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

July 25, 2010

SUNBATHING ANI
It's been a rainy week, papers in my hut growing limp and soggy and my clothing smelling ever more of mildew. On Thursday afternoon the sun came out briefly and I wasn't the only one appreciating the chance to dry out.

Earlier we've seen how cormorants, Anhingas and Black Vultures spread their wings against the sun to dry out but I'd never seen any of the smaller birds do it until Thursday. You can see a soggy-looking Groove-billed Ani taking the sun right next to my hut at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725an.jpg.

Anis are much smaller than cormorants, Anhingas and vultures -- about half the length of a Double-crested Cormorant. Still they're larger than most songbirds, being 14 inches in length (36 cm), compared to an American Robin's 8.5 inches (22 cm). So, spread-winged sunbathing still seems to be an activity of mainly larger, black birds, but now we know that even 14- inchers qualify.

*****

MELODIOUS BLACKBIRDS COOPERATIVELY SINGING
I've mentioned how Melodious Blackbirds often sing in pairs, each bird pumping his or her body while alternately issuing part of the loud call. From a distance it sounds as if only one bird were calling but when they're doing it you can clearly see how two birds cooperate in the effort.

Having no tripod, I've pretty much given up on making videos with my little handheld digital camera because the images bounce around too much. However, this week I couldn't pass up showing you how the blackbirds serenade me each morning during breakfast. Though the resulting image is as bouncy as ever, at least you can see them taking turns pumping their bodies and calling.

The video beginning with some calling, then some preening and looking around, then more calling is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkoacASe0CU.

*****

SATYR ON A LEAF
In standard English a satyr is thought of as a man with strong sexual desires. In mythology the term is used variously, but typically it refers to horny, carousing men. The satyr I'm talking about sunned innocently on a leaf along a woodland trail. He's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725sa.jpg.

That's a Plain Satyr, CISSIA POMPILIA, distributed from Texas's southernmost tip through Mexico and Central America into northern South America. You can see that he appears to have only four legs, instead of the usual six, and this cues you to the fact that he's a member of the big Brushfoot Family, the Nymphalidae. In that family the front pair of legs is modified so that they look like small arms closely held against the butterfly's chest.

Satyrs are members of the Satyr Subfamily, the Satyrinae, of which about 87 species are listed for Mexico. If you run into a smallish, brownish butterfly with one or more marginal eyespots, it's a good bet it's a satyr. You can see that this butterfly's coiled proboscis is a modest thing, much less conspicuous than, say, a Monarch's. Satyrs only rarely visit flowers so they don't need long proboscises. They feed on rotting fruit, animal droppings, flowing sap and the like, where a short proboscis is as good as a long one. Their caterpillars feed on grasses and grasslike plants from within shelters of several leaves connected with silk.

On the Internet there's not much information on this species, but it's typical among the satyrs for the adults to perch with their wings closed, as in the picture, but open them when basking in early morning or during cloudy weather. Most species have local colonies and are not migratory. Males patrol for females with a characteristic slow, skipping flight.

*****

GUAYA FRUITS FOR SALE
At the monumental speed bump in Kaua where cars must slow to a creep to avoid scraping their bottoms nowadays usually there's a Maya lady in a florally embroidered huipil standing selling green, plum-size, grape-like fruits in tied-together bunches as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725gy.jpg.

You pull off a fruit, bite the green shell not too hard, and the thin husk readily cracks apart freeing a succulent, pinkish-cream-colored pulp, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725gz.jpg.

The lady is selling what's called Guaya or Mamoncillo in Spanish, Uayum in Maya, and Spanish Lime, Genip or a host of other names in English. It's MELICOCCUS BIJUGATUS, a member of the same family in which we also find Litchi fruits and the North's weedy balloon- vines, the mostly tropical Soapberry Family, or Sapindaceae. Guaya trees are fairly large and bear pinnately compound leaves usually with four leaflets.

After cracking the Guaya fruit's shell the pulp easily plops into the mouth. Then you taste that it's like slightly sour grape flesh, and you're a little disappointed that the flesh so thinly covers the large seed. The flesh must be hydrophilic because as you suck on it it seems to expand a bit. The seed, I read, can be roasted like a chestnut. Some folks chill Guaya fruits in their freezers, then serve them as cold, tangy snacks during these hot, humid days. The local Maya eat them with chili powder, salt, and lime.

There's some confusion about what tree is actually the Guaya we're talking about. The Guaya producing the fruits shown above, Melicoccus bijugatus, is native to northern South America but is widely planted and often naturalized through all of hot tropical America, and beyond. It's not a wild tree in the Yucatán's forests.

However, the Maya may well lead you to a large, wild tree in the forest -- one also with pinnately compound leaves with four leaflets -- and say that it's a Guaya, or Uayum. In fact that's the very similar, closely related tree Talisia oliviformis. If you ask the Maya directly about different kinds of Guaya or Uayum, usually they'll admit that indeed there are two, one producing the big fruits illustrated above, and the other, this forest-dwelling one, with a smaller fruit, also edible, but not eaten as frequently, and that's Talisia oliviformis.

The compound leaves of the planted Guaya are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725g4.jpg.

The compound leaves of the wild Guaya are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725g5.jpg.

The leaves of our wild Guayas, Talisia oliviformis, are more leathery and smaller than those of the planted Guayas, Melicoccus bijugatus. Note the wild Guaya's hairy stems. The planted Guayas have been cultivated for so long that several cultivars have been produced, including some with sweeter fruits.

*****

CATASETUM ORCHID FLOWERING
Back in March I introduced you to one of our most conspicuous orchids, CATASETUM INTEGERRIMUM, which at that time were producing large fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100307or.jpg.

Back then I wrote that the orchids produce "exceptionally large, strange and beautiful, yellow and green flowers, which I assume will appear during the rainy season." They're out now, as seen at the bottom, right of the log-perching orchid shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725ct.jpg.

Before getting to the flowers, notice that at the lower left in that picture there arise from the plant's base two elliptical, pointy, green objects. Those are pseudobulbs, which only some orchid genera produce. Pseudobulbs are modified stem sections that store water during the dry season. During the dry season our Catasetum orchids lose their long, flat blades but the pseudobulbs survive. In our picture you can see how the new plant and its flowering head have sprouted from the pseudobulbs' bases, not from atop an older pseudobulb. Well watered plants in gardens may not lose their pseudobulb-top leaves.

Catasetum's flowers are mysterious-looking, like a praying monk's yellow-green cape and hood, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725cu.jpg.

If you're familiar with orchid flower structure but can't figure out what you're seeing there, the blossom makes more sense when you learn that the "lip," which in most orchid flowers with lips hangs below forming a cuplike affair, in the genus Catasetum is held above. The monk's "hood" in the picture is the lip. The thing dangling from the monk's neck like a broad tie equipped with a birdnest is the "column," a special feature of orchids consisting of fused stamens, style and stigma.

Catasetum orchids bear separate male and female flowers with occasional intermediate or hermaphroditic forms. Female flowers are said to be very similar from one species to another, but the male flowers may differ markedly. I'm looking for male flowers.

*****

VARIEGATED AGAVE FLOWERING
A very pretty ornamental agave is flowering now, shown at http://www.backyaradnature.net/n/10/100725ag.jpg.

I've already introduced you to Agave desmettiana, a robust, attractive, native Yucatec agave, still shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/agave-de.htm.

The flowering, variegated agave in the picture is AGAVE ANGUSTIFOLIA var. MARGINATA, a Mexican native. Its narrow, stiff blades have adistinct narrowing in thier lower thirds, they're tipped with reddish-brown, very hard and sharp spines, and their margins are furnished with rather widely spaced, slender teeth.  The species seems to be native to the Yucatan, but the variegated variety marginata must be a horticultural product.

To get my plants for the grove I removed suckers from the base of larger plants. The suckers very quickly rooted and the plants began growing. Since Agave angustfolia is native Yucatecan you'd expect it to produce viable seeds. However, our plants' ovaries seem to be aborting before they mature into seed-bearing fruits. You can see flowers with half-formed ovaries, or immature fruits, dangling by their dried-out stamens at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725ah.jpg.

*****

TURF LILY FLOWERING
Here and there around Hacienda Chichen there's an attractive plant potted that's begun flowering. At first I thought it was an ornamental, variegated grass, but as soon as the flowers appeared it was clear that they were something else. You can see one of the plants with its racemes of white flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725li.jpg.

A close-up of a 3/16th-inch-long flower (5 mm) with one side removed to reveal its sexual parts is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100725lj.jpg.

At first I thought this was Liriope muscari, a species looking very much like this and commonly grown up north. However, the flowers aren't right for that. Mainly, in the genus Liriope the stamens' filaments, or stems, are about as long as the blunt anthers. However, in the above flower picture you can see that the filaments are very short, and the anthers are somewhat pointed. Also, in Liriope, the ovary is completely "superior" -- the walls of the corolla are not attached to the ovary. The flower in the picture shows a corolla attached to a broad section of the flower's lower ovary.

This is a member of the genus Ophiopogon, often confused with the better known Liriope. Best I can tell by matching pictures of our plant with what's on the Internet, this is OPHIOPOGON INTERMEDIUS 'ARGENTEOMARGINATUS,' sometimes marketed as Aztec Grass.

Both Liriope and Ophiopogon have been shifted from family to family as genetic studies continue trying to figure things out. I was taught that they were members of the Lily Family but the last I heard they'd been shifted to the Asparagus Family.

*****

ORGANIC GARDEN UPDATE
I've learned a lot with the organic garden, but that doesn't mean that things are going well. We still don't have diatomaceous earth, Bacillus thurengiensis or any of the other standard tools used to organically fight insects, or sulfur powder to fight fungi, and so far garlic and habenero pepper hasn't been purchased for making insect-repelling juice to experiment with. The earlier concoction of juice from liquefied garlic and Common Rue seemed to protect against chewing caterpillars but we didn't have enough Rue for further use. Insects are simply having their way with the garden.

Stem borers completely wiped out my cucumbers and squash. I've also learned that, at least during the rainy season, when you sow small seeds of things like parsley, chamomile and thyme, what seeds the ants don't cart off as soon as they're sown germinate into tiny, succulent seedlings that disappear the first day because so many kinds of invertebrates like to eat them.

The good news is that pepper plants, quintessential Mexican species, if you put collars around them to keep cutworms at bay, aren't bothered much by the insects we have here. Currently the pepper plants are loaded with flowers and immature peppers of several kinds. Similarly most tomato plants (also native American) have survived and are producing green tomatoes. Still, I must deworm the plants by hand each day, tossing the worms to where birds can see them and carry them away. Also, during these very rainy days several tomato plants are developing a fungal disease for which we have no sulfur to control it, so the entire tomato crop may be lost to that.

You might be interested in reviewing a page from Colorado State University describing various insecticides permitted in organic gardening at http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4dmg/VegFruit/organic.htm.

Organically listed fungicides are discussed at http://www.planetnatural.com/site/xdpy/kb/organic-fungicides.html.

Many problems could be solved by planting seeds of crops developed locally. The Maya have their own special varieties of tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, beans, onions and even watermelons, which grow rampantly with little care. I've asked everyone I know for locally produced seeds but after all these months I till have none.

A local fellow has been hired to organically plant a traditional cornfield next to my garden. You can see his handful of locally produced seeds, including two kinds of large, round, hard-rinded squash (between a pumpkin and a gourd), corn and black beans at the top of this page. In 2007 in Querétaro we had a similar picture, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/corn4.jpg.

It's beautiful how the wisdom of this combination of seed types has spread through all of Mesoamerica, and a shame that most cornfields seen here nowadays just contain corn.

The beans of the fellow putting out the cornfield, or milpa, next to my garden are so worm-eaten that I wonder if any will germinate. Still, if things continue as they are, I suspect that his traditional cornfield will produce plenty but my "gringo organic method" without the usual organic-gardening tools won't.

*****

THE ROBINS FALL SILENT
I've mentioned how for months the Clay-colored Robins' pre-dawn to after-dusk, ever varying, sometimes echoic or chiming song-phrases filtered through my hut's pole walls, their notes mingling with music played on my computer, and with my own whistling. For months these songs created a shimmering musical ocean engulfing my hut-ship, texturing everything I did, thought and felt. Sometimes I've felt like an incidental little melody merely wandering through this monumental, effervescing rainbow of sound.

This week, the robins' nesting season over, the singing has ended. A few calls linger here and there, especially their special mewing at dusk, but there's no doubt that the grand performance is over. Melodious Blackbirds have become the most conspicuous callers with their liquid but relatively mechanical WHEE-choo, WHEE-choo, WHEE-choos, but, it's not the same.

At least while the robins sang I was smart enough to know that something magical was going on. I took pains to listen closely every day, and to be thankful. I said to a friend in the darkened hut one evening just after dusk, "Listen to the robins, for you'll never hear anything like this again, and you'll never feel as keenly and lovingly about a robin's song and a night's darkness as we're feeling about them here, right now... "

Already that night I was filled with a powerful longing for the robins' song cycle to begin over again, in fact for everything happening those days to start all over so I could concentrate on every detail and fleeting nuance of statement and deed with even greater intensity than I had up until then. But, of course, even if it had started over, I'm always too much of a blockhead to fully grasp and hold what's being offered. And now, finally, it really has ended.

Just how do you deal with losing something as grand and majestic as all that?

Sometimes my Maya shaman friend José tells me about his dreams, like the one where he saw four bright and different-colored pyramids floating in the sky, and at breakfast as we scoop chilied bean paste into our folded tortillas he tells me about the Mayas' cycles within cycles and how the cycles are immutable, but the plants and animals populating the cycles have their own paths, sometimes giving the illusion that the cycles are broken, but that's what it is, illusion, and we humans must conduct appropriate ceremonies and live correctly for the cycles to cycle most beautifully, and then I see that he already knows what I'm learning like a baby for the first time, about the cycles, the cycles within cycles, their beauty and eternalness and the attention they deserve, and require, if we are to live honorably and be sane.

So, that's how I cope with losing the robins' songs. The robins' song cycle will return again next spring, even if I am not here. Meanwhile, there's the cycle of which the rainy season is part, crescendoing to its most effusive, violent expression in September, after which it'll trail off through November or so, and its rebirth will mesh with the robins' returning song cycle, the singing coming with the rain. Plus there are cycles in the garden, in the forest, cycles of migrating birds in the sky, and of ceremonies that must be attended, and cycles within myself, cycles of lucidness, of creativity, of yearning and of dreaming.

And maybe even there are cycles I don't know about that will bring back that friend to whom I said, "Never again... "

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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