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

March 21, 2010

BIRDS AT HALTÚN WATERING HOLES
With the dry season bearing down hard now, every day I fill the haltunes, or natural watering holes in limestone rock, and all day long, every day, there's a continual parade of birds who arrive, land in branches above the haltunes, look around and look some more, then finally descend to drink their fill. Despite the heat often I throw an old, brown poncho over myself for camouflage and sit with my camera about 20 feet away, and wait.

Surely the most colorful bird visiting the haltunes is the Painted Bunting, PASSERINA CIRIS, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321bu.jpg.

Painted Buntings are migrants, thus they are winter visitors to the Yucatán, as they are all the way south to Panama. During the northern summer they range no farther south than north-central Mexico. Here they're not common, but also not very rare. Often they mix in small flocks with other seed-eating species, and sometimes you see such a flock blowing in like so many fluttery leaves on the dry afternoon wind.

I've mentioned how hard it can be to identify orioles in their immature plumages, so when a challenging one arrives at a haltún I snap its picture, get its image onto my computer screen, bring out Howell's big A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, and go to work. For example, who's that at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321ho.jpg?

Our most common oriole here is the Altamira, but even the immature Altamira has a yellow wing stripe, which this one doesn't. Of the eight or so oriole species found in the Chichén Itzá area, two species have yellow (as opposed to orange) juvenile plumages with black bibs and white wing stripes -- the Hooded and the Orange.

Though the male adults of these two species are easily separable, I doubt I could differentiate the immature males, but for one feature: The Hooded's upper beak, or culmen, is slightly curved, while the Orange's culmen is straight-topped. The culmen in the picture looks more curved to me than straight, so I'm calling the bird a Hooded Oriole, ICTERUS CUCULLATUS. Some mature adult male Hoodeds were actually in the neighborhood that day so that adds to my fonfidence. In most of Mexico Hooded Orioles are only winter or summer visitors, or strictly transient, but in the Yucatán the species is present year round, except in the deep interior, where it's absent.

The most frequent visitors at the Haltunes are Social Flycatchers, which we've photographed enough. Probably the second-most frequent are the White-tipped Doves, LEPTOTILA VERREAUXI. At most of my other Yucatán bases White-WINGED Doves were the most common dove species, sometimes the only. Here during the first four months I saw only White-tippeds, but recently White-wingeds have begun moving in. White-tipped Doves are distributed from southern Texas to Peru and Argentina. You can see one peering expectantly into a haltún at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321dv.jpg.

Not all visitors land to drink. The Violaceous Trogon, TROGON VIOLACEUS, sails in silently, sets himself in a shadowy, cluttered part of a tree, and just watches, never twitting a feather or making a sound. Trogons mostly eat fruit, so maybe they're not as thirsty as the seed and insect eaters. Maybe they're just attracted by the commotion caused by all the other birds. There's one above a haltún, eyeing the circus, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321vt.jpg.

Violaceous Trogons are fairly common, though hard to see because of their habitual stillness and choice of secretive perches. They specialize in humid to semiarid forests and forest edges, plantations and mangroves, and are distributed from eastern Mexico south into Ecuador and Brazil.

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SILK COTTONTREE FLOWERING
Hiking the property's boundaries in deep forest I came upon four-inch-across (10 cm), orangish-yellow flowers strewn on the forest floor. This tickled me because I'd been looking for a certain tree with such unusually large, orangish-yellow flowers. A half- second glimpse up through thick, completely leafless limbs confirmed that I'd found my tree. You can see what I saw twenty feet up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321cc.jpg.

One English name for the tree is Silk Cottontree; another is Buttercup Tree. It's COCHLOSPERMUM VITIFOLIUM, a member of the Bixa Family, a small family little known among Northern plant lovers.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321cd.jpg a vertical section of our Silk Cottontree's flower shows its pea-sized, spherical, fuzzy ovary atop a saucer- like platform from which many stamens emerge. Having so many stamens is somewhat unusual among flowers, and helps distinguish the family. Another time we've run across The most famous member of the Bixa Family, the tree producing brightly reddish-orange annatto paste much used in Mexican cooking. That tree is known here as Achiote (Bixa orellana). You can see how Achiote's flowers, though white, are structured like our tree's at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/achiote.htm.

Silk Cottontree's fruits are bulbous, brown, jumbo- egg-size structures that split open flowerlike, revealing masses of white cotton with seeds embedded, hence the cottontree name.

The species is widely distributed, not really rare but also not common, from Mexico well into Northern South America, mostly in semiarid areas. It's such a pretty tree that it's been planted in gardens all over the tropics.

My friend José tells me that the Maya, who call it Nickte' Ch'om, use resin from this tree to treat epilepsy.

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KAPOK COTTON
Last week we looked at flowers of the Ceiba, Ceiba pentrandra, still shown down the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

On that page we mention that -- as with the above Silk Cottontree's fruit -- mature Ceiba fruits split open to reveal masses of white cotton with seeds embedded. In the past the white cotton was much sold under the name of kapok.

This week I found a ripe Ceiba pod on the ground with kapock fiber and embedded black seeds billowing out. No Ceiba tree was in the area so that was a mystery. Anyway, you can see what kapok looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321kk.jpg.

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RED MOMBIN FLOWERING
Another small tree flowering nowadays, also completely leafless because of the dry season, is the Red Mombin, SPONDIAS PURPUREA, a member of the Poison Ivy or Cashew Family, the Anacardiaceae. It's native from southern Mexico to northern Peru and Brazil and also widely planted in many tropical countries throughout the world. You can barely see the small flowers tightly clustered along treetop branches at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321sp.jpg.

The flowers' petals are only 3 mm long (1/10th inch), so these are tiny flowers. Other pictures I find of them on the Internet show the flowers in looser clusters. I suspect the reason these flowers' clusters are so tight and small is that it's early in the flowering period, plus the dry season is a limiting factor. A close-up of the flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321sq.jpg.

Red Mombin flowers are supposed to have a 5-lobed calyx, 5 petals and 10 stamens, but the top flower in the above picture appears to have eight or so petals. I don't know what's happening there, but it's true that often organisms that have been domesticated or under cultivation for a long time develop irregular features.

There's a Red Mombin and a Yellow Mombin. We met the Yellow Mombin, which we referred to then by another of its names, Spanish Plum, back in Querétaro. Yellow Mombins are Spondias mombin, so they're in the same genus as our Red Mombin, just a different species. You can review the Yellow Mombin page at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/spondias.htm.

Red Mombin, also called Hog Plum, Jocote, Purple Mombin and a host of other names, is called Ciruela by the locals here, which is the general Spanish name for the plum. Mombin fruits look and taste somewhat like northern plums, except that they have a larger seed different from a plum seed. Mombins and northern plums belong to entirely different families, so the similarities are based on other factors than relationship.

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MOLDY BREAD AND CHEESE
For awhile a certain woody vine climbing high into trees has been catching my eye with its hand-size clusters of brightly red fruits. The fruits had always been too high for me to take a look at, though, until this week when I hiked to Pisté to buy fruit, and noticed a low vine in the scrub along the road. You can see the cluster of red, three-winged, half-inch wide (13 mm) fruits at the base of a long, brown rachis that earlier must have born male flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321pa.jpg.

Note how the rachises thicken and flatten at their tips. In this genus rachises usually bear tendrils, so I don't know what's going on here. A fruit close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321pb.jpg.

There you can see how the fruits split to reveal flattish, shiny brown seeds with large, pale arils at their bases, an aril in this case being a pulpy covering arising from the umbilicus-like connection of the seed with its pod. Some seed-types have them, most don't.

The vine is PAULLINIA FUSCESCENS, a member of the large but mostly tropical Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae. In that family we also find Balloon-Vines, Goldenrain-Trees and Litchi trees. Unaccountably, in English our vine often is referred to as Moldy Bread and Cheese, the genus Paullinia being thought of as the Bread and Cheese genus.

You can see one of the vine's twice-compound leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321pc.jpg.

If you encounter such leaves on a woody vine in the tropics, you need to think "Soapberry Family," for lots of woody vines in that family bear such leaves. A while back we looked at a prettily flowering Serjania, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/serjana.htm.

On that page you can see a doubly compound leaf almost but not quite identical to our Paullinia's. Several vines in this family bear such leaves, but the fruits can be very different. The flowers often are so tiny that you need magnification to see the details.

This species is distributed from Mexico through Central America into northern South America. The stems are tough and pliable enough to serve as rope for anyone wanting to bind a few sticks of firewood together.

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AGAVE FLOWERING
At Hacienda Chichen's pretty entrance an agave is very conspicuously flowering, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321ag.jpg.

Two agaves are shown but only the one in the back is flowering. That inflorescence stands about eight feet tall (2.5m). Some agave species bloom from year to year, others at intervals, and others only once. This species grows for years, then flowers, and dies. All is not lost, however, because as the plant matures it produces basal shoots that later will replace the dead plant, plus these shoots easily root when transplanted elsewhere.

This is AGAVE DESMETTIANA, usually referred to by its technical name in English by anyone speaking of it with enough savvy and interest to distinguish it from the many other agave species. Some would call it Century Plant or Maguey, but those names are better reserved for another agave species, one with larger, thicker leaves but a similarly giant inflorescence, Agave americana.

In the above picture you can see how within the inflorescence individual blossoms are clustered in well separated groupings. You can see one such cluster at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321ah.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100321ai.jpg you can see just how big a single flower is. In that picture one side of the flower has been removed to reveal the oval ovary at the flower's bottom. The ovary is topped by a thick, stiff, whitish style terminating in a rounded stigma. In agave flowers six stamens are attached to the walls of a funnel-shaped perianth. Perianth is the word used when a blossom's calyx and corolla are merged or indistinguishable from one another. In the picture the slender, stiff, greenish, incurving things are the stamens' stalk-like filaments, and each filament is terminated by a yellowish, banana-like anther, which splits open at maturity to release pollen.

Nowadays most references place agaves in their own family, the Agavaceae, but some sink the agave family into the newly recognized and expanded Asparagus Family, the Asparagaceae. If you think about it, the above agave flower is indeed structured somewhat like an asparagus flower, only much, much larger.

Agave desmettiana is a native Yucatec plant now grown worldwide in frost-free areas, in pots and urban gardens, in full sun. I find it growing here and there in wild areas but can never decide whether they are natural populations or plantings abandoned long ago. Besides its pretty shape and ease to grow, one reason Agave desmettiana is so widely planted is that its blades are spineless. However, its reddish brown blade tips are hard and sharp, very capable of puncturing an arm or leg.

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SILK COTTONTREE IN A SECRET PLACE
This week Leona in the Missouri Ozarks sent a poem she'd just written. After mentioning the homey, next-to-the-fireplace feeling of when "a pan of water on the stove starts singing, cheering this cold night with it's warbles... " she spoke of melting ice, the odor of mud, and such, the harbingers of a nascent spring. Karen in Mississippi told me about her first Bluebird of the year, and how the unexpected visit was so wonderful and humbling to her. "Isn't that something?" she asked rhetorically, and I agreed that it was. Spring is coming up there.

I don't fret much about missing spring in North America. Our dry season has its feeling, too, and it's a feeling worth knowing, worth settling into, and being poetic and philosophic about.

For example, hiking the property boundaries the other day, deep in the forest, it felt like being in a hot, droughty, August woods up North -- leaves on the forest floor crunching beneath feet, birds stunned into quietness by the heat, the dusty odor, the sweat and drowse that walking quietly in dry heat visits upon you. If you've experienced something similar, maybe you understand how such hiking can be a meditation upon the land, each step like repeating a mantra that bestows peace and contentment.

My favorite times during these mid-dry-season days are the late afternoons when the temperature stands in the 90s, heavy sunlight stings the skin, and breezes stir up dust that swirls around the church's gray, stonewall corners. I like the hardness of it all, the lack of ambiguity about it, the pure essence of a season being itself. Smiles can be deceptive or misunderstood but dust and heat can't, have no need to be so, are honest and uncomplicated.

But, it's more than that. For, we've seen that on this stage of inscrutable smiles and pitiless dust and heat there's also a golden-flowered Silk Cottontree in a secret place in the woods quietly doing its beautiful thing -- blossoming on a timetable assuring that when rains return in May, Silk Cottontree seeds will be present and ready to germinate.

I don't think I could stand a world where the choice was either a society with many insincere smiles or else a world of raw dust and heat, or any combination of the two. But, just knowing that the golden-flowered Silk Cottontree remains in its secret place somehow sets up a meditation upon life during which each moment passes like the words of a mantra, bestowing peace and contentment.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim