JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

November 8, 2009

A RAINY MORNING IN MÉRIDA
Last Monday on a perfect fall afternoon in Natchez, after rains that had cleansed the sky so that ordinary sunlight dazzled and the merest shadows pooled in satiny blackness, there was nonetheless a feeling in the air of cold times to come, and I hopped onto a bus and headed south.

It was the usual route: Baton Rouge, Houston, across the border at Brownsville, Texas into Matamoros, Mexico, Tampico, Poza Rica, Veracruz, Villahermosa and then on Thursday morning I awoke entering Mérida, in the Yucatán. Usually I tarry in Mérida but Thursday I had a schedule to keep so I just kept going, now eastward.

You think of Mérida as a sun-baked, dusty old colonial town with low, white adobe buildings and narrow streets built for horse-drawn carriages, and sidewalks barely wide enough for one person, but on Thursday morning a big rain came up changing the city's character completely. As I bused out of town I saw that effective drainage hadn't much been on the city planners' minds, or maybe there'd been no planners, for before long most streets became long, narrow ponds, our bus sloshing waves of gray water onto sidewalks and even through open doors of stores and homes. Downspouts emptying from above gushed water squarely onto sidewalks or else discharged it horizontally at ankle level across the walkways. In Mérida most doors opening onto street are recessed into deep walls so during the downpour every pedestrian chose a door to stand in; hardly anyone had an umbrella. Street dogs simply had no place to go, and there's nothing wetter looking than a wet dog.

Cities can be divided into those whose citizens regard rains as big bothers, and those who take advantage of a good rain to withdraw into themselves and gaze out into the totally changed, out-of-control world around them, their faces blank but somehow satisfied-looking. Mérida is one of the latter. I was happy to see so many people looking more or less at peace being stuck where they were. Only a few middle-aged ladies lugging hefty plastic bags of fruit in one hand and a kilo of hot tortillas wrapped in coarse, pink paper under an arm seemed a little discomfited, slipping around in their thin-soled sandals as they tiptoed, hopped and waded, for they weren't about to stand in anybody else's door.

Little Maya towns to the east of Mérida were beautiful to pass through after that rain, the kids out in mud puddles, the trees so green and glistening, people standing around laughing over one another's being-caught-in-the-rain stories. This last of my buses was one of those that stopped everyplace for anyone, so we took our time, wandered the countryside, the bus driver twice stopping to go buy himself some grease-dripping tacos, and nobody seemed to think it was out of place for him to do so.

This time last year I was doing my ecotourism consultancy thing in the little Maya town of Yokdzonot about 20 minutes west of Chichén Itzá ruins in the Yucatan's very center. Thursday morning it felt funny passing through Yokdzonot as if it were just another town. They'd cut down the park's grand old shadetrees and were building a concrete monstrosity where lovers used to sit in cool shade for hours, but other than that nothing had changed. I saw no one I knew, though everyone looked a little familiar.

Then we went through Pisté from where last year I issued my Newsletters, then into the ruins of Chichén Itzá, in case any tourists there knew enough Spanish or had sense enough to take a cheap local bus instead of one of those expensive, dark-tinted-windowed buses that inside feels like an antiseptic jail. Nobody got on, however, so out we went, and just a couple of miles east of Chichén Itzá ruins I disembarked, looked around at a lot of scrub and weeds, and a long, narrow, paved road with signs saying that several hotels catering to ruin visitors lay at the road's end. One of those -- Mexico's first hotel situated right beside a major ruin -- was historic Hacienda Chichén, and that's where I headed, so very contented to be finished with buses for awhile.

The Hacienda's webpage with lots of pictures and information about the Maya and the ruins is at http://www.yucatanadventure.com.mx.  

*****

AT THE HACIENDA'S ENTRANCE
Even before I'd introduced myself to the Hacienda staff I got sidetracked at the office's entrance, admiring the handsome being you can see yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108di.jpg.

"What on Earth kind of palm is that?" I heard myself almost say, before noticing the 21-inch-long (53 cm), pale-tan-colored item emerging among the fronds at the trunk's top. In fact, there were two of them, and you can see a close-up of the one on the tree's other side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108dj.jpg.   

Palms don't produce fruits like that. Typical palm fruits are like small coconuts, for coconuts are indeed palm fruits. What's in the picture is some kind of cone. When finally I'd noticed all this I realized I had a cycad, one of those "living fossils" it's always nice to encounter. Cycads are gymnosperms and thus most closely related to plants such as ginkgos and yews, but really their closest relatives went extinct millions of years ago, so now cycads as a group occupy a rather isolated branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life.

We've run into a native Mexican cycad before, Dioon edule, back in Querétaro. You can see that smaller species at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/cycad.htm.

Cycads can be hard to identify to species level if you don't have the seeds, and I don't, but my best guess is that what's in the picture is a close relative to our Querétaro discovery, DIOON SPINULOSA, sometimes called the Blue Dioon. It's endemic to a small part of Veracruz State, and is endangered, but is being planted widely because it's such a wonderful tree. It's really a distinction to have such a large one living here.

A good field mark for cycads of the genus Dioon is that the frond sections, or pinnae, bear several parallel veins -- there's no outstanding mid-vein or reticulation. Also, each pinna bears small, sharp, stiff "teeth" along its margins. All this is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108dk.jpg.  

The local folks call the tree "Piña de Brasil," or "Brazilian Pineapple." The pineapple part is understandable, but everyone should be clear that this is a very special Mexican native, not something from Brazil.

*****

SOCIAL FLYCATCHERS UP CLOSE
In tourist places sometimes organisms that are hard to see out in the wild show up as if they want to display themselves. That was the case when I took my welcome meal in the Hacienda's open-air dining area, and a Social Flycatcher, MYIOZETETES SIMILIS, flew down onto the top of a chair at the table opposite me. You can see that bird staring back at me at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108sf.jpg.

A backside view of the same bird is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108sg.jpg.  

Social Flycatchers are pretty common throughout humid, lowland Mexico, and all the way south to Peru and Argentina, but normally you see them in small flocks high in trees, always calling their shrill, monotonous t-cheer-cheer chee-tiquee, as Howell describes it. But here they seem to be curious about humans, and tend to flock with us.

Not only did I get a good close-up look at some Social Flycatchers, but also I got to see one do something special. A Chit fan-palm, Thrinax radiata, grew next to the dining area and was bearing a handsome cluster of white, marble-size fruits. A Social Flycatcher flew into the cluster, took a Chit fruit into its beak, and swallowed it whole. I've never seen any kind of flycatcher swallow anything like a palm fruit, but last Thursday it happened not six feet from where I was sitting.

Two other flycatcher species are very similar to this one, but they're larger and their bills are relatively longer. The other two species are the Great Kiskadee and Boat-billed Flycatcher, both found here. It's hard to judge sizes in the field, but the Social Flycatcher's sociality and that unending, nervous calling is all you need to separate them from the other species, which are more likely to be seen alone, and making very different calls.

*****

MELODIOUS BLACKBIRDS
At San Juan Hacienda back in 2005 I wrote about the Melodious Blackbirds' incredible "cooperative singing" -- two birds taking turns with notes that when heard at a distance sound exactly as if they were being sung by one individual. My detailed description of the singing is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/blackbrd.htm.  

Here we have many Melodious Blackbirds, DIVES DIVES, and they're singing like crazy, exactly as at San Juan. This time I have a camera, though, so now you can see what two cooperatively singing birds look like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108mb.jpg.  

There's not much to their coloration other than being black. However, this species also is apt to come up to the Hacienda's dining area and perch on the wrought- iron railing, apparently hoping for a handout. A close-up of one's head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108mc.jpg.

You also see Melodious Blackbirds hopping around on the much-manicured lawn. Unlike some birds who sing in the early morning and maybe a bit before dawn, you hear Melodious Blackbirds calling all day long, and that's OK with me, for their song is delightful, a pretty thing to hear. And knowing that it's "cooperatively sung" just adds to the charm.

*****

AN EASY MAMEY
Not only are certain bird species unnaturally easy to see here, but also there's a remarkable diversity of plants, both wild and horticultural. For instance, on a branch overhanging a sidewalk used by dozens of visitors each day there hangs a perfectly formed, softball-size mamey fruit, the Mamey tree being POUTERIA SAPOTA, a member of the Sapote Family, the Sapotaceae. You can see the branch with its fruit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091108mm.jpg.

Ever since I got a camera I've wanted to photograph a mamey fruit because it's one of the most delicious of all tropical fruits. Though it's native to Mexico it's grown in the tropics worldwide. In fact, it's grown at each place I've stayed at in Mexico, but I've never been able to photograph a mature fruit hanging on a twig. So, here it is now, almost too easy.

Mameys bloom during March and April and fruits are ripe mostly from May to September, so this is a late one. Mamey fruits have a custardy texture and the flesh is "bright burned-magenta-orange," according to one color-savvy person. Inside there's a single large, shiny seed. The taste is very sweet and a little musky but otherwise indescribable, and delicious, at least to those of us with tropical headsets and dispositions.

*****

THOUGHTS ABOUT OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS
I keep up with the news pretty closely. History and current events are a lot like ecology in that each system comprises innumerable interconnecting, evolving parts. Something in me likes watching it all, identifying trends and cycles, and imagining the future based on patterns I think I detect in each system.

Here the only easy way to get news at the Hacienda is via the Internet. On Friday I set my browser to CNN Online, saw headlines about a massacre in Texas, and surprised myself by not feeling the urge to scroll on down the page.

In fact, right now, sitting in my hut gazing out the window through a silvery curtain of rainwater cascading off the thatch roof during the daily afternoon storm, I'm thinking that sometimes up North a lot of us become a bit obsessive about each day's big events.

Often I've pointed out that much human behavior is rooted in our early primate evolution in Africa. Consequently much of our behavior that may have been appropriate for our early ancestral species can be maladaptive or even lethal today. In fact, maybe the way some of us get hooked on CNN's constant updates, or even The Weather Channel... maybe that's a manifestation of our early evolution.

You can see why a tribe of folks or almost-folks might find it beneficial to pay close attention to any news from beyond the campfire's circle of light. If a lion is roaming the area, it's good to know. If the neighboring tribe is needing victims to sacrifice to their gods, that can be important information. I suspect that we're hardwired to listen, to think hard about what we hear, to gossip, and maybe even obsess a bit about what's going on.

However, with my current perspective I'm remembering that the human brain is just an onboard computer, and like any computer our brain can get bogged down with memory-resident programs we may or may not want or be aware of. At a certain point any computer's memory can get so clogged up and confused that it begins behaving abnormally, or stops behaving altogether. At that point you have to hot-boot -- close the system down, flush out all the memory-resident stuff, and start over, this time loading into memory just the basics.

Maybe that's what a lot of people last Thursday stranded in Mérida's recessed doors were doing, just standing there rebooting their systems. That's what I'm doing right now, and I feel like a healing process is taking place.

Maybe if more of us did more re-booting from time to time, more standing in the door just watching it rain, the whole world would start mellowing a bit, and the day's big events wouldn't be so scary.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net