JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written at Hacienda San Juan Lizárraga
one kilometer east of Telchac Pueblo, Yucatán, MÉXICO

January 19,  2009

"FLAMINGO LAKE"
During my last week in the Yucatan I camped overnight at a saltwater lagoon just inland from the northern coast. Developers call the lagoon "Flamingo Lake" and have erected along the road big signs preselling lots and condos. When I was in the area a few years ago enormous numbers of flamingos and other wading and shorebirds overwintered in the lagoon. This year I saw only a fraction of what used to be there. There are reasons why wildlife might flee the area but they are so commonplace there's no reason to list them here.

In a little cove protected from the road by a peninsula of dense mangrove, birds were as thick as they used to be, as a picture from there shows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119sc.jpg.

In that picture the large white waders are Great Egrets, EGRETTA ALBA. The pink bird flying beyond them is an American Flamingo, PHOENICOPTERUS RUBER. Presiding over them from his high perch is a primitive-looking Wood Stork, MYCTERIA AMERICANA. You might also pick out a Little Blue Heron, a Neotropic Cormorant, and maybe more.

Just being in the presence of this vibrant community of intermingling, interdependent beings made me feel good. I hope that sometimes you get to experience places like this, too.

*****

GRACEFULLY BELLIGERENT REDDISH EGRETS
I arrived at the lagoon late in the day, my feet blistered from having hiked several miles from the nearest bus stop. Light was failing as I pegged my tent next to the water's edge and I heard what sounded like two dry sticks being hit together. It was two herons doing combat about 50 meters away, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119re.jpg.

In dusk's dim light they appeared as silhouettes against the silvery water and their maneuvers were so fast and fluid that I couldn't keep track of which bird was doing what. The bill-clapping sounded serious but I'm not sure either bird ever got pecked. The way they dove and feinted, jumped and whirled about, they were like fantastical Japanese martial arts masters you see in movies sometimes on long distance Mexican buses, dancing as much as fighting, leaping impossibly high, counterattacking impossibly elegantly, but these birds were the real thing, creating some kind of perfection out there in the lagoon.

And then a certain threshold was passed and the birds lighted together at the water's edge. They seemed to pose for the picture I snapped, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119rd.jpg.

In that picture the vertical "sticks" behind the birds are air-absorbing pneumatophores of nearby, root- submerged Black Mangroves, Avicennia nitida. In the growing darkness I had to overexpose the picture to bring out the birds' reddish heads and neck feathers, which distinguish them from Little Blue Herons.

Reddish Egrets occur on the US Gulf Coast, mainly southern Florida and Texas, and extend as far south as Venezuela.

*****

ELEGANT BLACK-NECKED STILTS
At dawn the next morning yet another visual essay in grace greeted me at the water's edge. Three Black- necked Stilts, HIMANTOPUS MEXICANUS, advanced across mirroring shallow water so prettily I almost forgot to snap a picture, but I did take one, and you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119st.jpg.

Stilts with their neat tuxedo plumage, thin straight bill, little white eyebrows on black faces, and those surprising red legs put one in mind of organisms in coral reefs: Seeing them, you wonder why and how Nature came up with such a satisfyingly elegant design; whether a plainer design might not have sufficed for a being whose main job is to probe into the muck for worms and such, and whose call is a monotonous series of piping notes. Seeing Black-necked Stilts, you understand that Nature has an impulse for style, you don't understand why, but you're glad She does.

Field guides often show Black-necked Stilts with slightly upturned bills, but you can see that our birds' bills are straight as needles. I've observed individual stilts whose bills did bend upward a little, but straight ones are much more common.

Here Black-necked Stilts are permanent residents. In the US they occur along the Gulf Coast and much of the Pacific Coast, expanding northward during the summer, and inland through much of the US Southwest. They extend southward to southern South America.

*****

NEOTROPIC CORMORANTS
Possibly the most common species at "Flamingo Lake" is the Neotropic Cormorant, PHALACROCORAX BRASILIANUS, what I grew up calling the Olivaceous Cormorant, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119co.jpg.

That picture shows one difference between Neotropic Cormorants and North America's other cormorant species -- the white V behind the beak, and the way the beak itself forms a sharp angle inside the V's arms, or, as Howell describes it in "A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America," "posterior edge of gular skin pointed." Other North American cormorants display a whole different rear-beak arrangement. In this area you need to keep these features in mind because occasionally Double-crested Cormorants do show up along the Yucatán coasts, though the Neotropic is always the species to be expected.

Field guides mention the Neotropic Cormorant's green eyes, and it's true that in some lights you see greenness, but most of the time the eyes are exactly as in the picture, hardly visible at all.

Often you see these birds perched on rocks and snags with their wings half open, drying and warming in the sun.

In this same lagoon I've watched several Neotropic Cormorants hunting together. They formed a line with one end lagging the other, and proceeded across the lagoon, each bird's head completely submerged and the body nearly so, and noisily churning up a great deal of water with their passage. I think they were trying to scare up prey that with less rambunctious swimming would have stayed hidden. Typically you see this species working alone, however, making dives of a minute or so, then when they surface they show nothing but their snaky heads and necks sticking from the water. You can see a Neotropic Cormorant swimming his typical low-in-the-water, head-held-high manner at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119cp.jpg.

Neotropic Cormorants are distributed from the US's western Gulf Coast south to southern South America.

*****

THE SNOWY EGRET'S YELLOW FEET
Several times Snowy Egrets have appeared in these Newsletters, for during summers they're common through much of the southern US. I wouldn't mention seeing them at "Flamingo Lake" but for the fact that I got a good picture showing the species' distinctive yellow feet at the bottom of black legs -- features that quickly distinguish Snowy Egrets from other white, long-legged waders. You can admire those yellow feet at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119se.jpg.

*****

PHOTOGENIC TRICOLORED HERON
I grew up calling this bird the Louisiana Heron but then someone rightly decided that it was inappropriate to name a species distributed all the way from coastal New Jersey to Peru and Brazil after a US state. Nowadays it's the Tricolored Heron, EGRETTA TRICOLOR. It's so common along southern US shores that I wouldn't mention it now, except that I also got a good picture of it, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119lh.jpg.

Tricolored Herons differ from the Little Blue Herons and Great Blue Herons by having "white britches." Also, unlike the Little Blue, a white stripe with rusty-red flecking descends from the throat down the front of the neck.

This bird is fun to watch at it hunts. Sometimes it stealthily stands in water waiting for prey but other times it lets loose and runs splashing across the water.

*****

AN IMMATURE MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRD
You can see an immature Magnificent Frigatebird at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119mf.jpg.

You often see frigatebirds along Mexico's sandy beaches but the one illustrated was buoyantly sailing along the lagoon's shore after harassing some gulls trying to rest on a mudflat in the lagoon. Harassing, because Magnificent Frigatebirds are kleptoparasites -- they chase down other seabirds such as gulls, terns and boobies, and force them to disgorge their food.

In Magnificent Frigatebird territory you can look for three plumages: If the bird has a white head and chest as in the picture, it's an immature; if the chest is white but the head is black, it's a female, and; if the bird is entirely black except for a red throat, it's an adult male.

This bird's wingspread is about 7-½ ft (2.3 m). The tail is deeply forked, though often, as in the picture, it looks long and tapering. During courtship the male can inflate his red throat skin into a remarkable balloon-like pouch.

During the summer you can see Magnificent Frigatebirds along southern US shores, and it occurs as far south as Brazil.

*****

THE LAUGHING GULL'S WINTER PLUMAGE
Gulls can be hard to identify, especially in their overwintering grounds. Typically they display strikingly different immature and adult plumages, plus some species have winter plumages and even second- winter plumages. That's the case with the Laughing Gull, LARUS ATRICILLA, the Yucatán's most common gull. You can see a Laughing Gull in winter plumage at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119lg.jpg.

Theoretically you can see about eight gull species in the Yucatán, all in the genus Larus, and all only present during the winter, during migration, or "accidentally," as when deposited here by storms. Only the Laughing Gull ventures into the interior.

With all the overlapping plumages, how do I know that that's a Laughing Gull?

One good field mark is the dusky smudge behind the eye, which hints at the all-black head the gull will display during the summer. The bird's black wingtips without white "windows" plus its all-white tail and black legs support the ID. I'm not sure I could separate this from a wintering Franklin's Gull, but that species is only accidental here during migration, and migration is passed.

I love just looking at the above picture. Of course it was good seeing the bird being itself as it fished in the lagoon, but studying the pictured gull's graceful curves, its smooth transitioning of black through gray to white, the look on the bird's face... What a wonderful Universe we live in when a being as pretty as a Laughing Gull can live wild and free for everyone to see and know.

*****

GIANT MILKWEED
At "Flamingo Lake" I wanted to see the birds, but there was also one particular plant I wanted to look for, having noticed it during my last visit several years ago. You can see it, with the lagoon in the background and high-rises on the coast of the type destroying so much critical habitat in the area, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119ca.jpg.

The plant is about eight feet tall and has woody stems so it looks like Common Milkweed on steroids, right? It is indeed a member of the Milkweed Family, and you can see its milkweed-like flowers (but much larger) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119cb.jpg.

This is one of two or more plants called Giant Milkweed. It's CALOTROPIS PROCERA, native from West Tropical Africa to India, but gone wild throughout much of the world's tropics, where it thrives on arid coasts and is impervious to salt spray and wind. Its stem produces a strong fiber for string-making and many cultures use it in folk medicine. It makes a softball-size, bladdery fruit full of white floss of the kind you've probably seen atop milkweed seeds.

Often we've referred to the unusually complex and beautiful anatomy of Milkweed-Family flowers, and Calotropis's flowers are characteristically worthy of taking a close look at, as we do in the close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119cc.jpg.

You may want to refresh your memory about milkweed flowers -- their horns, coronas, pollinia -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

Our flower's anatomy is a bit different from the milkweeds' at that link -- it's a different genus, after all. I don't have an expert's description of the flower's anatomy but it looks to me as if the blossom's coronas and horns are merged. The pollinarium gland seems to be in place, and one assumes that two pollinia are attached to it below, forming the V-shaped pollinarium shown on the milkweed page.

I was surprised no one had cut down this interesting plant but I was glad they hadn't, despite it's being an invasive. It's a tough plant, and if the predictions of global warming are correct, eventually we'll need all the tough plants we have to hold soil and photosynthesize, no matter where they come from.

*****

"RINGWORM BUSH" FLOWERING & FRUITING
In many Mexican towns nowadays you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119cs.jpg.

In English sometimes that 10-ft-high, somewhat sprawling bush is called Candlebush and sometimes Ringworm Bush. It's CASSIA ALATA of the Bean Family. I think the last member of the genus Cassia we ran into was the Golden-Shower Tree, Cassia fistula, in Sabacché last September. You might enjoy comparing the two Cassia species just to better get a feeling for how different species within a genus share many features. The Golden-Shower Tree page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/g-showr.htm.

The name Cassia alata is a good old Linnaeus one, "alata" meaning "winged," and what's winged are the legumes. Each 6-inch long, slender fruit bears four finlike wings with wrinkled or "crenulate" tops, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119cu.jpg.

This species occurs throughout the world's tropics and I don't believe anyone knows where it's from originally. Many medicinal uses are listed for it but the most frequent use seems to be the making of lotions from flowers for skin infections, particularly ringworm.

*****

NEEM
Speaking of medicinal plants, Neem is a tree native to India, and it's one of the earliest-recorded and most widely used of all medicinal plants. In Indian villages today Neem trees, AZADIRACHTA INDICA, are still thought of as "the village pharmacy" and are used for everything from bad teeth and bedbugs to ulcers and malaria.

Recent Western studies report that Neem extracts delay blood coagulation and calm erratic heartbeats; oral doses of Neem-leaf extract reduce insulin needs 30%- 50% for nonkeytonic, insulin-fast and insulin- sensitive diabetes; Neem extracts are toxic to the herpes virus and can aid in the rapid healing of cold sores; Neem has antihistamine properties; Neem extracts reduce fertility in male monkeys; Neem extracts have been approved by the US EPA for use on food crops and it protects crops from over 200 of the most costly pests. And there's a lot more. If you're interested in Neem, look it up with your search engine.

Maybe 15 years ago someone planted a lot of Neem trees where I am now. You can see a typical tree, now in the early dry season yellowing and losing its leaves and looking Septembery to a North American, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119nm.jpg.

A close-up showing one of Neem's twice-compound leaves and blackening fruits, which are drupes, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090119nn.jpg.

If you're in the US Southeast you may think that Neem looks a lot like Chinaberry, Melia azedarach, also originally from southwestern Asia, and which has gone wild there, in places becoming an important invasive species. There is indeed a similarity, for the species are closely related, both belonging to the Mahogany Family, the Meliaceae. Hunters in Mississippi have told me that if you rub Chinaberry leaves on your skin it'll repel mosquitoes, but I've found the leaves only mildly repellent.

By the way, if you're unsure what a "twice compound" leaf is, the one in the above picture is a classic example of one. All the connected green items at the picture's left constitute a single leaf. It's a compound leaf. If you look closely you'll see that first the whole leaf is divided into eleven units branching off the main stem, or rachis. In the picture the lowermost five units are undivided leaflets, but the upper six units are divided yet again into subleaflets -- they're "twice divided," "2-pinnate," or "bipinnate."

*****

A CELEBRATION OF NEW BEGINNINGS
If things go as planned, tomorrow, Inauguration Day for Barack Obama, I'll begin my journey back to the United States. In this way I plan to harmonize my own "Celebration of New Beginnings" with that of many other people.

The new political climate in the US is not my only reason for returning there. Also playing into my decision to return is that my visa soon expires, I had problems the last time getting a six-month entry visa. Also, I have no further invitations in Mexico to barter my ecotourism consultancy for a place to park my body.

First I'll be stopping in southwestern Mississippi where the earliest signs of spring will rejuvenate and inspire me. With new vigor and clarified vision I'll blossom along with spring itself, gathering my powers more vigorously and consciously every day, greening with the forest and fields, issuing new roots into the Earth. Who knows what new flowers I'll end up sprouting, and what fruits will mature?

Might you also benefit from harmonizing your own Celebration of New Beginnings with this inauguration of new ways, and with this springtime that right now in so many little ways is cracking its seed-coat, about to sprout and blossom?

Speaking of celebrations, our society is too weighed down with meaningless, counterproductive and plain silly celebrations, yet we fail to officially commemorate the most momentous, beautiful and important events in our lives, such as the return of spring. And why don't we have special days set aside just to celebrate the curiosity of children, the beauty and necessity of clean water, and forests at the peak of their photosynthetic, oxygen-producing potential?

The lovely thing is that no one really makes us celebrate what we have no heart for, or keeps us from celebrating what truly means something to us.

If this spring you decide to celebrate your own new beginnings, your own newly reshuffled self, let me know, and we'll celebrate together!

I think I'll skip next week's Newsletter because I've already chronicled several journeys north.

See you from Mississippi.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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