because they tend to develop white wool or long white hairs forming a dense mass at or near the column top -- they're white-headed, as in the picture. This species gets to eight or so feet tall here.

This old-man cactus was fruiting. A fruit close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929cd.jpg. In that picture two somewhat flattened, spherical, or "depressed-globose," fruits, bear the limp, brown remains of the earlier flowers. Bearing the flower remains is typical for the species in the genus and I just wonder why. In this close-up you can also see tufts of white wool. On some joints the wool is much more conspicuous.

I suspect that both of these species are endemic to the Yucatán because I don't find them mentioned in my books, plus both have been named "gaumeri," which is the Latinized form of the name Gaumer. Upon finding Jatropha gaumeri and Mammillaria gaumeri during my 2006 stay in Río Lagartos on the Yucatán's northern coast, I wrote in my November 13th, 2006 Newsletter:

"George Franklin Gaumer (1850-1929) was a US citizen residing in the Yucatan from 1884 to his death, and he collected a remarkable number of rare and endemic species, which he sent to specialists for identification or, if they were unknown to science, for naming. Many of those specialists named the undescribed plants after their discoverer, Gaumer. There's Acacia gaumeri, Caesalpinia gaumeri, Thevetia gaumeri, Vitex gaumeri, and many more."

*****

A WILD DATE
No, my hormones haven't reactivated. I mean "Wild Date" as in PHOENIX SYLVESTRIS, one of the date palms. Despite the name Wild Date, it doesn’t grow wild here. A native of India, it’s planted throughout the world’s tropical zones.

So, the other late afternoon I was sauntering past the big landowner's gate, happened to glance inside, and there stood this ornamental Wild Date, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929pi.jpg.

In the reddish, low-slanting sunlight it couldn't have been prettier. Every organism has a certain moment in its life when everything about it reaches a certain state of perfection, and surely that palm's moment was right then. The white dot in the blue sky at the palm's left is the Moon, so even the Moon cooperated.

The orange items in the palm's center are clusters of numerous 3/4-inch-long fruits, seen close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929ph.jpg.

When we refer to date palms in general we're speaking of the genus Phoenix. It's unclear whether that classical Greek name derives from the ancient Phoenicia or Egypt’s fabled bird. THE Date Palm -- the one producing sweet, gummy dates people may still snip into their Christmas fruitcakes -- is a different species, Phoenix dactylifera.

The genus is fairly easy to identify, its two main field marks being that it bears pinnately compound (featherlike) fronds and the fronds' lower pinnae, or leaflets, are represented by stiff, often hard and sharp spines. In the last picture those spines are clearly visible.

Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants, so important to me that it's included in my backpack when I'm wandering like this, describes the spines as 1/5 to 2/5 inch long, but you can see that this one's are an inch or more long. I'm guessing that the deal is that the various ornamental date palm species have been hybridized to the extent that many or most have a few genes of other species, so maybe this one has some long-spine genes.

That's a young Wild Date in the picture, just starting to grow. The species reaches 50 feet and mature specimens have stout, columnar trunks. Species in Phoenix are dioecious, which means that they come in boy and girl trees, so obviously that's a lady in the picture. The Wild Date's sap is so sweet that sugar can be made from it.

*****

AN AECHMEA IN FULL FLOWER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929ae.jpg you see a hippopotamus-size, epiphytic bromeliad about three feet off the ground. It's an Aechmea, probably AECHMEA BRACTEATA. By "bromeliad" I mean a member of the Bromelia or Pineapple Family, the Bromeliaceae, a family of mostly tree-borne, tropical American plants.

We've often run into bromeliads, especially in humid areas. Spanish Moss back in Mississippi is a bromeliad. In Querétaro bromeliads grew on power lines and at Yerba Buena they constituted an important part of the humid cloudforest flora. Here you'd almost expect it to be too arid for bromeliads, but several species show up. So far Aechmea bracteata has been the largest and most spectacular I've seen of the local species. Most or gray, egg-size to softball-size, rosette-forming, scurfy little beings well camouflaged within the gray bark and thorns of the branches they populate.

It can be hard to identify bromeliads, but Aechmea bracteata has some easily seen field marks. First, in the picture above, notice that the inflorescence, or cluster of flowers, is compound -- small flowers arise from the inflorescence's branches instead of directly from the long, bending-down stem. Also, the lower branches are subtended by long, red bracts, or modified leaves. The sheer size is important, too, this being a big species.

I'm guessing that back during henequen plantation days Aechmea bracteata was almost extirpated from this area. That may be why it's so uncommon now. In this scrub kept perpetually hacked up by firewood gatherers, it's like seeing a Dandelion in a crack in parking-lot pavement -- Nature always trying to come back, always trying to heal Her wounds, to bring diversity into deserts.

****

MYSTERY PICTURE
What do you see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929mp.jpg?

Sabacché's main ecotour attractions are two deep sinkholes filled with water, or cenotes. Both are accessible only by fancily engineered steps leading into them. One entry is by a spiraling stairway suspended from the ceiling. At the bottom you step onto a wooden platform also suspended from the rocky ceiling, by steel cables. From the platform, visitors can go swimming in the water, which is very deep. In one cenote divers have gone 246 feet deep (75 m) without meeting the bottom. This one is shallower.

The above picture is taken from that platform inside the cenote. The "white cloud" at the top is where sunlight enters the water, glowing on clusters of bubbles and trash blown into the sinkhole. The blue streaks below the "clouds" are sunlight passing through very clear water, seeming to bend as they penetrate deeper and deeper. The "turquoise ghosts" mark where the rays hit the underwater pit's limestone walls deep below. The dark mottling on the white cloud isn't a reflection, but rather the shadow of a strangler fig tree leaning over the cenote's entry hole. The small, evenly spaced items on the water's surface are collections of tiny bubbles.

*****

SAC-BES
One of the outstanding features of ancient Maya cities was that often important ceremonial sites were connected with one another by straight, well constructed and maintained highways called sac-bes (sac-be, singular). Some sac-bes are amazingly long and straight. Arial photos of the old Maya area show hundreds of miles of them, mostly now reclaimed by nature.

Sabacché's old timers tell me that at least one of the trails cutting through the scrub surrounding the village is a sac-be, the remainder of the trails having been put in during henequen-plantation days.

Our sac-be leads to the most impressive cenote, the one featured in the above Mystery Picture. Old timers also tell me that our sac-be extends to the famous ruins of Mayapán about 15 crow-flown kilometers west of here. I can't confirm that, but our road is indeed pointed in that direction.

You can see some tourists on bikes peddling down our sac-be, kept well clipped by grazing cattle as it burrows through the scrub near the cenote at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/080929sb.jpg.

*****

SPAM WARS, SECOND TRY
I think that most of last week's Newsletters vanished somewhere in cyberspace so I'm repeating the following excerpt:

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 will 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 it online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/

In fact, it may be a good idea to bookmark that page and just try to remember to visit it from time to time.

*****

CHANGES IN THE STATIC
Shortwave programming is a shadow of what it used to be. The programs that for many years connected me with my own world when I camped in isolated tropical places no longer can be heard here. Radio Canada simply stopped transmitting. When the Bush administration assumed power, highly respected Voice of America was savaged, much of its funding being diverted into anti- Castro propaganda transmitted by Radio Martí in Miami. Worst of all, this spring the BBC stopped beaming signals to this part of the world. Shortwave received here now consists mostly of powerful religious programming from the US, and Radio Martí transmitting hardcore propaganda on many frequencies, most of them noisily and effectively jammed by the Cubans.

However, my little receiver is a good one, and the other day I found a BBC signal being beamed from London to Africa. I must be receiving the signal off the side of the antenna. The signal is weak, fades in and out, often is obliterated by lightning-caused static, and I hear much more than I want about Africa, but at least I can hear real news again.

The news the last couple of weeks has been largely about the world economic crises. Never before has such money and power changed hands so fast, they say, talking about America's wealth and influence falling into the hands of Asians. At dusk with mosquitoes incrusting my netting I lie in the darkness of my little casita trying to pick words out of the static, fascinated by it all, wondering how my family and friends up north are affected.

In economics they like to think of money as like energy in Nature. Both money and energy flow from user to user, both can be saved, wasted or invested, and both keep life going. However, money is not like energy because Nature's energy has a constant value, can be measured and counted out precisely in calories, ergs or whatever, while money’s value is inconstant. Money's value is nothing more than what humans say it is, and humans are liable to say anything, anytime.

If what I'm gleaning through all the static is correct -- that a new age has begun, that US society now will be reshuffled and reconstituted -- then a lot of people are about to lose their old ways of living.

In the past, when I've lost something big -- the family farm, my parents, my marriage, my professional life -- somehow I always saw those changes as invitations to simplify, to try to do more with less, and, more than anything, to shift my main focus away from the ephemeral, human-made world, toward the eternal world of Nature.

Nature teaches that simple, inexpensive, healthy living is a joy. I learned that by accident. I didn't discover it through wisdom, but rather because one personal disaster after another led me into it. I simplified, cut back spending, exercised and ate nutritious foods grudgingly, but now I see that those changes put me on the proper path.

So, through the static of my limited powers of expression, here is today's signal I'm sending to you there in the North:

Accept this challenge as a gift -- as an invitation to simplify, to grow lean again, and tougher than before. And notice that nothing has changed with regard to your liberty to think, to reflect, and feel. And birds still sing, green plants still photosynthesize, crickets still chime, and, really, the most beautiful and meaningful parts of life haven’t changed at all.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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