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

January 17, 2010

BLUE IRIDESCENCE IN A SHAFT OF LIGHT
Early mornings this week were so chilly that I took long walks to keep warm, and sat in the rising sun when I could. One morning deep in the forest as I searched for a shaft of light to sit in a flash of iridescent blueness detonated on the forest floor where a little sun-fleck came and went as tree branches above shifted in the wind. In such chill gloom, "detonated" is the right word, for the color and brightness were shocking, simply stabbing into my consciousness.

I crept toward where the flash had come from, quietly parting undergrowth so as to frighten nothing away. At first the forest floor remained dark, but then a breeze shook a tree limb and again the flash exploded right below me, then growing dark again.

The next time the sunfleck blinked on, my camera was focused on the spot, and that was fortunate, for exactly as I snapped the picture my quarry took wing. You can it, its wings slightly blurred with action, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117bv.jpg.

Bea in Ontario figured out that it was a Mexican Bluewing, MYSCELIA ETHUSA, a tropical species distributed from Colombia through Central America and Mexico, periodically straying across the lower Rio Grande into extreme southern Texas. It's closely related to North America's Admiral Butterflies.

At http://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species?l=1795 you can read about Mexican Bluewings -- for instance, that the adults eat rotting fruit and rest on tree trunks with their wings closed, exposing undersides that camouflage them as tree bark.

No amount of simple information, however, could offer anything like the pleasure of being introduced to the Mexican Bluewing as I was that morning.

*****

CLAY-COLORED ROBINS
When I arrived here two months ago the most abundant and frequently heard bird species was surely the Clay- colored Robin, TURDUS GRAYI, one shown on a wall at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117rb.jpg.

Gradually the Clay-colored Robins have disappeared from around Hacienda Chichen until now they're fairly uncommon, though occasionally you do hear their slurred, catty reeeurrrs issued from shadows. The reason they were so numerous earlier is that back then the big strangler fig trees here were laden with marble-size, spherical figs, and of all the birds who ate their fill of those figs surely the Clay-colored Robins were the most enthusiastic. At 10 AM on a hot, sunny morning the big trees' limbs would be so robin- shaken that the trees seemed to shake with laughter. And if trees have some kind of self-awareness, maybe they were, just feeling themselves bubbling inside with such unbounded robin gratification.

North Americans with lawns on which American Robins hop around in the summer foraging for earthworms will see that Clay-colored Robins look just like American Robins, except that they're gray-brown. The size, form, behavior and many of the calls of the two species couldn't be more alike. They are both members of the genus Turdus.

Though Clay-colored Robins are common throughout eastern and southern Mexico, south to Colombia, Howell's A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America   doesn't mention them. Rather, it lists the species as the Clay-colored Thrush. Howell is sensitive to the fact that English-speaking European colonizers coming into the New World were very sloppy with their plant and animal naming. To have named our American Robin after the much smaller, unrelated, and only vaguely similar European Robin was simply egregious. American birds are thrushes, not robins.

Still, after a lifetime of calling the American birds robins, it's hard to call them thrushes. I doubt that they'll ever change "American Robin" to "American Thrush," so why try to undo the Clay-colored Robin's name? Anyone really concerned with proper naming should use the technical name: Turdus grayi.

*****

RETURN OF THE LEAFCUTTER ANTS
The owners of Hacienda Chichen are proud of their pro-environment policies, which includes using as few chemicals as possible. The other day a worker not yet clear about the policy poisoned a large leafcutter nest because the ants had begun defoliating a Tropical Almond tree in the parking lot. As soon as we saw what had been done we made every effort to scoop all the poison and contaminated soil into plastic bags and dispose of the bags properly.

Before the poisoning attempt, every day I'd seen the ants carrying bits of herbage back to their nest. However, after the poisoning for two weeks not a single ant was seen at the nest. I felt sure that the whole colony had been wiped out. It had been a colony as large as the one we saw last year at Yokdzenot. You still can read about that big nest and see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ant-lfcu.htm.

Wednesday morning, there were ants again. Moreover, not only had the colony resumed its earlier foraging habits, but also they seemed to have redoubled their efforts, for now many more ants than before were carrying cut-out leaf sections and they were moving faster. Anthropomorphically, they looked exactly as if they were trying to make up for lost time! You can see several on the trunk of a Gumbo-Limbo -- which after two days they'd defoliated nearly completely -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117lc.jpg.

That picture was made about 30 yards or meters from their nest and every inch of the trail between there and the nest was just as cluttered and bustling with leaf-carrying ants as in the picture.

Of course I'm relieved that the nest seems to have survived. Sometimes visitors say that for them watching the ants is as fascinating as visiting the ruins! Also the experience has reminded me how like a single living organism an ant colony is. The colony became sick, stopped functioning, but then one day finally burst from home looking as healthy as ever, trying to make up for lost time. In fact, they're out there as I type this, a long, long line of them, gradually defoliating a hibiscus.

*****

A WOODY VIOLET
When I first arrived here early in November one of the most conspicuously flowering bushes was the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117vr.jpg.

It was conspicuous not because it was in any way showy, but rather because it was so abundant, and its small, nondescript, white flowers occurred at shoulder level, so you couldn't miss them as you hiked forest trails. The flowers, in fact, were so tiny that even with my handlens I couldn't make anything of them. I decided to wait for fruits for identification.

After about a month, fruits did start forming. In the above photo, an immature one is developing at the upper right. When I opened such a green fruit it consisted mostly of air -- it was bladderlike. But still I couldn't figure out what it was.

Finally this week the mystery shrubs are covered with matured fruits, and the very first fruit I saw reminded me of similar fruits seen up north, not on woody shrubs but rather down among the leaves of herbaceous little violets! You can see a mature fruit, a capsule, open and holding two seeds in each scooplike "valve," with my thumbnail below for scale, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117vs.jpg.

This woody shrub is indeed a member of the Violet Family, the Violaceae, though obviously not the violet genus, Viola. It's HYBANTHUS YUCATANESIS. Just looking at the flowers, a northern wildflower lover would never guess that it's a member of the Violet Family. Most notably, the flowers are not strongly bilaterally symmetrical like the violets' dog-faced ones, and the plants are definitely woody. It turns out that the Violet Family embraces about 15 genera, and some of those genera are not only woody shrubs but even good-size trees.

However, when you see such a capsular fruit opened into three scooplike valves, each valve holding a few spherical seeds, the relationship with northern violets becomes clear.

*****

SNAKEBARK
A fairly common, somewhat weedily growing bush or small tree is bearing fruits these days that are eye- catching because they turn black at maturity, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117cc.jpg.

If you recall the several densely bushy, spiny members of the Buckthorn Family, the Rhamnaceae, we saw in the Oregon mountains last summer it might be hard for you to visualize the plant in the picture as belonging to the same family. It does, however. It's a member of the genus Colubrina, COLUBRINA ARBORESCENS, native from Panama to southern Mexico, plus the West Indies, Bahamas and even extreme southern Florida.

Its presence in Florida explains its having an English name, though I can't figure out what it has to do coffee. The Maya name is Pimienta-Che, in which they've melded the Spanish word "pimienta," which means "pepper," with the Maya "che," which means tree, and neither can I find what the plant has to do with pepper. The Maya here say that they don't use the tree for anything and that only the birds care for the fruits, though certain literature says that a tea is prepared from the leaves for dysentery, while other literature says that the tea is used for "rheumatism." The peppercorn-size black, shiny seeds, I also read, in Jamaica are strung on necklaces.

I also read that the fruits snap open when they are fully mature, tossing the seeds a short distance.

But surely the shrub is most noteworthy simply as a fully engaged member of the local ecosystem. A few weeks ago when its tiny, yellow-green flowers were blossoming I saw them buzzing with honeybees taking both nectar and pollen. Many other insects, especially butterflies and diurnal moths were attracted as well, which in turn attracted bug-eating birds, especially vireos, flycatchers and migrating warblers.

*****

MAAX, THE FRIENDLY HOT PEPPER
Growing wild at woods edges, along trails and just here and there you find woody, densely and finely branched bushes from waist to head high absolutely covered with pea-sized hot peppers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117mx.jpg.

Those peppers, though very small as peppers go, are already as large as they'll get. When they're fully mature they'll turn bright red, though usually you don't see many red ones nowadays because birds eat them. Despite their green color, the ones in the picture are as "hot" as anyone would wish.

I put "hot" in quotation marks to reference the fact that our English language, derived from a people to whom haute cuisine was just something eaten in France, is so impoverished of culinary terms that it offers just one word, "hot," for both heat and the biting sensation that this kind of pepper bestows. Not only that, but we just have one word, "pepper," for both the kind of fruit in the picture, and the black stuff that shakes from our "pepper shakers." Spanish calls heat-hot "caliente," and pepper-hot "picante."

Anyway, of the very many hot pepper cultivars, most are derived from the herbaceous annual Capsicum annuum, while most of the rest arise from the woody perennial CAPSICUM FRUTESCENS. The one in the picture is the wild form of the latter. From our Capsicum frutescens some important cultivars have been developed, among them various cherry peppers, cone peppers, red cluster peppers, the long peppers which includes Cayenne, and the bell or sweet peppers.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117my.jpg you see Maax's flower. The blue items are the five stamens' anther, each anther composed of two compartments. Wildflower lovers may ask how this flower of the genus Capsicum is different from a nightshade flower, in the genus Solanum. In Solanum the anthers grow together into a cylinder surrounded the slender, stigma-topped style in the center. Capsicum's anthers aren't "fused."

Here on any forest walk you can pluck a single little pepper from this plant, which may bear a hundred or more, and that one pepper will supply all the masticatory diversion your mouth can deal with. For several minutes your stomach will glow with that sweet warmth any good hot pepper imparts. The Maya call our woody-stemmed pepper Maax (pronounced "maash," rhyming with "posh," with the "a" sound a little drawn-out).

If Maya men are working in the woods when lunchtime comes they may bring out a bowl, drop in some masa (very finely ground cornmeal moistened and formed into paste) or Maseca (commercially sold bags of very finely ground cornmeal from which low-grade corn tortillas can be made), add some water and stir until an emulsion is formed, then toss in a few crushed Maax peppers, and finally they'll pass the bowl around. That sates the hunger like nothing else, and what a pleasure to work in the woods with Maax riding in your stomach like a pool of glowing-warm gravy.

****

TI PLANT FLOWERING
At a back corner of Hacienda Chichen's main building, right outside a Dining Room window, a 12-ft-tall, several-stemmed evergreen is growing, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117cd.jpg.

I've been hoping that this plant would flower because I couldn't figure out what it was. This week it's begun producing pea-size flowers in open, basketball-size panicles, two blossoms of which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117ce.jpg.

At first I thought that the plant might be some kind of palm, but these are not palm flowers. They're liliaceous. The plant is a member of the Lily Family. It's the Ti Plant, sometimes also called Palm Lily, Good Luck Plant and even Cabbage Palm. It's CORDYLINE FRUTICOSA.

Admittedly, Ti Plants look like some of the smaller palms with undivided fronds, so what's the difference between a palm flower and a flower in the Lily Family? The main difference is a technical one. If you cut across a Palm-Family flower's ovary you'll see that it's divided into three chambers or cells, each cell containing a single ovule (the future seed). Two of the three ovules will abort, leading to a fruit with a single seed (like a coconut). When the ovary of a flower from our Ti Plant was cut across, I couldn't make out how many cells it had, but it was easy to see that the ovary held numerous ovules, not three or less, and that by itself disqualified the Palm Family. Sometimes horticulturists refer to Ti Plants as a Dracaena, but technically that's something else, also different from the Ti Plant because its ovaries bear numerous ovules.

The Ti Plant is native to tropical southeastern Asia, Papua New Guinea, Melanesia, northeastern Australia, the Indian Ocean, and parts of Polynesia. Long ago it was introduced into Hawaii and New Zealand and now is well established there. It has been introduced into many tropical lands not only because it's a handsome plant but also because it's very useful. It arises from starchy rhizomes that are sweet when the plant is mature, so they're eaten, plus the plant's leaves once were used to thatch the roofs of houses, and to wrap around stored food. In fact, I read that the Hawaiian hula skirt, instead of being made from palm fronds as I had thought, is made from about 50 Ti leaves, as is the Tongan dance dress, the sisi. Wikipedia says that Ti Plant tubers somehow provided a glossy covering on surfboards in Hawaii in the early 1900s.

Many cultures regard the Ti Plant as capable of warding off evil and negative energies. One webpage reports the flowers as used "for auric protection, repelling negative or invasive energies... Beneficial for those who display uncharacteristic behaviour."

If you do a Google image-search on the Ti Plant you'll see pictures of many plants looking only vaguely like the one in the picture. You'll see spotted and striped forms with colors ranging from raspberry-red to white, yellow and bronze-green, and most Ti Plants are smaller than ours. That's because many cultivars of the Ti Plant have been created. Up North you often see them in pots and floral displays, especially because their leaves hold up better than most when someone neglects to water the plant.

This is a wonderful plant. Too bad it's frost intolerant.

*****

SPLIT-LEAF PHILODENDRON
With its yard-long (1 m), broad, glossy, deeply cut leaves and high-climbing habits, a spectacular vine we have here is the one whose 20-ft-high leaves are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117mr.jpg.

It's easy to confuse this with a native Mexican vine with deeply lobed leaves, but it's a native to Brizil, Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay -- but much planted throughout the tropical world --  often called the Split-leaf Philodendron, PHILODENDRON BIPINNATIFIDUM. It's an "aroid," or member of the Arum Family, the Araceae, and in behavior and general presentation it's a lot like the Pothos we looked at not long ago, still profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/pothos.htm.

However, the Pothos's leaves split only with age or mistreatment, while this one's leaves are deeply dissected from the beginning.

Here our Monsteras are trying to fruit, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117mq.jpg.

Those are flowering heads, which among the aroids consists of a modified leaf called a spathe partly or entirely enclosing a fingerlike spadix covered with tiny, simple, very closely packed flowers. In the picture we see nothing but spathes. I found many such spathes but none were open. When I forced one open to see what was inside, I found what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117mp.jpg.

That shows a spadix apparently rotting instead of developing into a fruit. It looks like our flower heads are aborting before they can do anything. Maybe it's because in this area we don't have the right pollinators.

*****

MAYA HOUSE TAKING SHAPE
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100117hu.jpg you can see what Hacienda Chichen's new traditional Maya house looks like these days. Particularly interesting to me is how they've rounded the ends. As I was told, "Thatched roofs and squared corners just don't go together; they always leak."

It's also interesting to note that each part of the house required poles of a particular kind.

"Chakte," said Don Paulino, patting the four exceptionally strong corner poles, which were sinewy as if with bulging muscles. The four forked, tilted corner poles on which the weight of the thatched room will rest are from the Kitanche tree. The slender poles at the ends, which must be pliable so that they can bend and be twisted around one another without snapping, are Elemuy and Yaaxxuul. The diagonal poles on which the thatch will be tied come from a variety of trees: Pichiche, Kanchunuk, Sacloob, Chaknik and Bo.

Of course I'd love to know the Latin names of these species but, as always, local names change from region to region, as does the pronunciation, and each botanical author seems to have used his own spelling rules for Maya words. Still, scattered through several publications I've found a few hints as to what trees some of the poles' may have come from:

Pichiche probably is Psidium sartorianum of the Myrtle Family, the Myrtaceae.

Sacloob may be Eugenia mayana also of the Myrtle Family.

Kanchunuk may be Sebastiania adenophora of the Spurge Family, the Euphorbiaceae.

Elemuy may be Guatteria leiophylla of the Annona Family, the Annonaceae.

*****

WARMING IN THE SUN
The best thing about these recent chilly mornings is that when you sit in the rising sun warming up, it feels so good.

Last Monday morning it was 48°F (9°C) at dawn, which for these parts was very cold. I sat in a forest clearing facing the sun as it rose. A bright, silvery aura surrounded the sun the way it does when air is so saturated with humidity that fog could form at any moment. When I exhaled, amazingly expansive puffs of swirling steam billowed from my lungs, rising as they dissipated. My steamy breath was back-lighted by the sun so it showed up uncannily white, seeming super- charged with energy and motion. I could blow my breath in roiling swirls six feet away, like a fire-breathing dragon!

All around my steam-play sunlight exploded in dewdrops and made spider gossamers draped over grassblades into translucing streaks of light. Melodious Blackbirds, Social Flycatchers and a lone Turquoise-browed Motmot called and a light breeze stirred, from time to time casting to the ground a brown, dried leaf whose time had come.

In this sparkling, animated world only I sat unmoving, dark and quiet.

The moment lasted for less than ten minutes. Then the temperature must have risen, lowering the relative humidity so that my breath no longer formed fog, and dew burned off the landscape. In such a brief time the grass and weeds lost their sparkling dewdrops, spiderwebs ceased their shining, and the birds moved on. The landscape assumed the somberness that until then only I had carried inside.

Standing, looking around, suddenly I realized that the light and movement and music weren't gone at all, but that rather they had been imparted into me.

In fact, all day long I carried within me that morning's rising sun. Everything I did I did buzzing inside with clouds of radiantly charged spirit, being translucently satisfied with things as they were.

I hope that in your own life you have a time and a place where on chilly mornings you can warm yourself in the rising sun, and receive those gifts of Nature that are freely given.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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