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

February 27, 2011

RESOLUTE WHITE-WINGED DOVES
White-winged Doves are common and widely distributed from the US's arid southwestern border south through the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. In central Yucatán they're permanent residents typical of scrubby ranchland and semiopen areas, even in small-town abandoned lots. However, at super-lush, oasis-like Hacienda Chichen, for the last year I've seen them only occasionally, the common dove here being the forest-preferring White-tipped.

Suddenly, however, White-winged Doves are all over the place cooing their confidentially intoned "who-cooks-for-youuuuuus." Our White-winged Dove page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/dove-ww.htm.

For the last few days at dusk as I've sat reading before the hut, a White-winged Dove has arrived during the last moments of light to drink at my birdbath. This is a bit daring, for I'm sitting only six feet away (2m). A portrait just of that bird's face with its characteristic amber eyes surrounded by indigo-blue skin, black stripe below the ear feathers (the auriculars), and a subtle flush of golden just below the stripe, all on a pale gray-brown background, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227dv.jpg.

Some bird species are persnickety, maybe eating just a narrow range of foods, or foraging at a certain level in trees. White-winged Doves are more generalist and opportunistic. You see them foraging on the ground, eating fruits in trees and even hanging out in Pisté's garbage dump. A picture showing one tugging a seed from a leathery, splitting Frangipani fruit is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227dw.jpg.

Something interesting about that picture is that getting the seed out was tricky for the bird. Before the successful extraction documented in the picture, several times the bird had lost his balance and tipped from his perch. You can see the very moment of such a crash, a wing vainly groping for support, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227dx.jpg.

Besides being generalist and opportunistic, my impression is that White-winged Doves are especially resolute about what they set out to do.

*****

AN IGUANA EATS MY YELLOW COSMOSES
One morning half my bed of French Marigolds turned up missing. At first I blamed rabbits because most plants had been severed halfway up their stems, and I've see rabbits eat like that. Birds tend to pull up the whole little plant, then leave much or most of it on the ground. But my friend José pointed out that around here you hardly ever see a rabbit. It was much more likely that my flowers had been eaten by iguanas, which forage both during the day and night.

I salvaged what plants I could and transplanted ones from where they'd grown too close together to where nothing remained, and hoped that sprouts might emerge from the stumps. An then as I rested from that work, sitting in front of the hut, in broad, late-morning daylight, here came lumbering across my open area a 2½-ft-long (75cm) male iguana, showing no concern at all about entering my living space. He slid his big belly and spiny-topped tail over the marigold bed I'd just replanted, gobbled down most of a weedy amaranth, and as my camera was grinding to life he traversed a bed of young purslane, pushed his front end over a jagged rock used as a bed-border, and took into his mouth one of my Yellow Cosmoses, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ig.jpg.

Picture taken, I ran at him shaking my walking stick, thumping the ground with it. The brute just looked at me as if I had no right to distract him from his meal. A good prod in the side, though, and off he went, half-heartedly, the injustice of it all clearly expressed in his glaring eyes and body language.

Since that encounter each day the big fellow saunters past the hut, taking his time, and really I don't think he's particularly interested in my flowers. He just gets walking in a certain direction and eats a little of whatever he blunders into, and for awhile there he was blundering into my flowers.

Much more information about Black Iguanas, including a description of a good fight between two big males, and a picture of how they copulate, awaits you at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/iguana-b.htm.

*****

IGUANA DIGESTION
Actually, the matter of iguana digestion has its interesting points. A surprising amount of information is available, maybe because so many people keep big iguanas as pets, and in some developing countries they're looking at farming larger iguana species for food.

We tend to think that digestion in human guts is neatly handled by gastric juices, which antiseptically melt what we eat into useful chemical compounds. We ignore the fact that human guts host more than 400,000,000,000,000 microbes of at least 400 types, which means that our guts amount to seething, bubbly stews of microbial action. It's even much more so with big, plant-eating iguanas such as our Black Iguanas.

In fact, three main conditions are necessary for our big iguanas to digest their food properly: The presence of elevated heat (attainable while basking in sunshine); gut microbes that break down what's eaten, and; the process of fermentation, which does magical things to otherwise indigestible food.

Remembering that to a certain point heat tends to speed up chemical processes, and that our own guts are microbe heavens, the importance of elevated heat and gut microbes doesn't surprise us. However, I hadn't realized that the process of fermentation is so important.

In the context of food processing, fermentation is regarded as the conversion of carbohydrates such as cellulose, sugars and starch to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids. Yeasts and/or bacteria accomplish the conversion. Maybe the most distinctive feature of fermentation is that by definition it's accomplished without oxygen. It's an anaerobic process.

When I watched my Yellow Cosmos disappear into the maw of the big iguana, most of the plant's non-water content was carbohydrate, and the same was true of all the other herbs the big lizard had eaten that day. In the oxygen-poor environment of the iguana's gut, fermentation is what turned the cosmos's indigestible cellulose, fiber, etc. into simpler compounds easier for the iguana's body to absorb and work with.

*****

TURK'S-CAP WHITE-SKIPPER
Until I began looking closely at our butterflies here I'd always thought that butterflies in the family embracing the skippers -- family Hesperiidae -- were nearly always dark brown or blackish. However, lately we've been running into various predominantly white ones, and this week butterfly identifier Bea in Ontario says that we have a new one, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ws.jpg.

That's the Turk's-cap White-Skipper, HELIOPETES MACAIRA, distributed from southern Texas south through Mexico and Central America to Paraguay in South America. Its habitat is described as forest edges and openings, thorn-scrub, weedy areas and brush, which is the setting of the hut where I took its picture drinking from a flowerbed I'd just watered. Caterpillars of this species feed on the young leaves, flowers and fruits of Turk's-cap Hibiscuses, or Tulipanes, of the Hibiscus-Family genus Malvaviscus, of which we have very many here.

You might enjoy reviewing the interesting variety of skippers we've so far identified in the Yucatan at the bottom of our Yucatan Butterfly Identification Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/ .

*****

FRANGIPANI FRUITS OPENING
Above we saw how White-winged Doves are eating seeds from Frangipani fruits. Our colorful Frangipani Page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/frangipa.htm.

You can see some Frangipani seeds and a split pod at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227dy.jpg.

That term "pod" is a rather general one. A pod is just a dry fruit that splits to release seeds. The pod can have one or many splits. A more technical term for the Frangipani's brown, leathery fruit is "follicle," which to a botanist refers to a dry fruit that splits only on the fruit's front suture, and is derived from a simple pistil, the pistil consisting of a flower's ovary, necklike style, and pollen-receiving stigma.

The whitish seeds are winged at their bases, the papery wings helping with wind dispersal of the seeds.

*****

OVAL FRUITS ON TREES
Here in the heart of the dry season many trees are completely leafless, though sometimes they bear flowers or fruits. Two of our largest, most common and conspicuous tree species nowadays are heavily laden with oval, nutlike fruits.

One is the Cedro, the fragrant-wooded tree we profile at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/cedro.htm.

You can see how thickly the fruits hang on branches in which two Social Flycatchers nonchalantly perch at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227cd.jpg.

In that picture, notice that Cedro fruits are only a fraction of the flycatchers' size.

The second big tree laden with oval fruits is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ce.jpg.

This is the Ceiba tree. Conveniently, also in this picture, in the upper, left corner, there's yet another Social Flycatcher -- those birds are abundant here -- so you can see that Ceiba fruits are much larger, about the size of the bird.

Our profile page for the Ceiba is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

*****

VELVETLEAF
I forget how many members of the Hibiscus Family with orangish-yellow flowers the size of a dog's eye we've profiled. The Bladder and Viscid Mallows come to mind immediately. When a new one began flowering next to the hut I didn't even bother to check it out -- until I brushed against a leaf and felt how soft-velvety it was. Without diving into the flowers' anatomy already I knew that the plant was a velvetleaf, but it was a velvetleaf unlike the one I know back in the US Southeast, Abutilon theophrasti.

Recognizing it as a velvetleaf isn't a great breakthrough since the velvetleaf genus Abutilon embraces between 100 and 160 species, mostly herbs of tropical and warm temperate areas. The hut one is ABUTILON PERMOLLE, very different from the US species. For one thing, the hut plant stands shoulder high, so it's much larger and bushier. You can see a sprig at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ab.jpg.

Those brown things are the fruits, the flowers having passed a week or so ago. A fruit close-up is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ac.jpg.

There you're seeing ten separate "carpels," which are a compound ovary's subdivisions. When you cut a tomato across the middle and see its wedge-shaped units with their tips uniting at the fruit's center, each of those wedge-shaped units is a carpel. The difference here is that the carpels grow separate from one another, while in the tomato they're all fused together. Each of the velvetleaf's carpels is in the process of splitting so that the three seeds inside can escape.

The fruit is mightily fuzzy, and the herbage is even more so. Look at the bottom of our velvetleaf's leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227aa.jpg.

The hairs are soft as well as branched from their bases -- they're "stellate hairs." I hadn't even realized we had an insect in the picture until I saw it on the laptop screen, and I have no idea what it is, just that it looks right for such a fluffy-white landscape.

Abutilon permolle is distributed in Mexico and the West Indies, deep into Central America. It favors well drained limestone soils, like ours.

*****

A RANDOM VIEW WITH INTERESTING JUXTAPOSITIONS
This week each morning I've worked a couple of hours shoveling a long, windrowed compost heap from one spot to another. One morning I straightened up to unkink my back and saw what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227vw.jpg.

Up in a leafless, vine-filled Cedro tree a brown, football-size shelf fungus grew beside a reddish bromeliad, with lots of other bushy bromeliads of a different species all around, and two Black Iguanas sunning themselves beneath a splendidly blue sky. Ripples of hot, dry wind cooled my sweaty, shirtless body as Social Flycatchers, Melodious Blackbirds and a Tropical Mockingbird sang. I stood there smelling the earthy compost heap and the lemony odor of the flowering Lemoncillo beside me, and you just can't imagine how good it all felt, and how splendid it was to be fully alert to the wonder of it all, part of that wonder being me standing there with enough sense to be in wonder.

*****

NEW PICTURE OF ME
The other day photographer Jim Legault passed through. While visiting the hut he got a picture of me and sent it to me later. It's been years since anyone shot a decent picture of me, so I've updated the "official portrait" on my biography page. If you'd like to see how I'm holding up at age 63 in Mexico, go to http://www.backyardnature.net/j/jim.htm.

*****

LETTUCE FEELINGS
One daily job I look forward to is that of supplying a big bouquet of freshly picked leaf lettuce for the kitchen, such as that seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227lt.jpg.

Picking the lettuce is a sensuous experience. Chilly, early-morning dew on the leaves wets my hands. A lettucy fragrance blossoms around me as I break off the leaves, feeling in my fingertips the faint but fatal snaps of petioles yielding to my force. As I return to the hut to wash the leaves I can't take my eyes off the visually pleasing essay before me, one commenting on the theme of simple but crinkly-edged glowings of yellow greenness contrasting with interior black shadowiness.

Sometimes it's hard to hand over the bouquet to the kitchen staff. By the time I get to the kitchen door I'm sort of bonded with that bunch of lettuce, even to the point of identifying with it.

For, when I'm picking the lettuce I'm doing that slow-simmering kind of reflecting on life everyone does when engaged in non-thinking jobs. And the lettuce's radiant yellow-greenness emerging from silky, deep-rooted blackness, and even its odor of bruised herbage, somehow strike me as exactly matching how I've been feeling lately -- not to mention how each leaf petiole gives that little snap when I pick it, like the thousand little losses one feels every day while aging, leaving behind hair, hearing, sight, strength, memory and more, and sometimes just plain giving up on this or that.

Looking at the lettuce in my hands is in many ways like taking a good look at my own feelings.

And, the destiny of that lettuce... I'll bet that most leaves get thrown away -- a bug-eaten hole on this one, that leaf a little too pale, this one with a small tear, that one with a brown spot, one after another just not good enough for a fancy restaurant. Well, if we're developing a metaphor here, at this point it would be easy to overdo it.

But, sometimes I do wish I knew what happens to what I bring to the kitchen door. I wonder what the use is of such fragile, translucing, yellow-green, crushed-herbage, baroque-fringed gifts... if the one you're giving them to mostly just throws them away.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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