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

January 9, 2011

BLUE BUNTING BATHING
As the dry season cracks down, more and more critters visit the little black-plastic-trough birdbath beside the hut. Between the hut's wall poles I can photograph without being seen. Maybe this week's best bird shot is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109bu.jpg.

That's the non-migrating Blue Bunting, distributed from Mexico to northern Nicaragua. A male is shown, the female being a warm brown overall. I know when this bird arrives because upon landing in nearby bushes where the open birdbath area can be surveyed for dangers he issues a sharp, metallic CHICK! CHICK! CHICK!

The first pictures of a male Blue Bunting I saw suggested that the birds were basically black with pale, blue patches caused by iridescence. I thought that the patches might vary in intensity depending on the light. This photograph makes clear, though, that the pale blue spots are caused by permanently pale blue feathers.

Now take a look at this same bird bathing, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109bv.jpg.

An interesting point is that my shutter speed for this shot was set at 1/2000th of a second, which is fairly fast. If the swinging head is so blurred in the picture at that shutter speed it can only mean that the head was oscillating very fast.

*****

A MOTTLED INDIGO BUNTING
Birders in the eastern US who treasure hearing the long, varied, languid, midday, midsummer calls of brilliantly blue male Indigo Buntings perched on power lines stretched across hayfields will be glad to hear that their little Indigos are down here, and at least some of them bathe in my birdbath. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109ib.jpg.

That picture, a little grainy because it was taken in dim, late-afternoon light, is interesting because it shows a molting immature male. The blue feathers that this summer will set the male so prettily against the lighter-blue sky are emerging in patches.

Northern birders tend to think of Indigo Buntings in terms of a solitary male singing while the brown female hides someplace caring for the family. Down here you see then in flocks, sometimes in impressive numbers -- up to 150+ I read in Howell -- feeding inconspicuously on the ground. If you draw too close they fly up like a flurry of small, brown leaves returning to their trees.

Indigo Buntings during the northern winter are distributed from Mexico to Panama, but during the northern summer are completely absent from our area as they nest in eastern North America.

*****

WHY DO BIRDS BATHE?
Most birds visit my birdbath in a three-step process. First they land in weeds surrounding the open area in which the birdbath is placed so they can scout the area for danger.

Then they fly into the open area, maybe landing briefly in a weed near the birdbath to do some more scouting, or maybe they'll fly directly onto the trough's rim. No bird ever enters the water immediately upon arrival. First they look all around, then hop onto the rock in the water's center, and look around some more. Typically they'll hop to the water's edge but before drinking quickly hop back to the rock's crest and look around some more. They may visit the water's edge and return to the rock's top three or four times before gaining enough confidence to take a drink. Often after a single drink it's back to the rock's top for another look, and then back to the water's edge.

Once they've drunk their fill they bathe, but here also the process involves many false starts. They just can't trust that during a three-second drink an enemy may not have sneaked to the other side of the rock. Finally they bathe wholeheartedly, maybe ten or fifteen seconds, before returning to the rock's crest to preen for a few seconds, or flying directly from the water to the bushes.

Bathing requires such an expenditure of nervous energy that it's clearly important to the bird. But, why? Most water seems to bead and run off the bird's back, and those fluffy feathers that do get wet look so matted and grungy that you wonder why the bird would want that.

The answer seems to be the obvious one: Bathing washes away flakes of dried skin and excess oil. Dust bathing accomplishes the same. Many species like to both dust and water bathe.

Bathing, by the way, doesn't consist of spontaneously thought-of actions, as it might with a human, who one day may soak luxuriously in a tub with a rubber ducky, but the next take a shower while singing an aria. Birds use stereotyped movements, or innate behavioral patters, which means that each bath a bird takes is very similar to every other bath it's taken. And each species has its own repertoire of stereotyped bathing movements.

Stanford University provides a page describing several bathing patterns, the one for buntings described as darting "...in and out of water, immersing and rolling briefly, before returning to shore to flick their wings and vibrate their feathers before jumping in again." That page, also covering dust bathing, is here

*****

SKYBLUE CLUSTERVINE
Those Sunflower Goldeneyes I showed you last week, eight feet tall and loaded with yellow flowerheads that heaved in the wind and sunlight, this week were even more spectacular, especially along roadsides. They formed glowing yellow walls that just went on and on. An extra pretty thing about them was that sometimes a delicate little vine, a morning-glory, twined into them adorning them with sky-blue blossoms. Those blue flowers were very pretty among all those yellow sunlight explosions.

You can see a vine atop my hand for scale at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109jq.jpg.

A flower close-up showing five stamens and a slender, upright style topped with two horizontal stigmas, issuing from the sky-blue, funnel-shaped corolla is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109jp.jpg.

This member of the Morning-Glory Family is known as the Skyblue Clustervine. It's JACQUEMONTIA PENTANTHOS, a native tropical American species growing wild from the southern US through here and the Caribbean to northern South America. Because of its prettiness and hardiness it's also commonly planted and sometimes escaped in many other tropical countries.

In last year's November 21st Newsletter we looked at the "Blue Jacquemontia," Jacquemontia tamnifolia, with very similar flowers and leaves. But compare a side view of a flower cluster of that species shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/101121jr.jpg with a similar side-view of our Skyblue Clustervine, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109jr.jpg.

The former is densely hairy while our present one is not. It's another of those subtle "variations on a Jacquemontia themes" so nice to notice when you're in the field.

When this species is invited into a garden with rich soil, is given ample space for growth and is watered well, it produces flower clusters with many more blossoms than ours has when it tangles in roadside weeds. It's yet another case of proper nourishment and care releasing unforeseen potentials.

*****

HETEROPTERIS
There's something appearing in the woods these days bound to make any temperate-zone flower sniffer scratch his or her head. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109st.jpg.

That's a collection of winged fruits, or samaras, at the end of a woody plant that's as much vine as it is shrub -- a scrambling bush, or a shrubby vine with a treelike trunk. What catch your attention, though, are the fruits. They very much look like the North's winged maple samara-fruits, except that each fruit cluster has three fruits instead of the maple's two. You can see another difference at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109su.jpg.

Look at those weird appendages at each samara's base, covering the seed area.

What we have here is HETEROPTERYS BRACHIATA, a member of the Malpighia Family. That family is little known in the North but is well represented in tropical America. The best known member of the family in these parts is the Nance tree with its yellow, cherrylike, edible fruits.

Another genus in the same family, Stigmaphyllon, produces similar clusters of fruits, but in that genus the "backbones" of the fruits' wings lie on the inside of the cluster, with the wings' thinning edgess facing outwards, while in Heteropteris the wings' "backbones" are on the outside.

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"CONFEDERATE ROSE"
In Xocimpich, a little Maya town about 10 kms north of Pisté, leaning across one of those dilapidated stone fences so ubiquitous in the Yucatán, there's a tree branch heavy with roundish, shallowly lobed leaves eight inches across (20cm) and with big, pinkish-white flowers four inches abroad. A flower with pollinators is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109hi.jpg.

I've met this small, shrubby tree in the US Southeast where people call it the Confederate Rose. If you pay any attention at all to flower anatomy, however, you'll see that what's in the picture isn't related to the roses at all, but, rather, with those many stamens uniting at their bases into a cylinder around the pistil's thick, upturned style tipped with five stigmas, it's a hibiscus. It's HIBISCUS MUTABILIS, sometimes also called Cotton Rosemallow, which despite its English names is a native of China.

A close-up of the staminal column surrounding the style with its five, dark, fuzzy stigma heads is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109hj.jpg.

There are a jillion kinds of hibiscus. This one is distinguished from other species by it's being a small tree maybe 18 feet high (5.5m) instead of an herbaceous annual, by its exceptionally large flowers, and by each blossom bearing several rather narrow, leaflike "involucral bracts" subtending the five broad, triangular sepals. Bracts and sepals are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109hk.jpg.

Also it bears unusually large, hairy leaves, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109hl.jpg.

And then there's this: Its flowers are white in the morning, turn pink during noon and red in the evening of the same day. Clearly the ones in the picture were taken on my weekly morning bike ride around Pisté. Of course people find this color change fascinating. Tinkerers have discovered that white flowers kept in a refrigerator remain white until they are taken out to warm, whereupon they slowly turn pink. Red flowers are reported to remain on plants for several days before they fall off, but all the flowers on the tree I saw were white, so maybe in hot lands red flowers don't hang on so long.

Since this isn't a native plant, the local Maya don't seem to use it for medicinal purposes. However I read that in other cultures the slimy mucilage from its flowers and leaves is used by midwives to facilitate delivery during labor, and that the flowers and leaves themselves are used to treat swellings and skin infections.

*****

MYSTERIOUS MAYA BEAN
The other day Wilfrido showed me a handful of beans he plans to sow in the milpa. You can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110109bn.jpg.

At first glance I thought they were some kind of pinto or kidney bean, or chickpea, but then he started telling me more about the plant. Beans are produced in pods borne not on twining vines, but on much-branching bushes that reach about ten feet tall. They're herbaceous bushes, though, growing that tall in a single season, then dying back after beans are produced.

Wilfrido called the beans Lentejas Mayas, but lentejas are lentils, and clearly these aren't what Northerners think of as lentils. He says that the beans are handed down from generation to generation of Maya farmer, so you don't buy them. They're strictly Maya beans.

If I can find someplace new to go, this spring I plan to move on, so I can't just wait to see the plant myself and use the flowers to identify the species. Moreover, I can't find an absolute match of the beans with any photos on the Internet. Still, I'm fairly sure I know what plant produced these beans.

The species is native to southern Asia and parts of Africa but now are grown throughout the world's tropics and subtropics. It has many names, among them Pigeon Pea, Congo Pea, Red Gram and Yellow Dahl. The "red" and "yellow" of the last two names cue us to the fact that the beans manifest a rainbow of colors, and varying degrees of speckledness. The binomial is CAJANUS CAJAN. Over 10,000,000 acres (4,000,000 hectares) of Pigeon Pea are cultivated worldwide, so it's a plant worth knowing.

I'd guess that the Spanish introduced the bean into the Yucatan around 500 years ago, and that since then the Maya have been busily selecting for their own cultivar well suited to the Yucatán. Wilfrido tells me that there are two kinds of Lenteja Maya, one producing our heavily speckled beans and the other making pale, unmarked ones. Otherwise the plants, beans and cultivation are identical.

You can read a lot more about this worthy plant, and see what the bushes look like (though the beans they show are very different in color from ours) here

*****

HARMONIOUSLY HUMMING
You may recall the Pink Cosmoses that a few months ago during early afternoon hours gathered about them such fluttering constellations of rainbow-winged butterflies. This week the plants had gone seed, so I collected them. I sowed them in a new flowerbed twice as large as the last one and in more sun. What a pleasure it will be when the first blossoms and butterflies reappear. Already the seedlings are up.

At mid-day when sunlight falls heavily, stinging the skin, I like to sit just looking at the seedlings, almost hearing some kind of hum arising from the fast- paced, efficient photosynthetic reactions taking place inside all those fresh, new leaves. I feel good being in the presence of such youthful and self-absorbed vigor and potential. Sometimes I find myself empathetically humming with the Cosmoses.

Sitting in the sun humming with the Pink Cosmoses, it occurs to me that the hums of us two beings quietly but intensely being ourselves harmonize, and that that humming harmony is a new thing, bringing into being something more substantial and meaningful than just the Cosmoses and me apart.

This harmonious humming is the song the moment itself sings. And, my experience is that the more harmonious any song is, the more majestic and meaningful the song itself tends to be.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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