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

November 22, 2009

SWALLOW IN MY ROOM
When I first moved into the storage room adjoining a lovely old church atop a hill (which surely is a ruin mound) I found myself with several bat and swallow roommates. Since I leave the door open at night the bats are still with me, but the swallows didn't like my locking the door during the day. Eventually they moved out -- but not before I got a picture of one circling just beneath my ceiling, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122sw.jpg.

In the Yucatan we have three fast-flying, dusky-chested swallow-type bird species so similar that I've pretty much given up trying to distinguish them: The Ridgway's Rough-winged and Northern Rough-wing Swallows, and the Gray-breasted Martin. The last two species are widely distributed migrants, the swallow here only during the winter and the martin only during the summer. The Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow is endemic, found only in the Yucatan and a bit of adjoining Mexico, plus Belize and northern Guatemala. "It'd be neat if this turned out to be a Ridgway's," I thought to myself as I snapped the picture.

Once I got the image onto my laptop screen, by golly it did turn out to be a Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallow, STELGIDOPTERYX RIDGWAYI. Some experts lump Ridgway's with the Northern Rough-wing but Howell in his wonderful "A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America" separates them, and that's fine with me.

Two field marks indicate that this is a Ridgway's. Most importantly, where the white part of the body extends into the fanned-out black tail the feathers covering the very tip of body are black -- the "distal undertail coverts" are black, as the experts say. In the other species the distal undertail coverts are white. Second, right in front of the eye you can barely see a tiny pale spot. Ridgway's has that, the other species don't.

Howell says that Ridgway's nests in "cavities in caves, limestone sinks, ruins." Well, we have Chichén Itzá's standing ruins all around us and I'll bet Ridgway's Rough-winged Swallows are in and out of those every day. The church next to my room certainly is home to its share, as the guys in charge of keeping the building clean know too well.

*****

GROUND-DOVES
The other day I walked by a picnic table where the ground crew eats and a little ground-dove was beneath it, not ten feet away. She walked around pecking into the gravel as if my presence didn't bother her at all so I was able to get the neat shot shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122dv.jpg.

In this part of the Yucatan we have three ground-dove species -- the Common, the Blue and the Ruddy Ground-Doves. The picture shows a female Ruddy Ground-Dove, COLUMBINA TALPACOTI. The female, who needs to hide herself when she's nesting, wears a subdued plumage but the male has much brighter, rusty feathers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122dw.jpg.

If you're unfamiliar with ground-doves, basically they're smaller editions of "regular doves," and more likely to be seen on the ground. North America's Mourning Dove is about 11 inches long (27 cm) while the Ruddy Ground-Dove is only some 7 inches (17 cm).

Ruddy Ground-Doves are found in towns, forest edges and clearings, mainly in humid areas, from Mexico to northern Argentina.

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PORTRAIT OF A GROOVE-BILLED ANI
Often we've run into Groove-billed Anis, which are grackle-like members of the Cuckoo Family with massive, curved, curiously "grooved" beaks. The other day one came up near me and perched on a rock, inviting the rather artsy and pretty shot shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122aa.jpg.

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BLACK IGUANAA UP CLOSE
I have several articles online about Black Iguanas at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/iguana-b.htm.

At other places I've visited the Black Iguanas, CTENOSAURA SIMILIS, have been much more wary of being approached than those here. That's probably because here we don't have people and dogs likely to eat them. The other day a two-foot one perching on a rock let me get within six feet, making possible the portrait at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122ig.jpg.

Having such a detailed picture, it's interesting to look at some special iguana features. For example, in the picture follow the black line extending back from the eye and you'll come to a brownish, wedge-shaped depression, which is an ear. The various folds beneath the eye reflect the fact that, in contrast to snakes, most lizard types have eyelids. Many lizards have a well-developed pineal or "third" eye in the middle of the back of the head containing a transparent, light- sensitive disk thought to regulate hormones serving the animal's biological clock. I'm wondering if that sunken area behind the eyes and before the flap across the back holds this iguana's pineal eye?

Small, green iguanas are everyplace here but they're not Green Iguanas, Iguana iguana. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122ih.jpg.

Both Green and Black Iguanas occur throughout southern Mexico and the adults are easy to distinguish from one another. However, young Green and young Black Iguanas can easily be confused since both are green and both bear broad, vertical, black bands. Green Iguanas spend nearly their entire lives in trees, however, and are seldom seen far from water, while these are ground- lovers and range far from water sources.

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"WILD CRAPE-MYRTLE"
If you're familiar with the North's Crape-Myrtle, whose pink, frilly-petaled blossoms are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/crape-my.htm you'd have no problem with the name "Wild Crape-Myrtle" for the small, flowering tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122mp.jpg.

Despite all the similarities between the flowers in the picture and flowers of the northern Crape-Myrtle, the two plants belong to different families. Our currently flowering little tree is best known in English literature as Barbados-Cherry, though it's not in the cherry's family either; sometimes it's also called Acerola. It's MALPIGHIA GLABRA, a member of the tropical and subtropical Malpighia Family, the Malpighiaceae. In most of North America there are no wild members of the Malpighia Family.

Members of the Malpighia Family are woody with simple, usually opposite leaves. Flowers typically have five sepals, five petals, and the petals are usually slightly different in size, fringed or toothed, and somewhat spatula-shaped -- narrowing at the base into a slender "stem" or claw. Stamens or sterile, stamen- like "staminodia" usually number ten. A blossom close- up of our plant showing these features is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122mq.jpg.

The most distinguishing feature, though, is what appears in the above photo between the petals' claws. Especially in the bottom, left corner of the picture, do you see those two cream-colored bumps between the two petals' claws? A close-up side-view of the bumps is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122mr.jpg.

Each of those egg-shaped items is a gland, two to a sepal, the sepal being one of a calyx's five triangular or toothlike divisions, the calyx being the greenish "cup" subtending the other flower parts. In this picture the glands completely obscure the calyx. More typically, on other species, the glands look like two small warts at the base of each sepal. Whatever the size or shape of these glands, when you see two of them at the base of each of a flower's sepals, just think "Malpighia Family." It's unusual to have such a dependable field mark for recognizing plant families, so if you like identifying tropical plants, this is a trick worth keeping in mind. I'm not sure what the glands are for. Often glands secrete substances that attract or repel insects.

Often you see Barbados-Cherries growing around traditional Maya houses because the trees produce a thin-skinned, acid fruit that's good to eat. The fruit contains 32 times more Vitamin C than a similar quantity of orange juice. When eleven fruit pulps were tested, that of Barbados-Cherry scored the highest anti-oxidant potency.

No fruits are available here now, though, just the pretty blossoms on somewhat spindly, 10-ft-tall trees spread somewhat evenly and commonly throughout the forest understory all around us.

Barbados-Cherries grow from southern Texas through our area all the way to northern South America.

*****

KIKCHÉ TREE
Another very common small tree is calling attention to itself these days not because its flowers are so pretty but rather because its massive, brown fruiting clusters are so messy looking -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122kk.jpg.

Northerners will think the tree's pinnately compound leaves look a lot like those of Blacklocust trees, and that's not a bad observation since this is Kikché, sometimes called Palo de Arco or "Bow-wood", APOPLANESIA PANICULATA, a member of the Bean Family, like Blacklocust.

If you look closely at the brown masses of fruits you'll see that something pretty is going on at a small scale, despite the large-scale messiness. Look: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122kl.jpg.

What you have there is a single oval, olive-brown, one-seeded fruit at the base of which five reddish- brown, veiny, leathery, elongate lobes emerge, like the arms of a star. Each lobe is a much enlarged sepal, or calyx segment. During flowering, the sepals looked more or less normal, but once pollination occurred and the corolla dropped off, the sepals grew like crazy until they formed this starry collar below the fruit. That's pretty unusual but a few other species do it in various plant families. I think the lobes help disseminate the fruits by wind. Sepals expanding after flowering are said to be "accrescent."

The fruit is a one-seeded legume. Most legumes contain several seeds in a row, so this is another unusual feature. On the legume, notice the dark brown bumps. Those are glands, and in fact the tree has lots of glands, something again a bit unusual for a tree in the Bean Family. Look at the brown glands embedded in a veiny leaflet held up against the sun at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122km.jpg.

Aromatic oils in those glands must be the source of the fragrant, spicy odor smelled when Kikché's leaves are crushed between fingers.

All those unusual features have made it hard for taxonomists to figure out how to classify Kikché. Before it was assigned to the genus Apoplanesia it was placed in Eysenhardtia and Microlobium.

In Maya "kik" means "blood" and "ché" means "wood," so this is the "Bloodwood Tree," so named because if you hack the slender, scaly-barked trunk with a machete it exudes reddish sap. María Luisa Vázquez de Ágredos Pascual's fascinating Los Colores y las Técnicas de la Pintura Mural Maya, available as a free PDF download on the Internet (Google the name for the link), lists Kikché as one of the most important sources of the ancient Mayas' red dyes for mural painting.

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LEADWORT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122pl.jpg you see a "weed" commonly encountered here at woods edges, its flowers dazzlingly white against lush green herbage behind it. A close-up of a flower cluster revealing important field marks for identification is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122pm.jpg.

The corollas almost look like those of phlox flowers but this plant is in an entirely different family. The long, slender tube topped by flaring, horizontal lobes (such corollas are said to be "salverform") is a basic corolla shape for plants pollinated by insects with long proboscises such as butterflies, and occurs in several plant families. But, note the large, stalked glands covering each flower's calyx. A close-up of the sticky stalked glands, which I suspect keep wandering, grazing insects from getting to the flowers, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122pn.jpg.

When you see phlox-like corollas arising from very glandular calyxes you should think "genus Plumbago," the Leadwort genus. Several Leadwort species are known; the one in the picture is PLUMBAGO SCANDENS. Plumbagos are members of the Leadwort or Plumbago Family, the Plumbaginaceae. Possibly the most commonly encountered garden species is a blue-flowered one. The Leadwort Family, embracing about ten genera and 300 species of herbs and shrubs throughout most of the world, specializes in saline or limestone environments, which sounds right since the Yucatan is basically one big slab of limestone.

It's not clear what the Leadwort Family has to do with lead but I've read one theory that Leadworts were once used medicinally against lead poisoning. I don't know if that's right, but it's certainly true that many cultures regard Leadworts as important medicinal plants.

Maxamino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México devotes nearly four pages to Leadworts and mentions cures ranging from ending "any pain at all" to stopping gangrene. He even quotes a 1615 publication by the "modest Dominican friar" Francisco Ximénez that Leadwort juice mixed with "Temecatl" -- possibly the "Tropical Grape" we looked at last week, known in Nahua as Temecate -- as useful in catching women. A Dr. Leopoldo Flores is quoted as saying that malignant tumors can be made to disappear by injecting Leadwort extract directly into the growths.

Several authors report that if you place a bruised Leadwort leaf on the skin for ten minutes it'll stain the skin gray-brown for several days. I tried that and may have developed a very slight reddish rash but nothing worth photographing.

On the Internet several technical papers report on effects of Leadwort extract on the human body, so Western science definitely is paying attention to Leadworts. Charles Kane's Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest -- accessible as a Google Book by Goggling the title -- proposes three external uses for Leadwort: 1) to speed up healing of wounds; 2) to counter edema's fluid build-up, and; 3) to bring abscesses to a head or draw out splinters. Kane suggests applying Leadwort to the skin as a poultice or fomentation, or in a salve or oil.

*****

SOUTHERN LIP FERN
On old stone walls here built of limestone -- many of those stones surely once incorporated in ancient Maya temples -- several interesting fern species have found homes, such as the foot-high one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122ch.jpg.

A close-up showing the underside of a pinna is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122ci.jpg.

The manner in which the pinna's margins curl under partially enclosing lines of spore-containing, sandgrain-like sporangia helps us identify this as a "lip fern" of the genus Cheilanthes. Lip ferns are typical of such dry, sunny spots as our stone walls and often are invested with stiff hairs just like ours. In The Flora of North America our wall-fern keys out to the Southern Lip Fern, CHEILANTHES MICROPHYLLA. Southern Lip Ferns are listed for the Yucatan, and our plants match drawings on the Internet, but I can't find good pictures on the Internet to cinch the ID. Word descriptions fit it perfectly, however, especially the way the black stem color extends a good way up the center of the pinna, as shown in the last photo. So, I'm about 95% sure of the ID, but there might be a local species very similar to the Southern Lip Fern I don't know about.

The Flora of North America describes the Southern Lip Fern's habitat as "calcareous rock outcrops and shell mounds," and our limestone walls are perfect calcareous rock outcrops. The species is distributed from the US Southeast south to South America, including the Caribbean, where it is most common.

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MEXICAN REVOLUTION DAY
Each Friday morning I walk into Pisté to buy the next week's bananas and oranges. This Friday as I entered town I was met by a parade of hundreds of school kids dressed like Mexican revolutionaries, for November 20th was Mexico's Día de la Revolución. Little boys were dressed in white campesino clothes and had curly mustaches inked onto their upper lips while little girls were dressed in colorful colonial dresses. Both carried toy guns. You can see a well outfitted pair at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122id.jpg.

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FIELD GUIDES FOR CHRISTMAS
If you give gifts during the season beginning about now I hope you'll consider field guides or other nature-oriented books as presents. The idea is that if a person can be encouraged to interact with Nature in a personal, focused manner, then Nature "speaks" to that person, imparts Her paradigms and moods and actually changes that person, nearly always for the better, and nearly always toward more sustainable living patterns.

If you do buy books as gifts, please consider purchasing via my Amazon.com links at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.

I get a small referral fee for purchases through that page, and that helps a lot. Thanks.

*****

THOUGHTS ON CLEANSING ONESELF
The current cycle of the Maya calendar, which ends in late December, 2012, is seen by Maya who think about the matter as a time for cleansing and purifying oneself in preparation for the next cycle. This week I've been asking my friends how one cleanses himself.

Everyone I spoke to made the point that both the mind and the body must be cleansed. If the body is complaining all the time it's much harder for the mind to make its spiritual journey.

One person thinking in terms of traditional practice said that taking sweat-baths was a good beginning.

Another said that to cleanse himself he meditated, found his "peaceful zone," and then the way forward became clear.

Another thought of reality as being composed of "earth, fire, water and air," so cleansing was a matter of bringing all the various components into equilibrium.

Another suggested study. The more knowledge you have, she said, the more likely you are to see what needs to be done. When you set yourself to work at what needs to be done, that very act, by itself, cleanses you.

The vast majority of Maya I know don't even think in terms of "starting the next cycle" or "cleansing the spirit." They're just regular people who go along with what everyone else is doing. The people I've spoken to, then, were special; thinkers I sought out. Some would say that their ideas were "contaminated" by influences of other cultures and alien streams of thought.

Whatever the case, what a beautiful thing that each person had such a different notion of how "cleansing" could be achieved. It's exactly as in Nature, both Nature and human minds manifesting irrepressible passions for diversity, the underlying principle being "If one thing doesn't work, try another, then another, but always keep struggling toward that light we all know to be there, somewhere, somewhere higher than we are now... "

Why does a Naturalist Newsletter concern itself with "cleansing"? It is because I am in love with the planetary biosphere, and those agents that destroy what I love -- such as war, mindless materialism, uncontrolled growth and overpopulation -- are things "out of equilibrium," as one friend would say; things that never find their "peace zone" another would say; things rooted in ignorance one would say; things that would never consider setting aside time for a simple sweat bath, another would say.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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