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

February 13, 2011

ARAÇARI IN THE BANYAN
It was enough to make a northern birder's heart skip some beats, the way the Collard Araçari, PTEROGLOSSUS TORQUATUS, glided like a balsawood model plane into the big Chinese Banyan. He disappeared into a deeply shaded part but eventually peeped from his cover. You can see him surrounded by sweet little figs at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213ac.jpg.

I'd been trying to photograph him for weeks. During the entire first year of my being here I'd never seen a single member of the Toucan Family, to which araçaris belong. Friends had told me that not only araçaris but also Keel-billed Toucans sometimes show up here, but only after hurricanes when they get "blown up from the south." Farther south in southern Campeche and Quintana Roo there's even a third Toucan-Family member, the Emerald Toucanet, but they've never been spotted here.

Then about a month ago without even a good storm out of the south to cause it, within a week of one another not only did an araçari show up but also a Keel-billed Toucan. I heard the Keel-billed before I saw him, croaking like a very big, hoarse treefrog, RRONK- RRONK-RRONK. Who knows why these two kinds of toucan suddenly appeared here? It's true that they arrived just as the banyan's figs were beginning to ripen, but neither species was here this time last year.

Collared Araçaris are fairly large birds, up to 17 inches long (43cm), the same as a large American Crow. Keel-billed Toucans are substantially larger. When I hear the Keel-billed calling I go stand by the banyan they're calling from, and then keep standing as my camera grinds to life and the bird streaks from heavy cover in one tree to heavy cover in another.

Both toucan species love the banyans' garbanzo-bean-size figs. After the bird in the picture gorged for about ten minutes he flew onto a limb in plain view but with bad lighting where for maybe fifteen minutes first he cleaned his bill -- thus planting a new generation of banyan "strangler fig" seeds -- and then preened. You can see a rear view of him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213ad.jpg.

If you don't understand the above banyan-planting remark because you've missed our discussion of the life cycle of a strangler fig, of which the Chinese Banyan is one, you can see what we're talking about at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/stranglr.htm.

Collared Araçaris are distributed from southern Mexico through Central America to northern South America.

*****

KEEL-BILLED TOUCAN IN SILHOUETTE
The Keel-billed doesn't always completely disappear when he leaves the Banyan's deep shade. Friday morning before the sun was well up, upon exiting his shelter he landed at the tip of a big inflorescence sheath of a Royal Palm, all of which showed up against the brightly silvery sky in silhouette, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213tu.jpg.

At least in that picture you can see that the Keel-billed Toucan's beak is relatively more massive than that of the araçari. There's simply no other bird species in this area whose profile can be confused with the Keel-billed Toucan's.

This upcoming week I'll try to get a Keel-billed picture with colors, but our banyans' figs are disappearing into the stomachs of birds so fast that I fear by next week there won't be any left, and our toucans may depart.

Keel-billed Toucans are distributed from southeastern Mexico to northern South America.

*****

YUCATÁN CRACKER
We have lots of "cracker" butterflies here -- called crackers because the males emit rapid-fire cracking sounds as they flit about their courting territories. The sound is like a wooden toothpick snapping, just crisper and louder.

Until now I've been thinking that I was only seeing Guatemala Crackers, Hamadryas guatemalena, one of which is shown on our "Yucatán Butterfly ID Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/butt022.jpg.

But one day this week an old, faded, bird-ravaged cracker showed up on my compost heap looking a bit different. Mainly, he was far paler than typical Guatemalans, plus there was something else I couldn't put my finger on. I got the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213cr.jpg.

Poor butterfly! With such tattered wings it was hard to imagine he could fly well, but in fact his flying didn't seem a bit hindered. Naturally I shipped the picture off to Bea in snowbound Ontario, who has been suffering butterfly-identifying withdrawal pains ever since our dry season began and I stopped seeing new species.

Bea reports that this is a new species for us, the Yucatán Cracker, HAMADRYAS JULITTA. There's one with intact wings on a "Butterflies of America" page at http://butterfliesofamerica.com/hamadryas_julitta_live1.htm.

The most obvious difference between this and the Guatemalan Cracker is that the "eyes" on the Guatemalan's hindwings are round while those of the Yucatán are "half closed."

About 20 cracker butterfly species are recognized. Each species has a certain height he likes to perch at on tree trunks, perching higher when night approaches. They prefer to perch on the sunny side of trunks unless it's a hot day, and all species perch with theirs head down. Perching males often aggressively or maybe playfully fly towards other butterflies.

*****

RED-RUMPED TARANTULA
Next to the hut, digging up a bed for flowers, beneath a large rock I found the tarantula shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213tt.jpg.

Lots of tarantulas are encountered here and it's not a big deal since everyone knows they won't bother you. I simply relocated her to a nearby pile of rocks and continued digging the bed.

The best way I know to identify a tarantula is to upload a picture to the free-access Arachnoboards.Com site where they even have a special "thread" just for posting tarantula pictures needing to be identified. The forum is at http://www.arachnoboards.com/ab/.

Having done that, before long someone left a message suggesting that what's in the picture might be the endemic BRACHYPELMA EPICUREANUM, native just to the Yucatán, and first introduced to science with a collection made right here at the ruins of Chichén Itzá. However, there's a very similar and closely related species, Brachypelma vagans, it also might be.

These names led to a map displaying the distributions of Mexico's ten Brachypelma tarantulas, accessible here

That map indicates that here only B. epicureanum occurs. However, I don't trust the map completely. For one thing, it shows no tarantulas at all in Querétaro, but we've already found B. vagans there, profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/redrump.htm.

Also, my growing impression is that at the Hacienda we have at least two tarantula species, with the "big, black one" being B. vagans, and there's a "smaller, paler one" which now I'm guessing is B. epicureanum. But, maybe I'm just seeing adult and juvenile forms of the same thing. I've been in contact with an expert and he doesn't know. He says that the information I'm gathering here is important new data for this part of the world.

And that's something I like to hear.

*****

COW'S FOOT
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213bh.jpg you see an easy-to-recognize shrub or small tree that appears commonly along forest trails and woods edges, even sometimes in very disturbed habitats, almost like a weed. It's distributed all through tropical lowland Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to Costa Rica, so if you travel in this region here's a good species to recognize. Notice the leaves' distinctive shape, like the hoof of a cow. In Spanish the bush is called Pata de Vaca, or Cow's Hoof. It's BAUHINIA DIVARICATA, and some of its flowers are shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213bi.jpg.

In tropical America whenever you see a shrub or tree with cow-hoof-shaped leaves, it's usually the genus Bauhinia of the Bean Family. Most Bean Family species have compound leaves, so such "simple" leaves are a little unusual for that family, and to have that shallow indentation at the tip of the leaf is really distinctive. Also one somewhat odd feature of this species is that each flower bears just a single fertile stamen, though other much reduced, sterile ones manifest themselves as a kind of showy fringe in the flower's center. In the picture, the very long, upward curving items with green bulges in their centers are pistils, the green part being the ovary and future legume, the slender white part being the style, and the green, round tip the stigma. New flowers are white but as they age they develop a pinkish tinge.

We've encountered other Bauhinia species before. You might enjoy seeing how the same basic structure expresses itself so differently in other species -- see "variations on the Bauhinia theme." Check out the Purple Orchid Tree we saw back in Querétaro at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/bauhin-1.htm.

Also there was one in Chiapas we couldn't name, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/cowfoot.htm.

An infusion of this Bauhinia's flowers sometimes is made into a remedy for bronchitis.

*****

GYMNOPODIUM
Nowadays out in the woods you'll be walking along a hot, sunny, dusty-feeling trail, then all of a sudden you'll enter a pool of penetratingly sweet fragrance, like honey, but almost too much of it. If in searching for the scent's source you look up you may see what's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213gy.jpg.

Those are little flowers, smaller than a thumbnail, and if you're sensitized to how average blossoms on "normal" broadleaved bushes and trees look you'll notice something special about these flowers: They're three-lobed. A close look at a blossom is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213gz.jpg.

On that flower you see nine stamens and six perianth segments, "perianth" being the term used when the calyx and corolla aren't clearly differentiated. Also the little green ovary in the flower's center has three style branches.

You know that flowering plants traditionally have been separated into "dicots" and "monocots." Dicots, like daisies, oaks and buttercups, usually bear net-veined leaves and flowers with parts numbering four or five, or multiples thereof. Monocots, like grasses, lilies and orchids, usually have narrow and parallel-veined leaves and flowers with parts in threes or multiples thereof. Our fragrant bush has net-veined leaves like a dicot, but flowers with part numbers based on three, like a monocot.

Well, Nature is full of exceptions to nearly everything, and this is one of them. Our plant is GYMNOPODIUM FLORIDANUM, a member of the dicotyledonous Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae. Sometimes that family includes species with flower parts based on the number three.

Northern naturalists mostly know the Buckwheat Family as a home for herbaceous species, such as the smartweeds, knotweeds, docks and sorrels -- the main exception being woody Sea-Grape found along the seashore. Here in the tropics we have lots of woody Buckwheat Family members, and Gymnopodium floridanum is the most common one locally.

The Maya, traditionally being great bee-keepers, know this plant very well, calling it Ts'iits'il Che, and appreciating the fact that not only do the abundant flowers smell like honey, they also produce large amounts of nectar. In fact, as I took the above picture the whole small tree buzzed with bee busyness.

*****

STIGMAPHYLLON VINE ON A STONE WALL
While biking Pisté's backstreets you just never know what you'll find. This week it was a small, fragile looking vine with yellow flowers, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213sg.jpg.

A flower is shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213sh.jpg.

We've seen flowers very similar to this before -- flowers with ping-pong-paddle-shaped petals, and with those pairs of curious, green, oval things between the petal bases. For example, there was the Barbados-Cherry, whose pinkish flower still resides at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091122mq.jpg.

And there was the Nance, whose yellow flower is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/091206nd.jpg.

Those two species are important fruit trees in the tropics and both are members of the big, tropical Malpighia Family, the Malpighiaceae. While the Malpighia Family is important in the tropics, in the Temperate Zone it's practically unknown. Weakley's hefty Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States doesn't list a single species in the Malpighia Family.

Our Pisté wall vine is a member of the Malpighia Family. It's STIGMAPHYLLON ELLIPTICUM, occurring from tropical Mexico to at least as far south as Panamá.

The best field mark for the family is that each sepal on each flower bears two conspicuous, oval glands, and that's what we're seeing between the petal bases. Also, most members of the family bear opposite leaves -- two leaves per stem node -- and typically the leaves or petioles bear glands like those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213si.jpg.

In that picture the tiny, silvery hairs on the stems also are distinctive for the family, though we'd need greater magnification to see them. The hairs are attached to the surface they grow from at their middles, so that each hair has two free, sharp ends. Such hairs are said to be "malpighian hairs" because they're so typical of the Malpighia Family.

Our little vine also bore fruits, which are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213sj.jpg.

Those are samara-type fruits, like those of maples and ashes, which means that they are winged fruits that don't split open when mature. You may recall the Heteropteris brachiata in this January 9th's Newsletter with very similar fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/heteropt.htm.

That vine also was a member of the Malpighia Family, and the big difference between the present fruits and those is that Heteropteris's wings had stiff ribs on the side facing away from the cluster's center, while our current Stigmaphyllon fruit wing ribs face the inside.

Knowing little details like this just tickle a naturalist. It's the "variation on a theme" thing.

*****

"PINK SISTER" HAWAIIAN TI
A potted plant lots of visitors to Hacienda Chichén ask about because it's so pretty -- especially when its leaves glow in late afternoon sun -- is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213ti.jpg.

That's the Hawaiian Ti, the Ti pronounced as if it were "Tea," CORDYLINE TERMINALIS. The genus Cordyline is usually assigned to the Agave Family. The Hawaiian Ti is native to eastern Asia and Polynesia but is planted and used as a potting plant throughout the world because of its pretty leaves. Because of its popularity numerous cultivars have been developed from the wild stock. I think the one in the picture must be the most popular, "Pink Sister."

About a year ago we featured here another Ti Plant, a larger, palm-tree-like species, Cordyline fruticosa, which you might enjoy comparing at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ti-plant.htm.

*****

WHITE MORNING-GLORY
You never know when a train of thought will be set off, or what will trigger it. This week a white morning-glory blossom did it for me. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110213jq.jpg.

Turns out that I'd already profiled this plant back in Querétaro -- it's Jacquemontia nodiflora -- but, still, this repeat encounter with the flower turned into something special.

That hot, dry, breezy day, somehow I was stunned by the effect of sunlight translucing through the corolla, while stamen shadows danced on the wind-shaken corolla-tube's walls. Just look how the flower's stigma atop the slender, white style splits into two arms exactly as a blossom in the genus Jacquemontia ought to.

That day I stood there on the road's hot asphalt next to a heap of "weeds" and stared and felt for the longest time, somehow very glad that that little flower was being so beautiful simply by being itself. And that white-flower experience got me to wondering: Why did Nature evolve us so that we feel good when we experience beautiful things?

Since typically we're programmed to feel good when we do natural things we have to do -- procreate, eat, rest when tired, etc. -- maybe beauty also is necessary in our lives. But, what could there be in a white weed-flower resplendent in sunlight that could be important to us humans?

Maybe it's the flower's example that harmonization with one's environment of the kind "white-flower-in-sunlight" is more life-affirming than living in disharmony with one's environment. Maybe it's the flower's example of "fulfillment-without-striving," which certain materialistic cultures don't understand. Maybe it's the example that simplicity, as evidenced by the little white blossom, can achieve transcendent radiance.

How revealing and how promising that a little white weed flower along a random road offers anyone willing to stop, look and feel guidance to finding happiness, and that accepting that guidance feels very good.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim