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

November 15, 2009

SQUAWKING PARROTS AT DAWN
Sometimes deep in the night a Thicket Tinamous calls his haunting, clear, monotonal whistle not far from where I sleep. Often even before it's light outside Plain Chachalacas call from the distance. Once the sky is bright a real morning chorus begins, among the most fervent singers being Clay-colored Robins creating a circus inside the big, ropy-trunked strangler-fig trees as they feast on pea-sized figs, and White-winged Doves, who coo and coo, "Who cooks for youuuu... ?" The loudest, most attention-getting singers are the parrots, though. You can see two of a flock of about ten atop a Guaje tree beside the road at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115pt.jpg.

Those are White-fronted Parrots, AMAZONA ALBIFRONS, distributed from humid lowland Mexico to northwestern Costa Rica. The white forehead distinguishes them from most other parrots. The very similar Yucatan Parrot also lives in this area, but they have yellow "lores," lores being the region between the eyes and upper beaks. White-fronted Parrots like semiopen areas with scattered trees and forests occurring in patches, so their numbers are more stable than you might expect in this area where forests come and go.

Their calls are so shrill and persistent that they could almost get on your nerves. All you have to do to make peace with the noise, though, is to look at the parrots up in their treetops as the morning's first sunlight floods in and see how attentive they are to one another, and supportive, how prettily they blend in with the green leaves they work through, and how excitedly they'll suddenly launch into the blue sky and go winging low across the forest looking for yet another treetop to enliven.

*****

BECARD ALONG THE ROAD
When I first hiked into the Hacienda I figured I'd be walking that same road many times, and I was right. It's the road I jog each morning just before dawn and also I walk there in early morning and late afternoon when the sun is low, flooding deeply into the scrub from the road, sometimes illuminating things that usually wouldn't be seen. On one such late-afternoon birdwalk I photographed the fast-foraging bird shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115be.jpg.

That's a female Rose-throated Becard, PACHYRAMPHUS AGLAIAE, common at forest edges, in open areas and the like from Mexico to Panama. During summers it spreads northward into extreme southern Texas and southern Arizona. Just the male has the rosy throat, making it easy to identify. The female is a bit more challenging, with its rusty back, pale underside and broad beak causing it to look like a Myiarchus flycatcher. The way the underside color extends around to the top of the neck, though, is fairly distinctive, as well as the dark cap. The call is a heartfelt, downward slurred tzeeeu.

Ornithologists haven't figured out exactly where to place becards on the bird branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life. At the moment they're being placed close to flycatchers, and when you see in the picture the bird's short, wide beak, that seems like a good bet.

*****

WOLF SPIDER NABS GECKO
Throughout each of the previous nights a certain House Gecko, Hemidactylus frenatus, periodically had been erupting with his somewhat loud, squeaky Krrrk krrrk krrrk krrrk! A House Gecko we met in 2005 is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/gecko-hs.htm.

One afternoon I was glad to see this particular gecko scampering across my tile floor, for I wanted to meet the maker of all that noise. I wasn't really annoyed with him, for once you get used it -- if he doesn't call exactly as you're dozing off -- it's rather nice having such a hut mate, one who minds his own business, being so engaged in his own little life. Therefore, to know this gecko better, I got down on my hands and knees for a better look.

But as I drew near something black streaked in from the left and before my brain could register what was happening a big, blackish wolf spider had taken up position atop the gecko, and apparently at that very moment was digging his fangs into the gecko's body. As the spider began rushing away dragging his prey beneath him I grabbed my camera and shot the image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115sp.jpg.

In that picture one of the spider's side eyes is glowing because I used a flash, and spider eyes are very reflective. Back when I led nighttime wildlife- watching walks in Belize, the moment during each walk eliciting the most visitor ooooohs usually came when I'd beam a strong flashlight across the rainforest floor and it'd look as if diamonds were strewn all about, those sparkles being the eyes of large spiders.

Before the spider could get away I jumped around in front of him and shot a close-up of his head, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115sq.jpg.

Even in the last picture the spider carries the gecko below, though now the prey has been shifted back and isn't to be seen from the front.

*****

TURNIP-TAILED GECKO
My hosts encouraged me to stay in a fully equipped thatch-roofed bungalow so pretty that tourists leaving the ruins for their buses frequently stop to photograph it. However, this was too close to the road and too fancy for me, so after scouting the grounds a few days I moved into a lodging more to my liking. It's a storage room adjoining a beautifully maintained little church atop a hill surrounded by forest. They store lumber and other things in the room but there's room for my mosquito net and a table for the computer, so it's fine for me.

The first morning I awoke in my new room and flipped on the lights, sticking to the wall not six feet away were two three-inch long (7.5 cm) critters, one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115gk.jpg.

That's a Turnip-tailed Gecko, THECADACTYLUS RAPICAUDUS, distributed from the Yucatan south to South America. Common House Geckos so abundantly found and heard in many if not most Mexican homes outside the big cities are invasive species but Turnip-tails are native, and much more seldom seen. My Maya friends here say that they're fairly common in buildings around here. Usually they're found under logs and rocks in humid forests where they've been documented feeding on crickets, termites, spiders and scorpions.

You can see what's behind the "Turnip-tailed" in their name. In a side view you can get another look at how the tail swells behind the constriction point at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115gl.jpg.

The constriction point is where the tail breaks off if a predator attacks the wrong end -- or, in certain species, even if the gecko only gets upset. The local Spanish name for Turnip-tails is "Tiracola," which more or less means "Tail-leaver," and I was told that the tail is poisonous, which of course it isn't.

A close-up of the Turnip-tail's "smiling face" is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115gm.jpg.

You can see some fresh wounds in the skin so this individual must have been in a fight lately.

*****

CEDROS FRUITING
Back in Chiapas we met the Cedro, or Spanish Cedar, CEDRELA ODORATA of the Mahogany Family, the Meliaceae. At that time this large, very important timber tree was leafless but heavily laden with star-shaped fruit husks long after the small, papery-winged seeds had been dropped. You can see what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/cedro.htm.

That was in April, toward the end of the dry season when many plants had dropped their leaves or died back, but now in November it's the end of the rainy season and Cedros are still fully leafed out. They flowered moths ago so now they're laden with immature fruits. The tree's alternate (one leaf per stem node), pinnately compound, walnut-like leaves and oval, brownish, 1.5-inch-long capsules (4 cm) are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115cd.jpg.

Some time ago a branch of a big Cedro at the Hacienda fell off so they sawed the branch into thick boards, which they stored in the room I occupy now. What a pleasant, fresh, resiny odor that reddish wood emits, similar to that of the North's Redcedar or Juniper wood. For a bed I've strung my mosquito net atop two thick, reddish, odoriferous slabs of Cedro and when I sleep on them their odor in the moist night air is delicious, somehow cleansing. And the boards themselves are so thick and strong that I imagine them imparting into me some of their solidness and general magnanimous nature.

Because of the wood's strength, durability and pleasing look and odor, it is highly esteemed and costly, which has caused its demise in numbers in many places.

If you travel in the hot, humid lowlands of Mexico, Central America and the West Indies, this is a very handsome and noble tree you need to know.

*****

BEC
These days a medium-size tree is drawing attention to itself because of its drooping clusters of pea-sized, golden-yellow fruits, which look very pretty against their background of dark green leaves, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115eh.jpg.

The Yucatec Maya call this Bec and elsewhere in Mexico sometimes it's called Pingüico. Both of these names are more felicitous than the only English name I can find for it, which is Bastard Cherry. It's EHRETIA TINIFOLIA, a member of the Borage Family.

Northerners usually are surprised to see a member of the Borage Family that's a full-fledged tree because in the Temperate Zone members of that family most of us are familiar with are herbs -- bluebells, forget- me-nots, heliotropes and borage itself, for instance.

My books say that the fruits are edible, but my Maya friends say that only the birds eat them. I find them with so little tasteless flesh around their two hard seeds that I can't imagine anyone eating them unless they were starving. The books also say that the Maya traditionally used the fruits, leaves and roots for a concoction to cure kidney problems. My friends say that it's used for several ailments, but only the old folks know which ailments and how to prepare the medicine.

*****

"TROPICAL GRAPE"
Here and there along roads and in the woods a fairly woody vine, or liana, with shiny, leathery leaves and longish clusters of pea-sized, grapelike fruits climbs high into trees. At this season its fruits still are mostly hard and green but a few are maturing into succulent, black "grapes," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115ci.jpg.

This is CISSUS SICYOIDES, which I'm calling "Tropical Grape," putting the English name in quotation marks because I can't find an English name, and the fruits seem close enough to "real grapes" to call them that. In fact, the genus Cissus belongs to the Grape Family. "Real grapes" belong to the genus Vitis, however, so plant-name purists might be uncomfortable referring to Cissus fruits as grapes.

At the parking lot's edge the vine climbs into high treetops sprouting slender aerial roots that dangle earthward. You can see some of those aerial roots, which once were cut as high as a machete could reach, and now have sprouted new growing tips and continue their journey earthward. In former times such aerial roots did the service of rope. The US Southeast's wild Muscadine grapes issue similar aerial roots, but those are not nearly as thick and strong as these.

Various parts of Cissus sicyoides are medicinal. My Maya friend José says that leaf juice is especially good against "bad winds," "vientos malos," that blow on you and cause your neck to twist and hurt. A technical paper on the Internet looks at the effects of leaf alcohol extracts of Cissus sicyoides on pregnant rats because the vine in Brazil, where it is an invasive from this part of the world, is used extensively as a medicine. Brazilians sometimes call the plant "Insulina Vegetal," or "Vegetable Insulin," the paper says, and use extracts from it not only for diabetes but also as a diuretic, an anti-inflammatory and against epilepsy. Other studies demonstrate a "vasoconstrictor effect on guinea-pig aorta rings." Maximino Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico reports that in Mexico alcohol extracts of it have been used against rheumatism, which I suppose to be arthritis, and for ulcers and bruises. Beating the leaves in water even produces suds you can wash with.

Not all news about the health effects of Cissus sicyoides extracts is good, however. One study showed that a tea made of the leaves increased chromosomal damage in bone marrow cells. The study on the Internet I found reports that extracts caused pregnant rats to abort.

Despite those worrisome results I wouldn't write off Cissus sicyoides as a useful medicinal plant. Most curanderos, or traditional healers, I know use several plants together for most cures, not just one. Maybe those other plants neutralize this vine's undesirable side-effects. I've never seen a Western study looking at the effects of combinations of medicinal plants, though, so it may take some time before "modern" Western medicine decides whether the curanderos' cures work or not.

*****

MEXICAN WILD PETUNIA
Last year in June in Mississippi I introduced you to a Wild Petunia, genus Ruellia, which you can still see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/ruellia.htm.

Here, outside my bungalow door where I stayed at first, there was a different Wild Petunia -- same genus but different species -- emerging between concrete tiles forming a sidewalk to my door, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115ru.jpg.

That's RUELLIA NUDIFLORA and it's fascinating to flip back and forth between pictures of the Mississippi one and this one, noting similarities and differences. The flowers are very much alike, but they're differently arranged. The Mississippi species bunches them together at the top of the plant while the one outside my door presents them in an open cluster, each blossom having its own long, slender stem, or pedicle.

This is one reason I enjoy paying attention to the classification of organisms: Seeing how species of a genus differ from one another is exactly like savoring a fugue's "variations on a theme." So, here we have a Ruellia song first expressed in a Mississippi variation, and then in a Yucatan one.

*****

IDENTIFYING UNKNOWN PLANTS IN THE YUCATAN
Up North generally I assume that if I have flowers and maybe fruits of any plant I'll be able to identify it. Down here it's not that way at all. For the vast majority of plant groups and for nearly all of Mexico there are no comprehensive field guides and no finished floras. Some academic works that call themselves floras, such as the "Flora de Quintana Roo," are mere organized lists of plant names.

There are a few important exceptions, such as Las Orquídeas de México (orchids), Flora del Valle de Tehuacán-Cuicatlán, and El Género Acacia en El Estado de Oaxaca, México, but here in the Yucatán these works aren't very useful because we have different plants. My best help here is a photocopy of Standley's 1936 work The Forests and Flora of British Honduras, which is very incomplete, ignores most herbaceous species, and with way, way out-of-date taxonomy. Technical works do exist dealing with parts of the Yucatan flora, but they're not available here, or are too expensive for me to buy.

So, how on earth does one identify such a thing as the wondrous item encountered this week, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091115my.jpg.

I'd never seen anything like this little fruit. It rose from the branch of a small tree in a shadowy little grove set aside for the local Maya shamans, or J-men (pronounced a little like H'UH-men), to make offerings to the aluxhob, or Maya elves, so the whole environment felt enchanted, and the little fruit was to me the most enchanting thing there. But, what is it?

After going through all my books and spending hours on the Internet, I still don't know. However, I can make some educated guesses.

The fruit is unusual because the red center thing is subtended by two series of "husks," one nested inside the other, and both splitting into three parts. The main plant family I can think of whose fruits do anything like that is the Celastrus or Staff-Tree Family, the best-known Northern member of which is the Wahoo or Strawberry-Bush, genus Euonymus. Standly's treatment of the Celastrus Family in Belize (which used to be British Honduras) provides very scanty descriptions of the genera in that family. However, after disqualifying one genus after another, only one remains: MAYTENUS. Maytenus seems to be mostly a South American genus. On the Internet there's very little about Mexican Maytenuses, and nothing I can find looking like my picture.

And guessing that our plant might be the genus Maytenus is simply as far as I can go.

One moral of this story is that it's very useful to be able to analyze what family an unknown plant belongs to, and that's something you can learn in books. Another moral is that down here very often you just have to forget about identifying every plant that catches your attention.

*****

END OF A MAYA CYCLE
I've heard that talk shows up North are bringing up the matter of the Maya calendar ending on December 21 or 22, 2012, and suggest that the world might end on that date.

My Maya friend José tells me that the Maya calendar system consists of cycles within cycles, meaning that time arranges itself as a repeating series of events. "If an ant passes before you now, someday that ant will pass there again exactly as it is now," José said, pointing to the ground as if an ant were passing just then. The current cycle, the last short cycle of a much longer cycle beginning thousands of years ago, started around 1992 or so. José didn't remember exactly what year, only that there were important and beautiful ceremonies in his village marking the event. Since the current cycle is the last cycle in a much longer cycle, the 2012 event will be of more than normal importance, but José assures me that the end of the world is not portended.

"The present short cycle we're in is one of gestation," José says, "a resting time when important things don't get done, so some things fall apart, go bad. As when a baby gestates, there can be pain, and problems. At this time, though, we don't just sit and wait, but rather we should cleanse ourselves and prepare for the end of the cycle, which will be our new beginning. At the beginning of the next cycle things will be exactly as they were at the beginning of the current long cycle, which is ending now. Therefore, we Maya can look forward to living again as it was long ago, before the Spanish came, before the terrible events that caused our society to break down."

Visitors here often are interested in the aluxhob, or dwarves, which are part of the traditional Maya belief system. When I speak with my friends about Maya beliefs, neither calendars nor aluxhob come up. What's emphasized is family loyalty and one's responsibility to the community. They never say anything like "it's great being close to Nature," but that's implied in how they speak of their medicinal plants, the wise animals they grew up with, and the bounty of the forests and their cornfields.

Back in the 60s I remember a lot of my friends talking about The Age of Aquarius, which I took to mean that we, then, were starting a new age, one based on love, understanding, creative works, etc. Instead, somehow a drug-ridden culture based on unsustainable intense materialism arose.

Maybe the reason so many in the North have a sudden interest in the Maya long cycle coming to an end is that there's a general longing for many features of our modern world to end, too -- the overcrowding, social disparities and injustices, spreading violence, pollution, the specter of global warming, more virulent diseases, etc.

I can't relate to José's ant passing across the same ground in the future, but I find the general promise of the Maya long cycle's new beginning very inviting. Moreover, the Maya traditions of family loyalty, responsibility to the community and being close to Nature clearly can serve as the basis of a sustainable New Age.

So, I'm all for joining the Maya and spending the three years left in the current cycle cleansing myself, washing away ignorance and wrong-headedness. I'm ready to prepare myself for a whole new beginning, starting toward the end of 2012, another try at The New Age.

What's the next step, then? I'd say self examination; figuring out exactly what needs to be washed out, changed, rejuvenated.

That'll take awhile. Meanwhile, I'll try to understand better how the Maya are preparing for their new beginning, and see if there's something there for us.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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