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

December 19, 2010

GRACKLE BIRDBATH
One advantage to living in a hut with pole walls is that when birds come to your birdbath just outside the door you can photograph them through the spaces between the poles. The hut makes a good photographer's blind.

So far Melodious Blackbirds are the main visitors, arriving throughout each day, sometimes during their morning visits hopping onto the ground, throwing their heads back and exaggeratedly pumping their legs with each squeak they make. Clay-colored Robins sometimes drop by, looking around like real-estate agents, as if already planning for later in the season when they'll begin their daily dawn to dusk, almost thunderously cacophonous serenading. A single Turquoise-browed Motmot, in contrast, about once a day drops from shadows deep within a tree, does something with the water so quickly my mind hasn't yet figured out the action, and then flies away.

The other day a small flock of Great-tailed Grackles hung around the Hacienda for two or three days, and they visited, too. Usually grackles don't stay here, preferring towns and ranches, but when they do visit you know they're here because of their screeching, popping, grinding mess of sounds. You can see a female, or maybe an immature, shot between wall poles at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219gr.jpg.

*****

BIRD DRINKING
A close-up of the above Great-tailed Grackle not only shows the head's rich, brown feathers contrasting with the much darker plumage farther back, but also what a grackle looks like when drinking water. That's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219gs.jpg.

To drink, the bird raises its head, opens its beak, and lets water scooped into the beak trickle by gravity down the throat. This is just how a chicken does it, as well.

In fact, most birds can't swallow by "sucking" or "pumping" water into their esophagi as humans do. Again and again they have to raise their heads and depend on gravity, a method usually described as "sipping" or "tipping up."

One group of birds whose members can indeed suck up water is the Pigeon and Dove Order, the Columbiformes.

*****

COLLOPS THE VICIOUS LITTLE FLOWER-BEETLE
On a warm afternoon I sat in the sun peacefully reading beside the hut when a certain spot on my arm began hurting. It felt like an army ant starting to cut away a piece of me, something that occasionally happens, so without even bothering to focus on the little being I brushed it away without further ceremony. But instead of sailing through the air and staying lost, the critter made a U-turn in mid air -- an impossible maneuver for a thumped ant -- returned to my bare leg, and within a few seconds was gnawing there.

This time I looked more closely. He was smaller than most ants, maybe a little over 1/10th of an inch (3 mm) long, actually a red and black beetle, those colors in Nature often meaning "danger." You can see him clinging to leg hairs, chewing on my skin at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219vp.jpg.

Volunteer insect identifier Bea in Ontario figured out that he was a Collops beetle, genus Collops, a member of the Soft-Winged Flower Beetle Family. These beetles eat the eggs, nymphs, and larvae of many insects, as well as the adult stages of various soft-bodied insects, plus we now know they're not above tearing into peaceful naturalists sitting behind their huts reading.

About 67 species of the genus Collops occur in North America and the group doesn't seem to have been studied in our part of the world, so this is one of those times when we just can't say much more than that. We'll file the picture on the Internet and hope that one day an expert someplace in the world will be glad to see it, and learn that ours is a species given to nibbling on people.

*****

TUZA MOUNDS
A few years back a small part of the woods about half a kilometer east of the Hacienda was cleared and a great variety of tropical fruit trees was planted. There were mangos, Nance, avocados, various kinds of citrus, Mamey and Chicozapote, and more. Nearly all of them died.

It's hard to say what killed them first -- the dry season or the Tuzas. If you don't water new saplings assiduously, the dry season by itself will kill them. However, I'm told that the saplings were watered a lot, and they still died. So maybe it was the Tuzas. The whole cleared zone now is a Tuza-tunnel maze, a Tuza megalopolis; you can't take more than a few steps without your foot sinking into a Tuza burrow.

When I asked what a Tuza was I was told that it was a mole. However, one day my friend José was looking at my animal pictures and when he told me I had a fine picture of a Tuza it turned out to the pocket gopher we saw in highland Chiapas back in 2008. You can see top and bottom pictures of that interesting critter at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/gopher.htm.  

José says that that's just like our Tuza, except that here in the Yucatan they're a different color.

Despite our Tuza megalopolis, and Tuzas beginning to invade the newly cleared organic garden, and Tuza mounds sometimes appearing right beside my hut, so far I've not seen the animal here. They're subterranean and appear to work at night. You can see some mounds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219tu.jpg.

If you shove aside a mound of loose soil you'll find a Tuza-size hole.

In the above picture, notice the freshly cut tree- stump. I'm getting the notion that clearing land here attracts Tuzas, and I think I know why. Roots from that stump now are dead and will rot. They'll become softer and probably more digestible than living roots. If you cut trees, I suspect that you're creating a future Tuza banquet.

If you ask a Maya milpa grower if Tuzas are a problem usually they just laugh and say how easy it is to drop a few handfuls of poisoned grain down their holes. But here we have an organic garden. We'll have to see how this develops.

*****

DON FILOMENO'S IBE BEANS
Back in the early rainy season, in June or thereabouts, Don Filomeno carved out shallow, bushel-basket-size depressions beside a stone wall next to his Papayas, filled them with soil he carried there, and planted some traditional Maya beans. Over the rainy season as my Northern garden plants succumbed to various diseases, his bean vines thrived, growing and growing, until they cascaded over the eight-ft wall and trailed down the slope. You can see what it looks like today, with some vines even entangling a Papaya, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219ib.jpg.

By the end of the rainy season the vines still hadn't begun producing flowers. I thought that maybe the Don had used too much nitrogen, ending up with something like my Grandma Taylor did that time in Kentucky when she put too much horse manure around her tomatoes and got "All vine, no maters," as she said.

But then a few weeks ago pretty little clusters of bean flowers appeared and now the vines are heavy with bean pods, or legumes. Now that we can see what kind of beans are being produced, we can identify them, and I'm always tickled to see what these traditional Maya milpa plants, passed down generation to generation, turn out to be. You can see a clump of pods at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219ic.jpg.

Three beans nestled in a mature, cracked-open pod are at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219id.jpg.

With the flat pods and beans, it's clear that they're some kind of Lima Bean or Butterbean, PHASEOLUS LUNATUS, though all Lima Beans I've ever sown have been white and considerably larger than these. When I showed the beans to Wilfredo, he called them Ibe (EE- bey), and said that there's another Maya bean almost identical, one also planted in milpas, but it's white. He could think of four Maya milpa bean types planted in this area.

Looking into the history of the Lima Bean, Phaseolus lunatus, I find that during the development of the Phaseolus lunatus cultivar two separate "domestication events" took place. The first occurred in the Andes around 4000 years ago, producing a large-seeded variety. Then about 1200 years ago, in Mesoamerica (our area), a small-seeded variety sometimes known as the Sieva Bean was developed.

Nowadays the small-seeded wild form (Sieva type) is distributed from Mexico to Argentina, generally below 1600 meters in elevation, while the large-seeded wild form (Lima type) occurs in northern Peru. The cultivar came into the hands of indigenous North Americans around 1300, and the Spanish carried them to Asia and Europe during the 1500s.

By the way, there's a story that the early Spanish conquerors of Peru exported lots of these beans, labeling their point of origin as "Lima - Peru," so that's where the name Lima Beans comes from. Another story is that the "lima" is Spanish for "lime colored," referring to the bean when green. Whichever story is true, since both "limas" derive from Spanish, if you want to pronounce the Spanish correctly, you'll call them LEE-mah Beans.

*****

BASTARDIA
What a large number of weedy, herbaceous or semi-herbaceous, small flowered, yellow-orange-petaled members of the Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae, there are. A sprig of one next to the hut is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219bs.jpg.

This species is similar to North America's Velvetleaf, but different in subtle ways. Its leaves are a little velvety, but not as much so as Velvetleaf's. A flower close-up showing the stamens' filaments fused together at their bases above a fuzzy ovary is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219bt.jpg.

A fruiting head showing six or seven very hairy, split-open capsules called schizocarps is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219bu.jpg.

I couldn't identify this plant until it fruited, so I could see the details very nicely apparent in that last picture. Mainly, notice that within each of the six or seven split-open schizocarps there's just one hairy seed. Closely related Velvetleaf, genus Abutilon, produces two or more seeds in each capsule.

Our mystery plant is the Viscid Mallow, BASTARDIA VISCOSA, sometimes also just called Bastardia.

Of course we nice people stumble over the name Bastardia. However, back in 1822 when the name was first published by German Carl Sigismund Kunth, that word which if I write it here will cause many email filters to send the Newsletter into oblivion, was more mildly used. It simply meant "fraudulent -- having a misleading appearance." When Kunth named Bastardia I think he only wanted to say that this new genus looked like other genera in the family, such as Velvetleaf's Abutilon, but really it was something else, as proven by those single-seeded schizocarps.

The genus Bastardia embraces three or four species native to the American tropics, of which two occur in Mexico, and B. viscosa in the Yucatán. Bastardia viscosa is distributed from southern Texas through Mexico and Central America to Perú, and is likely to flower just about anytime throughout the year.

Though the Viscid Mallow's leaves aren't as velvety as Velvetleaf's, they're still pretty soft to the touch. Branched hairs on a leaf's underside are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219bv.jpg.

*****

FERN SPORANGIUM ANNULUSES
Last week we looked at the Triangle Spleenwort fern growing on the stone wall outside the Hacienda's public bathroom. One picture showed the elongate fruit dots, or sori, on the frond's undersurface, still seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101212fp.jpg.

Last week I explained that the brown, granular material comprising the sori wasn't a mass of spores, but rather masses of "baglike sporangia, which when mature snap open and release spores. Each sporangium contains 64 spores."

Newsletter reader Dale Denham-Logsdon in Toluca, in the central Mexican highlands, just happened to be making microphotographs of Asplenium sporangia when the Newsletter arrived, and he's offered to show us what a fern sporangium looks like under high magnification. Dale's red-stained sporangium is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101219sp.jpg.

That sporangium, from Asplenium nidus of Asia, is especially interesting because it so clearly shows the annulus, which is the segmented structure curling around 3/4s of the sporangium's perimeter, like the bushy crest of a knight's helmet. You can vaguely make out spherical spores inside the sporangium.

When sporangia are mature and exposed to dry air they begin drying out. As their annulus cells lose moisture they contract, placing tension on the sporangium's walls below them. Eventually the tension ruptures the walls and pulls the sporangium's top back, enabling some spores to escape. At this point the cracked-open sporangium looks like a knight laughing hugely, with spores tumbling from his mouth.

The annulus's cell walls are so thick that once the cells have shriveled to a certain size they don't collapse any further. Instead, the remaining fluid inside the annulus cells finds itself under a negative pressure. As drying continues eventually a threshold is crossed at which a cell's fluid under negative pressure suddenly is replaced by a gas bubble that fills the cell and allows the cell to very quickly expand to its natural size. This fast-occurring event disturbs neighboring cells, setting off a chain reaction of similar events, so that all the annulus cells working together "snap" the top part of the sporangium head forward, in the process flinging spores in all directions.

So, the annulus cells help with the fern's spore dissemination.

*****

HOWDYING THE UNIVERSAL CREATIVE IMPULSE
Normally I greet people with a howdy. I grew up howdying back on the farm in Kentucky, gave it up when I noticed college classmates smiling when I said it, but then years later took it up again when I realized that my hard-staring, slow-to-smile face and large size intimidates people. When you greet someone with a big howdy you instantly label yourself a witless buffoon, but at least people from the beginning intuit that you're not out to mess with them, and things go easier all around.

Now let me tell you how howdying relates to this Newsletter, the Winter Solstice coming up this Tuesday, December 21st, and the Universal Creative Impulse out of which we all blossom.

The Universe began with a Big Bang and continues to expand, its rate of expansion accelerating even still. It's clear that the Universal Creative Impulse (the Creator) urgently desires presence and evolution.

The history of Life on Earth confirms this insight, for as soon as Earth was cool enough for it to happen, life arose, and then it also lustily evolved. Evolution of Life on Earth further shows direction -- from simple to complex, and from species incapable of thought, to us.

Seeing all this, this question arises:

If the Creator appears to be impatient with Her creating and evolving, and here on Earth the human brain appears to be a crowning achievement of Her evolutionary efforts, what's that brain supposed to be used for?

I'm thinking that the highest calling of the human brain must be this: To observe -- to study -- what's around us, until we genuinely begin appreciating the Creation's incredible complexity, beauty, and mystery.

We're the Creator's nerve endings.

Well, if there's one day of the year when we of the Northern Hemisphere should find it appropriate to reflect on the majesty of the Creation, it's the Winter Solstice, when Earth's annual cycle starts all over again -- when days end their six months of getting shorter each day and begin another six months of growing longer each day.

Thus today's Newsletter, being the last before the Winter Solstice, is dedicated to my formally and publicly stating before the Creator that I'm exquisitely agog at all She's done and is doing.

Moreover, I cast my greeting as a howdy to emphasize that, though I recognize my own meanness here cocooned within so many layers of unfulfilled human potentials, I am well meaning with my greetings. I don't mean to be pretentious by greeting the Big #1. Pretentious people don't howdy...

And because I sense that the Creator is better pleased with good, lusty bawls than timid, candle-holding and incense-fogging religious dithering, more than a simple "Howdy" on this eve of the Winter Solstice I herewith issue to the hallowed presence all around me, clear out to eternity, this good ol' Minnie Pearl...

"How-DEEEEEEEEE!"

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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