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

March 20, 2011

RAUCOUS BIRDCALLS
Birds sing all day at Hacienda Chichen and they're a delight to hear. Some calls are more noticeable than others. Especially in early mornings while vegetation still is wet with dew, spectacular serenades are conducted by small flocks of Plain Chachalacas, which look like brownish Wild Turkeys. Our page on them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/chachala.htm.

It's hard to believe that any bird can create such a loud, far-carrying song. I was taught that when chachalacas call there's a high, squeaky voice saying "Knock-it-off, knock-it-off... !" while a lower, more insistent voice keeps saying "Keep-it-up, keep-it-up... !" If your computer can digest WAV audio files, you can hear some calling on a dewy morning this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/chacha.wav.

That file is 6.7 MB large so it may take some time to load. Also, not all computers can handle WAV files.

One disconcerting bird concert often heard takes place when our abundant White-fronted Parrots for some reason grow excited and begin screeching in great numbers, like dogs in a dogfight. I've never been able to see whether they're fighting, mating or what, but the racket they make is spectacular, as maybe you can hear at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/parrots.wav .

*****

NO ARBOREAL TERMITE NESTS HERE
In much of the Yucatán a common sight it that of basketball-size termite nests built high in big trees. We saw them back in 2008 while staying in Sabacché and you can review what they looked like there at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/termnest.htm.

Here in the Chichén Itzá area such nests are absent. That's particularly interesting because you do see termite passageways consisting of glued-together sawdust particles snaking up trees' trunks. Such dark, reticulating tunnels on a Piich near the hut is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320tt.jpg.

I couldn't imagine why arboreal termite nests might be common at Sabacché but absent here, in basically the same environment, so I asked my Maya friends on the ground crew.

"Parrots destroy the nests around here," one said, as if it were common knowledge.

It's true that parrots often place their own nests in termite nests, and I can see how this would upset the termites. Around Sabacché collecting wild parrots for sale as pets may have been responsible for there being fewer parrots there then here, so maybe that fact alone enabled termites to maintain their nests. Though here at Chichén Itzá there's also illegal parrot collecting, it's not nearly as aggressive as in most of the Yucatán, so maybe our higher parrot population has been bad news for termites.

So, you buy a parrot captured in the wild and you're funding the parrot-capturing industry, and your money ends up not only decimating the parrot population but also helping termites maintain their nests. Unintended consequences...

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MYSTERY TREE UNVEILED
A year ago a certain tree not far from the hut began fruiting and I just couldn't figure out what it was -- not even which plant family it belonged to. You can see a branch with its simple leaves and winged fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320ph.jpg.

The leaves look almost like those of a cherry or pear tree while the dangling fruits are very similar to those of maple trees. A fruit close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320pi.jpg.

Those winged, inch-long (2.7 cm) fruits don't open when they mature, so they're known technically as samaras, same as with maple fruits. Unlike maple samaras, however, each fruit of this mystery tree bears two wings, one of them much smaller than the other and opposite it. In fact it looks as if originally each flower produced two winged samaras, but then one aborted, leaving the other to dominate. I've never seen anything like this.

Now a year after this tree began mystifying me it's fruiting again and this time I've been so desperate for an identification that I used a technique usually tried only by rank beginners: I began considering every plant family known to exist in this area, one at a time, asking myself if the mystery tree possibly could belong in that family. If I thought it might, I went to a family-by-family listing of the plants of the neighboring state of Quintana Roo, and if I didn't recognize a species in that family, I'd look for pictures of it on the Internet. I began with Acanthaceae, then Aceraceae...

By the time I came to Ulmaceae, the Elm Family, already I was feeling defeat. But I was determined to continue slogging through one taxon after another, all the way through Zygophyllaceae. Well, how about that Elm Family? In fact, elms do have papery-winged fruits so it was a possibility. In Quintana Roo there's a genus I didn't recognize, Phyllostylon, so I looked it up... BINGO!

The mystery tree is PHYLLOSTYLON BRASILIENSE, a member of the Elm Family, and now that I think of it the leaves are a little elmy, so why not? The species is not well documented on the Internet and appears to occur in dry, brushy forests in widely separated populations in the American tropics -- southern Mexico and Guatemala, the Caribbean, and here and there in South America.

One English trade name for Phyllostylon brasiliense has been San Domingan Boxwood, the tree's wood being exceptionally hard, heavy and compact, with a very fine and uniform texture, and a straight grain, making it easy to carve and apply a high polish to. In the past it was exported from the Dominican Republic to the US for use in making weaver's shuttles, rulers, and piano keys.

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RANDIA FLOWERING
We've already admired the smallish, spiny-twigged, clambering, fairly common shrub known as Randia longiloba. The shrub's outer branches drape like vines and produce greenish, June-apple-like fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/randia.htm.

Nowadays Randia is flowering in the unusual way shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320ra.jpg.

What's peculiar is how the slender, arching stems' branches shoot off at right angles, and the flowers are attached at shoot tips. Also, the white blossoms exhibit singularly graceful lines, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320rb.jpg.

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TALINUM'S PINK, TINY FLOWERS
Especially along shadowy forest trails you notice knee-high, slender stems arching over the path, bearing a few tiny flowers that tend to be closed in the mornings but open in the afternoons -- something unusual for such delicate-looking flowers, which you'd expect to be morning-bloomers. The plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320tm.jpg.

A flower, its pink petals about 3/16-inch long (4 mm) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320tn.jpg.

That flower is unexpectedly pretty in its simplicity. It's almost like the "Standard Blossom" I use to teach flower anatomy -- the most average, unspecialized flower imaginable. Note its five pink petals, its several stamens with their slender, pink filaments and yellow, pollen-packed anthers, and then the spherical, green ovary in the center, topped by a slender, pink, neck-like style three-parted at the top, each of the three parts bearing a rough, sticky stigmatic surface where pollen from other flowers is deposited and germinates.

Despite this plant's fragile appearance it's a robust species inhabiting a wide variety of habitats over a very large distribution area.It's native from the southern US states through Mexico and most of tropical America, plus it's been introduced into southern Africa and southern Asia. As such it goes by several English names, including Pink baby-breath and Jewels of Opar. Both of these names are so fanciful that I prefer just the genus name, Talinum. It's TALINUM PANICULATUM, a member of the Portulaca or Purslane Family, a family whose flowers often are especially bright and pretty.

Standley reports that the leaves of this species make a good substitute for spinach. The leaves of our plants are so small and tough that not many folks nowadays would want to eat them, but maybe the time will come when people again will be happy for a pot of Talinum greens.

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POORMAN'S-PEPPER
Wandering the colorful and friendly backstreets of the nearby little Maya town of Xcalacoop I spotted an old friend from up North. You can see who I mean at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320li.jpg.

A close-up of its flat, round, notched fruits is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320lj.jpg.

As a kid dreaming of becoming a naturalist this was one of the first plants I learned, because it was such a common, easily recognizable, interesting weed. Recognizable because of those long racemes of small, flat, round fruits technically known as silicles, a special term used for short fruits of certain Mustard Family species. By "short" is meant a fruit not more than twice as long as wide. A long mustard fruit is known as a silique.

Anyway, back in Kentucky I learned to call the plant in the picture Poorman's Pepper, but it goes by many names in many languages. Among its other English names are Peppergrass, Pepperweed, Peppercress, Virginia Cress and more. It's LEPIDIUM VIRGINICUM of the Mustard Family.

The reason the word pepper appears so frequently in its names is that the flattish, round silicles have a biting, peppery taste. I've harvested the fruits in their green stage and added them to lettuce and tomato salads, and actually they tasted pretty good. However, it's time consuming to collect the fruits, and separate them from their stiff, fibrous stems, or pedicels. Also, unless you crunch a fruit between your teeth its pepperiness never is tasted, so either you must add a lot to a salad, or chew fastidiously.

I'd always assumed that Pepperweed, so common in dry, weedy areas, was an introduced European weed, and in fact I've seen it growing very robustly in Europe as well as Africa and tropical Asia. But upon reading about it for this entry I'm surprised to find that it's a native American species, apparently native as well to the Yucatán and through Central America. It's been introduced as a weed, though, in most of the rest of the world.

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ENCYCLIA ORCHID FLOWERING
For months I've awaited the flowering of a certain colony of orchids growing ten feet up the trunk of a giant Piich tree near the hut. The orchids look like a big clump of grass sprouting from the tree, and this week they're flowering, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320or.jpg.

The white flowers are small, only about 1-¼ inches long (3cm). Still, they display a typical orchid shape, with a frilly lip serving admirably as a landing pad for visiting pollinators, as you can see in a shot taken from above a flower at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320os.jpg.

This is ENCYCLIA NEMATOCAULON, sometimes known as the Thread-stemmed Encyclia. It's native from Mexico to Nicaragua, and Cuba, specializing in growing on trees in lowland scrub and tropical deciduous forest, like ours.

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A GOOD WEBSITE FOR YUCATÁN PLANT IDENTIFICATION
Lately my identification of plants of the Yucatán has been greatly helped by a website created by W. John Hayden, Professor of Biology, at the University of Richmond in Virginia, USA. Dr. Hayden says that he's "...documenting biodiversity of the Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve, Yucatan, Mexico." The title of his page is "Flora of Kaxil Kiuic." The region documented is south of Mérida, on the southern side of the Puuc Hills. A nice map locating it is shown at http://www.kiuic.org/english_f/map1.htm.

I'm not sure whether this is a new site or whether I've just come onto it late, but for anyone with some botanical background probably it's the best website on the Internet for identifying Yucatec plants.

The reason you need some botanical background is that illustrated pages for each species included are indexed by plant family. Therefore, to identify the above orchid I went to the Index Page, clicked on ORCHIDACEAE, then clicked on each species name I hadn't already disqualified, and before long, there was my orchid. I was lucky, though, for not all plants in the region are represented. The site is still being constructed.

So, if know what family your unknown plant belongs to, this site helps a lot. If you don't, there are so many plants that browsing all the pictures is out of the question.

Here's the address of the Index Page: http://chalk.richmond.edu/flora-kaxil-kiuic/checklist.html.

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STRATUS BECOMING STRATOCUMULUS
For some reason lately I've been especially sensitive to clouds. As a melody's tones express the complex disposition of a composer's mind, clouds state the sky's mood -- especially its moisture content, temperature and turbulence. What a pleasure to watch the sky's temperament change through the day, and from season to season. Early one morning this week I snapped the somber clouding shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110320cl.jpg.

Remembering that stratus clouds are blanket-like cloud layers and that cumulus clouds are white, puffy ones typical of summery clouds, I wondered whether this might qualify as "stratocumulus." On the Internet I read that stratocumulus clouds exhibit themselves as a layer of individual rolls or rounded masses. Someone writes that if you hold your hand at arm's length the individual cloud elements appear to be about the size of your fist. Stratocumulus clouds generally are composed of small water droplets, not ice.

What's shown in the picture is too lumpy to be stratus yet the individual cloud elements are much smaller than a hand at arm's length, and aren't nearly as distinct and well formed as those seen in photographs of "classic stratocumulus."

Thus I'm calling what's in the picture "stratus becoming stratocumulus," and in so doing I feel glad that clouds, too, are like living organisms, in that they seldom neatly fit into the mental pigeonholes we humans obsessively create for them.

Such cloud cover often forms these days soon after dawn. Often when I run at 4AM the sky is clear with twinkling stars, but as dawn approaches a haze forms and by the time it's halfway light the sky is blanketed with gray stratus. After an hour or two the stratus curdles into the condition shown in the picture, then the entire cloud cover starts breaking up with more and more blueness showing, and then by 9 or 10AM you have a cloudless blue sky.

Sometimes earlier in the year you could watch a morning's fog as the first light dawned gradually lift from the ground and become very low stratus or breaking-up stratus, then you'd get a covering more or less like in the picture, and then again by 9 or 10AM you'd have a cloudless sky.

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DON FILOMENO'S SONG
Don Filomeno at age 74 or so is the longest-serving employee at Hacienda Chichen, remembering the Hacienda when it was a ranch with cattle grazing around Maya ruins rising in pastureland. He's a tough old guy who hardly ever rests and tends to rush about looking as if he's involved in terribly important goings-on, but I think the way I'll always remember him is how he sings and whistles in the garden, hour after hour, as he waters his plants. Throughout all my days here he's almost always there, his sweet whistle filtering into the blue sky, his surprisingly melodic, sincere-sounding voice intoning the most romantic of romantic Mexican ballads.

The other day I sneaked up behind a stone wall near where he was watering the garden and as birds called and wind rustled through the I set my camera in a hole in the wall and taped him awhile. He was singing of a lost love, how he wished to God he had it all again, could lie with her and tell her what he needed to say. Leaning against the stonewall hearing the old man, feeling burning sunlight on my skin, sometimes the Melodious Blackbirds drowning him out, the odor of dust and crushed Epazote in the air, and feeling the jagged stone wall at my back, I got all misty-eyed for my own silly reasons.

If your computer can digest WAV audio files and you have bandwidth and speed to handle a 17 MB file, it's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/filomeno.wav .

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BUDDHA IN XCALACOOP
Walking the backstreets of nearby Xcalacoop in intense sunlight in which form, color and texture explode like emotions in a symphony, where ordinary things and people are so vividly gentle and transparent they seem like projections of perfection from some other place, my thoughts go like this:

Buddha taught that if one does away with desire, transcendent understanding and compassion arise. The promise of Buddhism lies in attaining peace, quiescence, emptiness...

In contrast, my own Nature-as-Bible spiritual insights based on the Six Miracles of Nature -- something coming out of nothing then lustily evolving life and then thought and then inspired thought, feeling and spiritual insight -- conceive of a Creator urgently, voluptuously and sometimes violently blossoming forth Creation.

Are my own beliefs so at loggerheads with those of the Buddha, who so often has seemed exactly right to me?

In Xcalacoop's gaudy, raucous, gentle, gracious, beautiful backstreets somehow it occurs to me that the question is useless. The point is that as Buddha's placid approach leads to transcendent insight and boundless compassion, so it is, I'm absolutely sure, with the teachings of the Six Miracles of Nature.

For, in my own life becoming sensitized to and intimately experiencing the things of Nature inevitably and magically has engendered more transcendent insight and empathy with beautiful things than sometimes my narrow and cramped soul has been able to cope with.

On Xcalacoop's backstreets birds sing, wind blows, kids' kites soar, clouds drift above, dance music blares from radios, dogs smile, pigs pee in their pens, and somehow this is what it all says to me:

Not Buddha, not the Six Miracles, but the things themselves, right now... are the things themselves, right now, and nothing more really is necessary.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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