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

August 1, 2010

BIRD TEENAGERS
Nowadays you see lots of half-grown birds, and it's a pleasure to behold. For one thing, they're living proof that next year there'll be a new generation. The more immediate charm, however, is that it's simply grand to be in the presence of a creature who's half baby, half adult. It's the mingling of innocence and what's left after the school of hard knocks that's so captivating.

These bird teenagers fly full of enthusiasm onto a limb and lose their balance because of a reckless landing, and you just have to laugh. Something in them says that the grasshopper might be good to eat, but you can see in their body language that they're scared of it and don't know whether it might sting like a scorpion. Even their plumages are half adult, half nestling. You can see an immature male Yellow-faced Grassquit, his face only incipiently yellow and his chest only beginning to turn black at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801se.jpg.

One morning just after dawn a week or so ago that same bird arrived with a parent, landing on a rock near my breakfast chair. Maybe it was just my own anthropomorphic projection, but in the immature's face I seemed to see the question, "What are we doing here?" The father hopped over to a certain grass plant bearing mature grains, grabbed one with his beak and started grinding on it. The light of understanding instantly illuminated the immature's face, and he hopped over and began pulling off grains himself. Since then the couple has returned several times and each time the immature seems more excited about the grass grains. On the day the picture was made the immature came to the grass-pecking rock alone, though the adult male accompanying him perched on another rock about ten feet away.

In my head now there's a tableaux of this young male coming of age, and of that grass plant -- under other circumstances just a weed probably needing to be pulled -- playing an important part in a family's development and survival.

*****

A REALLY GREEN BLACK IGUANA
Already a couple of times I've shown you how immature Black Iguanas are so green that they can be confused with Green Iguanas. Running around my hut these days there are immature Blacks as green as what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801ig.jpg.

That individual is only about six inches long (15 cm) and I'm not sure I could distinguish it from a young Green Iguana. The main reason I'm sure it's a Black is that so far I've seen no Green Iguanas here, nor would I expect to where there's so little permanent water, which Green Iguanas require. Other less-green stages of maturing Black Iguanas are shown down the page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/iguana-b.htm.

*****

BANDED BANNER
One of the prettiest butterflies seen recently appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801bb.jpg.

Volunteer butterfly identifier Bea in Ontario found it harder than usual to name this species. It's the Banded Banner, PYRRHOGYRA NEAEREA HYPSENOR, a member of the big Brushfoot Family, the Nymphalidae.

Bea's difficulty surprised me because I thought the species would be so distinctive and attractive that it'd be well represented on the Internet. However, there's not much about it there except the fact that its caterpillars eat leaves of the genus Paullinia, which is a woody vine with twice-compound leaves in the Soapberry Family. Paullinia fuscescens is very common around here. We look at its leaves and fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/paullini.htm.

This is another of those butterflies whose wings' upper surfaces, when they're opened, might seem to a predator an enemy's gaping mouth, in this case white lips against a black background, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801bc.jpg.

*****

SKIPPER AT A BANDANA SALT LICK
Bea also had to struggle with the Zilpa Longtail, CHIOIDES ZILPA, shown on one of my bandanas at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801zi.jpg.

In the picture, notice that the skipper's long proboscis is angled in under its abdomen, that the abdomen is sort of arched forward, and that a tiny, pale globule seems to be emerging from the abdomen's tip. That globule is actually the first drop of an impressive squirt of liquid aimed at the patch of bandana upon which the proboscis's tip rests.

Because I'd twirled the bandana into a sweatband, it was full of dried sweat. The concept here is that the skipper's squirted fluid saturates a tiny part of the bandana, the sweat's salts and minerals dissolve in the fluid, and then with its proboscis the skipper sucks up the nutrients along with its own just-squirted, recycling fluid. You can see a close-up showing the beginning of another squirt of fluid just emerging from the abdomen's tip, the slender proboscis entering from the upper right, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801zj.jpg.

It turns out that butterflies have a hard time managing their budgets of salts and minerals which, among other things, are necessary for making pheromones and sperm. When you see large numbers of butterflies around a puddle (aptly called "puddling") mainly sodium is being sought, that salt lacking in adult butterflies' diets, which is primarily nectar and fruits. Sodium is vital for digestion, excretion, reproduction and flight.

In fact, sodium is so precious that it, along with amino acids, is transferred to the female during mating as a "nuptial gift" that enhances the eggs' survival rate.

If you watch puddling butterflies you often see them squirting fluid from the ends of their abdomens -- sometimes the squirts shooting several body lengths from the butterfly! That's different from what's shown in the above photos. Squirting puddling butterflies are just getting rid of surplus water from which salts and minerals have been removed, a much simpler process than what's shown happening above.

*****

FOUR BUGS IN ONE
While admiring the zinnias planted before my hut I saw something that at first glance struck me as a green flower- or crab-spider, one of those small, big-headed ones with a flat face and crabby legs often seen in flower centers waiting to pounce on prey. However, something didn't seem right so as my mind struggled to make more sense of things suddenly I saw that the "flower spider" was facing the rear end of a much larger, green bug with two short, hornlike antennae.

And then yet a third insect became apparent, this one in which the "green bug's" spiky antennae actually were open jaws, with dark-green compound eyes just behind the jaws, an insect something like a green antlion. Finally I realized that "flower spider," "green bug" and "antlion" were all just camouflage patterns on a larger insect, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801kt.jpg.

Can you see all four critters? It might help to defocus your eyes and view it from a distance. The "real" insect faces toward the left, its antennae extending beyond the picture's left side. Its pale head and thorax form the backward-looking, hourglass-shaped "flower spider" (note the dark compound eyes). The "green bug's" two antenna or the "antlion's" open mandibles are spiny projections on the real insect's rear end. You can see the real insect from the side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801ku.jpg.

That looks like a late-instar nymphal stage of an angular-winged katydid, but here we have so many katydid species that I'm not even bothering Bea in Ontario to see if she can identify it to species level.

Of course the fake spider design might deter a katydid-eating predator, and that same predator might attack the katydid's rear end, regarding it as the head of a green bug or an antlion-thingy, thus sparing the katydid's real head at the other end, which is more important.

*****

MALA MUJER & CHAYA
During most of the year, at the edges of woods and along woodland trails, you commonly see the eight-ft-tall (±2.5 m) bushes (sometimes trees up to 20 feet tall, or 6 m) with deeply cut, hand-size leaves and long-stalked clusters of white flowers shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801cn.jpg.

In most of Mexico this is called Mala Mujer (mu-HER), which translates to "Bad Woman," because the plant abundantly bears long, sharp hairs that produce burning, nettle-like stings. The plant is CNIDOSCOLUS ACONITIFOLIUS, a member of the Spurge Family, the Euphorbiaceae, in which we also find Poinsettias, Castor Bean and Cassava or Manioc.

Knowing that Mala Mujer is in this family, we're not surprised when white latex oozes from its torn leaves. Flowers in that family are unisexual, but individual species may bear either both sexes on each plant (dioecious) or only one flower-gender per plant (monoecious). Mala Mujer flower clusters bear many male flowers plus a few female flowers (so they're monoecious) without petals, but with white calyx lobes looking like petals.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801cp.jpg you see a male flower on the left, with stamens extending from the corolla tube. At the right the frilly item spreading umbrellalike above the flower's ovary is formed by three deeply-divided styles -- the ovary's three "necks" connecting pollen-receiving stigmatic areas with the ovary. In Mala Mujer plants female flowers are few but open first; male flowers are many, but only a few flower at any one time.

Mala Mujer's main claim to fame is its long, sharp, stinging spines, shown on a leaf petiole at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801co.jpg.

In that picture also notice the big gland at the top of the petiole and at the base of the leaf blade. I saw ants visiting these glands, so if you're a big herbivore with lips so tough that stinging hairs don't bother you, maybe the ants will. Mala Mujers believe in stinging you one way or another.

There's a cultivated form of Mala Mujer known as Chaya. Chaya is one of the Mayas' most important plants, for it bears few or no stinging hairs, and its leaves are good to eat, very tasty and unbelievably nutritious. Chaya is richer in iron than spinach, and is very rich in potassium and calcium.

In fact, according to the National Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City, ingesting Chaya improves blood circulation, helps digestion, improves vision, soothes hemorrhoids, helps lower cholesterol, helps reduce weight, prevents coughs, augments calcium in the bones, decongests and disinfects the lungs, prevents anemia by replacing iron in the blood, improves memory and brain function and combats arthritis and diabetes. This and more info, plus a chart comparing Chaya with Alfalfa and Spinach is available here.

All visitors checking into Hacienda Chichen receive a class of cold Chaya sweetened with pineapple juice.

Not only are Chaya's leaves nutritional but the plants themselves are very easy to grow. Just machete off some branches, poke them in the ground, keep the soil around the stems moist, and the stems will root and begin growing. A couple of months ago Don Filomeno cut some stems which I planted beside my hut door. You can see the resulting fast-growing, waist-high shrub at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801cq.jpg.

In two months, despite having been completely defoliated by caterpillars a month ago, and being under attack by leafcutter ants now, the stems have doubled in size.

Though Mala Mujer and Chaya go by the same technical name, Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, besides the fact that Chaya has few or no stinging hairs, Chaya's leaves are much less deeply lobed than those of Mala Mujer, and the whole Chaya plant is less gangly looking than Mala Mujer-- more leafy and compact.

*****

TOMATO ROOT NEMATODES
Though a fungal disease is indeed attacking the tomatoes now I realize that most of the damage I thought was fungal is caused by nematodes. That became apparent when one plant had curled up and withered so that I decided to just pull it up and get rid of it. As soon as the roots were exposed, I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100801nm.jpg.

At first I hoped that those root knots were beneficial nitrogen-fixing nodules. However, you expect nodules on members of the Bean Family, pines and a few other things. On the Internet I can't find anyone saying that tomato roots can have nitrogen-fixing nodules. Also, nitrogen-fixing nodules are attached to a root's side, like a slender, floppy wart on someone's neck, but you can see that the tomato's knots are simply swellings of the root itself, not attached at the side. The University of Maryland shows a root-knot-nematode-infected tomato root beside an uninfected root at http://nematology.umd.edu/images/eis143.jpg.

The University's page on the general subject of Root Knot Nematodes, saying that nematodes are worm-shaped, microscopic, plant-parasitic animals is at http://nematology.umd.edu/rootknot.html.

*****

"DON'T PLANT SQUASH & CUCUMBERS IN JUNE & JULY"
Luis, the new man hired to plant the traditional Maya cornfield, or milpa, next to the organic garden, is turning out to be a mine of information. At age 35 he carries in his head the knowledge and beliefs every milpa-growing Maya needs. I told him how I'd lost all my cucumber vines and squash to worms.

"You don't plant cucumbers and squash in June and July," he said. "Too many worms."

Well, yes, I had to admit...

"Starting in August you can plant them, when there are fewer worms."

Cucumbers, squash and watermelons are all in the same plant family, thus might be equally vulnerable to caterpillars, so how come he's been sowing watermelons in July?

"They wanted me to sow watermelons so I did. I just don't know if they'll survive or not."

Then I confirmed my suspicion that things like lettuce and onions shouldn't be planted now during the rainy season. And that my tomatoes' fungal disease is normal for tomato plants living in these hot, rainy times. One should plant tomatoes when it's drier, and use local seeds, which form small plants but produce a lot.

Finally, now I've learned that one reason I've been unable to get locally produced seeds is that tradition dictates that you don't sell seeds. You give them away or trade them for something.

Step by step we're getting things together. Just takes time.

*****

3 + 4 = 7
My friend José the shaman came to show the hut I live in to a writer from New Zealand. I'd expected the usual spiel about how each pole in the house is the trunk of a specific tree species chosen for a specific structural purpose, but this time José was in mystic mode and began by pointing out the Maya woman's presence in the hut as exhibited by triangles -- the woman's number being three, which taken together form a triangle. He pointed to the triangle formed by three limestone rocks upon which the comal rests as tortillas are baked, and the triangle above the comal created by the big beam joining the walls and the two other beans above it forming the roof's crest.

"The feminine three complements the male four," José continued, pointing out the four strong posts upon which the whole roof rests, which also represent the four directions toward which offerings must be made, and then we saw that in the hut's structure there were many triangles and many quadrangles, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/10080134.jpg.

"And three plus four equals seven," José smiled, as if he were a magician successfully pulling a rabbit from his hat. "Seven represents the family," and then he went doubling, multiplying and dividing threes, fours and sevens until all the seasons and the entire cosmos and all life in it revealed themselves as rooted in and governed by those numbers, all pretty self- evident, when you hear José talk about it. In fact, as we left the house he spoke of the seven illnesses:

"We are all born with the seven illnesses inside us," he reminded us, "but they lie latent and only express themselves when things drift out of balance, as by eating or drinking unwisely."

At dusk I sat in the hut, my head swimming in threes, fours and sevens, trying to put myself into the mind of untold generations of Maya men and women in similar homes, similarly cocooned in numbers that define and either fulfill or sabotage us. And how would it be to manfully be all the fullness of a four-cornered square, to support and wrap around the feminine three- cornered triangle as this hut wraps around 3 + 4 for its magical sevenness?

I could see that it might feel pretty good.

But, I have come of age in a different culture. Try as I may, I feel no fourness within myself, have sensed no threeness in the women I've known, nor has any home ever struck me especially as seven. In fact, I have always felt downright antipathetic toward the pseudoscience of numerology.

However, I do believe in the power of metaphors, paradigms, and mental images. If we focus on the image of a golden lotus slowly and beautifully blossoming, somehow grace and tranquility enters us, change us.

Therefore, if we're not lucky enough to have been born into a society ordered by 3 + 4 = 7, is there another model to take its place?

In my life the metaphor/paradigm/mental image that has carried me further than someone with my modest talents should expect to go is this: The Six Miracles of Nature, which we've often spoke of, and which are discussed at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

When I fix the mental image of the Six Miracles of Nature in my mind, see that I am part of an evolving reality blossoming into ever more gorgeousness and mystery, I find more purpose in being alive, in fact feel more alive, and experience a profound spiritual buzz.

And then there's this: The Six Miracles appear to be sequential events along a path leading to a final unity.

And, when that happens, that'll be Miracle #7.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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