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

April 25, 2010

MOTMOT AT BREAKFAST
Each morning as I'm having breakfast behind the new hut a certain Blue-crowned Motmot, MOMOTUS MOMATA, comes to a certain perch, stares at me for a certain period of time, then flies away. I know it's the same motmot each time because one of his tail-feather tips -- his "racket tips" -- has broken off. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425mm.jpg.

During my first four months here the only motmots seen were Turquoise-browed Motmots, which you can compare at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/motmottq.htm.

But a little over a month ago this Blue-crowned arrived and hasn't left. If you compare the above pictures you can see that the two species are very similar. The Blue-crowned has a black crown while the Turquoise's is greenish. The most easily seen difference, though, is that the open spaces in the tail feathers (bare tail shafts) of the Blue-crowned Motmot are much smaller than those of the Turquoise-browed.

There's a story behind why the Blue-crowned Motmot in the picture belies its name by having a black crown. The species is distributed over a large area, from northeastern Mexico through all of Central America to Peru and Argentina, and presents several races or subspecies. In northeastern Mexico the subspecies coeruliceps does have a blue crown, but our subspecies lessonii has a black one. Apparently someone who saw the blue-crowned type got to give the species its English name.

In the Yucatan we have only these two motmot species, though six species occur in all of Mexico. In other places I've stayed at in the Yucatan we always had one species but not both. My impression is that the two species are so in competition for the same ecological niche that they don't like the other species in their territories. I've seen a Turquoise-browed chase the Blue-crowned pretty hard, even though the Turquoise-broweds are smaller (13-15 inches) than the Blue-crowneds (15-17 inches). Maybe that's why my morning visitor is missing a racket tip.

*****

AND A SCARLET TANAGER, TOO
I see both motmot species each day so motmots have lost their novelty for me. However, Friday morning during breakfast a Scarlet Tanager flew into the top of the tree above me and its dazzling redness against the sky's limpid blueness was very impressive, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425st.jpg.

Beyond the sheer prettiness, the tanager's presence was of particular interest because Scarlet Tanagers do not overwinter in Mexico. They winter in South America from Colombia to Bolivia. The only time we see them here is as they migrate between North and South America.

Friday morning's bird acted just like a visitor in a rush, during his ten-minute visit nervously hopping about as if he couldn't find a comfortable perch, and pecking at anything halfway edible looking, no matter how small or unappetizing it seemed.

In the above picture, at the upper left, those immature fruits are Spanish Plum or Yellow Mombin, Spondias mombin, which we met in Querétaro, and show at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/spondias.htm.

This is one of two trees above me as I take my breakfast each morning and currently the leafless tree is overladen with immature fruits. Each day White-fronted Parrots come testing to see if they're ripe enough to eat yet. Someday soon we're all going to have more Spanish Plums than we can deal with.

*****

PIXYISH KITE-SWALLOWTAILS
Last week's unexpected rainstorm has engendered a whole new crop of butterflies. Maybe the most eye- catching are the ones who gather in groups of ten or so on the ground right outside my hut's door. That's where in the past the grounds people burned the big fronds that continually fall from our Royal Palms, so the soil there is black with ash, and maybe contains nutrients butterflies crave. A visitor is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425sw.jpg.

The Northerner immediately thinks "Zebra Swallowtail" but if you'd see how this species flies so nervously and daintily, and how when it alights it quivers its wings as if it can hardly stand to touch the ground, you'd know that this species is more animated and "ethereal," like bubbly pixies, than the Northern Zebra.

Bea in Ontario pegs this is a Dark Kite-Swallowtail, EURYTIDES PHILOLAUS, found in deciduous and semideciduous tropical, lowland forests from southern Texas through here to Costa Rica. Even though it's considered a kite-swallowtail instead of just a plain swallowtail, it belongs to the Swallowtail Subfamily, the Papilioninae.

The great Butterflies and Moths of North America page on this species says that Dark Kite-Swallowtail caterpillars feed on members of the Anona Family. We have a few Anona trees here but it would seem not enough to support such large numbers of Dark Kite-Swallowtails. The site also says that the species is most numerous at the beginning of the rainy season, which is about now.

*****

WHITE ANGLED-SULPHURS
Some time back I sent Bea in Ontario a picture showing the side view of our most conspicuous yellow butterfly -- side view because as soon as this species lands it folds its wings together above its back. Bea replied that without knowing whether the top of the wings were white or yellow, she just couldn't decide which species it was. This week I managed to glimpse -- in a matter of maybe a tenth of a second -- flashes of white just before the butterfly landed. He's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425su.jpg.

The white upper wings make this a White Angled-Sulphur, ANTEOS CLORINDE, found in many kinds of open, sunny, subtropical and tropical habitats from as far north (as irregular migrants) in the US as Nebraska and northeast Colorado, south through here all the way to Argentina. Just about anyplace in tropical and subtropical America you might run into this species. Its caterpillars feed on species of Cassia, in the Bean Family, and Cassia is a ubiquitous genus throughout the American hotlands.

The markings and venation on this species' underwings are so distinct that it seemed odd that to distinguish the species you'd need to know whether the wing tops were yellow or white. Bea sent the addresses of the two species in question, along with the remark that it's amazing that two species can look so similar from below, yet so different from above. You can compare them yourself, maybe using your split-screen feature:

WHITE ABOVE: Anteos clorinde - White Angled-Sulphur http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/anteos_clorinde.htm  

YELLOW ABOVE: Anteos maerula (Yellow Angled-Sulphur) http://www.mariposasmexicanas.com/anteos_maerula.htm  

*****

SPRINGTIME COMES TO THE YUCATAN
Last week when I was in Mérida dealing with my visa situation I returned here to find that the year's first good rain had left about 2.5 inches (7 cm) of rainwater in upturned buckets.

The rainy season usually gets underway here in late May so such a heavy rain was unusual for mid April. Whether the rain was early or not, it certainly has greened our landscape. Where bare soil had stood, now there's a carpet of little seedlings, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425sp.jpg.

So many bushes and trees are sprouting leaves and new stems that where earlier there was nothing but gray- brown scrub, now a diffuse greenness softens the view, as at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425sq.jpg.

Except for the big bromeliad at the right, the Aechmea bracteata, and the fact that when I took the picture it was in the low 90s (34°C), that picture could have been taken in any chilly, early-spring woods up North.

With all the new flowerings, sproutings and hatchings, it's a glorious time to be a naturalist in the Yucatán.

*****

"DOG JASMINE"
One of the prettiest-flowering trees these days is one without a decent English name. I call it "Dog Jasmine" because in Spanish sometimes it's called Jazmín de Perro, which translates to that. Actually, because its future fruit will be a double-bag affair, the most commonly used Spanish names translate to such things as "Pig Balls," "Bull Balls," etc. However the fruits are a long time off and the sweet-smelling flowers deserve a more elegant name, so, "Dog Jasmine." It's TABERNAEMONTANA AMYGDALIFOLIA, and you can see inch- broad flowers and freshly emerging, opposite leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425ta.jpg.

This is a member of the same family in which we find Mandevilla vine, Oleander, Periwinkle and Frangipani, the Apocynaceae. Members of that family usually exude "milk," or white latex, when injured, and so does "Dog Jasmine." Often the latex of plants in this family is poisonous or medicinal. In Mexico sometimes Dog Jasmine's latex has been used as a laxative and a purgative, but those "cures" might just be the body's reaction to a mild poisoning. Las Plantas Medicinales de México urges caution with the plant.

An interesting feature of the flower is how the five stamens are inserted at the mouth of the corolla tube, with their pointed, baglike, pollen-producing anthers poking from the opening like little noses, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425tb.jpg.

Another Tabernaemontana, T. citrifolia, is very similar and is reported from the Yucatan, but its anthers remain hidden in the corolla tube -- they're "included" instead of "exserted" as these are.

In the context of our current burgeoning "spring," Dog Jasmine surrounded by the forest's diffuse greenness creates an impression much like the North's Flowering Dogwoods, except that Dog Jasmine trees, about the size of a northern dogwood, is more delicate-looking and somehow even more evocative of new beginnings.

*****

PIICH TREES FLOWERING & LEAFING
In the April 11th Newsletter you saw that our big Piich trees, while fruiting, were leafless, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100411pj.jpg.

Now just two Newsletters later, in what has to be one of the most spectacularly quick turnarounds in the American tropics, the Piiches are lushly green with half-grown, feathery, bipinnate leaves and loaded with jillions of white, spherical flower heads, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425en.jpg.

Both the leaves and the flowering heads are very similar to those of many Acacia species, to which the Piich is closely related. However, a flower close-up shows an important difference if you know what to look for: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425eo.jpg.

As in an Acacia flower, the Piich's blossom has many fuzzy, white filaments topped by small, yellow, pollen-producing anthers issuing from the corolla. However, notice that each flower's many filaments (the stamens' "stems") join together into a cylinder that continues into the corolla's tube. Acacia filaments don't do that. They remain separate all the way to the base of the flower (they're "free").

That may not seem like much of a difference but to a botanist such a detail is like an animal having hands with separate fingers as opposed to flippers; the feature just signifies a whole different organism. You can see the "staminal column" I removed from one flower, clearly showing the well formed cylinder, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425ep.jpg.

Note that this week the Piiches bear both flowers and fruits. In other words, it takes a year for their fruits to develop. Later when we experiment with making a hot drink from roasted, ground-up Piich seeds you'll see that the fruits are substantial, primitive- looking things that well might take a year to form.

Walking beneath a big Piich loaded with flowers on a calm, humid morning is a heady experience because of the flowers' sweet fragrance.

Piich trees, sometimes called Guanacastes, are frequent in open forests from Mexico to Venezuela, and are one of the three or four largest trees in that area. Tree lovers in Mexico and Central America simply need to know this tree. Our main page about it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/piich.htm.

*****

HABIM FLOWERING
So many plants are suddenly flowering that I fear over-flowering you. However, yet another conspicuously flowering, large tree very important because of its commonness and usefulness is the Habim, Jabim or Jabin. (In Spanish the J is pronounced as an English H, and in Maya "m" sounds are interchangeable with "n" sounds, to the desperation of students of the language!) In English usually we call Habim Fish-Poison Tree for reasons given on our main Habim page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/jabim.htm.

You can see the flowering top of a large Habim tree, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425hb.jpg.

The ground beneath the tree photographed above was littered with so many fallen blossoms that it looked as if a snow flurry had passed through. You can see a flower, looking a lot like a garden bean flower, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425hc.jpg.

Habim flowers have the right to look like bean flowers because the tree is a member of the Bean Family. The flower is classically "papilionaceous," typical of the Bean Family. In other words, it shows bilateral symmetry instead of radial, and of its five petals its top petal, the "banner" or "standard," is enlarged, its two side petals, or "wings," are held out like two vertically-held hands guarding the sexual parts between them, and the two lower petals are fused into a single scoop-shaped "keel," which usually folds around the sexual parts and arcs upward.

It's a little unusual for a flower to bear such a conspicuous green spot. This got me to wondering what a bee would see looking at a white flower with a green spot. On the Internet I found that bees can see only four colors, of which one color, ultraviolet, is invisible to normal human vision. Bees are blind to red, and to them orange, yellow and green are the same color –- yellow.

Therefore, a honeybee visiting a white Habim flower with a green spot will see a flower with a yellow spot. What color the flower itself is is hard to say because it might be reflecting UV.

*****

MOTTLED TUBEROSE
Hiking along a trail with my face skyward looking for flowering vines, bushes and trees, something soft and spidery brushed across my legs. Expecting something like a huge Granddaddy Longlegs, it turned out to be an unusual inflorescence bearing numerous flowers with very long, stiff, spider-leg-like stamens, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425mh.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425mi.jpg you can see how six long, stiff, purple filaments (the stamen's "stems") spread from each green-tepaled flower, and each filament is tipped by a curved, yellow, pollen-producing anther attached by its back. The stamens extend 2-½ inches (6 cm) beyond the corolla.

These interesting flowers cluster at the tip of a long-stemmed spike so long (about a yard, or meter) and top-heavy with flowers that it bends over almost horizontally. You can see spikes lying across my trail at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425mf.jpg.

There you can also see that the spikes arise from agave-type rosettes of succulent blades. Moreover, there's something special about the blades, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100425mg.jpg.

The green blades are heavily mottled with purplish spots.

The plant is the Mottled Tuberose, MANFREDA VARIEGATA, found here and there in dry chaparral or moist situations, on rocky slopes and in oak woods from the southernmost tip of southern Texas down through eastern Mexico, to here. It's such a pretty and peculiar species that it's sometimes planted in rock gardens. Apparently some plants bear dark green mottling, or no mottling at all.

The species was first recognized by science in 1865 when it was assigned to the genus Agave. Later it was shifted to the genus Polianthes, but since 1903 has been known as Manfreda. Sometimes the genus has been placed in the Lily Family but now the Flora of North America assigns it to the Agave Family. The Flora of North America also reports that the genus Manfreda is named "For Manfredus de Monte Imperiale, fourteenth-century Italian writer on medical simples."

*****

BACKYARD NATURE FORUM SHOWING LIFE
Bob Mc in California, Sarah Beth in Pennsylvania, Sue Nell in Louisiana, Rich in Tequisquiapan, Mexico and others have brought some new life to our Backyard Nature Forum, exchanging experiences about ground squirrels, chipmunks and even octopuses. I'm tickled to see that. If you'd like to join the fun, go to http://groups.google.com/group/backyard-nature/.

*****

SIMPLE LIVING
Living in Hacienda Chichen's traditional Maya house, sometimes I become part of the grounds' exhibitions. Visitors photograph the house, peep inside and sometimes enter. Typically people claim that they'd like to live so simply. If asked how a simple life would be different for them they couch their thoughts in terms of escaping unavoidable chores and obligations: Not having to worry about the plumbing, the electrical bill, property insurance, maintaining the gutters, keeping the refrigerator filled, etc.

The thing is, for me, "simple living" has a completely different definition. The avoidance of chores and obligations has little to do with it. To me, simple living is a consequence of having a simple and clear concept in mind about what I want and need, and spending nearly all my time working toward my goals.

Here's how it works: Since I vividly know what I want, and I spend nearly all my time striving toward my goals, I've quit striving for the unnecessary things our culture insists we must have. And maybe that's the key to the simplification process, for in my life I've found that it's the quest for unnecessary things -- especially working for money to buy the things -- that clutters and confuses a life.

Long ago I blundered into this revelation when I began putting into practice a belief acquired by studying Nature while accepting humans as part of Nature. That belief was this:

That each human comes into existence with his or her own special blend of talents, needs and passions. That's the first part of the belief. The second part is that when our talents, needs and passions are given free expression in a communal setting, not only are the community's necessary services automatically taken care of -- those with gardening urges are gardening, those with teaching urges are teaching, those with policing urges are policing -- but also the community's citizens are happy and fulfilled.

This belief seems almost too good to be true. However, in Nature all plants and animals do what their genetic programming instructs them to do (what they end up "wanting" to do) -- so why not the same with humans?

I regard my "simple life," as the tourists call it, not as a goal I have succeeded in, but as a byproduct of living according to the belief that each of us possesses certain talents, needs and passions which should be freely exercised in our everyday lives.

A second byproduct of putting into practice this belief is that by exercising our natural talents, needs and passions, we often end up in very unforeseen and interesting places -- like a little thatch-roofed hut in the tropics.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net