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

November 3, 2008

BLUE-CROWNED MOTMOT, FRONT & BACK
Probably the most gorgeous bird in the cenote area is the Blue-crowned Motmot, MOMOTUS MOMOTA. I hear him several times each day, a hollow, slightly hoarse, clucking, rhythmic LUK-KLU-KLUK, and see him maybe every other day, for he's a bit shy, usually only glimpsed gliding from one shadowy spot to the next. Therefore the other day when I was invisible (sitting perfectly still among boulders at the cenote's edge) I was tickled when he landed about 20 feet away in good view. Painfully slowly I worked the camera up and shot the front and back pictures shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103tq.jpg.

In the picture the head seems to have a blue halo, so you might think that I've used PhotoShop to enhance the bird's blueness, but I haven't. In weak light I was shooting with a slow shutter speed, 1/40th sec, and the blueness is just foggy glare from shiny leaves behind him, something that happens at slow speeds. That bird is every bit as colorful as he seems, even more in sunlight.

Turquoise-browed Motmots, which are about 14 inches long (35 cm) are distributed from southern Mexico to Costa Rica, in Mexico only in the Yucatan Peninsula and along the Pacific Slope of Chiapas. But around here they're pretty common, even along weedy roadsides and beside cornfields.

The extraordinary thing about motmots, of which six species occur in Mexico, is that in most species the shafts of their very long tail feathers display bare spots toward the end, as seen in the photos. Moreover, often as they perch they twitch their tails back and forth like the pendulum of a clock.

Motmots nest in burrows excavated in banks, root masses of fallen trees, and other locations where tunnels can be made. A story the Maya tell their kids is that the naked spots on the motmot's tail result from a day when an ancestor escaped his enemy by rushing into his burrow, but he forgot to pull in his long tail. As the world passed by outside brushing the tail, part of the tail got rubbed naked! I read that motmots remove barbs from their own tail-feather shafts to create the vacant spot.

Motmots eat invertebrates, small vertebrates and fruit.

*****

THE SHADOWY SQUIRREL CUCKOO
Walking along a trail, from a thicket erupts a gruff, nasal chek-e-REHR! and a flash of rusty red, then there's an 18-inch (45 cm) bird in shadows eying you, as at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103sc.jpg.

That photo is grossly overexposed so that just a little of the Squirrel Cuckoo's bright, rufous upperparts show up. It's not rare to see the bird's bright, rusty redness because the species is fairly common and the birds tend to glide across roads before you. When they're close enough and still enough for a picture, however, usually they're in deep shadows like this one.

Squirrel Cuckoos, PIAYA CAYANA, are real cuckoos, of the Cuckoo Family, the Cuculidae. One piece of evidence for that is the bold black-and-white barring on the long tail's undersurface, which is very similar to that of North America's Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The curve-topped bill is typical of cuckoos, too. In Mexico two Squirrel Cuckoo subspecies are recognized. On the Pacific slope there's ssp. mexicana whose undertail is barred rufous and white, unlike our ssp. thermophila on the Gulf slope, with its undertail barred black and white. In Mexico the species is absent from the chilly uplands and arid north.

Distributed from Mexico to northern Argentina, this is one of Tropical America's emblematic birds.

*****

LEAFCUTTER-ANT CITY
Frequently I've discussed leafcutter ants but I don't think I've commented on their large mound complexes, as at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103an.jpg.

All that red dirt, about 20 feet across, has been excavated from ant tunnels below, so you can imagine the extent of the tunnels and the size of the chambers where they store their leaf tatters, on which fungus lives, which the ants eat. The complex in the picture occurs along a trail I frequently travel. Many entry tunnels occur throughout the complex, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103ao.jpg.

The faded, 18-inch long (45 cm) legume at the top, left is from the big Royal Poinciana tree above it.

During the day sometimes you see one or two leafcutter ants wandering atop the complex, sometimes carrying leaf segments above themselves, but leafcutter ants work mainly at night. Back when I led night-walk nature hikes in Belize the trail passed by a complex similar to this. Tourists were often more fascinated by the long ant-trails, which they followed for hundreds of feet with flashlights, more than anything else on the walk.

*****

MORA, OF KHAKI FAME
The 30-ft-high tree overarching my living space, called Mora by local folks, is flowering nowadays, dangling slender, yellow, three-inch-long aments, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103ch.jpg.

The aments consist of hundreds of simplified male flowers, for Mora is dioecious -- the species comes in male and female trees. If you're familiar with mulberry flowers you might see a resemblance between the two species, and that would make sense because they belong to the same family, the Fig Family, or Moraceae.

In fact, in standard Spanish "mora" means mulberry, but this tree doesn't produce the delicious fruits for which I used to compete with birds back during my hermit days in Mississippi. Mora's fruits are so nondescript that most local people say the tree produces no fruit at all. Certainly the male trees don't, but the females produce small globular fruits about half an inch across (1-1.5 cm).

The Mora in the picture is CHLOROPHORA TINCTORIA, and once upon a time this species was much appreciated, not for its small fruits but for its wood. As is the case with North's mulberry wood, Mora woodchips soaked in water produce a yellow dye, and this dye has long been used by the Maya. Certain metals can be added to the soaking water to produce a green dye.

Mora's dyes were most exploited during World War II in the production of the khaki color.

*****

A BLUE-FLOWERED MORNING-GLORY
Each morning I pass by an abandoned cornfield beside which blue-flowered morning-glories flower, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103mg.jpg.

Especially when sunshine lights the two-inch-broad blossoms from behind so that they glow like blue fire etched in crystal against their dark emerald, three- lobed leaves and satiny shadows, I always have to stop just to stare. Of course photographs can't capture such transcendent scintillation, just hint at it.

The plant is IPOMOEA NIL. In North America we have a closely related species, Ipomoea hederacea, the Ivyleaf Morning-glory, but that native-American species produces smaller flowers and leaves, and its leaves are much more deeply lobed. Ipomoea nil is a native of the Old World tropics, "nil" being an Arabic name for the plant. Many horticultural forms have been developed from this species, including some with fringed, frilled, fluted and double flowers, and with colors ranging from violet to rose and blue. The Imperial Japanese Morning-glories derive from Ipomoea nil.

At this time of year the Yucatán's morning-glory display is wonderful. Abandoned cornfields, forests devastated by firewood-gathering, hurricane-ravaged zones, all can become green oceans of morning-glory vines. When the vines are dewy and touched with the day's first light you see how apt the name "morning- glory" is. Comes the heat of mid afternoon, however, the flowers collapse upon themselves, the leaves wilt, and it all looks more like a Kudzu-choked field in Mississippi than any glory.

*****

LOVELY STICK-TIGHTS
Nowadays a different manner of prettiness is offered by an abundant roadside weed, a composite (member of the Daisy or Composite Family) with aster-like, yellow-centered, white rayed heads presented in random sprays, star-like, against its own diffusion of green leaves, as shown along a nearby road at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103bk.jpg.

A close-up of a flower head composed of yellow disk flowers and white ray flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103bi.jpg.

Lots of composite species present this yellow-eyed, white rayed configuration and it can be hard to distinguish them. However, along with the flowers there are fruiting heads, and those fruits are fairly distinctive, each topped with two spines, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103bj.jpg.

If you're up north and have a dog given to wandering the fields this time of year, surely that dog returns home covered by fruits similar to these, the "stick- tights," "tickseeds" or "Spanish needles" produced by several weedy species of the genus Bidens. I think the one illustrated here is BIDENS ALBA, earlier lumped with Bidens frondosa.

In the genus Bidens only the disk flowers produce fruits, the peripheral white ray flowers being sterile. The fruits, thought of as seeds by most people, are technically achenes, which are dry, one- seeded fruits. All members of the vast Composite Family (daisies, asters, dandelions, sunflowers, goldenrods and many more) produce achene-type fruits (so sunflower "seeds" are actually fruits). When you see achenes topped with two to four stiff, slender bristles, often with the bristles themselves bearing tiny, sharp, backward-pointing spines, a good bet is that your composite is a Bidens. Cosmos produces similar achenes but Cosmos bristles arise from a "beak," or slender stem, atop the main fruit body, while you can see in the last picture that Bidens bristles arise directly from the main body.

*****

CASSAVA/ MANIOC/ TAPIOCA/ YUCA
From time to time here you run into a garden in which is planted the digitately-compound-leafed shrub shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103mc.jpg.

That's the Manioc plant, sometimes called Tapioca-Plant or Cassava in English, and here usually referred to as Yuca, which is very confusing to those with Joshua-Tree Yuccas on their mind. It's MANIHOT ESCULENTA, native of Brazil and cultivated throughout the world's tropics for its large, fleshy roots, which when boiled produce a starchy food not unlike boiled potatoes. In certain parts of the world it's the main staple but in Mexico where corn and beans reign it never reached as high a status as in some places. It's not common here, probably because it's a bit too dry for it.

Cassava's digitately compound leaves may remind you of both the Marijuana plant and the Castor-Bean. The similarity with Marijuana is purely incidental, but with regard to the Castor-Bean it makes since because Cassava and Castor-Bean belong to closely related genera in the same family, the Euphorbia or Spurge Family, the Euphorbiaceae.

The plant in the picture grows beside several other Cassavas at the edge of a neighbor's bean patch. At the bottom left you see a bean vine twining up a pole stuck there for the purpose. Squash vines also were planted there.

In the old days of my backpacking in Guatemala I ate a lot of "Yuca," buying it in white, bite-size cubes sold by Indian ladies from cloth-covered baskets. It was a carbohydrate even cheaper than tortillas and in its own way just as tasty. This plant should be grown more in the tropics, and it's a shame it doesn't last long in temperate gardens.

One problem with Cassava's root is that it must be boiled pretty vigorously to soften it and break down its very poisonous chemicals.

*****

MEXIL THE TOOL-MAKING TOWN
An option we're developing for visitors to the cenote is the rental of mountain bikes for visiting the town of Mexil about 5 kms south of Yokdzonot. Thursday afternoon I went to Mexil to see what it was like. As my friend Hector and I biked into town the sound of hammers banging on anvils came from everywhere, maybe the way they did 150 years ago in many North American and European villages.

Atop one little hill with a nice breeze we found Don Victor sharpening a coa, a traditional, curve-bladed mini-machete much used here, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103mx.jpg.

The men pound their creations into being each morning, then in the afternoon finish their products, smoothing and sharpening them, and putting on handles. Don Victor shows two items he's produced at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081103my.jpg.

The small coa he's sharpening in the first picture sells for about US $2.50. It's hard to imagine how the men survive selling their work so cheaply, but I'm told that many little villages just like Mexil all over the Yucatan produce the same implements, the market is practically flooded, and the men must travel far to even sell their work at those prices.

Of course I'd like to see tourists visiting Mexil to pay decent prices for these tools. Those of you in the travel business are granted permission to use my photos in your own promotional literature. To reach Mexil, just come to Yokzonot and take the only paved road southward.

*****

DOES NATURE TEACH PATIENCE?
Last Monday morning I arrived in Pisté at 9 AM for my weekly ciber connection, but my usual ciber wasn't open. "Gone to Valladolid to do her banking," the señora in the adjoining eatery told me. Bankless Pisté, sitting beside Chichén Itzá, one of the world's archeological wonders, hosts at least seven tourist- favoring cibers, but last Monday all were closed. For the next three hours I drifted between them until finally one opened and you got your Newsletter.

During my roaming from locked door to locked door I thought a lot about patience. Is it really a virtue? If I let myself, I can get real impatient, so patience is something I've had to learn to keep from fretting myself into a stew.

When a question like "Is patience a virtue?" dawns on me, I welcome it, because it offers a chance to practice the process of seeking guidance in Nature. Nature offers the soundest advice on everything, so it's important to keep in practice ferreting out that advice, and interpreting it.

My first thought was that, no, Nature shows little patience. Life on Earth arose as soon as the planet cooled enough to sustain it. Global warming seems to be destroying things much faster than anyone had predicted. When a system's ecology drifts out of whack, things go extinct and there's no second chance. Where's "patience" in all this?

As I digested that, a contrary thought came out of nowhere: Nature is like the old-time clockmakers I've run into back in Germany's Black Forest region who meticulously, obsessively or maybe passionately worked very long hours, nearly all their waking hours, and that kind of work required enormous patience, so Nature IS patient in that way.

There must be at least two kinds of patience: The type needed to deal with closed ciber doors, and; the clockmaker kind. The first one seems strictly confined to the interiors of human heads but the clockmaker kind is clearly eternal, the whole Universe in all its perfection having been created with it.

Therefore, here's what Nature says to me: If you want to be impatient about something as trivial as closed cibers, go ahead, you'll make yourself miserable but it's irrelevant to the rest of the Universe. However, if you want to live in harmony with the flow of the Universe, then be like a clockmaker conducting your life -- not rushed, but working at it steadily, meticulously.

Somehow getting that clear in my mind for the first time was liberating. What began as vexation over the internet's inaccessibility now morphed into time I had to unhurriedly take account of all around me: And, how blue the sky! How delightful the hot breeze blowing through town, the odors of hot tortillas, frying onions and sizzling chili sauce drifting down the street, and look at those Black Vultures circling high over town and the old man clanging his little tin bell selling fruit-flavored ices from his white pushcart, and how lovely the habitual good nature of everyone I meet, how alive they all are, me too, right now and here in Pisté, closed cibers or not...

So, that's how asking a question to Nature often turns out, I've found. You begin with a simple query, probably She shows you that the query's premise misses the point to begin with, but then to make you feel better She gives you an insight, and at the end of the day you feel a lot better just because you've been fooling with Mama Nature!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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