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

April 3, 2011

BUG, BASILISK & SNAKE
A little after dawn, before sunlight touched the treetops, I sat reading in front of the hut when a bug plummeted into a lush, knee-high parsley plant beside the door about ten feet away. I wouldn't have even registered the bug if within a second of his descent a Striped Basilisk -- one of those long-tailed, very long-toed lizards who runs on oversized back legs so fast they can stride across open water -- shot from among my Yellow Cosmoses into the parsley, clearly after the bug. Our Striped Basilisk page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/basilisk.htm.

Not a second after the basilisk had plunged into the parsley, a slender, grayish-tan snake over three feet long (±1m) shot from beneath a rock across the garden and dove into the parsley, after the basilisk. In about ten seconds the snake poked his head from the parsley's far side, threaded up through my Cuban Oregano and raised his head looking around. About thirty seconds after the snake entered the oregano the lucky basilisk zipped from the parsley in the opposite direction, but the snake didn't see it. The snake just hung frozen in the oregano for a solid ten minutes not moving a scale, and you can see that lovely sight at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403sn.jpg.

The snake was a Middle American Smooth-scaled Racer, DRYADOPHIS MELANOLOMUS, commonly seen around here. In fact, in this year's February 6th Newsletter we got some nice pictures of a young one found almost drowned in the fishpond. However, that one was clearly banded, while our present adult shows no body patterns at all. Also, back in 2006 near Telchac Pueblo in northwestern Yucatán we found another young one, which was brightly reddish with weak banding.

So now we have a third color and pattern variation. The species is known to be very variable over its distribution area from northern Mexico to Panama, and now we're seeing stark variations just here in the Yucatán. The phases we've seen of this snake are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ss-racer.htm.

The species is known to feed mainly on reptiles, especially lizards, so going for a basilisk that Sunday morning was in order for it.

*****

THE TOUCANS RETURN
In February when the Chinese Banyans grew heavy with pea-sized figs, Keel-billed Toucans came up from their usual haunts farther to the south and stayed a few days gorging themselves. Once the figs were depleted they disappeared without my ever getting more than a colorless silhouette picture of one.

This Monday once again I heard the bird's familiar call, like a gigantic tree frog, RRRK-RRRK-RRRK, went to take a look, and by golly this time there were three and they were much less secretive about their whereabouts than before. I got a decent shot, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403tu.jpg.

These are big birds, about 22 inches long (56 cm), several inches longer than an American Crow.

*****

LITTLE WREN WITH A BIG VOICE
The above toucan picture is sharp and colorful, but I'm almost prouder of the smaller, blurrier and less colorful picture of the singing little wren shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403wr.jpg.

That's a Spot-breasted Wren and though the species is fairly common from northeastern Mexico to Costa Rica, they're hard to see and even harder to photograph. To get this picture I'd had to blindly point and snap where I thought he was, but didn't even know I'd gotten him until the image was on my screen. Spot-breasted Wrens skulk in deep shade in heavy, often vine-covered thickets hardly ever affording a good view.

But from within their murky shelters these birds call very loudly and piercingly, SWEE hu-a WEE-a-hew, SWEE hu-a WEE-a-hew... again and again.

Seeing the small size, rufous back and white eyestripe, birders in eastern North America will be reminded of the Carolina Wren, with a similarly loud call. In fact, the two birds belong to the same genus, The Spot-breasted being THRYOTHORUS MACULIPECTUS while the Carolina is Thryothorus ludovicianus.

In the Yucatan no other small wren beside the Spot-breasted has such a heavily spotted breast. The Yucatan Wren on the northern coast has a spotted breast but it's a big wren, 7 inches long (18cm) compared to the 5.3-inch long (13cm) Spotted-breast.

*****

GRAY HAWK PLUMAGE TRANSITION
Just last week we saw that the Gray Hawk's immature plumage is brown, and that its breast streaks are vertical instead of horizontal as in the adult. This week I got another picture of an immature Gray Hawk, this time showing the breast with some feathers exhibiting vertical streaking, while other feathers are horizontally streaked -- a transition stage. See http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403gh.jpg.

*****

A BIG TOE-BITER
One problem with writing and philosophizing is that at the end of the day you never know whether you've made advancements, or if in fact you've just confused yourself more than before. Therefore lately I've been enjoying the opportunity to dig a big hole at the Hacienda, for a future septic tank, one maybe ten by ten feet across (3 x 3m) and about the same depth. After sweating at that job for awhile, at least you can see the dirt you've thrown out, and see that you're deeper down than before.

So, that's what I was doing when my shovel dislodged a big red clod of dirt beneath which was the item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403wb.jpg.

You can see that the critter was about 6cms long, or about 2-1/3rd inches. The bug seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. With a little prodding he'd move his legs, but later he seemed inert. I placed him on a chair in the hut and overnight he disappeared, either having escaped, or being eaten by a rat.

At first glance you think that what's in the picture is a big cockroach, but then you remember that cockroaches have shield-like plates, or pronotums, covering their thorax and the backs of their heads, nearly hiding their heads, but this insect's head with bulging compound eyes is very apparent. Also, cockroach legs aren't flattened like this one's. A better look at its paddlelike legs is shown from below at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403wc.jpg.

And cockroaches have chewing mouthparts, not long, slender beaks such as this critter's, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403wd.jpg.

I'd seen something like this back in Mississippi, calling it a Giant Waterbug, but I couldn't remember if it was the same thing, so off the pictures went to good ol' Bea in Ontario. It wasn't long before she shot back that it was indeed a giant waterbug of the True Bug Order, the Hemiptera, and the Giant Waterbug Family, the Belostomatidae, but several similar waterbug species exist in that family and she couldn't be absolutely sure which it was.

Bea's best bet is that it's LETHOCERUS GRISEUS, known up North as the Eastern Giant Waterbug, or, more affectionately, as the Giant Toe-Biter, since they are suspected of inflicting painful bites to toes on feet dangled over the edges of docks. To be absolutely positive about which species it is we'd need to see such things as whether there's a pad of "fur" rather than a groove on the inner face of the fore femur.

Bea further writes that giant waterbugs prey on any animal small enough to grab with their front legs: aquatic arthropods, snails, small fish, tadpoles, frogs, and even small birds. Once they've caught their prey they inject enzymes through their beaks that kill the prey and start the digestion process. Once the prey's insides are broken down, the toe-biter sucks the liquid out through their beaks.

So, what was a very lethargic toe-biter doing beneath a clod in my five-ft-deep hole toward the end of a tropical dry season? Toe-biters fly around at night and are attracted to lights, so maybe this one was drawn to the Hacienda's security lamps, then at dawn sought shelter in my hole. But why so lifeless?

¿Quien sabe? as they say here -- Who knows?

*****

CEIBA FUZZ
Nowadays visitors entering Hacienda Chichen's reception area are greeted with a sign saying "Please pardon the fuzz... " Then it's explained that our big Ceiba trees are dropping their abundant seeds enmeshed in fluffy fuzz, that the fuzz looks bad in the swimming pool, but we're constantly cleaning the water, and the fuzz isn't harmful.

Often we've spoken of those impressive Ceibas. Their page, showing leaves, flowers, bark and more is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/ceiba.htm.

In our February 27th Newsletter we saw the fruits at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110227ce.jpg.

Now the fruits' husks are splitting, revealing masses of cotton-like material in which seeds are embedded, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403fz.jpg.

Years ago Ceiba cotton was gathered and sold commercially under the name of kapok, for use as stuffing.

This fuzz is being produced in prodigious amounts. You can see it covering the lawn like snow at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403fy.jpg.

Sometimes, like snow, it makes pretty arrangements, as at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403fx.jpg.

The fuzz enables the Ceibas' seeds to disseminate by wind. Unlike, say, a milkweed seed with its parachute firmly attached atop the seed, Ceiba seeds appear to be merely suspended inside loose gatherings of fuzz, as shown by a fuzz mass descended from the sky at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403f_.jpg.

Such an extravagance of Ceiba seeds is a bother to some but a blessing to others, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403f-.jpg.

That shows some kind of bug nymph with its proboscis inserted into a Ceiba seed, dining on the good stuff inside.

*****

BULLHORN ACACIA FLOWERING
We've seen Bullhorn Acacias when they were leafless but absolutely bristling with very large, thick-based, hollow, ant-hosting thorns, shown and described at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/acacia-t.htm.

Now the Bullhorns are producing very distinctive spikes of tiny, densely packed, yellow flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403ac.jpg.

At least two closely related species of Bullhorn Acacia occur in the central Yucatán. Earlier I decided that our local species was probably was Acacia collinsii, but there was always a little doubt about whether it might be Acacia cornigera. The only difference I can find mention of is that the fruits, or legumes, of A collinsii split open when mature, while those of A cornigera don't.

While photographing the above flowers it occurred to me to look for old fruits in the leaf litter below the trees. After a lengthy search I found what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403ad.jpg.

That's a woody, split-open legume with its seeds, or beans, long gone. Therefore, now it's almost certain that our local plants really are Acacia collinsii.

*****

EYE-CATCHING DESMANTHUS FRUITS
If you take an acacia or mimosa tree, remove its prickles and make it herbaceous instead of woody, you'll have a Desmanthus. Our local Desmanthus, the shoulder-tall DESMANTHUS VIRGATUS, now is producing clusters of fruit-legumes that look like very slender, reddish fingers on very scrawny hands, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403ds.jpg.

Like the above Bullhorn Acacias, Desmanthus's feathery, twice-compound leaves bear ant-attracting glands on their petioles, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403dt.jpg.

Desmanthus is another of those unpretentious little plants that when you first meet it you suspect of general mediocrity, but when you Google it, it turns out to be an international super-star. For, this waist-tall, herbaceous perennial shrub that's native from Texas and Florida south through nearly all of tropical America now is planted throughout the world's tropics as a valuable forage plant for grazing livestock.

Entire Desmanthus plants are palatable to grazing ruminants, and the leaves contain over 20% crude protein. Once an animal eats it back, it produces new sprouts so readily that it's regarded as one of the most tolerant of all forage legumes to heavy grazing. After a fire it readily regrows from its crown. Also, it thrives in a wide variety of soils and climatic conditions.

*****

WILD GUAYA FLOWERING
Maybe you remember the sweet, juicy Guaya fruits that last July were being sold along the road and in the street market. Our page all about them is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/guaya.htm.

Back then we said that those Guaya fruits were produced by a much-planted South American member of the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae, Melicoccus bijugatus, but that there was another tree, also called Guaya, of the same family, and producing similar but smaller edible fruits. Now that "Wild Guaya," TALISIA OLIVIFORMIS, is flowering, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403gy.jpg.

Note the distinctive compound leaves consisting of four leaflets.

Actually, the above picture shows a branch-tip, flowering panicle a bit past its prime. By the time I noticed the flowering, it was almost over. The green, oval items are ovaries on their ways to becoming Guaya fruits, the flowers' white petals and stamens having already fallen off.

You can see a younger flower with a much smaller ovary and its white petals and a stamen still attached at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403gx.jpg.

In that picture, the male, pollen-producing stamen is at the center, between two white petals beginning to fade. A strictly male flower with no ovary is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403gz.jpg.

That picture shows eight stamens arising from a "disk." Such disks ae very typical of flowers of the Soapberry and a few other families.

So, Wild Guaya trees definitely produce unisexual male flowers, and if that stamen in the center of the previous picture produced viable pollen, then also bisexual or "hermaphroditic" flowers are produced. Plants bearing both unisexual and bisexual flowers are said to be polygamous.

I hope I can taste the Wild Guaya's fruits before the critters eat them all. If they're half as good as those of the planted Guaya, they'll be worth waiting for.

*****

CUMULUS MEDIOCRIS CLOUDS
Last week we looked at small, fluffy, slowly moving cumulus clouds that often form during fair weather and vanish when the sun goes down. They were called Cumulus humilis clouds. This week we look at the kind of cumulus clouds that form when weather is a little more unsettled, when there's definite vertical buildup inside the clouds, but, still, there's not enough turbulence or vertical buildup for the clouds to produce rain. These larger, more jagged clouds are called Cumulus mediocris clouds, and you can see some photographed last weekend over a soccer field in Pisté at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110403cl.jpg.

The "mediocris" in the name means "moderate." If those clouds had been considerably larger with more vertical buildup in them, maybe even producing a shower or two, they'd have been Cumulus congestus. In other words, Cumulus mediocris is the transition cloud between Cumulus humilis and congestus.

Up North Cumulus mediocris clouds are thought of as common in advance of a cold front or in otherwise unstable atmospheric conditions. If they're present in the morning or early afternoon, a good guess would be that by late in the day a storm might develop.

However, last Sunday our Cumulus mediocris clouds formed at mid morning after our typical east-to-west-flowing winds coming in off the Caribbean beyond Cancún were replaced by hot winds gushing up from the south, from hot lowland Chiapas and Guatemala. In the late afternoon suddenly the wind flipped back from out of the east, it cooled off nicely, our clouds disintegrated, and the sky grew cloudless. Down here, Northern ideas of what clouds mean often are wrong.

*****

BUG, BASILISK, SNAKE & ME
Seeing a bug fall into my parsley, then within a second a basilisk shoot from among my cosmoses into the parsley after the bug, and then a snake just as quickly rush across the open area to plunge into the parsley after the basilisk... got me to thinking.

For, on that calm Sunday morning as I sat reading so peacefully, actually I occupied a stage on which the actors bore fangs, pincers, stingers, claws, talons, hinged razor-mandibles, hypodermic proboscises... and the plot was the very old one of eat and/or be eaten.

Realizing this, a question arose: Has Nature granted humanity special dispensation from the world of eat and/or be eaten?

After thinking about it, I decided that humanity still is endangered by predators, just that the predators have shifted from the biological into the psychic realm. Humanity's new predators are faulty, self-delusional thoughts that lure us into pleasant, possibly culturally sanctioned, but ultimately unsustainable behaviors.

Humankind's modern enemies are local customs, tribalisms, nationalisms, political movements, economic structures, religions, philosophies of life, romantic notions... that in any way encourage behaviors at odds with fundamental ecological principles.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim