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

April 4, 2010

OVENBIRD
Though I hadn't seen a migrant for weeks I had indeed noted changes in the bird population which I suspected to be due to hormone level changes in response to the longer days and shorter nights.

For example, during my banana-buying hike to Pisté I passed a Tropical Mockingbird singing his heart out. Each day Rufous-browed Peppershrikes sing at least awhile, and sometimes the monotonously pulsating calls of so many Ferruginous Pigmy Owls fill the landscape that it's funny. Pairs of Golden-fronted Woodpeckers often engage in chases that are so long-lasting and leisurely that you suspect both parties are enjoying it. It makes sense. When May rains bring forth flowers and insects, nestlings need to be ready for the bonanza.

Because this winter I've seen so few migrants here in the Yucatán's interior I'm guessing that migrants tend to cluster along the coasts. Maybe every two or three weeks I've see a Yellow-throated Warbler and every couple of weeks a Hooded Warbler. About once a month I've see a Black-and-white Warbler or an American Redstart. Once or twice during the whole winter I've seen Northern Waterthrushes and Kentucky Warblers.

And now this week, rushing across the ground in the shadow of a stone wall, I saw the Ovenbird shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404ov.jpg.

This bird behaved as if he wasn't familiar with the area, and he let me come closer than normal. I pegged him as an outsider whose hormones have kicking in. Now he's starting to wander a bit, rushing around gorging on all the food he can before soon launching from the Yucatán's northern coast, across the Gulf of Mexico, to the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or maybe Florida. My field guide indicates that the first Ovenbirds arrive on the US Gulf Coast around the first of April, so by the time you read this maybe the bird in the picture already will be resting in a greening Louisiana swamp.

Ovenbirds, SEIURUS AUROCAPILLUS, nest in forested eastern North America, except for the Deep South. They winter from Mexico and the Caribbean to northern South America.

*****

IVORY-BILLED WOODCREEPER
With so many trees losing their leaves because of the dry season, some local permanent residents are easier to spot these days. That's the case with the Ivory- billed Woodcreeper, XIPHORHYNCHUS FLAVIGASTER, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404wc.jpg.

Woodcreepers in shape, form and behavior are very much like the North's Brown Creepers. However, Brown Creepers are little birds, only 4-¾ inch long (12 cm) while Ivory-billed Woodcreepers average twice that -- 9-½ inches (24 cm) long.

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COPULATING BLACK IGUANAS
Sitting in my room typing I looked up to rest my eyes and there exactly before my open door not 15 feet away lay two unmoving, copulating, 2.5-ft-long (75 cm) Black Iguanas.

Now, Black Iguanas bear sharply spiny fins down their tops and of course they have long, meaty tails, so, once you start thinking about it, you might wonder how they fit themselves together. You can see how at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404ig.jpg.

The male assumes such an awkward position that it's not clear how the hidden parts relate. Not seen is the male iguana's secret weapon -- a weapon male lizards share with male snakes -- and that's something referred to as "the paired hemipenis." The paired hemipenis is a somewhat stubby, Y-shaped penis, with both arms of the Y being useful, so things work no matter which side of the female the male mounts.

Different from many species, the males of Black Iguanas tend to be larger that the females. Also -- something showing in the photo if you study it -- the heads of males are broader and have a more massive jaw musculature.

I have no idea how long the couple in the picture had been at it, but I can tell you that instantly after snapping the above picture, before my camera had stored its image and was able to shoot again, suddenly there came a stampeding sound, the copulators broke apart, the female rushed into a hole beneath my door, the male raised a cloud of dust shooting across the volleyball court, and a second male much, much larger (but slower) than the first stormed onto the scene. Finding no satisfaction there he rushed to the center of the court, did some head-lifting displays, and remained there glaring all around for several minutes.

The other two were nowhere to be seen for the rest of the day.

Back in 2006 I witnessed a half-hour battle between two big male Black Iguanas. You can read the detailed notes under the heading "Two Male Black Iguanas Battle it Out" about three-quarters down the long page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/iguana-b.htm.

You can see the hemipenis of a European Legless Lizard at http://www.biolib.cz/en/image/id4563/.

*****

A BASKING MEXICAN BLUEWING
Usually Mexican Bluewing butterflies perch with their wings folded over their backs. Since their underwings are camouflaged like brownish leaf-litter, you don't see the upper wings' gorgeous metallic blueness unless they're flitting about or basking in sunbeams, wings open, warming up on chilly mornings. On a cold morning this week I found one basking, resulting in the photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404bl.jpg.

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CINNAMON-SMELLING ARMY ANTS
The other day I was on my hands and knees watching a stream of army ants pass beneath me when this thought came to me: Sometimes when I've been in really anty situations I've smelled the ants' formic acid. If I should very gingerly smell this surging river of ants, would it smell like that?

I put my nose as close as I dared, sniffed, and smelled cinnamon.

I sniffed several areas nearby and smelled no cinnamon. I went to other parts of the ant stream and once again smelled cinnamon.

I've never heard of ants smelling like cinnamon. Has anyone out there?

We've seen streams of army ants before, but if you want to see a tiny part of one of this week's fast- moving, cinnamon-smelling streams passing over a rock, go to http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404an.jpg.

*****

MORNING GLORIES & NECTAR ROBBERS
Not long after I began issuing these Newsletters from my hermit camp in Mississippi in 2001 I described how Large Carpenter Bees, genus Xylocopa, were robbing nectar from the red-flowered, ferny-leafed Cypress Vines twining on my garden's deer-fence. Cypress Vines are members of the Morning Glory Family. I wrote:

"Thing is, this bee was not pollinating the flowers. It paid no attention to the blossoms' openings. Instead, it went to the outside base of each flower, thrust its 'tongue' down between the corolla and the calyx... this bee was actually slitting each blossom's corolla so it could get at the nectar inside, completely bypassing the flower's sexual parts. I examined the corollas after the bee visited them and could clearly see the slit. It was violent robbery pure and simple."

I remembered that observation this week when out in the forest I ran into a dead, dried-up morning glory vine bearing the seed-filled capsules shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404ip.jpg.

In that picture the spherical items at the bottom are the dry fruit capsules ready to split open to release four seeds. The seeds are exceptionally large, brown-fuzzy, caterpillar-like affairs. The long hairs help the seeds disperse on the wind. You can see the seeds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404iq.jpg.

In that picture the grayish, leathery items bent back from the opened capsule are the old sepals -- the lobes of the calyx which on most flowers subtend the corolla. It's easy to imagine why the sepals would need to bend back: It's so they don't keep the wind from carrying away the capsule's fuzzy seeds.

So, what does all this have to do with nectar robbery? The connection is the oversized, leathery sepals.

For, those exceptionally large, tough sepals evolved as a response to a fundamental weakness in the basic morning-glory flower design. That weakness, as my Cypress Vines showed, is the flowers' vulnerability to nectar robbery. The sepals' large size and thickness keeps nectar robbers from slashing their way to the nectar at the corolla tube's base.

Last December I happened to photograph the flowers of the very vine in the above pictures. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404ir.jpg.

Note that the flower's calyx, instead of being topped by five tooth-like sepals, form a thick, greenish cylinder around the corolla's base.

I'm fairly sure this morning glory is IPOMOEA CLAVATA, found from Mexico to northern South America. The flower's large size relative to my hand can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404is.jpg.

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FIGHTING NECTAR ROBBERY A DIFFERENT WAY
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404i2.jpg you see another morning glory species twining in the thicket next to my compost heap. If you look at the corolla's base you'll see that this species uses an entirely different kind of defense against nectar robbers. Its entire calyx is densely covered with long, spiky "tubercles." A close-up of some calyxes is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404i3.jpg.

The best I can figure, this particular morning glory is IPOMOEA SELERI, a species fairly common in thickets here but an endemic to the Yucatan. It's an unusual species in that its leaves are small, blades on my vine not surpassing 1-¾ inches (4.5 cm).

It's pretty neat having an endemic to look at each time I go pee!

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A FRUITING PHILODENDRON
For months I've been watching for flowers and fruits on a certain aroid vine fairly common out in the forest. By "aroid" I mean a member of the Aroid Family, the Araceae. Aroids bear tiny flowers close- packed on a fingerlike "spadix," which is surrounded and often overtopped by a leafy "spathe." Jack-in-the- pulpit, anthuriums, caladiums, elephants-ears, and philodendrons are all aroids.

In fact, the vine I've been watching turns out to be a philodendron. You can see it 20-ft high in a tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404ph.jpg.

I'm guessing that this is PHILODENDRON HEDERACEUM, a wide-ranging, extremely variable species much grown indoors in pots up North. Note its large, heart-shaped leaves, its loopy, silvery, fairly succulent stems, and, at the lower left, the two fruiting bodies. Each fruiting body bears a deep gash in its upper, left side caused by an animal. The actual fruits are like kernels on a corncob with the green spathe wrapped around it. It's normal for philodendron fruits to be fragrant when ripe so maybe a bird or fruit bat was attracted to the fruiting bodies by the fruits' odor and bit through the spathes to get at the ripe fruits inside.

I couldn't get at a fruiting body for a close-up without pulling down the whole vine, so I didn't.

*****

COMPOSTING & PEEING IN THE TROPICS
In my life with no plumbing atop a limestone hill next to a 16th century church often visited by tourists, what do I do with all the orange and banana peelings I generate, and with my own excreta?

There's a bathroom three or four minutes away, so that takes care of part of the problem. However, I drink a lot and can't run down the hill every time I want to pee, plus there are the fruit peelings.

I compost all that.

There's not much written about small-scale composting in tropical lowlands, so here's my contribution.

One reason there's little written about the topic is that in most tropical villages kitchen remains are not regarded as a problem. If you peel a banana or crack an egg, you throw the peeling or shell out the door and the chickens and pigs fight over it, eventually converting it to manure spread randomly in the neighborhood. If it's a bone, the dog gets it.

That doesn't mean that compositing isn't needed. The way most tropical village folks I've seen handle their own excreta is unsanitary, usually consisting of depositing it into a shallow pit that gradually leaks out the liquid, or overflows during rains, spreading it about. What's left either eventually is abandoned and a new pit is dug, or else it gets cleaned out by floods, pigs, chickens or whatever. Especially in the Yucatán where waterflow is subterranean and the limestone bedrock is fractured and leaky, such pits contaminate the groundwater nearby and maybe far away.

Back in 2003 when I was hermiting in Mississippi I composted my own excreta. I wrote all about it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/x/mymanure.htm.

On my hill here I needed a way not only to get rid of my abundant fruit peelings but also someplace to pee that wouldn't stink up the neighborhood. My solution has been to adapt my old hermiting technique.

First I heaped up a bushel of dry leaves, then I started dumping my peelings there. And peeing on it, and regularly stirring it all, aerating it. I find that most compost heaps fail because it's not understood that air, water, carbohydrate and nitrogen all need to be kept at a certain balance. In my heap the leaves and peelings provide carbohydrate, my pee provides the water and nitrogen, and stirring the heap lets air in.

The astonishing thing is that each week I dump about half a full backpack of fruit peelings on the heap, frequently add fallen leaves from the lawn, and pee on it several times each day, yet after five months the heap is actually smaller then when I began, and it doesn't stink. If you put your nose right up to it on a hot day, maybe, but it doesn't create an unpleasantness the way most peeing spots do.

My hermiting technique described at the above link should be tried by more people in the tropics who need to get rid of their own excreta. If attention is paid to heap temperature during the composting period, assuring that even intestinal parasites are killed by heat, fertilizer can be produced in a land where fertilizer is sorely needed. What I don't know is whether excreta from people who eat flesh will compost as easily as my own vegetarian output.

I do know, however, that if all you want is to get rid of your peelings, and your pee, my bushel-basket-size compost heap does the job admirably. My heap is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404cp.jpg.

The iguana atop the might provide one reason why the heap doesn't grow. Iguanas eat most of my banana peelings (though none of my orange peelings). The bucket at the side holds leaves raked from the lawn, which I cover the heap with from time to time. When so many orange peelings accumulate as in the picture, it's time to flip the heap so that fresh peelings are inside the heap or on the bottom.

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ANTELOPE OR ELEPHANT?
The other day I heard about a 1960 study by W. Hudson conducted among South African Bantu tribal members. Study participants were shown a drawing almost identical to my own hand-drawing of his shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100404dr.gif.

The Bantu were asked what they saw in the picture, what the man was doing, and which was nearer, the antelope or the elephant. Both adults and children often got the answers "wrong," many saying that the man was about to spear the elephant.

Many Bantu in the study did not pick up on two cues that we in our culture instantly recognize: that nearby objects overlap objects farther away, and; that the farther away something is, the smaller it appears in a relative sense.

Though experts continue to debate what Hudson's study proves, my own reading is that the cultures we grow up in program us -- or fail to program us -- in ways that can help or hinder us in "seeing" what stands right before our eyes.

During nearly the entire history of humanity's evolution people have taken their cues on what to see and not to see from their own genetic programming and from Nature. Today a large percentage of humanity experiences only a tiny corner of Nature -- that which is human-made. As such, humanity has lost touch with many of Nature's cues on "how to see." This week I've been thinking about what our culture may be blind to, or increasingly blind to, because of Nature's missing or disappearing cues.

Because so many of us live in environments where it's not immediately clear where our food and drink come from, we've lost sight of how dangerously vulnerable we become when many middlemen stand between us and the Earth's soil.

Our intense focus on acquiring impressive or modish but unnecessary things has blinded us to the absolute necessity we all have for drinkable water, breathable air and, for our sanity, open space.

By turning a blind eye to Nature's mutually relating, harmonizing paradigms and rainbows of natural sensory stimuli, most of us no longer see the beauties of simplicity, the charm of empathy and cooperation, and the spiritual nourishment provided by thoughtful and artful expression in everyday life.

Well, one can go on like this, but the question is, what is one to do?

In the Northern Hemisphere, spring is coming. Depending on how far north you live, crocuses, irises or daffodils are blossoming. Spring Peepers are peeping in lots of places and migrating birds are soon to arrive. Before long the forests will be greening, butterflies flitting, and crickets chirping.

Here's what to do: As if you were learning to see for the first time, pay attention to the cues Nature is offering on how to see the world around us.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim