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

May 2, 2010

TROGON VIDEO
It's finally occurred to me that since my camera provides a very simple video-making option I should experiment with providing links to my own videos. If you're online now, my first effort can be viewed, I hope, at the bottom of our Violaceous Trogon page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/v-trogon.htm.

That's a male Violaceous Trogon at midday with his wings held out because of the very high humidity and temperature in the low 90s (34° C). Since my $335 Canon PowerShot SX100IS bought off-the-shelf at Wal-Mart in Natchez, Mississippi is meant as a handheld camera for still photography, the video strikes me as pretty good. I did use a stick to steady the camera but it's still pretty shaky. I'm especially happy with the audio.

Nowadays at any time of the day you're likely to hear this species calling its typical trogon kow-kow-kow-kow... call, on an on until sometimes you wish he'd stop. That's the call I was planning to show you. However, as soon as I clicked the camera's shutter this bird stopped his normal calling, looked over his shoulder and started making a completely different call.

*****

HOUSE WREN
At one time of the year or another House Wrens, TROGLODYTES AEDON, can found throughout the US and southern Canada. In most of that area they're strictly summer nesters, though in the US Deep South they're winter visitors, and in much of the US South they occur only during migration.

If you're a "lumper" -- someone who lumps similar looking and maybe intergrading populations into one big species -- you'd say that House Wrens, Troglodytes aedon, occur from Canada to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of southern South America, manifesting along its way several recognizably different local populations. However, if you're a "splitter," tending to recognize those different-looking populations as different species, then you'd say that what we have here isn't the House Wren at all, but rather the Southern House Wren, Troglodytes musculus.

Whether or not our local House Wrens are regular House Wrens or Southern House Wrens, our birds have been awfully busy lately, sometimes seen carrying nesting material in their beaks. Occasionally you hear brief snatches of their pretty chortling, warbling, trilling calls, but mainly you see them rushing about like little flurries of wind-driven brown leaves.

They're pretty shy, to be wrens, so getting a picture has been hard. However, this week I did get one, so you can judge for yourself whether our birds -- darker than those found up North -- deserve to be regarded as a separate species. The image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502wr.jpg.

*****

A BROWN BAT
A brown bat hung from a rafter in a room adjoining the old church, so I took the flash-assisted picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502bt.jpg.

Best I can tell, that bat really is sticking its tongue out at me. Also, best I can tell, it's the Argentine Brown Bat, EPTESICUS FURINALIS. There's no field guide to Yucatec bats, however, and there are similar species. Internet pictures of Argentine Brown Bats look like this one, plus that species is known to be common from Mexico to Argentina, and often roosts in buildings, so that's a good guess.

Also, the tragus -- that little triangular flap of flesh visible inside the base of each ear -- is the right size and shape for that species, and that's an important feature.

I think that Argentine Brown Bats must be this area's "standard bat" -- average size and shape, coming out at dusk, catching insects, and doing all the other normal batty things. I'll need to see a few more, though, before figuring out if sticking the tongue out is normal for them.

*****

SNAKE ID UPDATE
In this year's February 28 Newsletter I linked to a picture of a thick-bodied, two-ft-long, tan-gray snake and asked if anyone could help identify it. It's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100228sn.jpg.

James Christensen in Washington State has identified the snake as Freminville's Scorpion-hunter, STENORRHINA FREMINVILLII. That species is pictured in Campbell's Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize, but I dismissed it as our snake's possible identity because Campbell's picture shows a snake with very conspicuous, narrow, black lines running the body's length. Jim points out, however, that "you have to read the fine text." And it's true: buried way down in the text Campbell says that Freminville's Scorpion-hunter's body may be uniformly colored.

Actually we've run into this species before, in a chicken house near Dzemul, northwestern Yucatán, where Ana María saved the critter from upset hens. Back then we identified that snake accurately using a different book written by Chiapas's famous naturalist Miguel del Toro, and I passed along this information from del Toro's notes:

"The snake mainly eats insects, spiders and scorpions. To deal with the dangerous stingers of the latter, the snake has evolved a simple but effective behavior: The moment it captures a scorpion it contracts its body in such as way that its scales overlap, effectively increasing its armament. At the same time, the snake coils its body around the victim so the scorpion can't position its stinger for a jab."

*****

A BROWN ANOLE
The new Maya hut already was occupied by the time I moved into it, for it'd sat finished for a week or so before I got there, and lots of roaming critters know a good thing when they see it. On my first night in the hut a Common House Gecko occasionally erupted with his Krrrk krrrk krrrk! Also, during my first breakfast there a brownish, seven-inch-long (18 cm) lizardy something came jumping from wall pole to wall pole inside the hut.

This week one morning as I campfired my breakfast into existence the brownish, lizardy entity came working along the wall again, preying on invertebrates too small for me to see. I happened to have the camera handy so you can see who it was, illuminated by the camera's flash and with outside greenery showing through the crack in the wall at the right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502an.jpg.

Once again nothing like this was pictured in Campbell's book, so, having just seen how handily James in Washington State identifies Yucatán's reptiles, I shipped the picture off to him and the very next day this verdict came back: female Brown Anole, ANOLIS SAGREI MAYENSIS. Campbell's book does picture a very dissimilar-looking male of this species, but Campbell calls it the Mayan Coastal Anole, Norops sagrei, which I assume is an older name. Once again it takes "reading the fine print" in Campbell's book before learning that the female has blotchy sides and a "pale tan or yellowish dorsal stripe" running down the back.

So this is a fine observation, especially because Campbell regards the species as not commonly found far from the coast, though he makes special mention of a population here at Chichén Itzá. I like to imagine that long ago someone, maybe a Maya citizen on pilgrimage to Chichén Itzá, brought from the coast a pet Brown Anole and let it go so that today we have this isolated population. But that's fantasizing. Natural processes could just as easily explain it. The species is distributed from southern Florida and the Caribbean south along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts to Costa Rica.

*****

A YUCATÁN BANDED GECKO
Sweeping out the old church's storeroom where I lived for nearly six months one of my friends pointed to a small heap of debris and said that a little critter was hidden beneath it, a bicho. I poked at it with a finger and the Yucatán's prettiest gecko, a Yucatán Banded Gecko, COLEONYX ELEGANS, waddled onto the open floor. You can see just how pretty the species is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502gk.jpg.

The face with its big eyes with vertically elliptical pupils and -- unusual for geckos -- well-developed eyelids, can be admired at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502gl.jpg.

Campbell in his Amphibians and Reptiles of Northern Guatemala, the Yucatán, and Belize tells us that Yucatán Banded Geckos are mostly nocturnal and, lacking adaptations for climbing, live under rocks and logs. This is my second time to meet the species, and both times it was in a trashy corner of an abandoned room.

The species name elegans, or "elegant," probably coincides with your own feeling that this is a particularly pretty, wonderful little creature. This wasn't the opinion of my shaman friend José who stared at my picture with disgust in his face, saying that an even uglier such a thing usually could be found in the dark corners of another of the old church's storerooms. (When I went to look, it was the Turnip- tailed Gecko I told you about last November at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/turntail.htm)

José continued by telling me that our Yucatán Banded Gecko deals a deadly sting with the tip of its tail. This is a belief I've heard again and again throughout the Yucatán but of course none of our lizards sting with their tail-tips.

I'm always amazed by the Maya people's enormous store of information about plants, especially medicinal ones. However, in the many cultures of the 40 or so countries I've visited, I've never encountered any people so misinformed and hysterical about reptiles as the Maya. My friend José is actually a level-headed and very smart individual, but nothing I could say could convince him of the Yucatán Banded Gecko's charming innocence.

One reason people may get especially hysterical over the presence of Yucatán Banded Geckos may be because of the species' bold patterning, which in Nature often serves as a warning for truly dangerous organisms. Another might be the species' behavior when disturbed. It raises its body, inflates its throat, and waves its tail, maybe even making a soft purring sound... But that's all bluff.

I've often wondered whether the Maya's spectacular fear of reptiles might be an echo of former times when the Plumed Serpent Quetzalcoatl was worshiped and the gods demanded human sacrifice, and endless warring to capture those who would be sacrificed.

*****

MEXICAN PONYTAIL
Once again this week I had to make a run into Mérida, the Yucatán's capital city, to deal with visa matters. One of the most eye-catching plants, a 20-ft-tall (6 meters), palm-like tree in full bloom can seen next to a bank on the big boulevard Paseo de Montejo at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502bc.jpg.

The tree is not a palm, which becomes believable when you see that the leaves are not dissected, palmy fronds but rather long, slender, undivided, drooping blades. It's not a yucca because yucca flowers are much larger then these, which are tiny. A three-ft- long inflorescence of hundreds of tiny flowers is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502bd.jpg.

An individual flower on the tip of my finger, my finger's prints providing scale, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502be.jpg.

Often marketed up North as a potted plant called the Mexican Ponytail, this is a member of the genus Beaucarnea, probably BEAUCARNEA RECURVATA.

Potted plants of this species usually stand about three feet tall and consist of a nearly spherical, kohlrabi-like trunk atop which emerges a single fountain of tough, slender blades with sharp, finely serrated margins. For years I had one that got to about seven feet tall before I gave it away, and it still had only that single stem. However, you can see that older plants definitely develop branches.

This is one plant that's native and endemic to the Yucatan, and much planted worldwide because of its novel and pretty appearance, and ease of cultivation. It's such an unusual plant that taxonomists can't agree on what family to put it in. Often it's placed in the Agave Family, sometimes the Lily, and sometimes the small Switch-Plant Family, the Ruscaceae.

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A DATE PALM'S SPINY LOWER PINNAE
Another tree along Mérida's Paseo de Montejo catching my attention was indeed a palm, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502dp.jpg.

That's the Canary Island Date Palm, PHOENIX CANARIENSIS, much planted in gentile parts of big towns all across Mexico and the rest of the world's tropics and subtropics. It really is a native of the Canary Islands.

By "date palm" we mean the genus Phoenix, and several well known and useful date palm species exist. The Date Palm producing the dates we put in into our fruitcakes is Phoenix dactylifera. That species naturally produces several stems unlike the Canary Island Date Palm's single big one.

The genus Phoenix's various species usually can be identified fairly quickly by noticing that their large fronds are "pinnately compound," like a big feather, and the fronds' lower pinnae -- the frond divisions next to the trunk -- are spiny. A picture showing several frond bases with very stiff, sharp, lower pinnae among inflorescences of male flowers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100502dq.jpg.

*****

LIVELY LITTLE TOWNS
Last Monday in Mérida, dealing with visa matters, I wandered for miles along little one-lane streets away from the main boulevards, and on the bus coming and going I looked closely at the little towns we passed through: Yokdzenot, Libre Unión, Holca, Kantunil, Hoctún, Tahmek...

One striking cultural difference between small-town Yucatán and small-town USA is that in Yucatán's villages small, locally based businesses still flourish. It's amazing how many tiny grocery stores, eateries, animal-food stores, hardware stores, barbershops, mechanics shops, etc. not only exist but seem to be doing a fair business. The Yucatán's villages buzz with activity day and night. Today small-town Yucatán is much the way I remember small- town Kentucky being back in the 50s and early 60s -- before anyone dreamed of bypassing local services by driving twenty or more miles to the nearest Wal-Mart for general shopping.

Riding the big, rumbling, orange and white Oriente bus on a hot Monday afternoon, the seats filled with sunburned old men wearing straw hats, women in white, floral-embroidered huipiles, young people chatting or listening to their iMacs, I asked myself this:

Did the vibrant, colorful, small-town America I knew as a child lose something of value when it changed to what it is today? If it did, was anything it got in return as valuable as what it lost?

After lots of miles of thinking I decided that the question was too complex to answer. After all, those changes were evolutionary for our society, the evolution is ongoing, and it's always hard to guess what the outcome of evolution will be.

For example, about 65 million years ago something from outer space struck Earth near the Yucatán's northwestern coast (Google "CHICXULUB impact") possibly causing the extinction of about half the planet's marine genera, and nearly all the dinosaurs. Yet, some would describe that event as a blessing, for it may have set the stage for mammalian evolution, which lead to us humans. Without that collision and its awful aftermath, Earth's dominant, big-brained life form today might well be covered with scales, not hairs.

Thinking about all this while gazing through the window at all the interesting, friendly little towns and the endless scrub with a surprising number of flowering trees, by the time our bus was approaching its next-to-the-last stop, the Chichén Itzá stop, where the most exotic looking foreigners sometimes come aboard so they can continue on to Cancún, my question about whether small-town USA had lost something had morphed into two somewhat mellower observations:

First, long ago I was a farmboy in Kentucky but on this particular day I'd been on a bus traveling across the Yucatán. Those were features of my own evolution, and there was no way of knowing what it all meant, or where it was all leading, yet, that day, I'd had a pretty nice day.

Second, even if this or that strand of evolving reality sinks into oblivion or extinction, the Universal Creative Impulse behind all the evolving loses nothing, keeps on going, keeps coming up with new and beautiful things.

Two observations, two happy endings, not a bad bus trip...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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