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

October 20, 2008

FLYCATCHER GROAN
Walking the road to Mexil a birdy movement caught my eye, I focused on my quarry, and groaned. Groaned, because it was one of those small, mousy-gray, white wingbared, white eyeringed, tail-flicking, flycatchers of the genus EMPIDONAX, and the genus Empidonax is notorious for its many look-alike, hard-to-identify species. If they're not singing, sometimes in the field you just have to forget about getting a positive ID, and nowadays migratory birds in the Yucatán aren't singing. You can see my drably colored ambiguity at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020lf.jpg.

Actually, the Empidonax problem isn't as bad in the Yucatan as it is in much of Mexico. Howell's distribution maps in A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America indicate that among the Empidonax in the Yucatan only the Least Flycatcher overwinters, while the Yellow-bellied, Acadian and possibly the Alder and Willow Flycatchers pass through as they continue farther southward. Fourteen Empidonax species are listed for Mexico.

If I had to guess, I'd say that the bird in the picture is the Least Flycatcher, EMPIDONAX MINIMUS. Its eyering is especially bold, plus its throat isn't particularly white, and maybe it even has a wider- than-normal beak, all Least traits.

Howell writes that the Least "holds tail slightly below body plane; after tail flicks, tail wobbles slightly, unlike most Empidonax where tail usually stops after a discrete flick." You can see the "tail slightly below body plane" in the picture, plus that wobble after the tail flick is something to see! I'd never noticed that.

The most important evidence that it's a Least, however, is that only Leasts definitely overwinter here, and at this time of year the other species may be passing through but seldom would they be as common as the Leasts. None of these features enable me to ID the bird with certainty, however -- not until the song is heard.

During the North American summer Least Flycatchers occur over much of Canada and the northern US where they show up in scrub, along woods edges and orchards.

*****

FLYCATCHER GROAN #2
Another ambiguous flycatcher species has been making the rounds around the cenote, so see if you know it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020pw.jpg.

Similar small size as the Least, same flycatching behavior, same mousy colors, same wingbars... but notice the missing eyering. Also the bird wasn't flipping its tail.

This isn't a phoebe because phoebes have black beaks and flip their tails. It's not an Empidonax flycatcher because they have eyerings. That leaves the pewees, genus Contopus, of which five species occur in Mexico, but only two in the Yucatán. There's the permanent-resident Tropical Pewee, and the migrant Eastern Pewee, who passes through at this time of year heading toward wintering grounds in South America. So: Tropical or Eastern?

These two pewees have very different voices, so that's the main distinguishing feature if they're singing, which this one was not. Howell says that after the voices the thing to look for is that Tropical Pewees have "shorter primary projections" -- the wings' primary feathers extend a relatively shorter distance beyond the secondary feathers than the Eastern's. The picture doesn't enable us to see that feature and I couldn't see it through my binoculars, so that doesn't help.

The Tropical's bill is described as "pale orangish below, rarely with dusky tip," while the Eastern's bill is said to be "pale orangish below, often with dark tip." Our bird's lower mandible is quite dark, so that's a vote for "Eastern."

The main clue to the bird's identity is this, however: Early most mornings for the last week I've heard brief outbursts of the plaintive, slurred d-WEEEEE so typical of the Eastern Pewee, so I'm guessing that the bird in the picture is an Eastern Pewee, CONTOPUS VIRENS, who's just flown across the Gulf of Mexico and is refueling now before continuing his journey to South America.

*****

ANTHURIUMS AMONG THE ROCKS
Having moved farther east in the Yucatán I've entered rainier territory with correspondingly lusher vegetation. My battles with mildew and ear fungus are now lost causes. Firewood stays too damp to make morning breakfast campfires, but this is compensated for by much greater biodiversity. Epiphytic bromeliads grow thickly on tree branches surrounding the cenote.

Also growing thickly around the cenote, but on rocks, is the aroid known as ANTHURIUM SCHLECHTENDALII, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020as.jpg.

By "aroid" is meant that the plant is a member of the mostly tropical Arum Family, the Araceae. In the above picture note the slender, brown thing arising from the leaf-cluster base. You may know what that is if you're familiar with North America's Jack-in-the-pulpit, which also is an aroid. Remember how in that wildflower's cylindrical, flap-topped "pulpit," (the spathe), "Jack" is a pencil-like structure (the spadix). In the picture the brown item is Anthurium schlechtendalii's spadix while the brown, shriveling part below the spadix is what's left of the fading spathe.

A close-up of the spadix beset with maturing fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020at.jpg.

Since each of those brown bumps on the spadix is a fruit, you can deduce that earlier the spadix was mantled with hundreds of tiny flowers, each individual fruit developing from a flower's ovary.

The genus Anthurium embraces about 500 species, some of which are sold in the North as potted plants. Many ornamental hybrids and variants have been developed from the genus and it's always a treat for me when those gaudy, gene-manipulated plants develop spadixes and spathes, thus at least being able to express their natural side that way.

The name Anthurium is from classical Greek and translates to "tail-flower," which seems appropriate when you see the picture.

*****

THE SU-TUT MYSTERY SOLVED
A couple of years ago my friend Cotting in Pennsylvania  photographed a basket of weird-looking fruits in the Mérida market apparently being sold for their medicinal value. A sign beside the basket named the oddities Zu-tut. You can see Coting's picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020hk.jpg.

A Maya neighbor back then, who called them Su-tut instead of Zu-tut, told me that the fruits were used to help children who couldn't speak clearly:

"You put a fruit into the child's mouth, twist it nine times in one direction, then twist it nine times in the other direction, and after you do that for a few weeks the child no longer has problems speaking."

Books convinced me that the Su-tut plant was a small tree in the genus HELICTERES, belonging to the same family to which Cacao, the chocolate plant, and Cola, the cola-nut plant, belong, the Sterculiaceae. Since learning about Su-tut, whenever I've been in the Yucatan scrub I've looked for the fruits and never found them -- until arriving here. Su-tut is common around Yokdzonot, growing weedily along roadsides and flowering and fruiting robustly, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020hl.jpg.

Helicteres flowers are unusual-looking affairs. Their calyxes are much enlarged and inflated while their petals are much reduced. Usually it's the other way around. A typical Su-tut blossom at its peak of pollen receptivity appears at the left in the picture. If you paid attention to the hibiscus flower's anatomy last week you probably assume that, as is the case with hibiscus flowers, the long, slender, curved item emerging from the calyx is the staminal tube consisting of the stamens' fused filaments, and that the threadlike style lies inside the tube. That's not what this flower is doing, however.

The long, slender thing is the stalk, or stipe, of the ovary. In other words, instead of the ovary residing like a little egg in the center and bottom of the cuplike calyx and corolla, it's held far beyond the calyx and corolla on a thick, tough stem. The globular mass at the stem's tip consists mostly of the stamens' anthers, and inside the anthers lies the tiny pistil consisting of stigma, style and ovary, the future fruit.

You can see mature fruits dangling on their stalks at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020hm.jpg.

Who knows why Helicteres thinks it needs its sexual parts and its fruits on such long stalks? If I had to guess, I'd say that it helps seed dissemination. Later the mature fruits turn dark and split open. When wind shakes the branches, the fruits get whipped around more violently if they're on long stalks than if the're sessile on the stem.

Also notice that some fruits spiral one way while others spiral the opposite way. In Nature usually things spiral exclusively one way or another, so this strikes me as odd.

By the way, the Maya here call Su-tut "Su-put," and elsewhere I've heard them referred to as Zu-tut, so that shows how a language can drift from locality to locality.

*****

NONIS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
In fruit markets here sometimes you see heaps of greenish-yellow, potato-size fruits you never saw just a few years ago. It's one of those "wonder fruits with a great future" introduced with great fanfare as an important, alternative, money-making crop. The fruits and the small tree producing them are called Noni. The plant is MORINDA CITRIFOLIA, a member of the large, mostly tropical Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae.

Occasionally in the Yucatan I've seen small plantations of Noni trees but this is the first time I've seen them planted along roads and in folks' backyards. You can see a fertile Noni branch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020nn.jpg.

If you Google Noni fruits you'll find extravagant claims about the medicinal value of Noni fruits, and see that much research has been done on the chemicals in them. The fruits certainly taste medicinal, more bitter than sweet. In fact, usually when I see them in markets they're just lying there rotting because very few people buy them. Some Noni producers tell me that they've found markets for their fruits but others say they can't sell them, so I just don't know if this alternative crop is living up to its earlier promise. The fellow who sells me bananas is the owner of the tree in the photograph. He says he makes a drink from Noni juice, softening its bitterness with orange juice, and he looks like he's 45 but says he's 63, so...

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020no.jpg you see an immature Noni fruit with flowers attached to it. This picture explains why Noni fruits are so bumpy and each bump bears a little "eye." For, Noni fruits don't develop from single flowers. Rather, as the flowers on the left show, each bump on a fruit develops from a flower's ovary. The Noni "fruit," then, is a "multiple fruit," consisting of several to many packed-together simple fruits. Mulberries, Osage Oranges, pineapples and figs are other examples of multiple fruits, which are to be distinguished from "aggregate fruits," which look like multiple fruits, but each bump on a multiple fruit develops from one of several separate pistils in a single flower -- one flower with several pistils. Diagrams are provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/frt_3grp.htm.

One important feature distinguishing the Coffee Family is that its flowers have "inferior ovaries" -- the calyx and corolla arise atop the ovary instead of below it, as in most flowers. An explanatory diagram is at http://www.backyardnature.net/inf_sup.gif.

Therefore, the eyes on each bump of a Noni multiple fruit are scars where the calyx and corolla of individual flowers have fallen off.

*****

CORALVINE IN FULL FLOWER
A common twining vine throughout the Yucatán sometimes cultivated in gardens and sometimes seen growing as a rank weed is putting on a show during these rainy days. It's the Coralvine, called Corallita in Spanish and ANTIGONON LEPTUPUS in Latin, shown on a stone wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020tr.jpg.

The vine's heart-shaped leaves almost cause it to look like a morning glory vine but its pink, thumbnail-size flowers up close dispel that notion, as can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081020tq.jpg.

On the right in that picture two open flowers dangle from the horizontal stem, while three flowers not yet open dangle on the left. Can you see that the unopened flowers on the left are three-cornered? That's sort of unusual in the flowering world and when I see it in the field the first plant family to come to mind is the Buckwheat or Smartweed Family, the Polygonaceae, which the Coralvine belongs to.

Flowers in the Buckwheat Family produce no distinct calyx or corolla. Instead, each blossom has a lobed, calyx-like or corolla-like structure referred to as a perianth. Coralvine's flowers produce two kinds of showy perianth lobes. The outer ones, usually numbering three, are shaped so that together they give the unopened blossom a three-cornered, Chinese-lantern look. The inner lobes look like regular petals. Each flower has eight stamens and three styles. The hard, dry, one-seeded fruit, an achene, also is three- angled. The Buckwheat Family just likes having its parts in three, even though that's usually a feature of monocot flowers, like lilies and irises, not of dicots, which this and most plants with conspicuous blossoms are.

Woody, tendril-bearing Coralvine is a native Mexican plant, which explains why you see it in the wild so often. However, its masses of pink flowers are so pretty growing up trellises or scrambling over walls that it's grown worldwide in the tropics -- even in the US Deep South and California, where it also goes by names such as Love-chain, Queen's Jewels and Confederate Vine.

*****

LITTLE MAYA VILLAGES
The little Maya villages I've lived in usually are inhabited my members of just one or two families. Everyone knows everyone else exceedingly well. There are no secrets and few pretensions. Households merge into one another with kids, chickens, turkeys, sheep and others circulating promiscuously. If a house has a radio or TV, because it's played at top volume, everyone for houses around participates in the entertainment. If someone acts up, as a man when he's drunk, as soon as the person is normal again, people behave as if nothing ever happened. Nearly all jobs are done in small groups. Community peace and solidarity are unspoken laws.

When one moves through various cultures, eventually the question arises as to what keeps people behaving one way and not another. Why do the Maya keep acting like Maya, but never even for a moment assume the habits and outlooks of Arabs or Polynesians? When I'm back in Mississippi or rural Kentucky, why are most but not all people socially conservative Republicans with high cholesterol levels believing that global warming is mostly bleeding-heart-liberal propaganda?

A liberating feature of experiencing deep immersion in very different cultures is that at some point during the process you begin seeing how the vast majority of people dedicate their lives to living like people around them, unthinkingly, even when it may not be in their own best personal interest, or that of the community. Since all cultures I've ever experienced proved to have at least one unsustainable feature, over the years I've developed the notion that the herd instinct and the momentum of tradition and often-repeated routines are lethally powerful agencies.

Yet, each human, I've also decided, has a kind of "switch" in the brain that can be flicked whenever the person wants. It's the abandon-this-culture switch. Having reached a certain threshold or saturation point in something, just flick that switch, start thinking of yourself as belonging to another sphere of influence, or maybe no sphere of influence at all, and it's done, you're out of it.

Recognizing the presence of this switch is important because herd instinct, tradition and habits aren't going to save Life on Earth. Only people with their abandon-this-culture switch flicked, thinking rationally and behaving decisively -- always at some point working in conflict with some elements of the surrounding culture -- can save Life on Earth.

However, reality is strung together so that you never get by with just abandoning something. Something else must always take its place -- fill the vacuum. What should take the place of an abandoned culture?

Intimacy with Nature is the most appropriate substitution. Nature experienced firsthand, Nature reflected upon, Nature interpreted the way you personally interpret it. Nature provides the paradigms needed upon which ethical, sustainable, loving lives can be built. Nature fills the human spirit's vacuum when old, unsustainable, dead-headed manners of being are flicked OFF.

Nature.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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