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

October 27, 2008

WHITE-WINGED DOVES CAVORTING
Right outside my window a Mora tree's drooping branch provides a horizontal perch especially appreciated by a certain White-winged Dove who comes most mornings to ask mournfully and slightly hoarsely, who-cooks-for- YOUUUUUU, who-cooks-for-YOUUUUUU? Down at the cenote a pair seems to be considering a nest on a bromeliad- and lichen-adorned branch, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027ww.jpg.

That picture shows that the species' white wingbar is impossible to miss, making it easy to distinguish between White-wingeds and our other common dove, the White-tipped Dove, whose picture you can compare at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/dove-wt.htm.

The White-winged picture also gives us a glimpse into just how social and attentive to one another these birds are, the male hardly able to refrain from brushing his chest against his mate as she snuggles into her potential nest, testing, feeling, maybe imagining herself sitting there during rain and wind incubating her brood.

In A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, Howell describes the White-winged Dove's plumage as displaying a "... bold white bar across upperwing from outer lesser through greater coverts; remiges blackish. Central rectrices brown, outer rectrices grey, broadly tipped white." I had to review some terms before I understood what he was saying.

"Coverts" are outside feathers covering and protecting a bird -- the feathers we see.

"Remiges" are the wing's flight feathers, including both the secondaries and primaries.

"Rectrices" are the tail's flight feathers.

*****

MYSTERY OF THE MATERIALIZING BECARD
Saturday morning during a pause between rain showers I walked along the road to Mixel enjoying with the birds a bit of sunshine. From a brush pile next to the road up popped a Great Crested Flycatcher freshly arrived for the winter from up north calling WEEP, WEEP, WEEP, in the bright sunlight his lemony belly contrasting prettily with his dark gray chest.

I started snapping pictures, but somehow the bird always flew the very moment the shutter snapped. I followed him from tree to tree until he got enough of the game and dove into the brush. I waited for him to reappear and sure enough before long a silhouette materialized deep in the brush, big-headed and slightly crested the way Great Crested Flycatchers are, and I started snapping again, not having much hope that anything would turn out because of the shadowiness.

Back home I reviewed the morning's shots on my computer screen and as expected each shot from that brush pile showed nothing but black silhouettes, until the last one came up, and I was dumbfounded. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027__.jpg.

This wasn't the bird I was photographing, and what on Earth was it? I've never seen a bird like that. It's been a long time since I had to thumb through a field guide's pictures to even figure out what group of birds it belongs to, but this time I did.

Best I can determine it's a Gray-collared Becard, PACHYRAMPHUS MAJOR, endemic from Mexico to Nicaragua, and uncommon. But this bird's markings don't match the illustrations in Howell's guide, especially with regard to its dark nape. Illustrations in my old Peterson guide fit better, but still not comfortably. Both experts portray the beak as shorter than this bird's. I assume that what's in my picture is an immature bird with an in-between plumage. When you see the differences between illustrations in Howell's guide and Peterson's you get the impression that there's confusion about what this species looks like.

Four species in the genus Pachyramphus are regarded as becards in Mexico. Pachyramphus belongs to the Cotinga Family, whose members are limited to the New World Tropics. The family is poorly understood taxonomically but it's assumed to be closely related to the tyrant- flycatchers, of which the Great Crested Flycatcher is one.

If anyone has more insight into my photographed bird's appearance and name than I do, drop me a line.

*****

SQUIRREL IN A CORNFIELD
Up a muddy trail near the cenote there's a weedy cornfield I visit frequently. I'm told that the rainy- season drought we experienced back at Sabbaché caused a complete failure of this year's corn crop here, too, and it looks like this field has been abandoned because it wasn't worth harvesting.

Critters, however, seem to find enough to make them happy, even if an unshucked cob provides only one or two grains. I visit the field often because in early morning birds raid the standing, dun-colored stalks en masse.

Melodious Blackbirds, Yucatan Jays, Green Jays, Great- tailed Grackles, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Hooded Orioles and White-winged Doves all tear at shucks, tug and scratch. Sometimes other species who'd never get excited about a corn kernel also visit, maybe attracted by bugs stirred up by the foragers or maybe just to be part of the action. Most eye-catching among this group are the Turquoise-browed Motmots and Cinnamon Hummingbirds.

A fat, glossy-furred Yucatan Gray Squirrel, SCIURUS YUCATANENSIS, also often is there, looking just like a Gray Squirrel up north, except maybe smaller. Also, squirrels here are more skulking, not in the least trusting of any movement or unfamiliar sound. You can see this suspicious squirrel during one of his trips up a bush to look around and check for dangers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027gs.jpg.

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HUANO PALM FOR THATCHING
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027pp.jpg you see an eight-ft-tall palm common around here, SABAL YAPA. Sabal species are recognized by North Americans as the palmetto palms so typical of the US Deep South. Here the Maya refer to Sabal yapa as Huano (WAN-oh). Most of the palm's fronds in the picture have been removed because people here use them for thatching roofs.

When identifying palms a point to keep in mind is that the vast majority of palm species fall neatly into one of two broad groups: the fan palms, whose leaf segments radiate from the top of the leaf stem, or petiole, forming a ± circular blade, and; the feather-leaved or pinnate palms, such as the Coconut Palm, whose leaf segments arise from a rachis passing through the center of a long leaf blade, like pinnae arising from the rachis of a feather

Palmettos are regarded as fan palms, even though their blades don't fit the fan-palm pattern exactly. At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027pq.jpg you can see how the Huano's petiole, shooting up from the lower right, continues a bit up through the blade, but grows narrow fast, and soon piddles into a little droop, resulting in the frond being ± circular in outline but with an asymmetrical crease in the middle. Palmetto blades suggest a transition phase between fan palms and feather-leaved palms. Palm blades exhibiting this curious midrib behavior are said to be "costapalmate," and this costapalmateness makes palmettos easy to distinguish from other fan palms in the field. Palmettos are also distinguished from other fan palms by their blade stems, or petioles, NOT bearing spines.

Don't confuse smooth-petioled palmettos in the genus Sabal with saw-toothed-petioled SAW Palmettos of the genus Serenoa, often forming dense, leg-chewing thickets along the US Coastal Plain from South Carolina to Mississippi. Palmettos and Saw Palmettos are two different things.

In the Yucatán you read about another very useful, even smaller fan-palm, called Chit, or Chi'it in proper Maya, Thrinax radiata. It's the palm traditionally used for making brooms. You can see my next-door neighbor, Doña Neima, who sometimes sends me cooked squash in a plastic bowl neatly covered with a white, cloth napkin, sweeping with a Chit broom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027pr.jpg.

I don't find Chit here and the local folks say it doesn't grow locally. You have to go farther east, into Quintana Roo, to see it, so that sounds like it needs more rainfall than we get. The Chit brooms people here use are bought from outsiders.

Embracing about 190 genera and 2000 species, the Palm Family, the Arecaceae, is big and varied. Sixteen species are recognized in the Huano's genus Sabal, and most Sabal species cluster around the Caribbean Sea.

*****

RED MORNING-GLORIES
A red-flowered morning-glory is in full bloom here now and against late-rainy-season, deep-green backgrounds the blossoms simply explode with color, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027ic.jpg.

You don't have to come to the Yucatán to see this species. In late summer you can see them along weedy roadsides in most of the US Southeast, where they're also called Scarlet Creeper and Star Ipomoea. It's IPOMOEA COCCINEA, native to tropical America, and maybe to the US Southeast, too. This is different from the red-flowered Cypress-Vine whose seeds I distributed among Newsletter readers back when I was hermitting in Mississippi. Though Cypress-Vine belongs to the same genus and its flowers are very similar, its small leaves are divided into many threadlike segments, making them very frilly-looking.

*****

LOOTED ORCHIDS
Hiking deep in the forest, looking for interconnecting trails that might serve as a circular "nature trail," I came upon the sad collection of plants shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027lo.jpg.

Those are cached orchids being looted from the forest. You know that they're orchids because of how their slender blades arise from bulbous bases, or pseudobulbs, typical of certain orchid genera, plus the roots are thick and white, characteristic of the Orchid Family. The plants aren't flowering and I have no idea what kid of orchids they are, just orchids.

The photograph was taken kilometers from any regular road, in a part of the forest where interesting plants were just beginning to appear -- most forest around Yokdzonot being second-growth with the same fast-growing, weedy or semi-weedy species appearing again and again.

You may recall from Querétaro that when I hiked from Cuatro Palos to Bucareli, using a sketchy trail seldom attempted by outsiders, I found all the rarer cacti species missing. At highland Yerba Buena in Chiapas orchids and bromeliads had been stripped from the cloud forest. I just wonder if there is anywhere in Mexico where plant looters haven't plundered the most exotic and precious species? Plant-looting is a much more serious problem than its lack of coverage in the press would suggest.

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GIANT SAPODILLA TREES
Near the cached orchids rose some tree trunks about 3.5 feet in diameter (1 m), several times more massive than other trunks in the area. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027cz.jpg.

Even before checking the leaves high in the canopy I knew which tree this was because of the diagonal scars across its trunk. It's MANILKARA ZAPOTA, in English often called the Sapodilla or Chicle Tree, and in Spanish Chicozapote. It's one of the most famous and appreciated of all trees in this part of the world not only because its fruit is one of the sweetest, most cherished of all tropical fruits, but also because the white latex that oozes from its slashed trunk once was in much demand as the base for chicle, from which chewing gum once was made. Now most gum is made from synthesized material.

Back in the 70s when I served as naturalist on river tours in Guatemala's northern "Petén Jungle" Sapodilla was common in the forest. Here I'd assumed that this far north there'd be too little rainfall for the species to occur naturally but an old-timer tells me that Sapodillas occur in several spots throughout the most isolated forest, and that once it was more common. I suspect that we're on the very northern boundary of Sapodilla's distribution here. The giant -- relatively speaking -- trunk in the picture is a relict from before the current destruction.

Back in the 70's, the most isolated parts of the Petén's forest were accessible by "chiclero trails" -- half-visible paths men used to reach the most isolated parts of the forest, where they'd wander off the trails to collect latex from Sapodilla trees. Sometimes during my own long hikes there I've stayed in chiclero camps where the men gathered at night to boil their latex in big kettles until they could mold it into heavy, slate-gray bricks imprinted with their own identification marks and symbols. The bricks were sold to the Japanese, who were fussier about their chewing gum than other nationalities.

In heavy tropical rainforest it can be hard to see more of a tree than its trunk. Back then the best way to identify a Sapodilla tree was by its slashes. No matter how far from a trail a tree grew, it always bore those scars. I don't know if chicleros still gather latex today, or if the Japanese still demand extra-good chewing gum.

*****

EARTHSTAR
Deep in the forest where trails start petering out the forest grows higher, the shade is heavier and the humidity higher. It smells fungusy, and fungi love the environment. One of the most eye-catching is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027ge.jpg.

That's an earthstar very similar to those up North, of the genus GEASTRUM, but who knows how they classify this Yucatán branch of the group?

Earthstars are puffballs. At the picture's lower left a pointy-topped new one is emerging. Later its brown skin will split longitudinally, segments between the splits will peel back, and the pretty form presented at the right will appear. As the spherical puffball nesting among the recurved arms matures it develops an opening at its top through which its reproductive spores will escape.

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DON JORGE'S EAR MEDICINE
Deep in the forest I met Don Jorge, an old fellow who solemnly looks right into your eyes as you speak. Carrying a tattered burlap bag over his shoulder he was heading toward his cornfield, but he seemed eager to tell me things, especially when I mentioned medicinal plants. Suddenly his eyes started darting around, looking for a certain plant he wanted to tell me about, but it wasn't there.

"It cures fungal infection beneath your toenails," he said. I remarked that it was too bad he couldn't find the plant because I'd like to try it on my ear fungus. In no time he was dragging me down the trail until we found the plant, which he's holding in the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027ct.jpg.

"It's Ek-balam," he said, snipping off a leaf and showing me the clear, thick liquid oozing out. "Put this on skin with a fungus and it'll cure it. It burns, but it'll cure it!"

The plant was unflowering but from its spicy, crushed-leaf odor and the scurfy mat of silvery-reddish, multi-pointed (stellate) hairs mantling the leaves below I could guess that it was a member of the genus Croton, of the Euphorbia Family, and when I looked up Ek-balam in Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico my suspicions were supported. Several plants go by the name of Ek-balam but it looks like ours may be Croton cortesianus. The book says that this plant's juice is used as a caustic agent when dealing with skin problems.

I put juice in my ear, but not deeply enough to touch the eardrum, and it did burn considerably. The itching stopped for about a day but I'd also been using a drugstore ointment for athlete's foot, so I still can't say whether it works.

*****

TWO MILKWEED VINES IN FUGUE TIME
A couple of Newsletters ago I mentioned my days back in Germany when I did botanical illustration for a group of researchers studying the evolution and taxonomy of an obscure tribe of vines in the Milkweed Family. I've found two more members of the same group and my friend Ulli at the University of Bayreuth in Germany has identified them both. Identified pictures of these plants are hard to come by so I'm inserting them here so that future researchers can easily find them.

The first, photographed in late September beside a road near Sabacché about 60 kms southeast of Mérida, is FUNASTRUM LINDENIANUM. Its leaves and flowers are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027a5.jpg.

A close-up of one of its nickle-size flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027a6.jpg.

The second, fairly commonly seen forming dense, twining clumps in the forest around Yokdzonot, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027a4.jpg.

It's METASTELMA SCHLECHTENDALII var. SCHLECHTENDALII. A close-up of two mouse-eye-size flowers appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027a3.jpg.

I spent a couple of summers in Bayreuth drawing flowers of the last species and others like it -- dozens and dozens of plants and drawings. And every blossom at first glance looked just like the one preceding it until closer scrutiny revealed that each blossom had something unique about it, something that set it apart from all other flowers in the whole world, and what a pleasure it was to sit day after day revealing those curiosities and special features to others. You can see one of my drawings, which eventually appeared in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Vol 91, #1, 2004, under the authorship of Drs. Sigrid Liede and Ulrich Meve, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081027me.gif.

The flower in the drawing is the same Metastelma species we just looked at, M. schlechtendalii. Now I see that in the drawing I should have spread the corolla lobes more and projected the lobes' hairs upward, but we had only dried, pressed herbarium specimens to work with and I had to do a lot of guessing.

Those were delightful summers. Each day when I plunged into the anatomy of each new blossom (always viewing the flowers beneath a powerful binocular microscope) it was like listening to Bach fugues -- endless elegant, pleasing variations on the milkweed theme.

People always ask when they meet such obscure plants as these, "What are they good for?" The real answer is that the question makes invalid assumptions about the world. But if an answer is really demanded you might reply, "They're Creator fugues. If you don't know why the Creator fugues so much, ask Her."

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OCTOBER PASSIONS
During my North American days, something about late October always touched me deeply, and I know I'm not the only one. A friend writes how the other day the forest was so pretty, the air so thrilling and the sky so crystalline, that she almost cried. My mother used to express the same feeling when her town's late- October, golden Sugar Maples glowed in low-slanting sunlight as she came home from work.

When the want-to-cry emotion arises in such situations people get confused. Crying is associated with sadness, yet there's nothing sad about a beautiful, late-October scene.

What's happening in such cases is that Nature is communicating with us, sending us powerful messages through all our sensory channels. The messages are so important, so insightful and they come in such a rush that they disorient and overwhelm us. The most basic of all emotional responses, as babies show us, is the cry. Thus crying is perfectly appropriate when being spoken to so personally and so potently as Nature speaks to us on perfect October days.

In such moments Nature is saying that all is good, all is OK. The maples may be golden because frost has destroyed the leaves' green chloroplasts; the forest's rich, humusy odor may arise from the decomposition of dead organisms; the openness of the sky may bespeak the fragility of the Earth's thin film of life, and the smallness and vulnerability of our planet itself as it hangs suspended in a terrible expanse of dead, cold space... but, look, see how beautiful, so perfect, so long-lasting it all is?

Sometimes when I speak of Nature sending us messages I suspect that people must think that I'm either crazy or a crank. This week, however, as if addressing this very thought, Bea in Ontario sent me the following quotation from Vincent van Gogh:

“It is not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to.... The feeling for the things themselves, for reality, is more important than the feeling for pictures."

After reading this I visited my own "Nature-Quotations Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/101/quotes.htm where I rediscovered the following:

"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in," wrote George Washington Carver.

"Never does nature say one thing and wisdom another," said Juvenal about 2000 years ago.

"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will teach you: or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you," it says in the Christian Bible, Job 12:7-10.

"To see a world in a grain of sand, And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour" ...wrote William Blake 200 years ago.

"The universe is composed of subjects to be communed with, not objects to be exploited. Everything has its own voice. Thunder and lightening and stars and planets, flowers, birds, animals, trees, -- all these have voices, and they constitute a community of existence that is profoundly related," wrote Thomas Berry not long ago.

"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction" wrote Rachel Carson a few decades ago.

"One impulse from a vernal wood May teach you more of man Of moral evil and of good Than all the sages can" ...wrote William Wordsworth in the 1800s.

I am content to be with such message-hearing company.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim