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

November 29, 2009

CATBIRD IN THE SHADOWS
|Catbirds, DUMETELLA CAROLINENSIS, are gifted singers belonging to the same family as mockingbirds and thrashers. They nest throughout most of the US and southern Canada but are migratory so at this time of year they're found along the US Southeastern cost and south through eastern and southern Mexico all the way to Panama. During the summer up North they tend to slink through dense cover, and it's the same down here during the winter; in both places you more often hear them than see them. This week once or twice I heard one halfheartedly break into his rambling summer song but mostly I've just heard the occasional nasal, catty mew. Still, sometimes a Catbird does pop into view, as one did this week, providing the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129cb.jpg.

It's always good to see a species you know so well up north now perfectly at home down here. You visualize the long flight south, remember how hard it was on you, yet this bird had to fly every inch of the way, one wingbeat after another.

When we see these birds up north we don't think about them spending half their lives in places like this, where they must eat completely different foods, where predators with completely different looks and manners chase after them, and where life demands of them a whole different living pattern.

The good part of that is that down here there's no pressure to find a mate, establish and defend a territory or to feed and care for young. Here the goal is simply to stay alive until it's time to head back north. Eat, build up fat for later, avoid snakes and hawks... The main problem with here, I would suppose, is dealing with the ever-intensifying dry season, which coincides with the North's winter. As the dry season develops there'll be an ever more drastic reduction of food, water and cover.

When a bird pops up for half a second, like the one in the picture, and then is gone, it's like walking by a library with the doors open, where for a second you glimpse untold thousands of stories worthy of consideration.

*****

DONALD-DUCKING TITYRAS
One of the most distinct birdcalls you hear here is that of the Masked Tityra, TITYRA SEMIFASCIATA. In "A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America," Howell, whose writing is usually rather dry, describes the sounds made as "distinctive buzzy or fart-like calls, zzzu rrk or zzr zzzrt, and rr-rr-rrk, etc." That's right, if you stipulate that they're the quick, dry kind of fart. I've always thought of the calls as like those Donald Duck used to make when he was too angry for words. You can see one giving me the eye at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129tt.jpg.

Unfortunately that picture doesn't show well one of this bird's main features -- the broad eyerings and lores (area between eyes and bill) of bare, pink skin causing the bird to look as if its wearing pink goggles. The males' bold black-and-white plumage and short, hooked bill cause this to be one of the easiest-to-identify birds found here. Tityras belong to the same family as the becards we looked at last week, the Cotinga Family, a Neotropical family not yet figured out taxonomically, but surely close to flycatchers.

Masked Tityras are common and widespread, distributed throughout Mexico's humid lowlands south all the way to Brazil. They specialize in semiopen places with scattered trees, such as plantations and recently abandoned fields, so this is one species that may have benefited from human activity.

*****

ORIOLE IN THE BAR
The Hacienda offers wireless internet but the signal doesn't reach my place. Therefore each morning I pack up my laptop and head for the bar, which also is the computer room. Tuesday morning when I entered, the guys were standing around looking at the ceiling. An oriole had entered and didn't know how to get out. You can see him on a rafter right beneath the ceiling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129ao.jpg.

That's an Altamira Oriole, ICTERUS GULARIS, a permanent resident from the southern tip of Texas through Mexico's eastern and southern lowlands, south to Nicaragua. They're common here and often you hear their bright chiu calls and other songs. This one called a few times while he was trying to escape, the feeling of being upset easy to hear in his voice.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/orioles.htm I list and talk about the northern Yucatan's six oriole species. Because the orioles' female, juvenile and first-year plumages are often similar among the species, in the field it can be hard to impossible to identify certain individuals to species level. Usually adult males are easy to distinguish, though. Still, our Hooded Orioles, also common here, look a lot like Altamiras.

The Hooded is a little smaller, has a decurved upper bill, and the large wing patch where the wing bends -- the upper wingbar -- is white, while you can see that the Altamira's is orange. In the field I find the first two field marks hard to use, so usually it comes down to hoping I have an adult male to look at and, if so, checking to see if the upper wingbar is white or orange.

This is another bird who favors semiopen and disturbed areas, which accounts for it common occurrence.

*****

A FLUSTERED BLUE GROSBEAK
During breakfast Sergio came up to me hiding something in his hands. He barely opened them so I could see inside, where glistening eyes appeared surrounded by powder-blue feathers, and then a very thick, short beak pushed between cracked fingers.

"It's a baby bird," he said. "He's fallen from his nest." Outside in better light I took the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129bg.jpg.

The bird was a Blue Grosbeak, PASSERINA CAERULEA, and he wasn't a nestling because juveniles are colored like the drab, brownish females. This was a mature male having problems flying because he was hurt or sick. In the Yucatan Blue Grosbeaks are strictly winter residents so this bird recently had made the trip south. In the photo you can see that some of his blue head and back feathers are brown-tipped, so he must be a first-year male with just a hint of his juvenile plumage remaining.

Sometimes Blue Grosbeaks are confused with Indigo Buntings, but Blue Grosbeaks are much larger and their beaks are thicker. Blue Grosbeaks also should have broad, rusty wingbars, but this one isn't showing any. We also have Blue Buntings here but their underparts are almost black

Sergio loosened his grip so he could set him up in a tree where the cats couldn't get him, but the moment the bird felt free he flew away, but low and slow, like a bird with a problem. Here's hoping his problem passes fast and comes spring he can make it back North.

*****

SIX YUCATAN SQUIRRELS
Hacienda Chichén's owners try to protect their animals. I was impressed when on my first day here a gardener told me that here we don't kill snakes or other critters. Regularly filled water troughs are scattered all around the property. The efforts are paying off. The other day in a weedy clearing I saw three White-tailed Deer, which is something almost unheard of in the Yucatan. Most places I go in the Yucatan I see no deer at all, despite the scrubby, hacked-over vegetation providing perfect deer habitat. Throughout the Yucatan poaching is rampant and done out in the open. There are good laws but no enforcement.

Same for squirrels and rabbits. Therefore, this week I could hardly believe my eyes when SIX Yucatan Gray Squirrels, SCIURUS YUCATANENSIS, crossed my trail on an overhanging limb, one after another. A funny thing about the group was that most if not all of them every few seconds uttered a sound something like a fingernail making a half-second-long scratch on dry cardboard. For awhile I was surrounded by these skronky sounds and just had to laugh.

Surely this was the old story of a female being in heat, pursued by interested males. Such chases may last most of a day, may include resting periods, and theoretically toward the end of the chase one male after another starts dropping out until only one is left, and he gets the prize. In my online book "Mistletoe: One Year in The Life of An Eastern Gray Squirrel" I describe one such chase in detail. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/mist02.htm.

After crossing my trail they climbed up a Gumbo-limbo tree where I managed to photograph one. He's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129sq.jpg.

Other Yucatan Squirrels I've seen always struck me as smaller than an Eastern Gray, but these were as large or larger. The tails were especially long and bushy.

Yucatan Gray Squirrels are endemic to the Yucatan, Tabasco, and Eastern Chiapas in Mexico, and northern Guatemala.

You may enjoy browsing A Field Guide to the Mammals of Central America and Southeast Mexico, which provides excellent distribution maps. It's accessible as a Google Book by Googling the title and the author, Fiona A. Reid, and looking for the Google book link. I don't provide Google Book internet addresses because they are too long and I think they may change, depending on the browser being used. The book costs $102.39 at Amazon.com.

*****

A FAINTING, GARBAGE-LOVING SNAKE
Paulino told me he'd come upon a coral snake while macheteing around the compost heap and had the snake in a bottle in case I wanted to see it. The snake was about a foot long and red except for a black head and a black band behind the neck. I didn't think it was a coral, but I wasn't sure enough to venture emptying the bottle into my hand, for coral snakes are very venomous.

The problem is that the coral snake we have here isn't the Eastern Coral Snake with its distinctive red, yellow and black banding but rather the Variable Coral Snake which, as the name suggests, is very variable. Add in undeveloped patterns of immature individuals -- and Paulino's snake was small enough to be a young one -- and geographic variation, and IDing gets hard. I dumped the snake onto the ground and took the picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129nn.jpg.

The snake raised its head and somewhat flattened his upper part. This didn't seem like coral snake behavior at all, but it did remind me of some neck-spreading exhibited by a snake in a picture sent to me some time ago by a reader down here. You can see that picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ninia-rd.htm.

I tried maneuvering the snake into a more photogenic setting, but instead of moving he did what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129no.jpg.

The poor thing just keeled over, his head lying sidewise on the ground, and no amount of nudging would stir him! I'd have thought I had a snake suffering a heart attack, but I'd read that the spread-headed snake in the first picture above does this very thing -- plays dead when its vicious-looking head-spreading doesn't frighten away predators. Now I knew that I had that same snake. It was the Red Coffee-Snake NINIA SEBAE, a perfectly harmless little being who couldn't hurt you if he tried.

One Spanish name for this snake is "Basurera Roja," or "Red Garbage-Dump Snake," because it's so often found in garbage dumps. Another name is "Dormilona," or "Sleeper," because of the "fainting" behavior shown above.

This little snake does a great job scaring people and other animals who know how dangerous coral snakes are. But in this world with lots of machete-wielding men, its pseudo-coral coloration, patterning and threatening head-spreading behavior get most that are caught cut to pieces.

*****

CRICKET ON MY SHOE
One morning this week just after dawn I reached for a shoe and found sitting on it an orthopterid -- a member of the insect order Orthoptera, embracing crickets, grasshoppers, katydids, etc. I carried both shoe and insect outside and took the photo shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129cr.jpg.

Can you see what "bugged" me about this critter? I couldn't understand how it could have that short, scythe-like, egg-depositing ovipositor, indicating that it was an adult, yet also have no wings. Moreover, grasshoppers tend to have short ovipositors like this one's, but their antennae nearly always also are short. Knowing I'd be asking Bea in Ontario for help, I got her a nice close-up, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129cs.jpg.

You might be interested in Bea's procedure looking for a name. First she had to decide whether this was a cricket, katydid or grasshopper. As her deductive process got underway she boned up on the differences at BugGuide.net and let me in on what she was learning:

GRASSHOPPERS:

KATYDIDS:

CRICKETS:

There are individual exceptions to most of the traits above (such as a couple of species of Grasshopper with long antennae), but the generalities stated usually work and exceptions tend to be few.

After a couple of days of hard work, Bea wrote:

"Here is what I'm sure of so far: Order: Orthoptera (Grasshoppers, Crickets, Katydids) Suborder: Ensifera (Long-horned Orthoptera) Pretty sure: Family: Tettigoniidae (Katydids) I'm guessing Subfamily Tettigoniinae - Shield-backed Katydids"

And that's as far as we got. We got our heads more organized about the Orthoptera, but still aren't sure what we have. Anyone out there with any better ideas?

*****

TURK'S TURBANS/ TULIPANES
At the end of the rainy season the forest is lush, green and shadowy. It smells of mould. I assume that lack of sunlight on the forest floor is responsible for the paucity of flowering plants there, as well as this being the beginning of the dry season. Orchids and bromeliads are easy to find, but very rarely are they flowering.

One head-high bush is flowering, however, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129mv.jpg.

Though this is a native Mexican plant very much at home in our reserve here, the English speaking world has long admired and propagated the species, bestowing it with several English names: Turk's Turban, Ladies' Eardrops, Scotchman's Purse, and Wild Fuchsia among them. People here use the name Tulipán. It's MALVAVISCUS ARBOREUS, a member of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae.

You can see how similar the blossom is to hibiscus flowers, the main differences being that the Tulipán's corolla doesn't open much more than is shown in the picture, plus there's that tall, slender item projecting upward from the flower's center. You can see better what's going on there in the close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129mw.jpg.

That slender thing is composed of numerous male stamens arising from a cylinder surrounding the threadlike style of the female pistil. The fuzzy, spherical thing at the top is the stigma where pollen grains land and germinate. The pale purple, granular items are anthers shedding pollen. I dissect a blossom and show how all this hangs together in hibiscus flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_hibsc.htm.

In the US this species is planted outdoors in the Deep South, in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10. One website says of it, "It is an old fashioned, 'pass-along' southern plant, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds."

*****

ROUGH-LEAVED PEPPER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129pp.jpg you see another shrub, usually about eight feet tall, flowering now because it flowers throughout the year. It's one of many species of the tropical Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae, in which also belong the Peperomias often grown indoors in pots up North. In English-speaking Jamaica they call the pictured species Rough-leaved Pepper. It's PIPER AMALAGO. In Spanish, members of the genus Piper are usually referred to collectively as Cordoncillos, which means "little strings."

The slender, erect items arising vertically from the stems, the "little strings," are spikes covered by hundreds of individual, very tiny, simple flowers. You can see the spikes in two stages of development at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129pq.jpg.

In that picture the spike at the left is covered with splitting-open, baglike male anthers releasing pollen, while the spike at the right is covered with immature fruits, each fruit developing from a different flower.

Mature fruits only grow to the size of mustard seeds, but when dried and ground they taste just like black pepper. Black pepper is made from peppercorns from the topical Asian Piper species, Piper nigrum, so our Piper amalago has every right to taste like black pepper. In Jamaica sometimes our species still is used as a condiment, the fruits being picked when full grown but not completely mature, for if they mature on the plant they lose their pungency and get soft. Immature fruits, often harvested still attached to their stalks, are dried in the sun and then ground in mills.

Infusions of the leaves are said to alleviate colic and intestinal gas. The roots are used as a diuretic and to treat water retention.

*****

ALMOST A WILD CHERRY
About a kilometer into the Hacienda's wildlife reserve I came upon a clearing where someone had planted fruit trees. One of the 12-ft-tall trees bore pea-sized fruits similar to the North's wild cherries, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129ch.jpg.

However, notice that the leaves on those branches are opposite -- two arising at each stem nodes. Cherry trees have alternate leaves (one leaf at each node). Closer I could see the details better, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129ci.jpg.

Notice that when the yellow-orange fruits mature they turn black. I popped a mature one into my mouth and it tasted pretty good, having a sweet, musky flavor. Especially along the upper stem in the picture you can see where birds have removed about half the fruits, leaving bowl-shaped calyxes on the stem. In fact, when I first got there the tree was busy with Clay-colored Robins and Melodious Blackbirds having a good time.

Those bowl-shaped calyxes are unusual. A close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129ck.jpg.

I'd seen such calyxes somewhere but I just couldn't place them. Then I noticed the thing shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129cj.jpg.

The tree's outer branches are slender and brittle, and the picture shows that they're also square in cross section. When you see square stems, you automatically think of a handful of plant families. The most commonly encountered families with square-stemmed species are the Mint and Verbena Families. That was enough to remind me that I'd seen such oversized, bowl-shaped calyxes on members of the Verbena Family. I consulted a checklist of Verbena Family members for the adjacent state of Quintana Roo, and quickly determined that the tree was a member of the genus Citharexylum, most likely CITHAREXYLUM SPINOSUM. Citharexylums are often called Fiddlewoods in English because formerly the wood was prized for cabinetwork and musical instruments.

Citharexylum spinosum's distribution is given as the West Indies to Venezuela and the Guianas, where it's used medicinally. Apparently it's planted here, to our birds' endless delight.

*****

DRUMBEAT IN THE ALUX GROVE
Last weekend as the sun set a rhythmic drumbeat arose from below my room adjoining the old church. I'm atop a small mound that probably once was a Maya temple. The drumming seemed to come from the grove below set aside for local shamans to make their peace with the local Maya elves, or aluxob ("-ob" is a plural suffix; one elf is an alux, pronounced ah-LOOSH). A well- played, jazzy piccolo joined the drumbeat and before long the pungent odor of copal incense wafted through the woods. When I arrived in the Aluxob grove I found maybe 50 people doing what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091129__.jpg.

A young woman I'd met before saw me and came to escort me into the circle. Seeing her, I knew what the group was up to, for several days before, when some of us had taken a mother with her sick child to a local curandero, or traditional healer, I'd met her there and she'd told me about the project she was helping to organize. A poster her group was putting up everyplace spoke of the return of the gods Quetzalcoatl and Kukulcan (Most consider the two names as applying to the same deity). Her group was traveling through Mexico's Indian territory staging events like this, if nothing else just to remind the native population that they once had their own special beliefs and traditions, which are worth remembering and honoring. The project finishes up around Christmas with a big pilgrimage to sites sacred to the ancients.

I spotted my Hacienda friend José standing stiffly just outside the growingly animated circle. Before José came to work at the Hacienda he was training to be a shaman himself, thus he knows more about Maya spirituality than anyone I know. As a greeting I jokingly asked him if he was going to join the dance.

"We don't dance," he replied. "Dancing doesn't enter into our Itzá Maya spirituality. What's going on here is recreation, not spirituality."

Looking around I saw that no one in the group seemed to come from a local Maya village. Many were non- Mexicans and a lot came from the Mexico City area. I quipped to José that I hadn't seen anything like this since the 60's and he replied, "Exactly that."

With clouds of intensely fragrant copal incense billowing among us, the group leader spoke of Mother Earth's generosity, a story was told about a white hawk, and thanks were given to a Universal Spirit. At one point they all kneeled with heads to the ground and with their arms stretched toward the circle's center.

Several tried hard to get me to join the circle, to participate, to join the dance.

But, despite the group using terms and concepts that I myself favor and believe in, somehow it was clear that if I was to stand with anyone, it would be with José, and his people don't dance.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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