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

December 27, 2009

WARBLER BENEATH A PALM FROND
This week as I passed beneath some Coconut Palms I heard a familiar sharp chipping sound, looked up, and saw the fast-moving little being shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227yt.jpg.

It was a Yellow-throated Warbler, DENDROICA DOMINICA, and he couldn't have been more at home, for his species is known to have a passion for palms when he's down here, though up north he tends to prefer the tops of pines and Sycamores.

The picture could be sharper but mainly I wanted to share with you the feeling of the moment, not anything you need a particularly sharp view of to appreciate. The feeling was of a small, nervously flitting, silhouetted little critter moving across palm fronds like a musical note bouncing up and down across lines of music while a song is being sung about light, fresh air, and glowing, living hope.

*****

GRACKLE STORY
Adding to my notes of last week about the outrageous sounds Great-tailed Grackles make, Mary in Texas writes that about five years ago she was feeding grackles during the winter months. During that time the birds learned to imitate the "sleazy squeaking sound" her screen door made when she stepped outside with their food. Then she was injured in a car accident and had to stop feeding them. Mary continues:

After not feeding them for 4 days, they all gathered in my back yard and in unison began making that squeaky screen door sound until I found a way to go out and feed them. It was amazing. I've never heard these grackles make that sound in their common lives, but it sounded identical to my back door squeaking. After I fed them, they never made it again!

*****

FRITZIE'S CHRISTMAS BIRDCOUNT
Usually I include notes from a Christmas birding walk I make wherever I am but this year somehow list-making feels less compelling than it used to. I try to figure out whether it's because with age I'm losing certain sensitivities, or because new sensitivities are developing that list-making doesn't satisfy.

Whatever the case, I still enjoy hearing about other folks' counts. This week Fritzie in New York sent a newsy, informative, friendly-rambling letter about a count up there. Here's a part of it just to give you a feeling for what a "real" Christmas bird count is like:

The Christmas bird count was held last Sat. at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge 10 mi. from us. Thirty-six people tallied 48,817 birds & 78 species. The counts would have been higher but the area water levels had all been drawn down & were frozen so many waterfowl varieties were nonexistent. They're out on the lakes now, esp. since it's been so cold. New high counts were established for 7 species, including 57 Trumpeter Swans. Eleven yrs. ago a lone Trumpeter was seen at the refuge by another birder & me & confirmed by the ranger. It was thought then to be an escapee from a private pond in Canada. One bird couldn't be responsible for these 57 birds plus all the ones seen in other areas. John & I have seen dozens 50 mi. farther north dozing in the back bay waters of Lake Ontario & on the ice there after seeing a couple dozen here on our Cayuga Lake as we headed north.

*****

ALVARADOA'S LONG, SLENDER "WORMS"
Just when I began thinking that for the rest of the dry season the woods might not serve up more trees doing interesting flowering or fruiting -- during the dry season many things go into "suspended animation" because of lack of water -- this week a certain tree species suddenly came online putting on a real show with its abundant "dangling worms," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227al.jpg.

We saw this species last year in Chiapas when it was fruiting at the dry season's end. That picture remains at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/alvarado.htm.

We called it Alvaradoa then because I couldn't find a good English name, and I still can't. It's ALVARADOA AMORPHOIDES of the same family, the Simarubaceae, as the Ailanthus or Tree-of-heaven, which is a native of China gone wild in much of North America.

The "worms" dangling so conspicuously on the trees now are 10-inch-long (24 cm) racemes of male flowers, for Alvaradoa trees are unisexual, or "dioecious." You can see some male flowers consisting of only a green calyx on a pedicel from which arise five hairy-filamented stamens and some slender, hair-like staminodia at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227am.jpg.

If boy trees are flowering there must be girl ones in the vicinity, and such was the case, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227an.jpg.

As with the Ailanthus or Tree-of-heaven, Alvaradoa fruits are samaras, which means that they are dry, winged fruits that don't split open when mature. Thus the flattish, scale-like items stacked atop one another in the last picture are ovaries on their ways to becoming winged samaras. A close-up showing them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227ao.jpg.

Each of those green pod-like things is an ovary. To the left each ovary arises from a brown, drying-out calyx, and each calyx arises from an enlarging pedicle, or stem. At the ovary's top -- right in the picture -- the purplish lines are the ovaries' stigmatic zones where pollen lands and germinates.

Maximino Martinez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports that here in the Yucatan people brew a tea of Alvaradoa's bark to treat the itch, and a similar brew of the interior bark is used as a stomach tonic.

Alvaradoas are fairly common in much of Mexico and their production of drooping samaras is prolific. I've watched seed-eating birds such as finches eat a lot of these fruits at the end of the dry season other foods are scarce, so this is a very important species ecologically.

*****

CEIBA SPINES & LEAVES
Often I've mentioned the majestic Ceiba trees (SAY-bah) so commonly seen throughout much of lowland, humid tropical America, often growing to gigantic sizes. In January of 2005 I reported so many bees visiting a certain Ceiba in flower near Dzemul that they created a "buzzing heard more in the chest than the ears. The dogs sit up, cock their heads and look around, their faces asking if they need to start barking." In 2006 we had cottony kapok produced by Ceiba fruits as they split open. In 2007, in March, we saw the Ceiba's big buds bursting, lending the dry-season-leafless trees a welcome greenish tinge. These essays and pictures are still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

In all that discussion I've never focused on the remarkable spines adorning the young Ceiba trunk, so this is a good time to show that, for a young tree with exemplary spines grows near my room, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227cb.jpg.

As the tree matures the spines disappear. A mature Ceiba's bark is gray and smooth like an elephant's skin.

Here it's not dry enough yet for our Ceibas to lose their leaves, so now you can see typical Ceiba leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227cc.jpg.

They're classic "digitally compound" leaves, leaves divided into separate segments that arise from a common point at the petiole's top, like a hand's "digits."

*****

VELVETBEAN/ PICAPICA
This time last year at Mayan Beach Garden Inn on the Costa Maya in Quintana Roo I was telling you about "Hamburger Beans," which beachcombing visitors collected washed up on the beach. That story is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mucuna.htm.

The very hard-shelled, hamburger-looking seeds that fascinated everyone were produced by Bean-Family species in the genus Mucuna, in pods very densely invested with slender, stiff, hairs. A Mucuna species is fruiting here now and you can see it, a vine with trifoliate leaves very like those of garden beans, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227mv.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227mu.jpg you can see just how fuzzy those four-inch-long (10 cm) pods are. Back in the 70s when I worked in the herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden we always dreaded having to handle dried specimens of Mucuna because those pod hairs came loose, got on you, and made you itch until you took a scrubbing bath.

The species at hand here is MUCUNA PRURIENS, often called Velvetbean in English and Picapica in Spanish ("pica" means "to prick"), and though it's a native of India it now grows in tropical weedy areas worldwide. By the way, that species name "pruriens" is from the Latin meaning "itching sensation." I read that the hairs are a common ingredient of itching powder.

I'd expected Mucuna pruriens to be listed as having medicinal properties because I remembered from Standley's old Flora of British Honduras his statement that in Belize the legume's stinging hairs traditionally were mixed with molasses and taken as a medicine for expelling intestinal worms. However, I was surprised to see that the species is yet another of those "medicinal wonders" being sold at untold numbers of websites. Here are the most commonly mentioned uses:

As you might expect, most websites focus on its effects on sexual performance. (A typical dose for a man, I read, is 15 g of ground seeds mixed with cow's milk.)

However, the wider world of science seems most interested in the fact that the seeds contain natural L-dopa, used for controlling Parkinson's Disease. You can read much more about Mucuna pruriens' medicinal uses, including its preparation and side effects, at http://www.rain-tree.com/velvetbean.htm.

*****

NEPHTHYTIS, THE ARROWHEAD VINE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sg.jpg you see a tree-climbing aroid occurring here and there in deep shade at Hacienda Chichen. Aroids are members of the Arum Family, the Araceae, the same family as the North's Jack-in-the-pulpit springtime wildflower.

In English often it's called Nephthytis or Arrowhead Vine. It's SYNGONIUM PODOPHYLLUM, and it's a native to Central America. I don't know if it's distributed this far north in the wild; it's a garden plant here. You can see a close-up of one of its deeply lobed leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sh.jpg.

If you're familiar with aroids you know that they produce many tiny flowers on a fingerlike stem (the "spadix", which is Jack in Jack-in-the-pulpit) with a hoodlike modified leaf, or "spathe," usually wrapped around or overtopping the spadix (the pulpit in Jack- in-the-pulpit). Our Nephthytises are flowering now and you can see a cluster of inflorescences at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227si.jpg.

The topmost inflorescence has lost its spathe, revealing the upper part of the spadix and exposing the tops of many male flowers. The female flowers are below the collar-like scar at the base of the male flowers, inside the green, bulging area. The bulging area surrounding the female flowers looks closed, but when the female flowers are receptive an opening develops just large enough for pollinators to enter, then the opening closes.

To the right of the topmost inflorescence is a younger inflorescence still with its spathe attached. Below these you can make out several developing "fruits," all topped with brown, dry scars where both the spathe and that part of the spadix holding the male flowers have fallen off. At the bottom left a "fruit" is turning red. "Fruit" is in quotation marks because, technically, the real fruits are the matured ovaries of the individual female flowers inside the bulging fruitlike things. Turning red like that, it's obviously inviting seed-dispersing fruit-eaters to a snack.

You can see how the stem sprouts aerial roots that attach it to tree bark as it grows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sj.jpg.

Sometimes Nephthytis can't find anything to climb so its stems range across the ground forming a dense groundcover. Leaves on these horizontal stems are smaller and typically have only three lobes or no lobes at all. You can see some three-lobed ones, suggesting where the name Arrowhead Vine comes from, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227sh.jpg.

If he above three-lobed leaves look familiar it may be because un North Nephthytis often is grown in pots where it seldom has enough room to develop the more robust, several-lobed blades.

Nephthytis must be fairly adaptive, for it's escaped into the wild in central and southern Florida.

Its juice is milky and can cause mild to severe poisoning if ingested.

*****

STEM ROOTING
Our crew of grounds workers consists of Maya men from local villages, mostly with very little schooling, yet they all know very much about plants, and all work hard and do a good job. Sometimes it's surprising what they do. For example, the other day I walked by a Chinese Hibiscus and saw what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091227rt.jpg.

That's a plastic liter soda-drink bottle with its bottom cut out and slit along one side so it could be slipped around the hibiscus's stem, tied in place upside-down, and filled with potting soil. Certain plant stems sprout roots if their stems make contact with moist soil, and Chinese Hibiscus is one of them. Eventually the hibiscus's stem will fill the potting soil with roots, then the stem can be severed right below the bottle's mouth, the bottle will be removed, and wherever the root-filled soil is planted there'll stand a new Chinese Hibiscus already two or three feet tall.

*****

THINKING ABOUT THE NEW YEAR
Last Monday was the Winter Solstice, the day when for Earth's Northern Hemisphere the days start getting longer after half a year of getting shorter. For the Northern Hemisphere it was the "real" New Year, the day when the whole annual cycle begins all over.

Down here days also have been noticeably shorter during recent weeks, though not as conspicuously so as farther north. Here the "real" New Year, if we need to define one, begins at the end of the dry season when suddenly rains turn the world green again, many plants do their blossoming, there's a surge in insect numbers, and much more. That occurs around May. On the Equator where day lengths stay the same all year and in places where it rains year round, it'd be hard to define when a "real" New Year begins.

The urge to recognize a precise moment as the beginning of a new year is a function of the human brain's right hemisphere, which always is creating "stories" to make sense of facts gathered by the left hemisphere. Nature does very well without paying attention to formal beginnings and ends, without fitting Herself neatly into the cycles and trends our brain's right hemisphere identifies or imagines it identifies.

Yet, we humans are programmed so that there's something depressing about thinking of ourselves as actors on a stage where the play has no beginning or end, no plot-advancing acts following one another, and in fact no real plot or theme at all. We humans need to feel that we're part of an ongoing effort, that we're contributing to a world passing from Point A to Point B, and that Point B somehow will be better than Point A.

So, if we can't really identify with others celebrating this or that "new beginning" or progress accomplished in an imagined goal, are we doomed to see ourselves as actors in an interminable play with no plot or theme? This week I've thought about that, and here's what I decided:

Even when viewed on a purely rational basis and without our brains' right hemispheres generating stories causing what we behold to seem more exciting, events here on Earth suggest that the Universe's evolution does indeed have direction, and that Point B may turn out to be better than Point A was.

The facts I'm referring to are those I've described elsewhere as constituting The Six Miracles of Nature:

  1. That something came out of nothing
  2. That that something immediately began evolving (diffuse matter clumped into galaxies, for instance)
  3. That life arose about as soon as it could
  4. That life immediately began evolving from simple to ever more complex and ever more sensitive forms
  5. That certain living things became capable of thought
  6. That certain thinking beings became capable of inspired behavior not dictated by genetic programming

In this first week of "the real" New Year here in Earth's Northern Hemisphere, these thoughts suggest a New Year's resolution: To harmonize my own life with "the flow of the Universe." That can be accomplished by rededicating myself to the daily struggle for ever greater understanding and sensitivity as I look around, think about and feel for the Creation around me, and simply LIVE.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim