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

May 30, 2010

THE ROBINS' POP TUNE
From just before dawn to just after dusk the whole landscape still effervesces with the never-ending, melodious singing of Clay-colored Robins. You can see what they look like, read about them and watch and listen to one singing on our Clay-colored Robin page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/turdgray.htm.

On that page the video of the singing robin was made here about a month ago. Approximately a week after that video was posted I began noticing a new phrase certain singing robins were inserting into their songs. It consisted of two notes similar in tone and quality to the monotonous series of one-note calls the Laughing Falcons were making at that time. There'd be the robin's continual, bubbly call of varied, sometimes echoic or bell-like phrases, then these two "falcon calls" would be inserted, and then the bubbly calls would continue.

Before long it seemed that every robin regularly and persistently inserted falcon calls into his singing, so that for a couple of weeks it was almost annoying hearing those distinctive sounds issuing from all directions, all the time. Then, suddenly, though the robins' calling continued unabated, the falcon sounds began dropping out. During this whole last week I've not heard a single falcon sound.

Though it's gross anthropomorphizing, one wants to guess that one day a robin hit upon the idea of inserting the falcon call, the other robins fancied the new sound and began doing the same, then they all passed through a period of obsessively calling it to one another -- like coast-to-coast teenagers who can't hear and sing enough the newest pop hit -- but then one day abruptly everyone has had enough, can't take it any more, and the once-craved sound just vanishes.

Moreover, this last week I think I've been hearing yet another sound in their calls I've not heard before, a funny-sounding "boing-boing" phrase, and at this writing that's starting to disappear, too, after a much shorter run on the robin hit-parade.

When I was a kid on the Kentucky farm back in 1964 I was a ham radio operator talking with people via shortwave all over the world, in Morse code (my call was WA4PGA). That spring a Mockingbird began calling in a Flowering Peach outside my upstairs window, and before long he was inserting brief phrases of Morse into his song -- clearly recognizable dots and dashes issued at the same pitch -- but of course he never did say much intelligible. That was close to what's been happening here, but that Mockingbird kept sending Morse each spring for two or three years. I've never heard of a call suddenly flashing "into vogue," then just as quickly totally disappearing. Have you?

*****

TADPOLE UPDATE
Last week we saw some of the jillions of tiny frog eggs left in a reflecting pool here at the Hacienda. You can see tadpoles from those eggs a week later at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530tp.jpg.

At this stage there are no hints of legs, though already the head is looking a little froggy, with the eyes clearly visible. The tadpoles spend most of their time grazing on algae at the pool's bottom, though frequently they dart to the surface, gulp air, then return to their foraging. In most tadpole species lungs develop around the time of leg development. A profound change taking place now, invisibly, is that their intestines are changing from long and thin, appropriate for a vegetarian diet, to short and thick, which will be needed by the insect-eating adults.

The name "tadpole" is from the Middle English "taddepol," composed of the elements "tadde," for "toad", and "pol," for "head." Thus a tadpole is a "toad-head," which pretty much describes what appears in my hand. I've always called them tadpoles but I read that others call them "polliwogs" and even "pollywiggles." Both of those names are from the Middle English "polwigle," made up of the same pol found in tadpole, plus "wiglen," the verb for "to wiggle." Thus a polliwog is a wiggling head.

If you know a kid needing to watch a tadpole metamorphose into a frog, there's a page on raising tadpoles at http://allaboutfrogs.org/info/tadpoles.

*****

WHITE SKIPPER
The rainy season's on-time arrival continues to bring forth butterfly species not seen during the dry season, and some are pretty interesting. For example, skippers constitute a family of butterflies, the Hesperiidae, usually easily distinguished by their heads and bodies being very large in proportion to their stubby wings. Also, the vast majority of skippers I've seen were very dark. That's why I was tickled when white skippers suddenly started appearing this week. You can see one dazzling in the sunlight at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530sk.jpg.

Volunteer butterfly identifier Bea in Ontario pegs this as the Laviana White-Skipper, HELIOPETES LAVIANA, a species typical of the edges of brushy areas, trails, roadsides, open woodlands, thorn forests and streamsides from Argentina north through Central America and Mexico to southern Texas, sometimes straying to northern Texas. Its caterpillar hosts feed on members of the Hibiscus Family, of which we have an abundance here, particularly the weed known as Velvet-leaf, genus Abutilon.

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RUDDY DAGGERWING
Another new pretty one, shown flitting about male flowers of the Croton profiled in the next entry, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530dw.jpg.

Bea identifies this one as the Ruddy Daggerwing, MARPESIA PETREUS, a member of the enormous Brush-footed Butterfly Family, the Nymphalidae, and in the same subfamily as North America's well-known Admirals.

Ruddy Daggerwings are fair-sized butterflies, about three inches across (9 cm), orangish on top, and mottled brown and black below, camouflaged as a dead leaf. Their caterpillars feed on fig trees, which are common here.

Ruddy Daggerwings are found in tropical lowlands forests and edges from the US/Mexico border (some strays as far north as Nebraska) through Mexico and Central America to Brazil.

*****

"CHICHEN CROTON"?
The Ruddy Daggerwing shown above is flitting happily among the male flowers of a small tree very common here, a species of the genus Croton. We've encountered Crotons before, back in upland Chiapas, where we ran into the impressive "Blood Tree," Croton draco, famous for the blood-red sap that copiously flows from its slightest wound. You might enjoy reviewing Blood Tree at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/c_draco.htm.

Another view of the daggerwing, this time focusing more on the tree and its male and female flowers, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530cr.jpg.

Crotons are members of the big, variable Spurge Family, the Euphorbiaceae. Poinsettias, Castor-Bean and the Rubber Tree they used to make rubber from are members of the Spurge Family. Family members often have colored sap (usually white) and flowers that are unisexual, individual plants of some species bearing both male and female flowers (thus being monoecious) or just the flowers of either sex (dioecious).

In the picture, the white flowers around the daggerwing are male flowers. A close-up showing a male blossom with its numerous white stamens is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530cs.jpg.

In the butterfly picture if you look below the cluster of male flowers you can make out a few female flowers, each consisting of a three-celled ovary that will mature into a three-seeded fruit. The ovaries are topped by old, browning stigmas (where pollen lands to germinate) atop short, thick styles and subtended by a crinkled calyx, and everything invested with a thick mantle of tiny, white scales, which also cover the stem and leaf undersurfaces. All this is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530ct.jpg.

A list of plants for the contiguous state of Quintana Roo registers eleven Croton species for that state. Also, Croton taxonomy seems to be in a mess. I can't find online photos for several of the species so I can't be sure which species we have here. However, the New York Botanical Garden's Virtual Herbarium provides high-resolution photos of several of the Crotons listed for Quintana Roo, and one of those appears to match ours, though there might be a look-alike species I don't know about. You can see the matching plant at http://sweetgum.nybg.org/vh/specimen.php?irn=22784.

That's CROTON CHICHENENSIS, which I'm calling the Chichen Croton, since no one else seems to have put an English name to it.

These virtual herbaria, just now appearing online, are wonderful. I have more to say about them lower down.

*****

VIOLET-FLOWERED FOUR-O'CLOCKS
With the rainy season, the forest once again has grown dark with shadowy. Fewer forest plants are flowering now, probably because in the shade pollinators would find it hard to spot the blossoms. An impressive flowering peak occurred right before the rainy season began, when the most leaves had fallen and the forest was the lightest inside.

Nowadays at forest edges and along trails -- and all around my traditional Maya house -- however, you do find the knee-high, purple-flowered herb shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530mi.jpg.

At first I had no idea what it might be, but then I began looking at the flowers systematically and gradually its identity began crystallizing in my mind. First of all, the purple corollas aren't corollas at all, but rather corolla-like calyxes. I knew because no regular, green calyx lay below each colored structure. Also, the subtending things that at first looked like green calyxes turned out to be involucres composed of grown-together bracts, or modified leaves. Also, the flowers each bore three stamens instead of the expected five. A blossom close-up shows all this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530mj.jpg.

I know one other flower, similar to this one, but with a nearly identical fundamental structure -- the purplish corolla-like calyx subtended by calyx-like bracts -- and that's the Four-O'Clock, Mirabilis jalapa, of the Four-O'Clock Family, the Nyctaginaceae. Chicago's Field Museum now hosts an online herbarium, as well as a special "Neotropical Live Plant Photo" section. They feature our plant at http://fm2.fmnh.org/plantguides/view.asp?chkbox=8944.

That's also in the genus Mirabilis and therefore a four-o'clock. It's MIRABILIS VIOLACEA. I can't find an English name for it so I'm calling it the Violet-flowered Four-O'Clock, since that's what its technical name, violacea, calls it.

As with regular Four-O'Clocks, these blossoms don't last long. They're open at dawn but by around 10 AM they're drooping, and by noon they're gone. An interesting feature of the genus is that the flaring part of the corolla-like calyx drops off, leaving just the shriveled base atop the ovary as it develops into a fruit. In the last photo, at the left, such browning remains of a broken calyx can be seen atop a developing ovary (one of three inside the calyx-like involucre).

This was nice, seeing a new "variation on the Four-O'Clock theme," one finessed more elegantly than even Bach could have managed in a fugue.

*****

FEVERFEW
"Parthenium (PARTHENIUM HYSTEROPHORUS) is one of the worst weeds for agriculture, the environment and human health in Queensland, Australia. It is native to Mexico and the USA and has spread prolifically in central Queensland."

Those words were lifted from an Australian website dealing with weeds, and I'm not at all surprised by what's said. For, even here in its native land, wherever the soil is super abused and environmental conditions are most severe, Parthenium hysterophorus is one of a handful of species almost obligatorily occurring. The plant grows at the edge of the much-trampled volleyball court next to the old church, it's along the edge of the Hacienda's entrance road, and the other day when I walked into Pisté to buy fruit a long line of them formed a continuous, raggedy green border growing from the narrow crack between the highway's asphalt and the sidewalk, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530pa.jpg.

Members of the genus Parthenium often are referred to as Wild Quinine, and this particular species sometimes is called Feverfew or Santa Maria. Partheniums are members of the Composite or Sunflower Family. Many genera within that vast family are hard to recognize unless you know their technical characters, but Parthenium's tiny flowers are so distinct that they're easy to recognize.

Remember that typical composite flower heads consist of small, cylindrical "disk flowers" stacked side-by-side in the head's center (the "eye" of a sunflower) and flattish "ray flowers," which radiate out from the head's margine as if they were petals. You can review composite flower structure on my page at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm.

What's unusual about Parthemium flower heads is that they bear only five or so ray flowers (most composite flowers with rays have many more than five), and the rays are so short and stubby. You can see what I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530pb.jpg.

In that picture the large, bumpy center zone is composed of mostly-not-yet-open disk flowers, which bear both male and female parts but are sterile, and around the head's edge you can see five scooplike ray flowers, which bear only female parts, but are the only flowers that produce fruits.

Several Parthenium species occur in North America. Parthenium hysterophorus differs from all those by having its main leaves divided almost or entirely all the way to their midribs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530pc.jpg.

With common names like Feverfew and Wild Quinine you might guess that Parthenium species may have medicinal value. Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México warns that 1cc of its juice injected intravenously kills a dove but not a dog, and you shudder to think of how they figured that out. He says that the juice destroys hemoglobin and is an anticoagulant. In Mexico the plant is used traditionally mostly for arthritis, with other uses mentioned such as against neuralgia.

*****

A STINKHORN "EGG"
This week as the garden crew dug a trench through the woods to lay some pipes they came upon the thing seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100530eg.jpg.

When the thing was given to me it wasn't broken yet and I didn't know what it was. But then I squeezed it slightly, the shell shattered, and the honeycomb-like sphere appeared. I'd seen that design before, and you have too if you were with me in Querétaro. You can see the weird-looking organism that this item matures into at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/stinkhrn.htm.

That's the spore-producing "fruiting body" of a fungus of the Stinkhorn Family, the Phallaceae. In North America probably the best known stinkhorn often is called the Dog Pecker Mushroom, a name that effectively describes what it looks like. It's red with a dab of green slime toward the top of its pointy head. The green slime is full of spores and smells like carrion or dung. The slime sticks to the bodies of flies and other insects attracted by the stink, and that's how the fungus disperses its spores.

The thing in my hand represents a subterranean stage in the life history of the Wiffleball Stinkhorn, CLATHRUS CRISPUS, which seems to be fairly common in Mexico's humid areas. The dry, outer "shell" is known as the peridium. At maturity the peridium cracks open and remains in the soil, serving as the mushroom's cup, or volva, as the fruiting body emerges aboveground.

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ONLINE HERBARIA
As a graduate student at the University of Kentucky and as a research assistant at the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, I spent a lot in the herbaria. A herbarium is like a museum of dried, pressed plants organized so you can find specific speciemns easily. If you have an idea about an unknown plant's identity -- maybe can guess its genus -- then in the herbarium you can thumb through the sheets of that genus until you find a species matching your plant.

While online trying to identify the Croton mentioned above I ran into the New York Botanical Garden's online virtual herbarium, something new. It was great sitting here in the central Yucatan shuffling through that collection as if I were up in the Bronx. New York's specimen of Croton chichenensis, along with a map showing where it was collected, can be seen at http://sweetgum.nybg.org/vh/specimen.php?irn=22784.

On that page, by clicking on the herbarium sheet's thumbnail at the lower right you can choose which part of the sheet you want to examine, and by using the + and - icons you can examine parts close-up, in fine detail. The label at the lower right shows when and where the plant was collected, by whom, and you can read any further remarks.

The way I find specimens in online herbaria is to use Google's "images" option, searching with the plant's technical name as the key words. Then if a herbarium sheet displays in the resulting thumbnails I just click on it and the right page appears.

For people like me trying to identify things in parts of the world without field guides and no access to technical publications, this is just wonderful -- though so far only a small percentage of plant species are online. I assume that within a couple of years most flowering plants will be represented.

*****

CAMPFIRES & THE MIDDLE PATH
Last winter I missed my campfires. Building a fire next to the old church just didn't seem right. By the time the fellows finished with the hut I'm in now it was too hot for fires. However, now with the rainy season getting underway, on some afternoons after a good storm when the air is very humid and almost halfway coolish, fixing a hot meal with a campfire can seem like a good idea.

My main campfire meal nowadays is prepared by sautéing a big onion, a habenero pepper and a big handful of Chaya leaves (you could use fresh spinach), adding a little Maseca (finely ground cornmeal used to make tortillas) and water to make a kind of onion gravy, then atop that I snip a handful of fresh basil and a tomato, and spritz with vinegar.

Building a campfire should be a ceremonial process. I've seen people throw together stuff to burn, splash kerosene on it, and poof a fire into existence but to me that misses the point. A fire ought to be summoned, then nurtured until you're comfortable with it, used with respect, and then thanked as its coals are dispersed.

Campfires teach us plenty about life in general. For example, to get the fire going you start small, choosing dry material that'll catch easily. Once you have a flame going, start adding larger pieces to burn.If it takes more than one match, you're in too much of a hurry, not paying attention, or just not in a good time or place for making a fire. A campfire about to come into existence is like a guru demanding that you focus yourself and be honest about what you really want to be doing.

My fires consist of a circle of twigs, each with one end pointing inwards. The fire burns at the center. Typically just one twig or stick of kindling by itself won't burn. You need several together, each twig's fire feeding off of and contributing to the others'. As the twigs burn, you keep shoving them toward the center, keeping the communal flame alive. There's a good lesson there and kids who grow up never seeing how it works miss one of life's most powerful teaching opportunities.

There's even a teaching moment when I hear from others who bring up the matter of how much air pollution I'm creating with my campfires, how I ought to let the organic matter recycle in the forest ecosystem, and how if I were a "real environmentalist" I'd eat my food raw. This teaching deals with the Middle Path.

For, the Middle Path isn't notch five on a thermostat with notches zero to ten, not half drunk instead of whole drunk, and not apolitical instead of extreme right or extreme left. The Middle Path is its own thing not defined by other people's fixed reference points. It's what comes into a life when you sensitize yourself to the world around you, then calmly listen to your inner voice and do as it advises.

This approach to life, I have found, automatically filters out unsustainable behaviors, and in my mind the sustainable lifestyle equals the Middle Path, wherever that path leads.

And these days on coolish afternoons after a good storm, my Middle Path is to sauté onions and make gravy over a twig campfire, while white smoke drifts between the holes of my hut's walls.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim