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

April 24, 2011

A SCRUB EUPHONIA'S NEST
Euphonias are small, stubby tanagers. In the Yucatán we have two kinds -- two species of the genus Euphonia -- and they're both boldly patterned yellow and black, and both fairly common in semiopen areas with scattered trees and hedges, as we have at Hacienda Chichen.

This week, next to Old San Isidro Church, a male and female Scrub Euphonia were fussing around a certain bromeliad-covered branch of a big Cedro tree, about fifteen feet up. We've looked at Scrub Euphonias before, so you can see a good picture of a male at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/euphon-s.htm.

It turned out the church pair were building a nest between two bromeliad tufts beneath a big limb, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424eu.jpg.

When the wind blew, the bromeliads as well as the nest shuddered and whipped back and forth. It seemed a precarious place for a nest, but I suspect it'll hang there for a long time.

That's a classic globular nest, like the one we saw last July occupied by mouth-gaping Yellow-throated Euphonia nestlings, Yellow-throateds being our other euphonia species. You can see that nest with nestlings at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/euphonia.htm .

In A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America Howell describes nests for the genus Euphonia, of which five species exist in Mexico, as "globular structures with a side entrance... in hanging masses of vegetation, bromeliads, tree crevices, even on mossy banks." Therefore, our nest in the picture is a pretty typical euphonia nest.

*****

A BIG INDIAN-FIG CACTUS IN FLOWER
Back in Querétaro we met the big cactus known in English mostly as Indian-Fig, OPUNTIA FICUS-INDICA, and we learned how to prepare and eat its delicious, turkey-egg-size fruits, known here as tunas, as well as cooked slivers of its pads, known as nopales. You can see the tree-like cactus, its tunas and nopales at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/tuna.htm.

While biking backstreet Pisté last Sunday I came upon a similarly large Indian-Fig, though this one had fewer spines and larger, wider pads than the ones seen in Querétaro. You can see Pisté's cactus at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424op.jpg .

A picture of my hand next to a big pad, so you can get a feeling for how large a pad can get, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424os.jpg.

The cactus bore about half a dozen flowers, one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424oq.jpg.

In that picture the pale yellow item in the center, with a bee atop it, is the stigma terminating a particularly thick style (the ovary's "neck"). The many slender things surrounding the stigma are stamens. Then of course there are the yellow petals. These are all typical features of flowers of the genus Opuntia, commonly known as the prickly-pears. Another typical feature is how the numerous, basically green sepals grade into the colorful petals, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424or.jpg.

In that picture, the red-tipped items are the sepals. In the Cactus Family flower, ovaries are "inferior," which means that sepals, petals and the rest arise atop the ovary, not at its base. Thus in the picture the green, egg-shaped part below the sepals and petals is the ovary, which will mature into the edible tuna fruit. So few flowers graced this big plant that I'm guessing that it was an old one.

Indian-Figs are the main source of edible cactus slivers, or nopales, though the pads of most species of prickly-pear cacti also are edible. Indian-Figs are mainly chosen for food because of their relative spinelessness.

Mexico is home to more cactus species than any other country, so it's assumed that the first cacti arose here. However, our Indian-Fig is so widely planted throughout the world's tropical zone that it's not clear where the species originally was native.

*****

SOURSOPS APPEARING
Fairly commonly seen both along Pisté's backstreets and here at Hacienda Chichen are trees about ten feet tall (3 m) bearing curious fruits like the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424ss.jpg.

Wikipedia's page for this species list about 56 common names for it in 15 languages, indicating that here we're dealing with one of the tropics' most planted and therefore most appreciated fruit trees. The most commonly used English name for it may be Soursop. In Spanish it's often called Guanábana. It's ANNONA MURICATA, a member of the Custard-Apple or Anona Family, the Annonaceae.

We've run into the genus Annona before -- species that always were trees bearing deliciously sweet fruits. Back in Chiapas we met the Cherimoya, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/anona.htm.

In Sabacché here in the Yucatán we met the Sweetsop, at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/sweetsop.htm.

Fruits of all three species are juicy and sweet, but also they all contain large, hard seeds that require a lot of spitting when you eat the fruits. All the fruits also are somewhat bumpy, though none is as rough-surfaced as our present Soursop. The bumpiness results from the flower's architecture.

Each Annona flower contains several pistils, a pistil being the flower's female part, composed of a stigma, style and ovary. As the flower matures, the male parts and the calyx and corolla fall off, leaving the several pistils to enlarge and fuse together with one another as well as with the vegetative platform holding the pistils, the receptacle. So, when we eat fruits of the genus Annona, we're eating fused- together pistils and receptacle. Resulting fruits are known as "syncarps."

Soursops are called Soursops because the fruits are acidy -- also juicy, whitish and fragrant. While the other Annonas we've seen are mainly eaten fresh, Soursops seem to be used mostly for making sweetened, fruity drinks. They can also be made into preserves. Traditionally the juice has been considered a remedy for dysentery.

This is another native Mexican species that, because of its desirable fruits, has been planted in tropics worldwide.

In the forested eastern United States the most notable species in the Custard-Apple Family is the Pawpaw, Asimina triloba, with similarly sweet, juicy fruits. Though Pawpaw fruits aren't bumpy or toothed like Annonas -- they're formed from separate pistils NOT fused together -- you can convince yourself that Pawpaws and Annonas are closely related by comparing the twigs' buds. The buds of both species are "naked," bearing no scales. At the tips of branches, their buds are nothing more than tiny, overlapping, folded leaves covered with rusty hairs, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424st.jpg.

That's a Soursop bud, looking very much like a Pawpaw bud.

*****

RED SPANISH PLUMS RIPENING
In Pisté around quite a few homes nowadays one sees leafless or near-leafless, small trees bearing loads of spherical, green to red, plum-like fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424sp.jpg.

Some trees are issuing terminal sprouts bearing pinnately compound leaves like those of sumac, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424sq.jpg.

The leaf similarity to sumac isn't incidental, because here we're dealing with the Red Spanish-Plum, or Hog Plum, SPONDIAS PURPUREA, a member of the Cashew Family, to which sumac also belongs. Also in that family we find mango, pistachio, and Poison Oak and Poison Ivy.

We've met Spanish Plums before, but the fruits we had then were yellow. In fact Spanish Plum fruits are very variable, ranging from purple, dark- or bright-red, orange, or yellow, to red-and-yellow. They vary from 1 to 2 inches in length (2.5-5 cm) and come in a variety of roundish shapes.

In Spanish most people call the tree Ciruelo, which is the regular word for "plum tree." (Ciruela, ending in "a" instead of "o," means "plum fruit.") Since our Northern plums are members of the Rose Family, the Yucatán's Red Spanish Plums clearly have very little to do with them -- except that the fruits at first glance are very similar. In the English-speaking world the name Mombin also is used -- Red Mombin for this one, Yellow Mombin for a similar species with yellow fruits.

Inside the Red Spanish Plum there's a stone much larger than that of a Northern plum, and consequently there's much less to eat. Here Red Spanish Plums are eaten raw, cooked into jelly, or mashed between the fingers and strained for a juice that makes a nice- tasting drink.

No matter how good they taste, however, there's always the problem of those big stones, and nowadays it seems a lot of people just don't have time for such arduous eating, especially young people. Also, the fruits are given to being infested with worms.

Medicinally the fruits have been considered as diuretic, and fruit extracts derived from boiling in water are used to bathe wounds and mouth sores. The bark, which contains much tannin, is astringent, and extracts made by boiling it in water are used against mange, ulcers, dysentery, and for bloating caused by intestinal gas in infants.

Red Spanish-Plum is native from southern Mexico through Central America into northern South America, but has been introduced into the Caribbean, the Philippines and parts of Africa, where in some places it's "gone wild," reproducing naturally and thus becoming an invasive species.

*****

HONEY-SMELLING MORNINGS
Especially because the afternoons can be so awfully hot, nowadays morning hikes are especially pleasant. This week they've been even more agreeable because the whole landscape -- at least in early morning when sunlight starts warming things up and the wind hasn't started blowing -- has smelled a lot like honey.

It took me awhile to figure out where the honey odor was coming from. It was from abundant, hard, black, bumpy, mothball-size fruits lying on the ground fallen from Pixoy trees, as the Maya call them.

We first met Pixoys, GUAZUMA ULMIFOLIA, back in Querétaro, where they were known as Aquiches, and where the raggedy-looking trees also dropped their fruits in April. Also here at Hacienda Chichen we've observed how the Maya fashion serviceable ropes from the Pixoys' inner bark. You can see all our notes about this important species, and some nice pictures, at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/pixoy.htm.

On that page you can see what the tree looks like when it's dropping its scrappy-looking fruits, and the fruits themselves. To find out where the honey odor is coming from I made a longitudinal section of a fruit, which revealed speckled, beanlike seeds inside their cozy chambers. Atop each chamber arose a black, woody "tubercle," which glistened in sunlight. Best I could determine, the tubercles' glistening stuff is sweet and smells like honey. You can see all this at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424gz.jpg.

In fact, if you have solid teeth, you can eat Pixoy fruits. They're just sweet enough to create an interest, but otherwise they're so hard and crunchy that few humans would want to eat them, other than as a novelty. I read that deer like them. Pixoys are abundant trees here where forests are growing back after being destroyed, so I can easily imagine deer and other browsers walking around and "sowing" innumerable, very hard Pixoy seeds in their poop.

*****

CIRRUS UNCINUS CLOUD
Here in the tropics I hadn't expected to see many cirrus clouds -- what I called "mare's tails" as a kid back in Kentucky -- because I knew that they're very high clouds formed of ice crystals. Generally they form at an altitude above 26,000 feet (8,000 m). However, in the tropics clouds as high as other places, and when they're that high they'll be formed of ice crystals, and cirrus clouds are likely to form. They form at temperatures of about -40 to -50°F (-40 to -50°C).

The other day in the sky over Pisté I saw the ones at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110424ci.jpg.

In general cirrus clouds are wispy looking, and so thin that the sun shows through them. Wikipedia says that six distinct subforms of cirrus clouds are recognized: Cirrus castellanus, Cirrus fibratus, Cirrus radiatus, Cirrus spissatus, Cirrus uncinus, and Cirrus intortus. Using Google's image-search function and searching on the various names, soon it became apparent that the clouds in the picture are Cirrus uncinus. In Latin "uncinus" means "hooked," so Cirrus uncinus are cirrus clouds with a hook at the end. Often the hooks are much more apparent than in our examples.

In the Temperate Zone Cirrus uncinus clouds often indicate the approach of a warm or occluded front, though I'm not sure that that holds up here. I read that you can tell which way the wind is blowing by noticing the direction in which the ice crystals align their streaks. However, the clouds in my picture, though seeming to be moving toward the picture's right, we're being carried en masse toward the bottom of the picture. That day hot air from the south, from over Guatemala and Chiapas, was gushing over us, so clearly different air layers were moving in different directions.

Also I read that if you have just a few clouds like these, in terms of forecasting the weather, really they don't mean much of anything. Often it's just that the constantly changing atmosphere at that particular moment was briefly configured in such a way that ice crystals arrayed themselves into cirrus clouds.

*****

ROBINS, MOZART & ME
At dawn the birds' morning chorus is just beginning, especially the robins with their fluty, echoic callling. This morning as I sit in the big, white chair before the hut, Mozart's Salzburg Symphonies filter through the hut's pole walls, mingling with birdsong.

Something Mozart does this morning, which robins can't, is consciously to change the key of his melodies in order to artfully express different emotional colors. It's been said that the key of C major brightly projects innocence and simplicity. The key of E major suggests laughing pleasure not yet complete. This Salzburg Symphony #3 is in F major, which they say is the key of amiability and calmness, an appropriate key for such a pretty Sunday morning as this.

So, what if this morning I myself were to be in a certain key? Let's say I'm in D sharp major, the gloomy key of brooding despair. I'm sad, lonely, the toucans I thought I'd seen having turned out to be crows.

Salzburg Symphony #3 in the calm, amiable key of F major lifts my spirits. Thus Mozart from long ago and far away, and orchestra members from a few years back, and technicians who designed and fabricated my CD and CD player, miraculously transcend time and space to inspire me with calm, amiable thoughts and feelings.

I say "miraculously" because I am a believer in "Nature as Bible," whose sacred text is spelled out in the Six Miracles of Nature, outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

The most recent of Nature's miracles, the Sixth, grants beings with highly developed awareness the ability to have inspired thought and feeling not programmed in genetic code. Mozart's symphonies are made of inspired thought and feeling, and thus are miraculous.

And then there's this: The Six Miracles of Nature occurred in a sequence, and when you study the sequence you see that there's direction to it -- for one thing, from simple to complex. The important point for us now is that the Sixth Miracle's gift of inspired thought and feeling crowns all previous evolutionary events. The whole history of everything flows in a direction culminating -- at least for right now, and at least in this dimension you and I occupy here on Earth -- in inspired thought and feeling.

Therefore, if we assume that the Creator "wishes" something of Her Creation, a good guess is that inspired thought and feeling should play an important part in it.

I like it: That through space and time Mozart's Sixth- Miracle inspired thoughts and feelings have found me, and right now they mingle and evolve with my Sunday morning's thoughts and feelings, and now I relay this new thing, this new set of thoughts and feelings, to you there somewhere, sometime, in cyberspace, in your own symphony, in your own key, and maybe also with you there'll be a new mingling and further evolution, which then you will relay on ...

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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