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

December 6, 2009

FRUIT BAT
Walking to Pisté for my weekly supply of oranges and bananas I came upon a furry, brown, crumpled heap at the pavement's edge. It didn't move when I nudged it so I flipped it over. It was a dead, good-sized bat. I like bats a lot and was real sorry to see this. I picked him up and took the picture (turned on its side to fit the computer screen, so "up" is at the left) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206lf.jpg.

He was a lot larger than most species I run into, but the most unusual feature about him was the appendage arising from the tip of his snout. A close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206lg.jpg.

I'm calling this the Jamaican Fruit Bat, ARTIBEUS JAMAICENSIS, distributed from central Mexico to Bolivia and central Brazil, plus the Greater and Lesser Antilles. He's one of the leafnosed group of bats, a fairly common species with lots known about him, such as the fact that his short and very soft, velvety coat exudes a pleasant odor similar to that of perfumed soap.

The perfumy odor may arise from the vast amounts of soft, ripe, juicy fruit he eats. His "gut throughput time," or the time it takes food to pass through his body, is only 15 to 20 minutes, with no microbial fermentation in the stomach speeding things up. One report explains this super-fast gut action by saying that the species actually doesn't eat fruit but rather strains out the juice and drinks it, while spitting out the pulp and seeds.

Jamaican Fruit Bats feed alone and are known to carry food to temporary feeding sites as well as back to their roosts, especially towards morning. The ground beneath their roosts is often littered with fruit pulp pellets and seeds.

One consequence of the bat going through so much fruit is that the species is extremely important to the pollination and dispersal of tropical fruit-bearing plant species.

Artibeus jamaicensis creates roosting sites for itself by biting through leaf midribs of aroids and palms (members of the families Araceae and Palmae) in such a way that the leaves collapse to form a semi-enclosed "tent." You can bet that now I'm examening every aroid and palm for drooping leaves with bitten-through midribs!

Jamaican Fruit Bats live in a wide variety of habitats, from rain and deciduous forest to scrub forest, plus they inhabit caves and dark, abandoned buildings. This flexibility enables the species to pollinate and disperse seeds for many more kinds of plant than is typical. Ecologically, then, this is a profoundly important species for the ecosystems they inhabit.

When I tossed the dead bat into the weeds, I stood a moment and conjured in my mind the image of a healthy bat busy with important chores, flying deeply into the night, into a vast and embracing fragrance of sweet, juicy fruit. If it turns out that there are souls and heavens, then maybe my visualization somehow helped the little being on the journey he's taking now.

*****

AN ORIOLE UPSET WITH HIMSELF
The other day as I passed through the parking lot a commotion beside a car turned out to be a male oriole fighting with himself in a rearview mirror, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206or.jpg.

It was a Black-cowled Oriole, ICTERUS DOMINICENSIS ssp. PROSTHEMELAS, sometimes named I. prosthemelas. He's distributed from southeastern Mexico to Panama, plus the Caribbean.

Though male Black-cowled Orioles are distinctive and easy to identify, I've mentioned how hard it is sometimes to distinguish juvenile and female orioles. Therefore, lately I've been paying special attention to the pale bluish area at the base of the oriole's lower mandible, which shows up nicely in the above photo. I used to think that that was just a shiny spot but finally it's sinking in that it can be a helpful field mark. Howell makes special mention of the fact that the Black-cowled Oriole's lower mandible is 30-60% blue-gray at its base while, by contrast, the Altamira Oriole's is only 5-25% blue-gray.

Poor oriole! You can see that his tail is frayed and if you'd watched how vigorously he attacked his reflection you'd understand how it got that way. When I drew too close he simply flew to the next car in line and within five seconds was attacking his reflection in that mirror! It was clear that he'd already become acquainted with that mirror, as he probably had all the mirrors on all the other cars. Just imagine that bird's anguish, knowing he had to deal with all those other male birds trying to barge into his territory.

Somehow he reminded me of that fellow in The Little Prince who felt such a burden because he imagined that the sun wouldn't rise each day if he weren't out there conducting the event.

*****

GRAY HAWK
For several days in a row I heard a sharp, whistled and rather loud WHEEE-eu repeated several times from the big Cedro above the church, I'd step out and there'd be a hawk perched there. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206gh.jpg.

That's an adult Gray Hawk, BUTEO NITIDUS, along with the Roadside Hawk, Buteo magnirostris, probably the most commonly seen roadside hawks in this part of the world. You can review the Roadside's appearance at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/roadside.htm.

In poor light they look fairly similar, both showing fine, horizontally barred underparts and strikingly barred tails. However, in good light you see that the adult Gray Hawk is indeed gray while the Roadside Hawk is brownish. Also the Gray's underparts are more finely barred. With juveniles it gets harder, for young Grays are brownish.

This hawk should be in your North American bird field guide, for it extends into Texas's southern tip and during the summer expands northward into Arizona. It's found throughout Mexico except in the highlands and northern deserts, and makes it as far south as northern Argentina. This is one of the Neotropic's best-known hawks, having a penchant for perching conspicuously on electrical poles and roadside trees.

After a few days of daily visits, suddenly he quit coming completely. A lot of birds are like this, forming daily habits that are carried out like clockwork, but which last only a few days. You can see why this would be so: Habitual visits teach one what to be prepared for and where the food is likely to be, but sticking to the routine for too long exhausts the food along your route, and informs those who may want to eat YOU when and where to be watching for you.

*****

NANCE FLOWERING
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the Barbados Cherry (http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/barbados.htm) Nowadays in the Yucatan a handsome small tree maybe 30 feet tall is bearing flowers that look very much like the Barbados Cherry's, except that they're yellow, not pink. A slender raceme of them is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206nc.jpg.

This species is much planted throughout the New World tropics for its edible, marble-size, yellow fruits. In English it's often called Nance or Golden Spoon and in Spanish Nanche. It's BYRSONIMA CRASSIFOLIA, of the same family as the Barbados Cherry, the Malpighiaceae.

At first the flowers are yellow but with age they turn orangish. A close-up of a dew-wet blossom appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206nd.jpg.

As with Barbados Cherry flowers, one of the most distinguishing features of the blossom is the pair of rounded glands on each sepal, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206ne.jpg.

In that picture pollination already has taken place and the petals have withered and fallen off leaving the enlarging, three-styled ovary -- the future fruit -- and ten drying-up, blackening stamens. The sepals have enlarged somewhat, their points and sides flaring backward. Two remarkable glands grow on the back of each sepal like engorged ticks.

When Nance fruits are ripe, traditional markets are full of them at very low prices. They're abundant and easy to harvest, but their taste is just so-so, from tasteless to a little acidy to a little sweet, and maybe with just a hint of cheesiness. Each fruit contains a large seed so there's not much flesh to them, either. My impression is that nowadays Nance fruits are mostly used in the backcountry, and then mainly to produce a sweetened, somewhat fizzy beverage tasting like Kool-Aid.

Nance is native from southern Mexico through the Pacific side of Central America to Peru and Brazil. The tree grows well in sandy and rocky soil, and tolerates extended droughts, so that's probably another reason it's so commonly grown. I think it's being grown here just for the birds.

Medicinally the Nance tree's bark is astringent and in Mexico has been used traditionally to firm up loose teeth and control diarrhea.

*****

TREE DAISIES
In the woods where a trail or treefall admits more sunlight than usual, these days sometimes you run into a woody shrub that's almost viny the way it clambers over other plants, and it's so brightly adorned with white, silver-dollar-sized flowers that you just have to stand and look at how the plant glows, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206ds.jpg.

When you draw close to see what it is you find interesting stuff. The flowers look exactly like daisy flowers -- clearly members of the Sunflower or Composite Family -- but daisies aren't woody vines, plus the fruiting heads are very unusual, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206dt.jpg.

This daisy-like half-shrub/half-vine is sometimes called the Tree Daisy, sometimes the Yucatan Daisy. It's MONTANOA ATRIPLICIFOLIA. A close-up of one of those remarkable fruiting heads is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206du.jpg.

If you understand composite-flower anatomy -- reviewed at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm -- you'll like to know that those flatish, green, wafer- like things are much enlarged, specialized "receptacle bracts." Receptacle bracts are present in many but not all composite flowers. Usually they're like pale, papery, little fingernail clippings separating growing achene-fruits from one another. In Montanoa, however, they enlarge into scoop-like structures with the sides flat against one another, holding the ovary and later the achene-fruit inside. Notice that each bract bears a single tooth on one side. That's actually the center tooth of the bract, with its two sides folded together below it. When you pull off a bract the achene comes with it, so I assume that later the bract will behave like a wing during fruit dispersal by wind. Montanoa achenes bear no pappuses.

Tree Daisy is native from southern Mexico through much of Central America. It's such a pretty and unusual plant that it deserves to be cultivated much more than it already is.

*****

DEVIL'S CLAWS
Here and there nowadays you run into head-high, dead herbs bearing the very hard, sharp-clawed fruits seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206mt.jpg.

We've met this plant before, back in Querétaro, where in September the plant was prettily in flower, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/martynia.htm.

In Querétaro we called them Devil's Claws but here they're known as Uña de Gatos, or Cat-Claws. They're MARTYNIA ANNUA, plants so unusual that usually they're placed in their own family, the Martynia Family, the Martyniaceae.

The fruits, which technically are capsules, are harder than most woods and the curved claws are very sharp, easily able to mangle a bare foot that steps on them. Best I can tell, each fruit contains four seeds, two in each fruit half. When I macheted across one -- with difficulty because they were so hard -- the endosperm, or seed "meat," was oily and white like that of coconut. I suspect that some cultures hold these fruits in special regard because they look like the upper jaw and fangs of a pit viper.

I read that before the fruits harden and are still green they resemble bean pods or okra, and are cooked and eaten as a vegetable by indigenous North American people. The dried seeds are rich in protein and can be shelled and eaten. The seeds are so oily that sometimes they've been used to polish pottery. A report from Chihuahua says that the Tarahumara there prepare a tea from the fruits, which they take to relieve headaches.

When my friend Cresencio saw the fruit picture above he told me that when the plant is fresh his people collect the leaves, which are covered with sticky glands, place them beneath their hammocks, and then when fleas come they get stuck to the leaves and don't jump up into the hammock!

*****

FIBER FROM THE PIXOY TREE
Back in Querétaro I introduced you to the Aquiche tree, known in most of Mexico as Guácima, but here as Pixoy (pee-SHOY). It's GUAZUMA ULMIFOLIA, a member of the same family as the Cacao tree of chocolate fame, the Sterculiaceae. It's an abundant, secondary-growth tree in much of Mexico. You can meet it again at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/guazuma.htm.

On that page I remark that traditionally the tree's bark was used to cure malaria, skin diseases, elephantiasis, leprosy and other ailments, plus that fiber was drawn from its branches. This week in preparation for making a special ceremonial dish I got to see how those fibers are extracted.

A Pixoy grew less than 20 feet from were the fibers were needed so Don Paulino simply walked over to a Pixoy and macheted off some six-foot lengths of "water sprouts," those fast-growing, straight sprouts that sometimes emerge at the base of a tree and shoot up through the tree's older, much-branched limbs. The sprouts were about as thick as a banana, so they were pretty substantial.

Then Don Paulino and his helpers set about beating the poles against old tree-stumps or pounding them with rounded rocks, but not hard enough to crack the bark. I assume that this helped loosen the bark from the wood. Then each man planted a stick before him and began pulling strips of semi-pliable bark off, each strip an inch or two in width. Once the strips were removed they were still pretty stiff so they needed to be worked to soften up. You can see how this was done at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206px.jpg.

You can see how the fibers were used to tie a stack of special tortillas wrapped in fronds of Chit palm before they were baked in a ground pit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206py.jpg.

*****

NOT SAYING ANYTHING
Often during a walk in the woods I start thinking about something, develop all kinds of contorted theories, then in a moment of revelation simplify the whole matter by coming up with a streamlined insight, but then if I keep refining that insight, usually I come to the conclusion that, really, there's no reason to say or do anything about the whole issue to begin with.

It's one of those Yin/Yang things: So often, the perfect action is non-action; but non-action is so inharmonious with vigorously evolving reality that one senses its inappropriateness.

Again we are drawn to the golden Middle Path, which is never a compromise or averaging of extremes, but rather its own thing, invisible and unique, and maybe impossible to follow unerringly. In these essays, I struggle to follow the Middle Path with regard to talking about nature-rooted philosophy by employing the trick of directing you to parts of Nature saying things I'd like to express myself.

So, please consider last Wednesday night -- or rather early Thursday morning. I awoke and saw through my mosquito netting that it was so light outside that already I should have been out jogging. When I got outside, however, I realized that all that brilliance was moonlight. It was just 3 AM. I shook my head and laughed, realizing that after all these years I could still be fooled by underestimating just how bright a full-moon night can be.

I didn't begrudge the Moon for having tricked me into going outside. A thin, coagulated cloud-cover blanketing the whole sky was being driving hard toward the northeast, and a breeze even stirred here below. Moonlight intensity changed constantly, depending on how dense the cloud cover was between the Moon and me. The longer I watched it all, the more the erratic breezes and rapidly changing moonlight intensity seemed like a kind of all-embracing, arrhythmic throbbing, a wildness so vivid and uncontrolled that it was almost unnerving.

But, all this I experienced in the context of standing in a broad ocean of cricket chimes. That shimmering tintinnabulation was like a rooted OMMMMMMMM all around, a crystalline ommmmmmmm shattered into scintillating dust, dust that lay there evenly coating the world like dew singing of itself.

The cricket chimes were my steady platform for viewing and dealing with the shifting wind and Moon.

See? Really I've said nothing here, but I'm hoping that by saying nothing the Moon and Her crickets shall have said something worthwhile to you.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim