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

March 28, 2010

FLYCATCHERS WITH BIG BILLS
Camouflaged beneath my old poncho next to the haltún watering holes, I watched six Social Flycatchers cavorting, clearly less interested in drinking water themselves than keeping others of their flock from landing at the water first. CHIIR t-CHIIR t-CHIIR they shrilly and monotonously called. Then two birds colored and patterned just like them flew among them, perched quietly and looked around. Despite the nearly identical color patterns, the two new visitors were strikingly larger. Two images of one of the visitors are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bb.jpg.

You can compare the visitor with a Social Flycatcher at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/social-f.htm.

Two images of one of the visitors are provided so you can see the bird's bill from both the side and from below. For, the visitors were Boat-billed Flycatchers, MEGARYNCHUS PITANGUA, distinguished by their heavy, wide beaks. It's good to know about the Boat-billed's beak because not only are Boat-bills colored and patterned like Social Flycatchers, but also Great Kiskadees, and all three of these species are common throughout much of the American tropics. Their similarity causes identification problems for newly arrived birders.

Of the three species, visually, Social Flycatchers are the easiest to separate from the others because of their small size. Boat-billed Flycatchers are about 9.5 inches long (24 cm), about the size of an American Robin, while Great Kiskadees are close to that, averaging only about half an inch longer, but Social Flycatchers reach only about 7 inches long (18 cm).

Great Kiskadees display much more rustiness in their upper bodies than the mostly gray-brown Boat-billeds. Sometimes the amount of rustiness doesn't show so well, though, and then you need to see that bill.

Fortunately, all three of these look-alike species are fairly easy to differentiate by their calls, and they tend to call a lot, loudly and shrilly. Kiskadees almost say their name, ki ke-REEH. Socials do a great deal of varied, excited twittering and bickering, while Boat-bills have a somewhat grating EEIHRRRR, shrilly rising toward the end. You can try to hear that call at http://www.naturesongs.com/bbfl1.wav.

These three look-alike flycatchers aren't nearly as closely related to one another as, say, a Yellow- rumped Warbler and a Magnolia Warbler. All three flycatcher species belong to different genera.

When you remember that the North's kingbirds and Myiarchus flycatchers also tend to have gray-brown upper parts and yellowish underparts, you wonder why flycatcher species seem to benefit from this precise combination, and whether the combination arose from an ancestor they all have in common, or from convergent evolution, or some combination of the two processes.

*****

YELLOW-BILLED CACIQUE
Hiking a forest trail early one morning the quietness was shattered by a series of sudden, loud, sharp, descending whistles from nearby, TWEEEW!-TWEEEW!, TWEEEW!-TWEEW!, about six pairs of close-together tweeews articulated with such energy and sharp enunciation that certainly a message was there, though I didn't know what it was. After searching awhile through the underbrush I glimpsed a black, stocky figure keeping to the shadows, shaped almost like a robin.

The bird was such a skulker that I figured I'd never get a decent view of him and I almost gave up. However, then it occurred to me that the call didn't seem too hard to imitate, so I tried it -- sharp, descending pairs of whistles in a quick series. Before my first two, very imperfect calls were issued, the black form had exploded from the undergrowth and flew across the trail within ten feet of me before landing in more undergrowth. Seldom has an imitated call, especially such a poorly executed first try, evoked such a response for me!

I called a few more times and my whistles seemed to drive the poor bird nuts. A second bird of the same species appeared and also flew close, before landing in the brush. I got a picture, not the greatest, but enough for a positive identification, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328cc.jpg.

It's the Yellow-billed Cacique, AMBLYCERCUS HOLOSEICEUS, the yellow bill seeming whiter to me than yellow. Caciques belong to the same family as orioles and oropendolas. The word cacique in Spanish means "chief" or "boss," and with that commanding voice and brusque behavior I can see why.

Back in Chiapas we had Yellow-winged Caciques, who also uttered fantastically expressive and varied calls, often ending in echoic, chiming notes, KI-ERRR INK-INK-INK... Now I've heard both of Mexico's cacique species and feel qualified to say that caciques are birds worth hearing.

Yellow-billed Caciques occur in thickets, second growth, forest edges and the like, often near water (not the case this time) from eastern lowland Mexico south to Peru and Bolivia.

*****

A FEMALE STRIPED BASILISK WITH A BIG CREST
We've met fairly common, fast-running, long-toed Striped Basilisks, BASILISCUS VITTATUS, in several places, and photographed the sexually dimorphic species in various stages of maturity. Still, early one morning this week when I spotted one calmly basking in the day's first rays of sunlight, at first I thought I was seeing a different species. It was larger than I'm accustomed to seeing -- about 15 inches (38 cm) -- and the crest looked different from what I've seen on mature males. You can this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328ba.jpg.

Those pictures are tilted on their sides. Actually the critter had her nose skyward, for she'd climbed to the tip of a hip-high Mother-in-law's Tongue.

Jonathan Campbell in Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize writes that "Just after first light, but before sunup, they jump abruptly from their perches to the ground, usually hitting the ground running, and dash off to the nearest cover." Probably that's what happened here.

They're incredibly fast, often seen running upright across roads, their very long, broadly spread toes just a blur. I've seen them run across water. My friend Bibiano says they can run atop the canopy of a bunch of weeds or shrubs as if it were open ground. In Maya Bibiano calls them Tolók.

*****

TWO NEW BUTTERFLIES
As the dry season grows drier, it's getting harder to find flowers and butterflies. Still, there's a few around, and this week Bea in Ontario ID'd two new ones, now added to my Yucatan Butterfly ID chart at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/.

One, EUREMA DAIRA, the Barred Yellow, is plain and small. It shows yellow from above and when flying, but mostly white with very vague spotting below, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bv.jpg.

Barred Yellows are one of 31 Mexican species of a subfamily known as the Yellows, the Coliadinae, in the Whites & Yellows Family, the Pieridae, embracing 80 Mexican species.

The other new butterfly is a skipper with more pizzazz than most skippers have, bearing a conspicuous fringe of soft, white hairs at its wings rear ends, and a line of transparent windows at mid-wing, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bw.jpg.

That's the White-tailed Longtail, URBANUS DORYSSUS, widely distributed from Argentina north through tropical America to Mexico. Sometimes it strays into Texas' lower Rio Grande Valley, where it's considered a nice spotting.

Not much information about either of these species is found on the Internet, so we're doing a small service here just showing what the species look like in the central Yucatan, and reporting that they're here flying around during the dry season in March.

*****

BANANA-EATING MOUSE
Though my hosts offered me a very pleasant dwelling with all the amenities, because I prefer solitude and a simple lifestyle, I chose to set up residence in a storeroom adjoining the old colonial church. In making this choice I joined a preexisting community of critters. Each day I open doors and turn off lights to accommodate swallows and bats living with me, I always check my shoes for scorpions, and I never move too fast anyplace because of several geckoes that scurry here and there.

On my first night here I found that a banana-loving mouse was a roommate, too. Soon I learned that if each night I left a strip of banana peeling of a certain size, he'd eat that and not go after my bananas, which I hung on a string dangling from the ceiling. For the first couple of months this system worked very well.

Then one morning one of my bananas turned up half- eaten. The next morning a hole had been gnawed into my package of Maseca, or finely ground cornmeal. I don't know if my mouse suddenly experienced a change of heart, or whether maybe I was dealing with a new mouse. Whatever the case, war had been declared.

Soon I learned just how hard it is to outwit a determined mouse. I could have stored my bananas in a mouse-proof container, but that would have sped up their maturing by limiting air circulation, and the bananas I buy in Pisté each Saturday morning must last until the next Saturday morning.

Someday, maybe someday soon, when the infrastructure collapses, a lot of people will be living lives closer to how I live now, than to how they've been living. That future will be rich in mouse-man confrontations. Therefore, I feel a responsibility to show you how, after weeks of trial-and-error, and having lost many bananas, I learned how keep my fruit and other food where air could circulate around them, but mice couldn't get to them. You can see my triumphant design at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bn.jpg.

The circular object at the right is the scavenged top of a patio table with a small hole in the center for the wire, and you can see what the sheet of cardboard is. Actually the cardboard's bent top later was straightened up, else the mouse would have climbed over the cardboard. Also, at night I move objects from below the food, else the mouse will leap from atop them and grab a bag.

Clothes hanging on wires in the background hang there to keep mice from building in them, and to avoid mildew, which happens when air can't circulate around them.

You can see my banana-eating mouse at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bo.jpg.

With his large eyes and white underparts, he's clearly not the European House Mouse commonly found in the North. He's a native species, an ecological equivalent to the North's abundant White-footed Mouse. In trying to identify him I've learned that down here there's a whole galaxy of big-eyed, white-bottomed, gray mouse species, and to identify them usually you have to have them in hand to count teats, toes and the like, and I'm just not that interested in terrorizing the little fellows.

*****

BULL-HORN ACACIA & ITS ANTS
On a forest trail I almost stepped on something that would have lamed me if I'd been barefooted. It was a twig section from the tree above me, the tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328ac.jpg.

This is one of a couple of Bull-Horn Acacias we have here, probably ACACIA COLLINSII, Subín in Maya, now in the dry season nearly completely leafless. A close-up of some thorns shows what's bull-hornish about them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328ad.jpg.

In that picture notice that two of the 2-¾ inch (4 cm) spines bear holes near their tips. Ants chew these holes, enter the hollow thorns and live inside. A single ant colony may span several A. collinsii trees. If a herbivore comes along and touches the tree, the ants rush onto the animal and bite. Thus it's a mutualistic relationship, with both tree and ant benefiting.

The tree not only provides handy shelters for the ants but also feeds them. Take a look at the expanding leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328ae.jpg.

Acacia leaves are bipinnate -- twice compound -- so the entire feathery, purplish, ant-mounted structure in the picture's lower right corner is a leaf about to expand. At the top, left of the leaf the shoehorn-like thing with two green-doughnut-like items in the horn is the leaf's stem, or petiole, and the green doughnuts within petiole's concavity are glands producing sweet, energy-rich nectar the ants feed on. Notice that many but not all the leaves' ultimate leaflets bear teardrop-shaped, dark purple, shiny things. Those are Beltian bodies, which are protein- rich structures eaten by the ants as well. Once the leaves are fully expanded, the Beltian bodies will have been eaten and there won't be a sign left of them.

The Bull's-Horn Acacia above me that day was practically leafless, but nearby grew a shoulder-high sapling. Saplings often bear leaves even when larger trees of their species don't. You can see a couple of the Bull-Horn Acacia's feathery, bipinnate leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328af.jpg.

*****

RUE FLOWERS
Back in Querétaro my friend Silvestre introduced us to the Common Rue, RUTA GRAVEOLENS, an important plant in any garden specializing in medicinal plants. I've already written about Rue and photographed it at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/rue.htm.

Silvestre had told me that country folks in Querétaro mainly used Rue by poking its leaves into their ears, to cure earaches. Back in Chiapas you may remember my friends showing me how to roll Rue leaves into a basil leaf and stuff the green-cigar-like object in my ear, to treat my always-present ear fungus. Here at Hacienda Chichen Don Filomeno grows Rue and each afternoon I poke a green cigar of it, rolled in a Basil leaf, into my ear, to keep the fungus's itching from awakening me in the night. It works as well as the athlete's foot medicine I use in the US.

Anyway, our Rue is flowering now and its blossom is so pretty and interesting that it's worth looking at, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328ru.jpg.

The Rue flower has a fairly simple design. If you need a refresher class in basic flower anatomy you can go to http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_stand.htm and relate the parts of our "Standard Blossom" to the above Rue flower, which is about ½-inch across (1.5 cm).

Rue flowers bear four sepals and four petals. They depart from our "Standard Blossom" by their stamen number usually being double the number of petals, so there are eight stamens shown in the picture. The yellow petals are a little unusual because their margins are fringed.

The most distinctive, unusual feature of this flower is its female structure. In the picture the grainy- surfaced, green thing in the blossom's center is the ovary, which later will mature into the fruit. The green, fingerlike thing poking from the ovary's top is the style, at the top of which is a hardly visible stigma or stigmatic zone, where pollen grains germinate.

The green, gelatinous-looking mass below the ovary is special. It's an "annular disk," and when you see flowers with the ovary perched on such a conspicuous annular disk, with stamens arising below the disk, and the plant's herbage is fragrant, often spicy, then you need to think "Citrus Family" -- the family harboring oranges, lemons, grapefruits, kumquats and many other important plants, as well as our Rue. If you happen to have an orange or lemon tree flowering now, you might see if you can locate the annular disks in the flowers of your own Citrus Family member.

Knowing that Rue belongs in the Citrus Family, the ovary's roughly pitted surface makes sense. For, isn't that exactly the kind of gland-rich texture you see on an orange or lemon?

*****

BASIL FLOWERING
Speaking of Basil, OCIMUM BASILICUM, the Basil in our garden also is flowering nowadays, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bs.jpg.

That plant clearly isn't in the peak of health, for during the dry season, if something is on the watering list, gardeners tend to overwater, and that leaches nitrogen from the soil, which accounts for the yellowing leaves. Also, to have thick, succulent leaves for cooking you need to pinch off a plant's flowers, and two pairs of leaves under them. Flowering causes a hormone change in the plant dramatically reducing leaf growth as well as leaf pungency.

Anyway, in the above picture the plant is about knee high and a honeybee is approaching the white flowers, which are stacked in racemes at branch ends. A close-up showing a half-inch long flower (1.5 cm) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bt.jpg.

Basil is a member of the big, often good-smelling Mint Family, and the flower in the picture shows basic Mint-Family features. The green calyx is five-toothed. Both the calyx and white corolla are bilaterally symmetrical as opposed to being radially symmetrical like the above Rue flower (note the bottom lip being longer than the top). There are four stamens of two lengths.

One of the most interesting Mint-Family features, however, isn't seen unless you look inside a calyx from which the old corolla has fallen off, and the ovary has already matured somewhat. For, in the Mint Family, the ovary is very deeply "four-lobed." When the ovary matures, each lobe forms a "nutlet," so you get four little seed-like nutlets nestled in the calyx's bottom like eggs in a basket. You can see a calyx with one side removed so you can see the nutlets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100328bu.jpg.

Again, those egglike things, the nutlets, are not seeds, but rather each is one part of a deeply four- lobed ovary. One seed resides inside each nutlet.

Basil's genus name, Basilicum, is from classical Greek meaning "kingly," because of Basil's healing properties. It's interesting that in the North we don't think of Basil as medicinal, but indigenous cultures often have a high regard for its medicinal value. Basil is native to the Old World Tropics, so it's been introduced into the pharmacopeias of New-World indigenous people since the European invasion.

And I can tell you that when I roll Rue leaves into a Basil leaf and poke the resulting little, green cigar into my fungusy ear awhile, my ear doesn't itch all night the way it does if I don't.

*****

THE BEEKEEPER'S SMILE
With the arrival of the dry season, Maya beekeepers acquire a new chore: They must keep troughs next to their hives filled with water. Often the hives lie well away from any road, so deep in the forest you meet these beekeepers trudging down trails bent beneath large, heavy plastic containers of water sloshing on their backs, held in place by tumplines around their foreheads.

I find that beekeepers in general are smarter, better educated and more philosophical people than average. Moreover, there's something else about them that until recently I haven't been able to put into words. That matter deals with a certain bittersweet disposition most of them seem to have, often expressed with a sad-seeming smile.

I think the basic smile arises from experiencing firsthand the bounty and richness of Nature. Why wouldn't one smile who spends his time gathering honey from forest and fields, who everyday beholds the mysteries of honeybee lives, who habitually sees golden honey transluced by sunlight, and who tells just by tasting whether a honey mostly comes from mango or acacia flowers?

And yet, these smiles are never exuberant or even long lasting. Always a certain air of sadness shades them.

Maybe it's because nowadays few young people show interest in such demanding work that pays so little. Maybe it's because ecosystems that once produced honey bounteously now produce much less, or because the honey they produce now lacks the delicate and nuanced flavors its once had. Maybe the greatest loss of all, however, is that nowadays few of a beekeeper's customers can recognize an exceptional honey when they taste it, the new notion simply being "the sweeter the better."

So, these old beekeepers keep plodding the forest trails, bent beneath their heavy loads, ever quick to flash a little smile if they meet you, but never eager to spend much time talking, and seldom smiling for more than a flicker. And somehow this beekeeper persona strikes me as a model I can admire.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim