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

November 24,  2008

IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER
Creeper, it says, not Woodpecker. Woodcreepers are tropical American birds, and 13 species are listed for Mexico. You can see the big-billed, heavily spotted, generally rusty-red species frequenting the cenote's shadowed tree-trunks, the Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124wc.jpg.

Though woodcreepers aren't closely related to anything up north, they forage on tree trunks and limbs like woodpeckers, and in shape, form and behavior are very much like the North's Brown Creeper. Brown Creepers are little birds, however, only 4-¾ inch long (12 cm). Our Ivory-billed Woodcreeper, XIPHORHYNCHUS FLAVIGASTER, averages around 9-½ inches (24 cm).

Sometimes woodcreepers are hard to identify because the species are so similar. In this part of the Yucatan it's not so bad because only three species occur and they're fairly distinct from one another. However, in lowland Chiapas around the ruins of Palenque I've spent many hours trying to separate that area's eleven potentially found species. Woodcreepers tend to hectically flit from shadowy spot to shadowy spot and you end up anguishing over how spotty the spotty backs and breasts you glimpsed where and what the spots' shapes were, how pale the pale bills were, how reddish the reddish backs and breasts, etc.

I hear this bird more than see it. As it glides from tree to tree it issues occasional sharp, explosive calls. It seems to keep a pretty tight schedule, too, arriving at about the same time each morning, rushing through the cenote area, then leaving.

Ivory-billed Woodcreepers are distributed from Mexico to Costa Rica. They're considered common in forests, forest edges, plantations and mangroves.

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PEPPERSHRIKE
For a long time I've been trying for a picture of a Rufous-browed Peppershrike, CYCLARHIS GUJANENSIS, because it's one of those "emblematic species" of the New World tropics, being fairly common from central Mexico to central Argentina. Therefore, it was almost an anticlimax the other day when a peppershrike plopped down right in front of me and seemed to wait until my camera did its whirring and grinding. As he lingered he seemed highly nervous, constantly jerking his head back and forth. Though I got a dozen shots before he moved on, in every picture his head was turned away from a good profile, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124sk.jpg.

That bird was in bad shape. One eye was swollen shut, his beak was gummed up, and he had to test everything he stumbled upon for its edibility, maybe because he couldn't see well. He rushed from one item to another, first taking a dry, curled leaf into his beak, dropping that, then a gravel, dropping that, then a flake of tree bark, on and on, never finding anything he could swallow while I watched. Poor bird. Probably he was in a hawk's talons or a snake's belly within an hour after I left him.

I also hear Rufous-browed Peppershrikes more than see them. They call with a loud, rich, sad-seeming, descending REE TREEU TREEU TREEU... a little reminiscent of a Canyon Wren's call.

One reason peppershrikes are fairly common is that they do well not only in forests but also in disturbed, weedy habitats such as brushy roadsides, abandoned cornfields and the like. Howell in A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America points out that in eastern Mexico, except for the Yucatan, the species suffered a population collapse during the 60s and 70s, for unknown reasons.

Peppershrikes are members of the Vireo Family, despite their beaks being proportionally much more massive than a typical vireo's, and the birds themselves being a bit larger.

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MYIARCHUS FLYCATCHERS
I've mentioned what a challenge identifying Empidonax flycatchers is. Howell describes the Myiarchus Flycatchers as "a major identification problem, perhaps more so than the dreaded Empidonax." Myiarchus Flycatchers are especially hard to nail down in the Yucatan because four look-alike species live here, one of those four being eastern North America's Great Crested Flycatcher, who is a winter resident. All four species are similar to the individual shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124bc.jpg.

Their oversized heads slightly crested toward the back, mousy gray above but with varying amounts of rusty-redness in the wings and tail, yellowish bellies, bills blackish but usually with a pale area at the base or below... All four fit that description. They do have different voices, but nowadays ours aren't calling. So, what's that in the picture?

The rusty-red color limited to the outer wing feathers, the unusually pale yellow belly, the limited pale area at the base of the fairly large bill and the whiter-than-most throat area all point me toward the Brown-crested Flycatcher, MYIARCHUS TYRANNULUS, known to be quite common here.

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ROADKILL SNAIL-EATER
On the road to Mexil I found the roadkill-snake shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124sn.jpg.

Even though the critter was only about 15 inches long (38 cm) and looked dead as could be, my heart skipped a couple of beats. Part of that was the automatic response any normal human feels when nearly stepping on a snake, but part was that this snake definitely puts you in the mind of "coral snake," which isn't a kind of snake you want to fool with.

We have several snake species here who mimic venomous coral snakes, and this is one of them. Similarities include the bold banding, the blunt head hardly differentiated in size from the rest of the body, and the black snout and forehead. The most obvious feature separating this snake from real corals is that it is predominantly black, while the coral snakes' black bands are much narrower on predominantly red bodies. Other more technical and dependable differences can be noted -- this snake has nine to ten supralabial (above-the-lip) scales while corals have seven, for instance -- but my experience is that when you have a coral or a look-alike before you, doing something like counting scales above the critter's lip gets hard.

My roadkill was the Short-faced Snail-eater, DIPSAS BREVIFACIES, a nocturnal snake who eats snails, which it somehow extracts from their shells before swallowing them. It's limited in distribution to the northern Yucatan Peninsula, including east-central Belize and specializes in tropical dry forest habitats.

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VARIATIONS ON A LEAFMINER THEME
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124lm.jpg most of you will recognize the workings of a leafminer larva. An insect egg was deposited at the sharp point at the picture's upper left, the wormlike larva hatching from the egg then ate its way through the leaf, staying between the blade's two faces, growing as it went. Eventually the larva matured to the point where it metamorphosed and emerged from the leaf.

Leafminer tunnels are very common in many leaf types both here and in the temperate zone, but have you ever seen one branched like this one?

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"CAPULINES" FLOWERING
Back in Chiapas I introduced you to a handsomely flowering and fruiting tree called "Capulín," shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/capulin.htm.

The "Capulín" flowering here now is different, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124tr.jpg.

In Latin America they call just about anything with small, spherical, possibly edible fruits "Capulín." The one flowering here now is TREMA MICRANTHA. The genus Trema was traditionally placed in the Elm Family along with elms and hackberries. However, lately gene sequencers have banished the hackberries from that family -- and Trema is close to the hackberries -- and plopped them into the Marijuana Family, the Cannabaceae, so probably that's where Trema is now. Like the hackberries, a good field mark for Trema is its large side-veins arising at the blades' bases, hinting at "palmate venation."

Whatever Trema's taxonomic affiliations, it's an important tree in these parts because when a forest is destroyed Trema micrantha is often among the first trees to grow back, its seeds being planted in open areas by birds who have eaten the fruits and deposited droppings there.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124ts.jpg you see Trema micrantha's female flowers, which are beautiful examples of pistillate blossoms consisting of nothing but a hairy, 5-lobed calyx and a globose pistil, the pistil being the stigma, style and ovary. The spherical items in the picture are the ovaries. There's not much style present at all, and the fuzzy white things are the stigmas, their fuzziness serving to more effectively snatch the male flowers' airborne pollen from the air.

Inside each ovary there's just one ovule developing into a hard seed. Trema fruits, like hackberry fruits, are fleshy, one-seeded, and they don't split apart naturally, so that makes them drupes. Once Trema fruits are mature they're the size of hackberries, red to yellow-red, and, also like hackberries, there's not enough flesh there for humans to be interested in eating them, but birds just love them.

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JACQUEMONTIA/ "LITTLE WHITE BELL"
At the risk of over morning-glorying you, I just have to tell you about yet another morning-glory species, for in many places along roads and in abandoned cornfields it's creating very pretty, viny, snowy-flowered mantles for bushes and trees. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124jq.jpg.

Since the vine is basically a tropical species I don't think it has a proper English name; in general people just call it by its genus name, Jacquemontia. In Spanish it's called "Campanita Blanca," or "Little White Bell," because of its small, white, bell-shaped flowers. Five species of Jacquemontia are listed for the adjacent state and I'm guessing that ours is JACQUEMONTIA NODIFLORA.

The morning-glories we've looked at so far have belonged to the genus Ipomoea, which is the main morning-glory genus. A distinguishing feature of Ipomoeas is that their stigmas -- the pollen-receiving zone of the female pistil -- are ± spherical, or "globose." You can see some Jacquemontia stigmas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124jr.jpg.

In that picture the five, ± spherical items at the ends of long, slender, inward-curving stems, or filaments, are the stamens' pollen-producing anthers. The lowermost item in the photo, which looks like a white, horizontal bar connected at its middle to a stem arising in the flower's center, is composed of two elongate, slender stigmas. So, Jacquemontia's stigmas are long and slender, not spherical, like's Ipomoea's.

When I first go out in the morning and it's still chilly, Jacquemontia's many flowers are mostly closed, but after sunlight has bathed them an hour or so they begin opening, and by mid morning usually they are as wide open as they can be, and nearly always by then they are just swarming with very busy honeybees.

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HONEYBEES DOING OK HERE
By the way, despite the deaths of so many honeybee hives in North America, beekeepers here tell me that their hives are doing just fine. I wonder if maybe hives here are more robust because they've been "Africanized" by mingling genes with the "killer bee" African species that for years has been working its way northward?

The new Africanized hives are much easier to anger and more aggressive about attacking than the original pure-European stock, but the Africanized hives produce more honey than the old stock, so beekeepers are content with their deal.

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MYSTERY PICTURE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124mp.jpg what do you reckon you see?

The way reticulating veins emerge from the center dark spot surrounded by a pale halo reminds one of an embryo.

Actually that's not far off, for the dark area is a seed developing in the middle of a flat fruit-pod, a legume, held against the sun. You can see such legumes hanging on a tree near the cenote at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/08/081124mo.jpg.

If this tree strikes you as a bit familiar, it's because back at Sabacché this was the powder-puff- flowered Lebbeck-Tree, Albizia lebbeck, that shaded much of the town park, and whose flowers are featured at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lebbeck.htm.

Back in September I wrote, "This same species is much planted in Mérida and other Yucatec towns. Northern visitors mostly notice it during the winter/dry season when the trees are loaded with foot-long fruiting pods that dry to a brown, shiny state, and when the wind blows the seeds inside rattle."

Now as the rainy season turns to the dry season the pods are full sized but they're still a bit green and not at all ready to rattle.

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CASTOR OIL TO THE RESCUE
{I'm writing up a history of Yokdzonot so Wednesday morning I spoke with 98-year-old Don German (pronounced her-MAHN) Escalante, who remembers the town's founding in 1936, and retains vivid memories of every name, date, and major event in Yokdzonot's history. I found most interesting his recollection of a locust invasion reaching its peak in 1938-1940.

"They ate not only the corn and beans but everything," he said, his eyes wide as if he still can't believe how they ate. "They can eat so much because the food goes right through them. If you get beneath them, it's like rain, they retain nothing. Most of our families simply left, went to Mérida, but eleven of us remained. We survived by planting Castor Bean (RICINUS COMMUNIS)."

"I planted four hectares (10 acres). We toasted the fruits on a comal (hotplate), ground them in a hand mill and got a paste like masa (moist, fine-ground cornmeal). We boiled this in big pots. After it had boiled awhile we'd add cold water, oil would float to the water's surface and we'd spoon it off. Four kilos of seeds would produce one liter of oil (8.8 pounds seeds for one quart of oil). A big war was going on and they bought our oil for their machines. We used it, too. We'd fill bottles with it, insert a wick, and it'd burn just fine."

I also asked Don German about changes in the local ecology.

"When we first came, all was tall forest, with trees more than a meter thick. The big trees fell for making railroad ties and later we cut the forest for our cornfields. I can't say that there's any difference in the hurricanes of then and now, there always being a mixture of big ones and little ones, but the soil has changed. When there were no longer leaves to replenish the soil, the soil got hard and thin. The soil isn't as rich as it used to be, and there's less of it."

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MY AMAZON.COM LINKS
I hope that those of you who buy Christmas presents will consider using Amazon.com links at my website to order presents online. I get a 4% referral fee from most items sold to customers who access Amazon.com via my links. My main entry page for Amazon.com is at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.

This year I'd especially encourage you to consider digital cameras. Though I've used digital cameras for several years, my recent upgrade has opened up new possibilities for me, particularly that of photographing birds, and getting closer than ever for close-ups. The pictures linked to in my recent Newsletters have been taken with a $235 Canon PowerShot SX100 IS.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/digi-cam.htm I give an introduction to digital cameras and provide links to several that can be purchased through Amazon.com

I never thought the time would come when I'd feel OK about going into the field without my binoculars. During recent weeks I've been doing just that, not wanting my binocularing to get in the way of my photographing...

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IT HAS A FORKED TAIL, RIGHT?
I showed last week's picture of a Green Vine Snake eating an oriole to a friend here and she exclaimed, "Oh, that's the one with the forked tail, right?"

I had to ask for an explanation.

"At night when lactating new mothers are sleeping it creeps into their beds, puts the tip of each fork of its tail up her nose and suffocates her. When she's dead it sucks milk from her breasts."

Of course it was pointless to refute the forked tail. Some people standing around said rather unconvincingly that they believed the story to be made up, but others assured me that it was all true. I asked if such fork- tail murders happen often.

"Not so much here in Yokdzonot, but you hear about it out in the countryside."

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MORE ON PAPAYA FLOWERS
After reading about Papaya flowers in a recent Newsletter Margarita back in Querétaro wrote this:

"I met an old chap who takes the top of the male tree off on the third day of the new moon and the tree turns female. I saw him doing it to a tree at the taller de alimentos in Concá and now it has fruit... "

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THE MOON'S PASSAGE
I was tickled with Margarita's letter not only because it provided more insight into tricky Papaya flowers but also because I like hearing how traditional people harmonize their lives with phases of the Moon. I don't put much store into most beliefs about the Moon's phases but I certainly accept that the Moon's workings are powerful and mysterious.

I didn't begin to appreciate the Moon's power until I started sleeping in deserts without a tent. On moonlit nights I'd awaken many times, for a moment gaze at the Moon, then immediately sleep again. I think we all must awaken often during the night, just that we don't remember unless something special is going on, like the Moon being there.

During my desert sleeps the Moon's brightness was extraordinary but what affected me even more was how each time I awoke the Moon had progressed a little farther along its journey across the sky. By night's end my stop-action memory of the Moon's passage imparted the impression that the Moon's movement had constituted a long, uninterrupted, hypnotic progression. The next morning I always felt as if the Moon had wrought something significant inside me but I never had a clue about what kind of change it had been, and I still don't know.

If you sleep beneath the Moon several nights in a row the effects only intensify. One reason is that each night during the period of the Moon changing from being a new moon to a half moon, then to a full Moon, its time in the sky lengthens. When the Moon reaches fullness, she rises as the sun sets, thus gracing the sky the whole night, and her face is never as bright as at that very moment. Our anthropomorphic subconsciousnesses naturally interpret this as the Moon being ever more attentive to things below her, ever more passionate about whatever and whoever she touches.

Margarita writes that when the man lopped the top off a male tree on the third day of the new moon eventually the tree turned female. It's understandable that the cutting would take place three days after the New Moon because by the third night anyone can see that each night the Moon is growing, spending more time in the sky and glowing brighter and brighter. All these details hypnotically suggest burgeoning changes at hand.

And, why wouldn't such a majestic passage of the Moon occasion profound changes, and why wouldn't those changes be harmonious with feminine benevolence -- such as gorgeous papayas coming onto a tree starting out as male?

What a magnificent reality we find ourselves in when such a lovely, mysterious, powerful influence can be so commonplace that most of us don't even bother to know what phase the Moon is in, or when and where to look for her.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim