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

March 14, 2010

GOLDEN-OLIVE WOODPECKER
We do not lack for woodpeckers here; they're among our most common birds. Thing is, nearly all of them are Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, which are similar to North America's Red-bellied species, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/wp-g-f.htm.

Though around Hacienda Chichen we're within the distribution area of seven woodpecker species, and just beyond the limits of two more, those other species are so infrequently seen that whenever you spot a woodpecker here that is NOT a Golden-fronted, it's worth noting. Therefore, the other day I was tickled when this one showed up: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314wp.jpg.

This new woodpecker lacks the Golden-fronted's striking black and white barring, has a red moustache which the Golden-fronted lacks, and is generally a bronzy hue overall while the Golden-fronted is black and white, with red on the head and, sometimes, belly. What's in the picture is the Golden-olive Woodpecker, PICULUS RUBIGINOSUS. The genus Piculus, not appearing in North America, specializes in humid tropical forests and is noted for being heard more than seen, for usually they remain relatively inactive and are easily overlooked.

The bird I saw gave the impression of being new in the neighborhood, maybe just passing through. He busily flitted from one branch to another, pecking on wood that sounded solid to me, thus wormless, and wood a woodpecker knowing his territory wouldn't bother to tap on. He also seemed a little nervous. Well, spring is coming, the Equinox is approaching, and many birds' hormones are starting to stir, making them seem a little friskier than usual, so maybe that was his situation.

Golden-olive Woodpeckers reside from Mexico south to Peru and northern Argentina.

*****

SCRUB EUPHONIA
What's said above about the above Golden-olive Woodpecker usually not being on the hacienda grounds despite being fairly common in disturbed habitats elsewhere also is true of the Scrub Euphonia, EUPHONIA AFFINIS, shown on the hacienda's grassy lawn at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314eu.jpg.

In this bird's case, maybe the main reason he'd come onto the grounds is that now our dry season is really starting to crunch, day after day things getting drier, crisper, dustier and hotter. The bird in the picture seemed very hesitant to leave his spot, which was beside a curled-up leaf on the lawn where the sprinklers were going, for the curled-up leaf cupped a few drops of water. I also guess that the bird had just flown from inside the nearby strangler fig tree now heavy with ripe, spherical, marble-size figs of the color of the matter sticking to the euphonia's lower mandible.

Based on the bird's black and yellow colors, and the thick beak, northerners might think that euphonias, of which the Yucatán hosts two similar species, must be closely related to goldfinches. However, euphonias and goldfinches belong to different subfamilies. Euphonias belong to the Tanager Subfamily, the Thraupinae. Howell describes them as "small stubby tanagers."

Scrub Euphonias are fairly common in disturbed areas from Mexico to northwestern Costa Rica.

*****

TITYRA MEETS FLYCATCHER
The dry season's harshness also probably was behind what I saw early Friday morning: A Masked Tityra and a Social Flycatcher on the ground together. A watering hose had sprung a leak and the birds were enjoying a shower, though the tityra didn't seem too pleased to share his space with the flycatcher, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314tt.jpg.

By the way, there's nothing wrong with the tityra's face. The bare, pinkish eyering and pinkish beak base remind us of how mange looks a dog, but this is the tityra's natural appearance, and important fieldmark.

*****

CEIBAS FLOWERING
We've often spoken of the big Ceiba trees (SAY-bah), CEIBA PENTANDRA, who so often grace the tropical American landscape. You can see several essays on it at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

Some of our Ceibas, mostly leafless now because of the dry season, are flowering now. Each rose-colored blossom has five petals about an inch long. You can see some flowers emerging from their large, rounded, stalked buds arising from thick, stiff branches at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314cd.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314cc.jpg you can see some of the Ceiba flower's distinguishing features. Note how the petals are mantled outside with velvety, white-woolly hairs. The stamens are unusual. They're connected at their bases into a cylinder around the ovary, but the cylinder shortly divides into five typical-looking, pink filaments -- the stamens' "stems." Each filament bears two or three yellow, twisting, one-celled anthers. In most other kinds of flower a filament bears only one anther, but the anther usually is divided into two cells, which split at maturity to release the pollen.

The female part of the flower is fairly normal looking, though, once the ovary matures into the fruit, its ovules end up as seeds embedded in cotton- like fiber often known as kapok. At one time a lot of kapok was collected from Ceiba trees to stuff into lifejackets to make them float.

*****

GOLDEN-SHOWER TREES FRUITING
Back in Sabacché toward the end of the rainy season in September we saw Golden-shower Trees, CASSIA FISTULA, gorgeously adorned with yellow blossoms, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/g-showr.htm.

Golden-shower Trees are native to India but are much planted worldwide in the tropics,

Now deep in the dry season the tree's fruits are maturing and dropping off. You can see them on a tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314sn.jpg.

The ripe fruits -- which are bean pods because the trees belong to the Bean Family -- are of special interest because they constitute an important part of the traditional pharmacopia, or body of information pertaining to medicinal plants, of many cultures. If you list all the pods' uses you end up with such a list that you wonder if any cures work at all.

One use, however, occurs so regularly in so many diverse cultures -- even our own back when our pharmacists compounded their drugs from natural products -- that there must be something to it: The uncooked pulp of the pods cures constipation. A cracked-open pod showing greenish pulp between seeds is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314so.jpg.

The pulp tastes and smells a little like the "honey" in Honeylocust pods up North, so it's not bad at all. I read that the green pulp shown above is used as a laxative, but when the pods are collected for distribution as medicine dried-out pods are selected and in them the pulp will have drastically shrunk, hardened and turned black. I'm assuming that the dried pulp, which would weigh much less than the green pulp, is being referred to when it's written that to prepare a laxative you should combine four to seven grams of pulp with an equal quantity of sugar or tamarind. Four grams is a very small amount, about 0.14 ounces, or 0.009 pound.

*****

TILLANDSIA BROMELIADS FLOWERING
Back in December I mentioned how impressively one of our bromeliads, the epiphytic TILLANDSIA FASCICULATA, adorns the branches of our larger trees, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tilland1.htm.

Back then the conspicuous fruiting heads were dried and brown, and not very attractive. A few weeks ago many plants began issuing fresh, green flowering heads, or inflorescences. Recently the large flower bracts that subtend each flower turned red, and now enough Tillandsia fasciculatas are flowering that hummingbirds spend a lot of time feeding on them. You can see what a nice colony looks like at this stage at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314ti.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314tj.jpg a close-up of a flowering head shows how individual flowers emerge from their subtending bract. Notice how stamens emerge from violet, tubular corollas. The stamens' stems, or filaments, also are violet colored, but their pollen-shedding anthers are bright yellow. The flowers appear to last only a day or so before wilting, turning brown and falling away, leaving the ovary snugly protected by the wrapping-around bract, as the ovary matures into a fruit.

Tillandsia fasciculata is a very variable species extending from Florida south through Mexico and the West Indies into South America, manifesting itself in seven varieties along he way.

*****

BRITTLE MAIDENHAIR
Here we have an old-fashioned well with a pulley attached to an arc over it so water can be drawn up by hand with a rope and bucket. Old maps indicate that the well was dug back in the 1500s -- 24.5 meters down (80 feet) through sheer limestone rock -- and you wonder just how they did it. Most of the way down the well is square, but toward the bottom opens into an urn shape. Looking into the well, you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314mh.jpg.

The well is practically closed by maidenhair ferns. The bucket passes through the center without problems, however, so the ferns are permitted to stay.

This January we looked at a maidenhair species growing at Hacienda Chichen on a stone wall. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hairmaid.htm.

That was the Hairy Maidenhair, Adiantum tricholeps. The maidenhair in the well isn't hairy at all, and it's different from the Hairy in other important ways, too. For example, in maidenhair ferns -- ferns of the genus Adiantum -- clusters of spore-producing sporangia occur beneath turned-under pinnule tips, the pinnule being the ultimate leaflet of a subdivided (compound) leaf or frond. The Hairy Maidenhair averages only a couple of turned-under sections along each pinnule side, as shown at the page bottom at the last link.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314mi.jpg you can see that on each pinnule side of our well's maidenhair there are four, five or more turned-under flaps.

The Flora of North America reports that worldwide 150- 200 species of maidenhair fern are recognized. Only nine species are listed for North America, and one of those is our well's maidenhair. It's known as the Brittle Maidenhair, ADIANTUM TENERUM.

When identifying our species in the Flora, using an identification key, the key soon asks you whether each pinnule stalk terminates in a "small, cupulelike swelling." A cupule is a small cup. You can see such a cupule atop the diagonal, black stalk at the center of http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314mj.jpg.

You can hardly see this cupule without a magnifying lens, yet in North America it's enough to know that if you find a maidenhair fern with tiny, cupulelike swellings atop the pinnule stalks, then you have a Brittle Maidenhair. Remembering little tricks like this help a lot when identifying, and help make it so much fun.

Brittle Maidenhairs are so attractive that they're often grown in tropical and semitropical gardens. This species is widespread throughout tropical America and into the subtropical US.

*****

THE HALTÚN
When I first arrived here Don Philomeno, in his 70s and Hacienda Chichen's longest-serving employee, showed me around the grounds. We came into an area where soil was completely missing, exposing nothing but an expanse of white limestone bedrock. The Don knelt beside a water-filled depression in the rock, about the size of a yellow dog, and proudly told me how he vividly remembered the day when it was he who discovered this very depression.

In Maya such water-holding holes in limestone bedrock have their own name. Such a hole is a haltún. You can see several typical ones at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314ha.jpg.

In Maya culture, the haltún is important for the simple reason that when you're wandering in the forest and find one, you can drink its water. At least older Maya are still acutely aware that humans need unpolluted water, and that if drinkable water disappears, living becomes impossible. For older Maya like Don Philomeno, the haltún demands great respect. Don Philomeno spent several minutes explaining to me the proper way to clean one and protect it, and I felt honored to be initiated in such a way into the mystical realm of the haltún.

I'm thinking about haltúnes nowadays because most days I pull up a few buckets of water from the 80-ft-deep well where the Brittle Maidenhairs live, keep each haltún in the area filled, and water various saplings we want to bring through the current dry season.

Also I'm thinking about the haltún because if you want to see birds you can't do better than to position yourself nearby, and just watch the stream of species come in from the forest and settle there for a drink.

The haltún is a wonderful thing.

*****

VINE DOOR
Work on Hacienda Chichen's traditional Maya house continues. The walls and roof are finished and Friday they began on the traditional vine door. You can see Dons Santos and Paulino at work inside the house, coils of vine just collected from the forest on the floor behind, and the door's frame on wooden horses, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314ve.jpg.

The vine used is a member of the Trumpet Creeper Family, the Bignoniaceae. I'm told that its flowers are purple. You can see how the vine is woven at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314vd.jpg.

*****

WEALTH
In the garbage a visitor left a pile of current-events magazines from the North. I salvaged them, for it's hard to keep up with what's happening in the rest of the world here. Somehow after I'd read them all through -- they'd dealt heavily with the world economic situation -- the theme I was left thinking about was this: What is wealth?

We think of wealth in terms of money and property. What's interesting about that is that money's value is strictly what people agree that it is. Similarly, property is recognized as property only as long as people agree on the rules of property ownership and respect them, or else the owner has the means to defend his or her possession. The means to defend property, such as guns and fences, cost money, and, as said, money's value is only what people say it is.

Wealth certainly manifests itself powerfully and tangibly in human society, but it exists only as long as people mentally agree on the concepts involved. This means that human wealth is an abstract notion. Some would go further and say that it's an illusion.

Does wealth exist in Nature? It seems to me that it does, and that there are at least three kinds of it. Furthermore, much in contrast to humanity's wealth, Nature's forms are unchanging and depend on no outside concepts or circumstances.

One of Nature's wealths is energy. All movement and all change is powered by energy, whether it's energy stored in an animal's fat, energy available in unstable radioactive isotopes, or the potential energy of an apple falling to the ground.

The second wealth Nature recognizes is information. As soon as Earth cooled enough to support life, life appeared and immediately began evolving. The thrust of that evolution, as witnessed in Life on Earth, is toward ever greater sophistication and ever greater mutual cooperation. Nature crafts living things and the course of evolution by perpetually tinkering with and enhancing each species' genetic code -- coded information detailing how each organism is put together. The greater the diversity of living things, the more highly evolved the organisms, and the more interrelated all species are within the planetary biosphere, the greater is Nature's wealth of information.

The third kind of wealth Nature recognizes is the spiritual impulse causing everything in Nature to exist and evolve in the first place. The Creator is the artist and the Universe confirms the Impulse by being the Creation. The Creative Impulse, then, is the most profound and most prolific of Nature's forms of wealth.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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