JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Mostly written in Yokdzonot and issued from a ciber in
Pisté, Yucatán, MÉXICO

October 13, 2008

A TAIL-BOBBING WATERTHRUSH
A couple of Newsletters ago I told you about the Summer Tanager just arrived from North America, to overwinter here, who was much less nervous about being around people than the permanent birds. Last weekend I heard a familiar bright, metallic TCHINK, TCHINK, TCHINKING right outside my casita door in Sabacché and I figured I had another recent arrival. Sure enough, not ten feet from the door a Northern Waterthrush foraged along the edge of the cesspool that collects my bathroom waste and generates mosquitoes, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013wt.jpg.

Both Northern and Louisiana Waterthrushes visit the Yucatán, the Northern staying all winter but the Louisiana only passing through between nesting grounds to the north and a winter home farther south. The two species look a lot alike. The Louisiana's eye stripe, or supercilium, is white, while the Northern's ranges from pale yellow to whitish. In the shade it was hard to tell whether this bird's supercilium was white or whitish. Other differences are that the Louisiana's bill is relatively larger, and the bird has a white throat, while the Northern's throat is spotted. It wasn't until I could study my pictures that I was sure I had a Northern. Louisianas prefer running water while Northerns hang around swamps, lake and river margins, so that also hinted at it being a Northern.

Waterthrushes bob their rear ends in a very exaggerated fashion. They almost seem to be parodying what a tail-bobbing bird could be like. You can't watch a waterthrush bobbing its tail without thinking that for a bird to put so much energy into moving that rear end up and down it must be vitally important for the species' survival. Other unrelated species such as Spotted Sandpipers and Palm Warblers also wag their tails, so the behavior must have arisen spontaneously several times during bird evolution, and been important enough to have been retained. However, the vast majority of birds get along just fine without tail-bobbing, so this is another of those evolutionary head-scratchers.

It's assumed that tail-bobbing distracts a predator's attention from the head, so the potential prey is more likely to escape.

*****

ROADSIDE WALTHERIAS
Nowadays one of our most conspicuous roadside weeds is a tiny-flowered, knee-high plant that's eye-catching only because of its abundance and its silvery-fuzzy leaves and stems, which give it a frosted look, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013wa.jpg.

It's WALTHERIA AMERICANA, a member of the same family, the Sterculia Family or the Sterculiaceae, in which also is found Cacao, from which chocolate is produced, and Cola, whose seed kernels are used in medicine and stimulating drinks.

Its flowers are easily overlooked because they grow packed together in small bunches along the stem, at petiole bases. However, the yellow blossoms, about the size of peppercorns, are pretty things, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013wb.jpg.

In that picture five stamens with their anthers heavily coated with pollen grains project from the flower's throat. One halfway unusual thing about flowers in the Chocolate Family is that fertile stamens like those shown arise opposite the petals. In most blossoms they alternate with the petals, thus are opposite the sepals, which in turn alternate with the petals. Also, typically the filaments of stamens in the family unite at their bases into a sort of tube or column.

Along the road to Sabacché Waltheria americana grows right at the pavement's edge, then about two feet away from the pavement other weeds take over, so it's highly adapted for that precise roadside habitat. Sometimes it makes a striking presence forming a silvery fringe to the black highway.

*****

CANISTEL
I spend last Monday and Monday night in Mérida at a friend's house. Behind the house grew a handsome tree producing a very tasty fruit, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013cn.jpg.

The fruit and tree are called Canistel, genus Pouteria. Canistel belongs to the Sapodilla Family, the Sapotaceae, famous for its delicious tropical fruits, foremost among them being Mamey, Sapodilla or Chicozapote, and Star-Apple or Caimito.

The same tree was producing fruit when I passed through there two months ago, and it's still loaded. The fruits, which contain two or three large, shining seeds, produce soft orange flesh with a texture and taste like that of well baked sweet potato.

As shown in the picture, leaves in this family tend to be fairly large, without lobes or teeth, leathery, evergreen, and somewhat clustered at the tips of branches.

*****

LEAVING SABACCHÉ
My work in Sabacché finished, The Yucatan Ecotourism Network (Red de Ecoturismo del Yucatán) invited me to another community in the network. That's why I was in Mérida, leaving my work at the organization's office. One task I did for Sabacché was to develop a folded handout, or triptych, describing Sabacché's attractions. You can see one side of that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013s1.jpg.

The other side, showing the folder's insides, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013s2.jpg.

Tuesday morning as the organization's director drove me eastward from Mérida I was curious about where we'd end up, for I'd made a point of not asking. I like to be surprised. As we approached each little village I wondered whether this might be where I'd be living awhile. In about an hour and a half, 100 kms or 62 miles east of Mérida, suddenly we took a right into a village whose entrance sign bore the funny-looking name Yokdzonot.

So, now I live in Yokdzonot. Yokdzonot's ecotourism committee has a big cenote, or water-filled sinkhole, with a nice restaurant beside it, and wants more visitors. Like Sabacché, the folks are Maya and speak Maya in their homes, but the educational level and standard of living in Yokdzonot is much more developed than in Sabacché, and the community has a completely different feeling.

For one thing, being farther east, the climate is rainier here, so consequently the forest stands nearly as tall as a typical woods in the eastern US. Tree branches bear many more epiphytes, particularly bromeliads, than trees in arid Sabacché.

*****

PANUCHOS, SALBUTES & SOPES
Yokdzonot's ecotourism committee was on hand to welcome me, about a dozen folks, and after a bit of talking they offered us a meal of panuchos, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013pp.jpg.

Actually those are non-standard panuchos, for regular Panuchos contain meat of various kinds, and my hosts were kind enough to prepare special vegetarian ones for me.

In Mexico lots of dishes look like my panuchos. There's just something in a Mexican that likes the idea of heaping shredded and sliced tasty stuff atop a tortilla.

Panuchos begin with a corn tortilla stuffed with bean paste and hard-boiled egg, this is fried, then garnished in various ways. A typical panucho might have atop it macerated chicken breast and marinated onion strips. My special vegetarian one was topped with shredded onion, cabbage and a slice of tomato. The creation really comes alive when you smear it with fiery habenero sauce.

If you build a panucho but use a tortilla not stuffed with bean paste, it was explained, you get a salbute. On the other hand, if you do use a bean-stuffed tortilla but put ham and cheese atop it but no other kind of meat, then that's a sope.

I'm sure these concepts change from region to region so don't get upset if you think a panucho is a little different.

*****

A STROLL THROUGH YOKDZONOT
Yokdzonot, the word, means "above the cenote." You can see the cenote in "dzonot" in Yokdzonot, so you can figure out that in Maya "yok" means "above."  The town is located on "the old highway" between Mérida and Cancún. A four-lane toll road now connects the towns but much traffic continues on the old road because in Mexico toll roads are much more expensive than up north, even when they're potholed. My first guess at the town's population was about 50 but, knowing how lots of people pack themselves into Mexican households, I decided it would be around 300. When I asked, it turned out to be ± 850.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013y3.jpg you can see that, arriving in Yokdzonot from the east, first you're greeted by the handsome building with arches on the right, which is the comisario. I'm told that basically the only time it's used is when the community wants to have a meeting. Beyond the comisario there are two or three cracker-and-soda-type stores along the road. Maybe 95% of the town sprawls along irregularly laid-out roads and trails leading away from the road. My place is a couple of blocks to the left.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013y4.jpg you see the shady town park next to the church atop a natural knoll. There are so many mound-forming Maya ruins in this area that at first I assumed the church had been built atop an old Maya temple, but local folks assure me that the little hill is all natural limestone.

It's a tradition to show you where I type these Newsletters from, so that picture can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013y5.jpg.

Here I live in a storage room beside the restaurant. The room is equipped with a dandy red, plastic Coca-Cola table and chair, a luxury I missed back in Sabacché, where I sat on the floor as I typed. Outside the window you see a neighbor's thatch-roof house. The thick, white book to the left of my laptop is Howell's much-quoted "A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America." On a stand just beyond it sits the indispensable 20-liter plastic bottle of purified water, which costs about US $1.50 just for the water. The bottles are recycled. Just two years ago water cost half that.

*****

AN IMMATURE CAVE SWALLOW, PROBABLY
Early Wednesday morning when I first approached Yokdzonot's main cenote I thought I heard a lot of trickling water, but it turned out to be the soft chattering of hundreds of Cave Swallows, HIRUNDO FULVA. Clinging to the cenote's rock walls individual birds would launch into the air independently and join other birds already circling counterclockwise inside the cenote. As more and more birds joined, the circling flock rose higher inside the cenote, then finally they'd all escape from the pit flying right at treetop level. Meanwhile another circling flock would be forming below. In short, the birds exited in puffs of maybe 50-100 birds, not in one massive emergence. A wild guess is that about a thousand birds live there.

I entered the cenote via a steep, wooden staircase, the air becoming ever more humid. A feeling for the pit is provided by a picture of the opposite wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013yk.jpg.

The dangling items are the rootlike stems, or stemlike roots of strangler fig trees growing at the rim.

About 15 feet from the platform used by swimmers when they slide into the water a single swallow perched on a tiny ledge beneath a shadowy overhang. Using a flash I got the picture of an immature bird shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013cs.jpg.

When I saw the above image I was struck by how similar the species is to the much more widely distributed and common Cliff Swallow. In fact, because of the black belt beneath the throat I thought it might be that species. Cliff Swallows don't breed here but they do migrate southward through here at this time of year, toward their winter homes in Brazil and Argentina.

However, in Howell's A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America I read that juvenile Cave Swallow chests are washed with duskiness, while no such duskiness is mentioned for juvenile Cliff Swallows. Also, folks here tell me that the same large number of swallows is present year round, so at least I know there's no large influx of migrant Cliff Swallows right now. Therefore I'm calling what's in the picture a juvenile Cave Swallow with maybe 95% certainty, and if I'm wrong I know I'll hear about it.

Cave Swallows display an interesting distribution pattern. A population lives permanently in north-central Mexico, during the summer expanding its northern limits into the nearby southwestern US. In far southern Mexico, in Chiapas, a small, isolated population also visits just for the summer. And then here in the upper Yucatán Peninsula we have another isolated but permanent population.

*****

RAINY ENOUGH FOR CECROPIAS
Back in Chiapas I told you about Cecropia trees, which tourists sometimes call Umbrella Trees because of their broad, umbrella-like leaves on long petioles. Cecropias are indicator species for the humid tropics. Around Jalpan in Querétaro and at Sabacché it was too arid for them but in Chiapas we had them, and they're present here. A cluster along a road near my place is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013cc.jpg.

In the Yucatán, in general, the farther east and the farther south you go, the rainier it gets, the lusher and higher-growing the vegetation becomes, and the greater becomes the species diversity. In moving from Sabacché to Yokdzonot I penetrated deeper into rainy territory. In fact, every afternoon since I've been here it's rained around 4 PM, and some of the storms have been dillies. The above picture shows how absolutely green it is here, and how weedy and cut- over the land is. There's less destruction of the forest here for firewood, but more for the cultivation of corn. In general, the vegetation is much more destroyed than around Sabacché, though it was pretty bad there.

Two Cecropia species occur in the region, Cecropia peltata and C. obtusifolia. The one in the picture is C. peltata, which is such a vigorous species that it's become an invasive weed in Hawaii, French Polynesia, West Africa and Malaysia. It's even been nominated for the Global Invasive Species Database's World's Worst Invaders List.

Cecropia flowers are tiny and unisexual. Numerous female flowers are densely packed onto short, thick spikes, and many male flowers cluster on longer, thinner spikes. One way to distinguish C. peltata from C. obtusifolia is that C. peltata's female spikes are less than 10 cm long (4 inches) while C. obtusifolia's are longer than 10 cm. See C. peltata's female spikes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013cd.jpg.

Cecropia tree stems are hollow and segmented, some segments with holes in them serving as doors for ants who live in the stems. If a large herbivore comes eating the tree, the ants may drive it away. Cecropia flowers produce sweet nectar the ants like, plus mature female spikes are sweet and succulent, and eaten by birds and mammals. The Maya consider the spikes an emergency food.

Ceropia peltata enjoys high repute as a medicinal plant. Las Plantas Medicinales de México, which calls it Guarumo, reports it as useful against obesity, asthma, liver ailments and diabetes. The trunk's skin contains cecropina, considered to be a powerful heart tonic and diuretic.

*****

HIBISCUS FLOWERS
With more annual rainfall the air here is softer and the landscape lusher. Even the most desperate looking huts usually are surrounded by beautiful assemblages of flowering plants. One of the prettiest blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081013hu.jpg.

That's the Chinese Hibiscus, HIBISCUS ROSA-SINENSIS, a much branching, ten-ft-high shrub in full flower here, its red blossoms shockingly vivid against dark green, leafy backgrounds. The species comes from tropical East Africa but now is planted in the tropics worldwide.

In the picture, the long, slender thing dangling from the crimson corolla is the "staminal column," stamens being a flower's male parts. The many items looking like pink matchsticks with yellow heads are the stamens, the yellow, spherical items being the pollen- holding anthers and the pink stems the filaments. Emerging from the cylindrical staminal column at the very bottom are five style branches, each terminated by a globular stigma. Stigmas are where pollen grains germinate and send their male-sex-germ pollen tube, root-like, down through the slender style inside the staminal column, to the ovary deep at the flower's bottom.

*****

RELIGIOSITY & SPIRITUALITY
Since I often speak of the differences between religiosity and spirituality, JoAnn in the Yucatán wrote asking me to distinguish between them. I suspect that if I had an English dictionary here I'd find that it permits the two terms to be used interchangeably. However, distinguishing between the concepts is so important that I insist of maintaining a distinction.

Religiosity is the state of accepting and practicing the belief system of a religion. Religious belief usually is set down in a sacred text and preached by a priestly community, prophet or missionary. As such, religiosity is passed from person to person.

Spirituality has nothing to do with sacred texts, priests or missionaries. It is entirely personal, "from within," more a feeling, an insight, an evolving relationship with all that IS and all that is understood. Look into the eyes of a newborn child, into the starry heavens, fall in love, experience something transcendental, something beautiful and generous, good, and eternal... That's the beginning of spirituality. When you build on that feeling, ever searching for clearer understanding and a more powerful internal communion with the ALL; when you try to harmonize your life with the understandings you glimpse, then that building upon, that harmonization process, is "living spiritually."

Now let me answer the unasked question, "Why am I so against religiosity."

It is because I am in love with Earth's biosphere and its citizens. Established religions contribute to the biosphere's destruction by diverting attention and energies from critical thinking and appropriate action into ceremony and other religious practices. Furthermore, current events prove that the major religions are not up to dealing with critical matters such as human overpopulation, mankind's responsibility in the face of global warming, how to deal with nuclear power, overfishing the oceans, etc. The major religions arose thousands of years ago, so it's clear why their sacred texts are mum on these issues.

I'm aware that gifted preachers can interpret almost any sacred text in any way, even as encouraging recycling, population control and the rest. However, anyone who reads the West's sacred texts firsthand, as I have, will find a great deal about camels, dates, sand, and attitudes redolent of societies that are patriarchal, tribal, and desert-bound -- conditions prevailing when and where the religions arose thousands of years ago. The overall ambience in these religions is all wrong for fostering understandings that the Earth is a garden to be nurtured, that women are just as gifted and remarkable as men, and that solutions to our problems must come from us, not the head patriarch.

A spiritual person doesn't need for his or her insights and feelings to be sanctioned by texts and other people's interpretations of texts. Spiritual people sensitize themselves to their own surrounding world and struggle to understand the truths they glimpse. As revelation follows revelation, fulfillment comes as the spiritual person harmonizes his or her life with paradigms revealed in the surrounding world.

For example, Nature recycles resources -- recycling is a paradigm expressed throughout Nature -- so recycling feels good when we practice it in a social context, and recycling becomes an expression of our spirituality.

Spirituality is an evolutionary process.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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