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

February 14, 2010

MANGROVE VIREO
At this time of year you see a lot of small, grayish vireos with yellowish underparts working through dense second-growth, at forest edges and in brushy fields. In the mornings they draw attention to themselves with their persistent, buzzy scolding, chi-chi-chi... They're Mangrove Vireos, VIREO PALLENS. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214vr.jpg.

When you see them you know they're not warblers because their beaks are so heavy and they move more sluggishly than warblers. During the winter many White-eyed Vireos also are here, in similar habitats, but they display white throats and irises. Yellow- throated Vireos are less common, and show white bottoms instead of the Mangroves' yellow ones. Maybe the best field mark for the Mangrove is that the space between the eyes and the beak (the lores) is especially broad and yellowish.

It's interesting that the species is divided into two widely separated populations. The population along the Pacific Coast ranges from Mexico to Costa Rica, and never is found far from mangroves. However, the Yucatan population occurs even farther inland than we are, and we're over 50 miles (80 kms) from any mangroves. Also, in the Yucatan yellowish-olive and grayish-olive morphs occur. It looks like the one in the picture is the yellowish-olive one.

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SQUIRREL CUCKOO PICTURE
This week I was trying to photograph a flycatcher when a Squirrel Cuckoo landed about 15 feet away and paused long enough for me to swivel the camera and get him before he flew away. It's a nice, clear picture, unusual for my bird shots. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214cu.jpg.

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PIXIE BUTTERFLY
Here deep in the dry season many trees have lost their leaves, many herbs have died back, and the insect community isn't nearly as evident as it is when it rains fairly regularly. Therefore, I was particularly pleased when a very distinctive and pretty butterfly I hadn't seen here turned up probing with its long, slender proboscis into a white carpet of male flowers fallen from a tall Royal Palm. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214b4.jpg.

Bea in Ontario identifies that as the Pixie, MELANIS PIXE PIXE, of which precious little information seems to be available on the Internet, though I do find records of it occurring in Texas and most of Mexico. Usually a species widespread enough to be found both in the Yucatan and Texas also extends at least deep into Central America and maybe into South America.

Pixies are members of the large "True Metalmark" subfamily, the Riodininae, of the Metalmark Family. The species' caterpillars are fuzzy with white hairs, and mostly white bodies with broken bands of black and gold. There's so little other information about them that I'm tickled to at least place into the Public Domain the information that the adults might be found atop piles of discarded palm flowers.

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BOMBAX/ AMAPOLA/ SHAVINGBRUSH TREE
I've been waiting for a long time for a certain tree to bloom. When I got here in October the 20-ft-tall tree was green with digitally compound leaves (leaves arising from the petiole's top like digits from a hand), but now it's completely leafless. There's just a rather gangly looking naked tree with thick, pale gray, semisucculent branches, and at the end of many branches are clustered buds.

And those buds are substantial. Look at the one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214by.jpg.

That bud is two inches tall (5 cm). As immature flower parts inside the bud expand before blossoming a brown bud-scale has fallen off revealing pink anthers filled with immature pollen grains.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214bz.jpg you see what happens next. If the bud scales aren't shed early (they often are) the scales lengthen into the long, pinkish-tan, petal-like items seen on the mostly unopened flower at the right. They are about four inches long (10 cm). You can see a single open flower with its hundreds of pink male stamens and its single stigma-tipped female style emerging from among them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214bx.jpg.

Throughout southern Mexico this is called the Amapola, though that's a name applied to several species. In Maya this tree is Chak Kuyché, and it's even planted enough in English-speaking lands for it to have an English name, which is, somewhat predictably, Shavingbrush-tree. It's PSEUDOBOMBAX ELLIPTICUM. I've always known it as belonging to its own family, the Bombax Family or Bomacaceae, but recently that family has been sunk into the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, along with the Linden or Basswood Family (Tiliaceae) and the Chocolate Family (Sterculiaceae).

This gorgeous species is native to our area -- southern Mexico south to Honduras and El Salvador, and is grown as an ornamental in Florida, Hawaii and other semitropical parts o the world. It can reach 60 feet high (18 m).

In Las Plantas Medicinales de México I read that the flowers can be cooked to make a tea for feavers and coughs, and the powdered bark can tighten the gums.

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THE HAIRY FOURNWORT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214tt.jpg you see a flowering weed that these days stands ankle- to knee-high along trails through woods and at woods edges. The blossom's yellow corolla shown at the top, right of the inflorescence is only a little over half an inch long (17 mm), so it it's not the flowers that draw your attention. What's eye catching is how the green, leafy bracts (modified leaves) below each flower are "four-ranked". Instead of the bracts spiraling around the central axis the way flowers and bracts usually do, they form four-cornered structures reminiscent of pagodas.

Distributed in disturbed habitats from the US Southwest throughout tropical America, in English one of its names is Hairy Fournwort. In Spanish it's often called Oltillo, and in Maya Sak-chi'ilib. It's TETRAMERIUM NERVOSUM, and it's a member of the Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae. The oversized bracts subtending each blossom are an important field mark for members of the Acanthus Family.

A neat picture showing the forked stigma peeking from the corolla and ready to receive pollen grains is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214tu.jpg.

Really it's striking how many members of the Acanthus Family are still flowering here in the heart of the dry season when most herbaceous plants have died back and many woody plants have lost their leaves. Up North this family is not frequently encountered but a walk in our woods here will turn up two species of Wild Petunias (genus Ruellia), the Yellow Barleria, and at least two species of red-flowered Aphelandras, all in the Acanthus Family.

Las Plantas Medicinales de México reports leaves of Tetramerium being used "for the urine."

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WILD YAM AND ITS "SIGN"
Deep in the forest in the zone where I would guess about ten acres of unexcavated Maya ruins reveal themselves as no more than systematically arrayed, massive, ten-ft-high heaps of squared limestone rocks sometimes bearing hieroglyphics, my attention was drawn to a recent digging -- not by looters as too often is the case but by some critter such as a fox going after a meal in its burrow. I don't know if the digger got his meal but he did unearth what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214di.jpg.

These are much like the wild yams I'm accustomed to in the US Southeast, but much, much larger. Wild Yams are slender vines bearing unisexual flowers and often, but not always, underground, potato-like tubers. In 2008 from Sabacché in the Yucatán I showed the male and female flowers of a wild yam species. That page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wild-yam.htm.

I wanted to confirm that this was a Dioscorea. The vine leading from the disinterred tubers had long blackened and disintegrated, but maybe I could find the old, dead vine twining up a nearby tree. What I found was the living tip of an otherwise dead and rotting vine, the tip bearing a tiny, immature leaf the size of a little girl's fingernail. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214dj.jpg.

Is that a Dioscorea leaf? It's heartshaped like most Dioscorea leaves I know, plus, if you look closely you can see that the crossveins connecting the leaf's secondary veins are somewhat parallel to one another, forming rectangular cells. The way this appears on a mature leaf is shown on the above Sabacché page.

Wild Yams are members of the Wild Yam Family, the Dioscoreaceae, and the genus Dioscorea. I doubt that the Dioscorea species shown at the above link is the same species producing the big tubers in my hand, for people in Sabacché told me that their plants didn't produce tubers. Several Dioscorea species are listed for the Yucatán but descriptions aren't given. Maybe it's Dioscorea floribunda.

The local Maya certainly are familiar with the tubers, calling them Tsekél. One fellow said they were found beneath rocks, and that makes sense, for the soil here is so rocky that if any plant is going to have big tubers it'll have to sprout between rocks, but put its tubers under the rocks.

Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México has a lot to say about Dioscorea tubers, for they contain the chemical diosgenin, which in the laboratory can be made into various steroids, such as estrogen and DHEA. Traditionally Mexico's Dioscoreas have been used for arthritis, rheumatic fever, and various general pains.

While I held the yams in my hand I stood thinking how fine it would be if I were sharp enough to have found the tubers by having first spotted the tiny leaf and the rotting, twining vine below it, instead of having to see the tubers themselves. I think our distant ancestors had that power -- the power to find "signs" of foods that otherwise lay hidden.

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NONI STIPULES
In 2008, writing from Yokdzonot here in the Yucatán, I introduced you to the Noni, MORINDA CITRIFOLIA, mentioning that many considered the Noni fruit a medicinal wonder because of the many curative features it was reputed to have. The Noni page showing flowers, fruits and leaves is still at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/noni.htm.

Noni trees are grown at Hacienda Chichen and despite the fruits tasting a bit like rancid washrags I usually eat one fruit a day, and I've almost come to like the robust taste. Some time ago we experimented with blending a little Noni juice into orange juice, with a few shakes of nutmeg added, and that was quite good.

The Noni tree is a member of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae. Members of this large, mostly tropical family usually are easy to recognize in the field because their flowers possess inferior ovaries and at each stem node two leaves arise (opposite leaves). Also, large stipules connect the bases of the leaf stems, or petioles. Stipules are modified leaves. Usually their function is to protect emerging stems by wrapping around them like protective hands. In the vast majority of plants stipules either don't exist, are small and inconspicuous, or fall off soon after the stem has enlarged enough for it to not need protection from the stipules.

Noni trees bear very conspicuous stipules, and since many people have problems visualizing stipules, you can see the Noni's big ones at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214st.jpg.

Those two roundish, green things occupying the picture's center are stipules.

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BUFORD'S CARACARAS, SARAH BETH'S BIRD LIST
Buford in Florida is making a survey of Crested Caracaras and their nests in Florida. He's posted some very interesting information about what he's learned at http://floridadayadventures.blogspot.com/.

Other folks post on that blog, too, so by the time you read this Buford's post may be down the page a bit. Look for the title "Caracara Nest and Nest Tree."

Sarah Beth recently has posted a bird list and "A Front Porch Report" on our own Backyard Nature Forum at http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

Sarah Beth's postings have prompted no interesting exchanges, however, for people have pretty much abandoned our forum. If you've been meaning to become more active there, this would be a good time to do so, to let the world know how spring is coming along in your area. Once it was pretty active and brought a lot of pleasure to a number of folks, and it could be that way again with your participation.

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MYSTERY FLOWER REVEALED
Last week's "Mystery Flower" was from an African Tulip Tree, Spathodea campanulata, which we profiled in 2007, in Chiapas. That page is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/spathode.htm.

Only good ol' Sleazel in Florida figured it out.

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MAKING PAPER IN SAN FELIPE
A couple of Newsletters ago I showed you Don Pascual in nearby San Felipe holding a sheet of paper he'd manufactured from the fibers of Mother-in-law Tongues and banana leaves. Hoping to help get a cottage industry started in San Felipe I asked if anyone out there wanted to buy some sheets.

Barb in Virginia placed an order and that was very helpful to us, especially because it gave us an opportunity to learn about sending paper to the US.

That much appreciated order also enabled me to visit Don Pascual this week to photograph his paper making process. I've placed 14 page-size photos documenting the process at my "Traditional Mexican Markets" site at http://www.mexicanmercados.com/crafts/papel.htm.

If you want to buy Don Pascual's paper yourself, drop me a line. He charged Barbara $2 US per sheet, and Barbara says that she's very pleased with the quality. For her small order the shipping charges more than doubled the final cost, but we're trying to figure out how to ship them more cheaply.

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ON AN AMAPOLA FLOWER
When I saw the very first Amapola blossom -- the one shown earlier glowing in morning sunlight so pink and perfect against the blue sky -- I just had to stand awhile, transfixed. What is it about pretty things that please us? We speak of being transported by exquisite beauty, but transported how, and to where?

While gazing at the pink Amapola blossom it occurred to me that my enchantment rooted in at least two different starting places.

The first was my senses. The blossom was big and pink, and experiments show that wavelengths in the red part of the color spectrum excite our visual neurons more than those of the "cooler" zones, such as green and blue. The blossom's reddishness against the sky's blueness formed a stark contrast, and the mind delights in contrasts, whether it's an icy drink on a hot day, a lone cricket chiming in a silent night, or a hot-pink blossom against the cool-blue sky. And of course the mind reacts more to "big" than "little."

In these ways the Amapola blossom was appealing for the simplest, most elemental reasons possible. A child can delight in seeing big, pink Amapola flowers against the bright, blue sky.

The second level of satisfaction with the Amapola flower was available only to those more experienced and sophisticated than a child. To experience second- level pleasure you must see the thing before you in a valued context. Knowing that a work by Beethoven is his First Symphony, and that the urgent power being expressed in that symphony -- and being expressed so well for the first time in history -- delights us in itself. Similarly, sculpted objects can please us because they exhibit "classic symmetry" -- structure harmonious with the laws of symmetry.

Seeing the Amapola's flower so elegantly expressing the genus Pseudobombax's position on the evolutionary/ phylogenetic Tree of Life was deeply satisfying in the same way. Here's how that worked: The Magnolia Family with it large, showy flowers bearing many stamens is regarded as a primitive family, and the fossil record supports that theory. Amapola's flowers similarly are large and showy, with many stamens. I have grounds, then, for interpreting the Amapola's large, showy blossoms as manifesting "primitive vitality," like a Pacific Islander painted by Gauguin. The resultant second-level pleasure contributes to a sense of "beauty" that is far richer and pleasing than a beauty based solely on first-level sensual input.

There must be a third level of beauty beyond these two. I've briefly glimpsed it enough to guess what it might be like. I think the third level of delight possible for beautiful things to give us becomes possible once we have attained spiritual concepts that allow us to see that we are as much a part of Nature as everything else. Nature is music of the Creator, and flowers and people are harmonizing tones in that music. The same impulse blossoming into the Amapola flower... blossoms me. In beholding the beautiful flower, I find beauty in myself, and visa versa.

The fourth level, I can guess, would be the beauty possible by overcoming the illusion that flowers and people are separate beings in the first place.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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