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

January 23, 2011

BROWN JAYS, MERCILESSLY
Our common jay species here -- really common -- is the bland and blue Yucatan Jay, which is endemic just to the Yucatán. Next common, usually spotted every day if you're paying attention, is the Green Jay, a denizen of scrubby lowlands from southern Texas to Bolivia. The least common species is the Brown Jay. It's absent most of the time, but occasionally small flocks drop by, and then you hear them before you see them. You can see a couple at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123bj.jpg

That's a borderline immature on the left, borderline because the beaks of fully immature Brown Jays are completely yellow, and they have yellow eyerings (just like immature Yucatan Jays, interestingly, though otherwise they're very different), and you can see that this bird's beak is splotchy black and yellow, and the yellow eyering has almost disappeared. Those of you who know Texas's Brown Jays will recognize that our birds have much whiter bellies than the Texas ones. Texas is home to the "dark morph" while here in the Yucatan we have the "light morph."

These are fairly large birds. North America's Blue Jay is ten inches long (25cm), as are the Scrub and Gray Jays. Yucatan Jays are 13 inches (33cm), but Brown Jays are 16 inches (41cm).

If you know jays in general, you already know how this bird behaves -- nosey, nervous and noisy. In "A Guide to The Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America," author Howell in his description of the Brown Jay's voice hints at what surely was a jillion times when he was sneaking up on a bird while working on his book, and Brown Jays came calling the alarm, scaring his quarry off. Howell describes the jay's call as "Monotonous and obnoxious, an all-too-soon familiar loud screaming kyeeah! or k'yaah! and kaah! kaah!, etc., often repeated mercilessly."

*****

GYMNASTIC GNATCATCHER
Behaviorally nearly the opposite, little Blue-gray Gnatcatchers quietly flit about, so small and fast and plain-looking that they're easy to overlook, unless one of them makes his soft, slightly buzzy, nasal call. The other day one came working along the forest's edge in front of my hut searching beneath this and that leaf, checking out the trunk's other side, hopping from twig to twig, and I took a whole series of photos without getting a single shot showing the bird in any position other than what looked like a painful contortion, and always certain body parts were blurred by quick movement. A tail-bent example is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123gn.jpg.

Maybe you remember how back in Querétaro during the winter months Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were often the most commonly seen bird in the acacia-rich scrub surrounding the big reservoir. Here you see them fairly regularly, but not every day. Here it's also possible to see Tropical Gnatcatchers and maybe White-lored Gnatcatchers and even Long-billed Gnatwrens, so each time a gnatcatcher flits by I mentally confirm the Blue-gray's field marks -- white eyering, white tail underside, dark wings, no black on head...

Though in parts of Mexico Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are only winter visitor, in many places, including the Yucatán, they're permanent residents. In most of the US they're just summer residents, but they're present year-round in the southernmost states, from coast to coast.

*****

JUVENILE INDIGO
The other day we looked a male Indigo Bunting, mottled brown and blue because he was molting here at his winter home. This week I got a nice picture of juvenile, nicely streaked and with a hint of blue at his shoulder, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123ib.jpg.

*****

PRETTY & SCREWED UP
Up where the road north from Pisté intersects with the four-lane Autopista running between Mérida and Cancún, in a weedy, open triangle where three lanes converged, there was a foot-tall plant new to me. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123mc.jpg.

Even before dismounting the bike, because of its trifoliate leaves and bilaterally symmetrical flowers, I knew it was a member of the Bean Family. However, as soon as I sat cross-legged in the traffic triangle examining the flowers I saw that I had something unusual. A side view of a blossom showing one large petal held aloft and another held horizontally is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123md.jpg.

To realize how abnormal that blossom is you need to know what "normal" flowers in the Bean Family look like. The butterfly-like, "papilionaceous" flowers of most species of the Bean Family are described at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_beans.htm.

On that page "normal" bean flowers are shown to have a large "standard" or "banner" flying over the blossom, two smaller side-petals known as "wings," and a "keel" consisting of two lower petals fused along their common margin to form a boat-like scoop. Garden beans, Redbuds, Honeylocusts, clover, lespedeza -- all have flowers basically structured like this.

Our roadside bean appears to have a fine standard flying above it, but its wings aren't apparent, and instead of having a boat-shaped keel, there's just one flat petal. To understand what was going on I had to view the flower from below and one side. That view is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123me.jpg.

It took some mental gymnastics to see it, but finally I realized what's going on. Remembering that that view is from below and to one side, I saw that the wing on the picture's right, instead of meekly staying at the side, flairs upward to do the standard's work. The opposite wing twists so that it forms the horizontal platform held before the flower. The boat-like keel arises in its usual place at the bottom, but forms a slender tube that screws upward and backward into the corolla. The standard, instead of rising conspicuously above the flower, is that large, pinkish thing forming a fleshy flap on the flower's far side.

Looking into the flower from the front you see how the keel turns into a cylinder coiling upward and backward at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123mf.jpg.

With the lower wing removed we can see how the white, wormlike, stigma-tipped style exits the tubelike keel at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123mg.jpg.

Why on Earth would a flower screw itself into such a bizarre configuration? I saw the answer when a bee landed on the platform-like lower wing, thrust itself into the blossom forcing petals this way and that, and the wormlike style shot out of the keel-tube to latch onto pollen carried by the visitor. As usual, the screwiness is all for better sex.

One last shot of the plant shows its trifoliate leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123mh.jpg.

So, the mystery plant is: MACROPTILIUM ATROPURPUREUM, native from Texas through Mexico and the Caribbean through Central America deep into South America, but now naturalized throughout the world's tropics and subtropics. The reason it enjoys such wide distribution is that it's widely cultivated as a forage plant in pastures, and sometimes is planted to control erosion. In fact, I suspect that the latter reason is why it was inside the traffic triangle and nowhere else I've seen. Probably a highway worker threw a handful of seeds into the triangle "for erosion control.

This is an important plant, despite its exotic looks. You can read more than you want to know about it here

*****

ALMOST FESCUE
Lately a certain grass species has been challenging me. It's six feet tall (2m) and it hangs itself across forest trails and leans out of forest edges so that it's hard to ignore. You can see a typical panicle of it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123go.jpg.

In grasses, the structure analogous to a flower in regular plants is the spikelet. This grass's spikelet, containing about four awned "florets," is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123gp.jpg.

Those florets are analogous to the multiple pistils of certain flowers, such as those of buttercups and magnolias. Some individual florets are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123gr.jpg.

Often features of where a grass's blade connects with the stem are useful in grass identification, so a picture of that part of this grass, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123gq.jpg.

If you're familiar with temperate-zone grasses you'll understand why when I tried to key out this grass I always ended up with the big genus Festuca, or fescue grass. However, when I went looking for fescues living in the Yucatán, the few of them listed didn't fit. Anyway, fescues are mainly temperate-zone grasses.

It took me awhile to figure out that our mystery grass is an uncommonly occurring genus, or at least one seldom documented, restricted to tropical America. It's the genus GOUINIA, which I'd never heard of. There's not enough info on the internet for me to figure out which species it is, though it well might be Gouinia virgata.

I'll park the pictures in the Newsletter archives and let a future agrostologist Google them up and write to me about them.

*****

ANTS ON A MORNING-GLORY TREE
Planted along a street in Mérida we've already seen Morning-Glory Trees, IPOMOEA CARNEA, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tree-m-g.htm.

However, the one seen during my last trip to Pisté, happily blossoming on the shady north side of a white-stuccoed house, was worth revisiting. First, it was a white-flowered form as opposed to the usual pink form more typically seenas shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123ip.jpg.

Also, the calyxes of the Pisté plant were well populated with ants busy supping nectar, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123iq.jpg.

Last week we saw such "extrafloral nectaries" at the sepal bases of a Ginger-leaf Morning-Glory, so such glands appear to be fairly common among morning-glories. Tree Morning-Glories also bear such glands on their leaf petioles.

The nectar secreted by these glands is a rich mixture of sugars and amino acids. With this nectar the plant attracts ants that will attack herbivores who come along wanting to eat the plant. When I tapped with my finger near the ants in the picture one rushed onto my finger to bite it, and would have managed if I hadn't nudged him back onto his flower.

*****

ARECA PALM
Several months ago when I was visiting the Yucatán's main city, Mérida, for visa purposes, one day along the grand Paseo Montejo I came upon the palm shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123ar.jpg.

It was flowering, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123as.jpg.

The fronds looked very familiar but I just couldn't put my finger on what it might be. Finally to get help with an ID I uploaded the pictures to the palm-tree-ID part of the free, online palm-fancier's forum accessible here

Weeks passed with no ID, until finally "RuskinPalms" in Houston took a look and wrote: "Its an Areca Palm. This Areca Palm is more mature and this is why not lots of people are able to recognize the mature look of one."

Right. It looked familiar because I'm used to seeing it in big pots up North, and in the tropics often it's planted as a bushy hedge. You seldom see big ones like this standing alone.

So, Areca Palm, also known as Golden Cane Palm, Butterfly Palm and Madagascar Palm, is DYPSIS LUTESCENS. It's abundantly planted throughout the world's tropics and subtropics and originally is from Madagascar. Besides its beauty, one reason for its popularity is that it's easy to grow and is adaptable, accommodating habitats from full sun to shade. It can be grown from seeds, though they need two to six months to germinate. Offshoots cut from the trunk's base can be used to start new plants.

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STICKING STICKS IN THE GROUND
The Maya aren't as rigorous as Northerners about keeping straight whether something is a fruit or a seed. Or maybe it's that they approach the whole issue from a completely different direction.

That's the way it turned out the other day when I pressed José the shaman about why he always refers to a certain tree as the female form of a pair of similar-looking species, even when I stood there showing him that the tree's flowers bore both male and female parts. To José, plants carry the gender matching that of the spiritual entity who planted the very first of that species way back.

Despite this experience, the other day I was surprised when Doña Manuela, who works in the spa here, promised me seeds of the Giant Mexican Sunflowers we looked at in last November 14th's Newsletter (They're shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/tithonia.htm) and instead of what I think of as seeds turned up with an armload of straight, brown, dry, yard-long (1m) sticks, calling them semillas, which is the Spanish word for "seeds." She told me to plant them, keep them watered, and wait. I did, and you can see a result at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123st.jpg.

Beyond the question of whether even a Maya has the right to call such stick "seeds," to my Northern gardener sensibilities it just doesn't seem right that such a stick -- especially of something passing itself off as a sunflower -- should root and sprout simply by being shoved into the ground.

Of course we saw the same thing with the famous Chaya (http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/malamujr.htm) but I've been thinking of that as a big exception.

The same trick works, though, with the Common Rue (http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/rue.htm) I was having problems getting rue seeds to germinate so I asked around if there was a trick. People would shrug and say, "Just break a twig off another plant and stick into the ground." I doubted seriously if that would work because Rue isn't too woody, is almost herbaceous, and not too many broken-off herb stems take root.

I did break off some Rue twigs, however, stuck them into the ground, and for about three months kept the ground moist. The sprig shriveled and drooped but never did dry out or die back. Then a couple of weeks ago fresh shoots popped out, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110123su.jpg.

What did I learn from all this? Just don't get stuck in preconceptions. Lots of thing in life can surprise you.

*****

COMPLEXITY & SIMPLICITY
A feature of the history of Life on Earth is that it began as small and simple and evolved to be large and complex. Last week I suggested that that history could be thought of as one of many models, or paradigms, provided by Nature that can guide us in living our daily lives.

Yet, also, I've extolled the virtues of smallness and simplicity.

So, which is right? Do we shoot for large and complex, or small and simple?

This is another of those married sets of reality that at first glance seem paradoxical or even self contradictory, but then, when reflected on, reveal themselves as a beautifully balanced system capable of bestowing powerful insights and wise guidance. Here's one way it might work:

Downsize and simplify by abandoning the taste for fancy food and drink, stylish clothing, impressive car, luxurious home, entertainment provided by others, unnecessary gadgets, and the false luxury of paying someone else to take responsibility for your health... and you find yourself needing less money.

Needing less money can translate into having more free time. And that free time can be used to develop one's natural talents and interests, and to become sensitized to beautiful and worthy things.

Realizing one's natural potential and becoming sensitized to beautiful and worthy things, one's spirit feeds and grows and evolves. It evolves the same way Life has, from small and simple to big and complex...

Complex in the sense of becoming more complexly involved with, and more complexly appreciative of, the very big world around us... Complex in the sense of understanding things profoundly enough to see and hunger for the beauty of small and simple things...

small & simple <--> big & complex

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net