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

April 18, 2010

A LAUGHING FALCON'S WELCOME
I've been keeping you updated on the building of the traditional, thatch-roofed Maya house here at Hacienda Chichen. For the most part the house is now finished, and I've moved into it. There's more about that below.

On my first morning there I'd prepared breakfast stew over the inside fire, smoke was filtering through the thatch (Maya homes don't have chimneys), and I was sitting behind the house looking up into the big trees when I heard it: ha!-ha!-ha!-ha!...

The Laughing Falcon, HERPETOTHERES CACHINNANS, glided overhead just above the treetops, looking down exactly at me, passed over the house and landed in the big Piich tree out front. You can see him with his distinctive erect posture, whitish underparts and dark brown mask side lighted by the rising sun at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418lf.jpg.

Laughing Falcons are about twice the size of the North's American Kestrel and my experience is that they're far more often heard than seen. When I first arrived here I thought the hotel across the road was keeping a Peacock penned up that called all through the night but it turned out that it was a Laughing Falcon, and the calling has continued these last six months, sometimes day and night. It comes and goes and shifts around, and if you try to track it down you find that the call is uncommonly far-carrying, for the bird is always much farther away than you'd thought.

The actual laugh call, which anyone would say is laughlike, is heard fairly rarely -- mostly as he sails overhead. What you usually hear is the single somewhat nasal wah! repeated about once each two seconds. If two are calling to one another throughout most of a day, it can be trying.

Laughing Falcons are distributed from the humid Mexican lowlands south to Peru and northern Argentina and they're found in many habitats, from forests to open areas with scattered trees, to palm groves. They're not really rare birds, but also not common. Even if you've gotten tired of hearing them, they're always a treat to see.

*****

CHECKERED-SKIPPER
A white-dotted butterfly zipped across the trail and landed on a rock, spreading his wings against the early-morning sun. He was a little similar to the Tulcis Crescent that was so abundant awhile back, but different. I snapped his picture, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418py.jpg.

As usual I sent the picture to butterfly-ID volunteer Bea in Ontario and this time instead of replying with a single choice she gave me three. After reviewing her links for each of the three I understood, for I couldn't see the differences between them. If you'd like to try -- remembering that relative AMOUNTS of light and dark pigmentation are far less important than spot DISTRIBUTION -- here are links to each of the three names Bea sent:

http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/pyrgus_albescens.htm

Pyrgus oileus (Tropical Checkered-Skipper) http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/pyrgus_oileus.htm

Pyrgus philetas (Desert Checkered-Skipper) http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/pyrgus_philetas.htm

On the Internet a technical paper acknowledges the problem. Basically you need to dissect the butterflies and examin their genitalia. You can download that paper yourself, in PDF format, and see drawings of variously shaped male and female genitalia, at http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/docs/ADW-neotropical-skipper-notes.pdf.

Therefore: There's a grouping of butterfly species known as the Checkered Skippers. That's what we'll call the one in the picture, but who knows which Checkered Skipper it is?

*****

PINK TABEBUIAS AGLOW
I've now been at Hacienda Chichen almost for six months, so my six-month tourist visa is about to expire. My hosts have graciously offered to help me get a special visa enabling a longer stay, an FM3 it's called, so last Monday I bused into Mérida to be in position for an early Tuesday-morning meeting with immigration officials. That Monday I walked for miles in Mérida, especially along the Paseo de Montejo, a broad, shaded, grand old boulevard graced with many colonial buildings and monuments to famous Mexicans... and interesting tropical plants.

Throughout most of the year the town's most audacious horticultural coloring is provided by various bright shades of bougainvillea, which I've introduced you to at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bougainv.htm.

That was also the case this week, though right now a native tree is just about as pretty and conspicuous with its flowering. I call it the Pink Tabebuia. It's TABEBUIA ROSEA, a member of the same family as the North's Trumpet Creeper vine and Catalpa tree. You can see a small part of a tree with its many pink flowers above and strewn on a sidewalk near the Immigration Office, with bougainvillea of two color types lavishly sprawling over a fence in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418tb.jpg.

Some complain of how the Pink Tabebuia's flowers litter areas below them. The tree's beauty when flowering far outweighs that detraction. In certain of Mérida's older neighborhoods right now the streets positively glow with the Pink Tabebuia's pinkness.

We've already taken a look at Pink Tabebuia's flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/tabebuia.htm.

*****

LEBBECK-TREE'S UGLY TIME
In counterpoint to the Pink Tabebuia's current peak of gorgeousness, another frequently planted street tree currently catches your attention because it looks so scruffy. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418ab.jpg.

That's a Lebbeck-Tree, ALBIZIA LEBBECK, completely leafless but absolutely burgeoning with 10-inch-long fruits. Since the mimosa-like genus Albizia is in the Bean Family, the fruits are legumes. A close-up of many dried-out legumes hanging, rattling in the wind, their beans clearly visible within the pods, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418ac.jpg.

We've run into this interesting tree before, back at Sabacché, when it was flowering toward the end of the rainy season in late August and early September. There we learned that the tree's dense shade, attractive form, and very fragrant, greenish-yellow, egg-size, powder-puff flower clusters account for the tree's popularity. As I wrote at that time, "If you've ever known a woman who'd powder-puff herself with scented talc, you might think of her when you walk by this tree, its honeyed scent pooling in its shadows."

You can see what the Lebbeck-Tree, native to tropical Asia and northern Australia, looked like in flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lebbeck.htm.

*****

CIRICOTE PUNCTUATION
Here and there, neither common nor rare, small, native Yucatec trees known as Ciricotes, CORDIA DODECANDRA, bore reddish-orange, 1-½ inch long flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418cc.jpg.

In the arid scrub surrounding Mérida Ciricote trees now at the end of the dry season mostly are leafless, so open clusters of flame-colored flowers terminate curved stems the way fireworks explode at the end of a rocket's gently arcing trajectory. But most Ciricotes I saw in Mérida, maybe with roots in drainage channels below the city, still bore rough-hairy, six-inch-long leaves, as in the picture.

Ciricotes were too uncommon to imprint whole streets with their character the way Pink Tabebuias and Lebbeck-Trees did. They were landscape punctuation, not whole sentences as were those two.

An interesting feature of the genus Cordia, to which Ciricote belongs, is its "4-lobed style," the style being the ovary's "neck," and ending with stigmatic zones where pollen germinates. You can see the long, reddish-orange style emerging from about ten stamens at the corolla's throat, and tipped with yellow lobes, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418cd.jpg.

I interpret the conspicuously yellow lobes as simply announcing themselves as landing pads for pollinating insects who will leave their pollen at the stigmas, then follow the style to nectar down deep in the corolla tube. Finally, when they exit the flower the last thing they'll touch will be the stamens' anthers, in the picture covered with whitish pollen. The pollinators then will carry this pollen to other blossoms.

*****

BO-TREES
Commonly planted along Paseo de Montejo were large, imposing trees with smooth, dark gray bark and leaves looking somewhat like cottonwood leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418bo.jpg.

Noticing how certain trunks of these trees seemed to form themselves from several converging, arm-thick, woody, viny stems, it was apparent that this was a kind of strangler fig -- one of those fig species starting out as a small plant growing epiphytically in a tree, then becoming viny, and its vine stems eventually growing together, "strangling" its host, and becoming a tree, taking the place of the host tree.

And if you need more proof that we have a fig here, notice the ring around the stem where a leaf's petiole attaches to the stem at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418bp.jpg.

The ring -- typical of fig stems -- is a scar left by a "stipular ring," which is a short cylinder of tissue surrounding the young stem, created by grown-together stipules. Recently we saw such grown-together stipules on the Noni, which you can review at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100214st.jpg.

More evidence that this is a fig is provided by the white splatters on the leaves you probably thought was bird poop. It's dried, white latex, which exudes from most fig leaves where they're injured.

Tropical America is home to several species of strangler fig. This particularly one wasn't American, though, but from India and thereabouts, where it is regarded as sacred. It was the Bo-Tree, sometimes called the Peepul, FIGUS RELIGIOSA. Bo-Trees are easily identified not only by their large size and elephant-leg-like trunks, but by those more or less triangular, evergreen leaves with their long, slender tips and even longer, yellowish stems, or petioles.

This is the tree beneath which the Buddha was sitting when he "awakened." In India while backpacking in the backcountry I've seen Hindu sadhus meditating below Bo-Trees, and many Buddhist and animist shrines placed beneath, upon and within Bo-Trees.

*****

SPINY AMARANTH
Not all of Mérida's street plants were noteworthy ornamentals. Flowering nowadays at the bases of streetlights, along breaking-up sidewalk edges and in low, moist parts of abandoned lots is the plant shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418am.jpg.

That's the knee-high Spiny Amaranth, AMARANTHUS SPINOSUS, and the very second I saw it a poignant memory flashed through my mind, one from Kentucky farmboy days, of me going out to the pond to fish for catfish, carrying a tin can with a few earthworms in it for bait, barefooted, trying hard to not step on a Spiny Amaranth because its spines HURT!

In the picture you might guess that those pale green, slender items are spikelike flower heads, or inflorescences. Those long inflorescences bear only male flowers. Each male flower consists of five 1/8th- inch long (2 mm) scale-like "tepals" and five stamens. You can some male flowers, with most of the baglike, pollen-producing anthers having fallen off their white, bristly filaments, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418ao.jpg.

Spiny Amaranth's female flowers similarly bear five tepals, but instead of stamens have three spreading stigmas atop an ovary, which eventually matures into an egg-shaped fruit-type known as a utricle. Utricles are bladdery, one-seeded fruits not splitting open at maturity. Female flowers occur in more or less spherical little bunches in the leaf axils -- where the leaves' petioles attach to the stem -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418an.jpg.

In that picture you also see where the plant puts its spines -- exactly where they're needed, pointed in exactly the right direction, to deter probing herbivore lips. They're only about half an inch long (15 mm) but sure can make a farmboy jump when they're stepped on just right. In that last picture, toward the top, you can also see fuzzy stigmas atop the ovaries filtering the air for pollen.

Spiny Amaranth is native to tropical America's humid lowlands but now is established as a weed in the tropics worldwide -- it's "pantropical." And as I could already tell you back in Kentucky during the early 1950s, it also occurred well beyond the tropics. On our farm it was limited to the barnyard, where the richest, most trampled-on soil was.

*****

LIVING IN A TRADITIONAL MAYA HOUSE
Back in January I began keeping you updated on the traditional, thatch-roofed house being built here at Hacienda Chichen. The main structure is now finished, only needing a shelf or two inside and a few items like that. You can see it in all its glory at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418h5.jpg.

I've taken a special interest in the house because I was invited to live in it. Last weekend I moved from the old church's storeroom into the house. I still do my computering in the storeroom because it has electricity; the house doesn't.

At Hacienda Chichen I've missed my campfire breakfasts but now I've begun having them again. You can see my early-morning "caldo," or stew, bubbling away inside at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418h6.jpg.

The caldo consists of two liters (quarts) of water, a big handful of chaya leaves, several sprigs of Epazote or "Mexican Tea," a big onion, some garlic, a carrot, a whole habenero pepper, some oatmeal or crumbled tortilla thickening, salt, and a spritz of oil.

At the house's other end I sleep on cedro boards beneath a mosquito net. When I get around to it I'll raise the boards from the ground because ants squeeze beneath the mosquito net and roam over my body at night. Lying on the boards, looking up through the mosquito net, the house's roof structure creates a meditative pattern, treelike, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100418h7.jpg.

From inside the house you can look between the poles and see what's going on outside, but outside you can't see anything inside. You hear birds singing and wind in trees as if you were outside. Wind creates a crinkling like that of windblown tinsel at used-car lots. At night when it sprinkles I hear every drop on the thatch and when thunderstorms rage on the horizon lightning very prettily flashes between the polls. A single candle flame lights the house well enough; a campfire lights up a cozy cocoon. When I'm sitting inside drinking my morning caldo, the caldo's habenero makes me sweat, and breezes move through the walls cooling me off. I like living here.

*****

PARQUE EULOGIO ROSADO
Mérida in supposed to be very hot and glaringly sun- baked in April, so on Tuesday when I stepped from the porch of the Immigration Building into a cool drizzle it was something special. For the rest of the day showers came and went, stunning the town with unexpected cool freshness, with shimmering, silvery reflections instead of stark shadows, and a kind of overall pastel softness instead of the usual rambunctious commercial garishness.

In sprawling Mercado San Benito at a little sidewalk eatery I settled beneath a red table-umbrella with silvery water streaming over its edges and asked for my usual meal: Eggs scrambled with onion, tomato and chili pepper -- a la mexicana, as they say. The plate arrived not only with eggs but also refried beans, a nice salad and a stack of hot tortillas, for it all goes together here, just having scrambled eggs being quite impossible. Forty years ago the salad would have given me severe diarrhea for three days and nights but now my guts are so Mexicanized that I can eat anything with impunity.

When I paid, the middle-aged woman asked me how it'd tasted. I surprised myself by kissing the fingertips I'd held the tortillas with and crooning in English "Wonderful!" The robust, flat-faced lady flashed a smile like that of a child with a new puppy, and the friend she'd been gossiping with patted her on the back.

Nearby in tiny Parque Eulogio Rosado, so small it's not even on my tourist map, I found a bench that tree branches had kept relatively dry. Others hadn't taken the seat because also overhead there cavorted an obstreperous flock of grating, popping, whistling and screeching Great Tailed Grackles. Most people feared that if they sat there they'd be pooped on, but I was in the mood to take a chance, and in the end I got away in immaculate condition.

With bouncy, rhythmic music blasting from half a dozen colorful shops and stalls at the park's edge and a loudspeaker someplace droning on with a fellow hawking snake-oil good for everything from hemorrhoids to diabetes, an old Maya lady, fat, browned by the sun, wearing the lovely traditional white, flower-embroidered smock, or huipil, decided to take a chance on the grackles, too. She sat beside me, kicked off her shoes to reveal pink, puckered toes and soles, and spreading her toes and wiggling them in the cold drizzle moaned with such pleasure and smiled so that everyone all around smiled, too.

But, here's what interested me: That everyone in Parque Eulogio Rosado that day -- at least a hundred individuals -- was lavishly indulging in a kind of existential perfection seldom experienced by many people. Yet surely not one of those around me knew about the Six Miracles of Nature, nor did any carry in his or her head the image of the hand "casting dust into empty space, the dust proliferating, coming alive, blossoming into the Universe with all its dimensions, all its living things, more and more feelings and insights, and unseen currents of creativity... "

These folks worked hard, took siestas, produced babies, some drank too much, most ate too much, they belly-ached and laughed, fought and forgave, sometimes felt good and sometimes got depressed... and from my perspective beneath the bedrizzled grackle tree they presented a living tableau of nirvanic gorgeousness.

In cacophonous Parque Eulogio Rosado I saw the Taoist Yin-Yang Circle forming in the mist, the circle composed of black tadpole entering white tadpole, which itself enters the black one, black and white both marked in their hearts with their opposites, and it seemed to be saying this:

That life seeks understanding finally to understand that what was being sought had been at hand all along. There's no frustration or sense of lost time in realizing this, however, for, as St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) wrote, "All the way to Heaven is Heaven."

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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