JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Mayan Beach Garden Inn 20 kms north of Mahahual
on the Yucatán Peninsula's eastern coast just north of the Belize border,
in the state of Quintana Roo, MÉXICO
(N18°53'16.36', W87°38'27" )

May 15,  2011

WATCHFUL PARAKEETS
Two parakeets landed in a tree at the mangroves' edge. One began foraging lower in the bushes while the other perched higher alertly eyeing me, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515pk.jpg.

They were Aztec Parakeets, ARATINGA ASTEC, sometimes called Olive-throated Parakeets, easily recognized by their dark, olive-colored throats and chests in combination with their all-green heads. Also, here in the southeastern Yucatan Peninsula, only this one parakeet species is found.

Mexico hosts 22 members of the parrot family, which includes parrots, parakeets, macaws and a parrotlet. Of parakeets there are only seven species, and of those seven only one species occurs here, the Aztec. Remember that parrots are large with more or less squared tails, while parakeets are smaller, with slender, tapering tails. Parrotlets are like parakeets except that their pointed tails are much shorter; and you know what long-tailed, brilliantly colored macaws look like.

Aztec Parakeets are fairly flexible in their habitat preferences, occupying both evergreen and deciduous forests, semiopen areas, forest patches and even plantations. You see them in pairs, like the ones this week, or in flocks of up to fifty or more birds flying low and fast over the forest canopy.

Aztec Parakeets occur all across the Peninsula but at Hacienda Chichen in the interior I saw them only once during the year and half I was there. They're distributed from the eastern Mexican lowlands south to western Panama. They nest in arboreal termite nests, which are very common here next to the mangroves. Up at Hacienda Chichen we didn't have arboreal termite nests, so maybe that explains why Aztec Parakeets were so uncommon there.

*****

ALMOST A PILEATED WOODPECKER
At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515wp.jpg you see the large woodpecker that Friday morning showed up at the edge of the mangrove swamp, probing his pale yellow beak into a runny tree-trunk wound.

At first glance most North American birders would quickly pronounce what's in the picture a Pileated Woodpecker, which is North America's largest and most spectacular woodpecker, assuming that Ivory-bills are extinct. However, Pileateds aren't distributed as far south as Mexico, except occasionally during the winter when one might wander across the Rio Grande from southernmost Texas.

Our picture shows a Lineated Woodpecker, DRYOCOPUS LINEATUS, a member of the same genus as the Pileated, and thus very closely related. It's distributed from humid, lowland Mexico south to Peru and northern Argentina. It's smaller than the North's Pileated Woodpecker, Pileateds reaching about 17 inches long (43cm) while Lineateds average only about 13 inches (33cm).

In the field it's often hard to gauge relative size, though. An easier-to-see difference between the two species is the white bar above the Lineated's shoulder, which Pileateds don't have. When the Lineated is in museum-presentation position, the white face-streak continues down the neck, then zags back up over the wing forming a conspicuous white V across the black back. The Pileated's back is completely black. In the photograph our bird is twisting to get at his food, shifting black back feathers over part of his V. You can compare our Lineated with the Pileated at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/piliated.jpg.

Mexico is home to about 20 woodpecker species, of which two are very large with black-and-white bodies and red, crested heads, like the North's Pileateds. The second, less-seen Pileated-type woodpecker we have, the Pale-billed, is a little larger than the Lineated, plus its head is all red, lacking the Lineated's white stripe and black blotch.

*****

HERONS & EGRETS FLYING NORTHWARD
This week I've seen several small flocks of herons and egrets flying northward just offshore. I photographed one such flock and you can see the picture, which may be wider than your screen so you may have to scroll, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515eg.jpg.

It's a mixed flock. Toward the back of the flock we see two Little Blue Herons in their slate-blue adult plumage and one mottled one-year-old Little Blue (the very last one). Notice that among the rest of the white birds, some have shorter, yellowish beaks while others have slightly longer dark beaks. I'm thinking the yellow-beaked ones are Cattle Egrets while the dark-billed ones are immature Little Blues.

I uploaded the picture to a bird-identifying forum in Texas and one of the experts there said that besides Little Blue Herons and Cattle egrets he saw Snowy Egrets. However, the feet of Snowy Egrets are yellow and I see no yellow feet. I'd be interested in having other folks' opinions about what we have in the picture.

Cattle Egrets are permanent residents throughout Mexico but in the Yucatán Little Blue Herons are winter visitors only, except for one or two small breeding colonies across the peninsula.

Whoever these birds are, and whether they're migrating northward or just moving about locally, their flight past our spot on the beach, so low and determined- looking, is good to see, a pretty thing.

*****

MERMAID NECKLACES
One of the many mysterious items occasionally washing onto the beach, often tangled in seaweed, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515wk.jpg.

Sometimes these strings of wafers are two or three feet long, and some people call them mermaid necklaces. I'd never have guessed what they are if Marcia hadn't flat out told me: "They're whelk egg cases," she said, but still I had no idea what a whelk was.

So, Google tells me that whelks are medium to large, snail-like mollusks, and in our part of the world there may be three or four species. I don't know which species created the chain in my hand. Of the whelk species mentioned for the Yucatan, the Lightning Whelk -- the State Shell of Texas -- is by far the most documented. You can learn more about that one at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fishboat/fish/didyouknow/whelk.phtml.

Throughout the world many mollusks from several taxonomic groupings are referred to as whelks, so the name whelk has no technical basis at all.

I read that the female Lightning Whelk begins creating her string of egg cases by attaching the first part emerging from the pore in her foot to rocks, old shells or algae. A typical strand bears 50 to 175 capsules and there are 20 to 100 eggs in a capsule. The last few capsules on the unattached end are usually empty of eggs. Most eggs never hatch, but serve as food for the single individual in that capsule that does. Baby whelks look like tiny editions of the adults.

Also I find that long ago sailors used sandy whelk egg cases to scrub themselves.

*****

WENDY'S MONSTER
Each morning I offer a two-hour nature hike up the road beside the mangrove swamp, then back along the beach. The other day Wendy from Maine accompanied me. Wendy is a very experienced beach walker, having recently hiked 450 miles along the coast from Cancun to Belize, passing through here on the way. Her blog can be accessed here.  When you get to that page, scroll down to see her pictures and text.

Despite all that time on the beach, neither Wendy nor I had ever seen anything quite like the washed-up monstrosity encountered on our walk, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515pm.jpg.

Wendy presents programs to school kids, and she habitually frames descriptions of her experiences on the beach in terms that kids like. Thus we had a sea monster here. And it was my job to figure out what kind of monster it was.

Up close the slender "legs" bore spines, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515pn.jpg.

Nestled at the base where the "legs" came together were basketball-size bunches of fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515po.jpg.

The spines looked to me like those found on petioles of some palm species, and the fruits looked like palm fruits. However, I'd never seen a palm like this.

It took some Googling to figure out that this was an Oil Palm, genus ELAEIS. You may have heard complaints by environmentalists about vast tracts of tropical forest being replaced with monoculture Oil Palm plantations. There are two species of Oil Palm, an African one, Elaeis guineensis, and a tropical American one, Elaeis oleifera, the latter found in Central and South America, but not here.

Traditionally the African species has been planted, but my impression is that nowadays a hybrid between the two species is preferred, so a good guess would be that we have a hybrid. On the Internet I find Oil Palm plantations in Honduras and Surinam. Lots of our beach trash originates in Honduras so maybe our monster came from there.

Oil Palm oil is used mainly for cooking food and making soap. As a food oil, the essential thing to know is that palm oil contains more saturated fats than oils made from canola, corn, linseed, soybeans, safflower, and sunflowers, but palm oil can withstand extreme deep-frying heat and resists oxidation better than other oils. Therefore, palm oil is worse for the body, but better for preparing junk food with a long shelf life.

*****

POISONWOOD FLOWERING
One of my frequently visited pages on the Internet is the one showing what a drop of Poisonwood juice did to my wrist after 20 minutes, one day, four days, one week and two weeks. You can see the effect yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/poison-y.jpg.

Poisonwood is Metopium brownei, a fair-sized tree found throughout the Yucatán, except for the northwest part where it's too dry. It was rare to nonexistent up at Hacienda Chichen in central Yucatán, where I suspect that it'd been cut to extinction because the tree's wood often is much sought after. The juice from the living cambium layer is what hurts you, not the wood. The Exotic Hardwood website shows the wood at http://www.exotichardwood.com/pic_chechen.html.

"Color ranges from amber to dark brown, often with a range of colors and contrasting streaks," the site says. "This wood is quite hard, dense, and tight- grained. With care, a beautiful, lustrous finish can be obtained. Slightly oily, but not as much as teak. ...Very rot resistant."

Along the road up our little sand ridge beside the mangrove swamp, Poisonwood is one of the most common trees, and it's very conspicuous now because it's abundantly flowering and fruiting, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515pw.jpg.

I've seen Poisonwood flowering before but never so prolifically. It's the same way with them it was with the big Ceibas back at the Hacienda which this year flowered and fruited much more abundantly than in years past. Who knows what's going on?

A close-up of a male Poisonwood flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515px.jpg.

A close-up of a female Poisonwood flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515p5.jpg.

If you've taken a close look at a Poison Ivy or Sumac flower, you might have seen similarities with this one -- the small size, the pale yellowness, the stamens extending from a simple, starlike corolla -- and there's a good reason for it. Poisonwood belongs to the same family, the Cashew Family, or Anacardiaceae.

I've heard that the Maya use Poisonwood juice to burn off warts. Having seen how the juice burned through my own skin, I'd say that it probably can do that, just as a drop of any strong acid would -- basically melting the skin away.

*****

BEACH SNEEZER
One of the most common, distinctive plants on the low, narrow sand ridge I live on between the sea and the mangroves is the ferny-leaved, scrambling vine seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515rz.jpg.

The twice- and thrice-pinnately compound leaves are about 1.3 inches long (3cm). The sprawling plant's stems reach eight feet or more. Before seeing the flowers I guessed that the plant was something like a sand verbena, but the first view of some flowers revealed that I was way off. Do the plants' pagoda-like racemes of flowers tell you who the plant is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515rw.jpg?

A close-up of two nodding flower heads at the top bearing nothing but male flowers, and a cup-like head at the base bearing only three or so female flowers, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515ry.jpg.

It's a ragweed! It's the Coastal Ragweed, AMBROSIA HISPIDA, belonging to the same genus as the North's sneeze-causing ragweeds, and thus a real ragweed.

The Pollen Library at http://www.pollenlibrary.com rates Coastal Ragweed as a severe allergen. This probably explains why Doris, one of our employees here, always gets irritated eyes and the sniffles when she comes to work, but her symptoms diminish when she returns home away from the beach.

Still, Coastal Ragweed has its virtues. It's a wonderful sand stabilizer. All along our sand ridge where developers have scalped this and other native plants from their lots, sand habitually streams across the road, sometimes so deep that it forms ripples. A bike running through it can be thrown over. A picture shot across nearly the entire width of our little sand ridge between the ocean and the mangroves, showing a real-estate-scalped lot about 95% covered with Coastal Ragweed (the Caribbean prettily visible in the back), is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515rv.jpg.

In that picture, the mound up close is where they've graded the sand back, after it'd formed dunes on the road. Besides holding our sand ridge together, Coastal Ragweed's leaves are just pretty, as shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515rx.jpg.

Also the leaves are fragrant in a medicinal sort of way. A reminiscing lady on the Internet recalls from her childhood days in Barbados: "On days and nights when the sea would be raging and the waves crashing down that smell would saturate the sea air and eventually became hardwired in my brain."

In Belize just to our south Coastal Ragweed is called Bay Geranium. A website based there reports that the plant can be made into soap and used to relieve itching skin, as well as for indigestion. However, it's mainly used for the common cold in the form of a strong tea made with lime and salt.

Coastal Ragweed is found along coastal Florida, the Bahamas, Mexico and Central America.

*****

THE LITTLE-KNOWN MULLEIN NIGHTSHADE
On our walks up the road, visitors always are attracted to a bush reaching eight or so feet tall (2.5m) and heavily laden with red, pea-sized fruits and white, thumbnail-size flowers. A branch is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515so.jpg.

A close-up of some unripe fruits and a flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515sp.jpg.

A tomato-like fruit with tomato-like seeds is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110515sq.jpg.

Anyone seeing the tomato-like fruits and the flowers with their long, yellow anthers opening to release pollen from their tips, and not the usual way via slits along the edges, will recognize this as one of the nightshades -- a member of the huge, often poisonous genus Solanum.

Though I'd never met this species of Solanum, because it's so abundant and robustly growing along our road, I figured that it must be a typical species found all through the American tropics. However, our pretty bush turns out to be much more interesting than that.

It's the Mullein Nightshade, SOLANUM DONIANUM, not well known at all to science and wildflower lovers. In a 2010 study appearing in an online journal it's described as a "very poorly studied perennial shrub species growing wild on the dunes of the northern coast of Yucatán, Mexico. Its presence has also been reported in Honduras, in the south of Florida and in the Bahamas. It grows on the sand of the beach, near to the mangrove zone... "

And that's about all that's known about it. Except that now we can report to the world that it's also here on the Yucatán's southern coast as well.

What a pleasure to find such relatively undocumented species, and to contribute our little bit of knowledge about it -- even when all we can say about it is, "It's here, and it's lustily flowering and fruiting in mid May!"

*****

DOG GURU
Each morning a little before dawn, when I step from my door and begin stretching before jogging, Helado (eh- LAH-do, meaning ice cream) the Dog bounds up the steps grinning, expecting to be scratched. He especially likes to be scratched beneath his collar, and right above where his tail connects to his backbone.

I'm always impressed by how satisfied Helado looks while being scratched. He just stands there with an uncomplicated, blissful look on his face, as if he has every right to such attention. I could never accept such grooming and affection as graciously, and I envy that dog, envy his ability to accept the moment's pleasures just as they are, right now, no strings attached.

In a sense, Helado exhibits "living in the moment," a concept extolled by lifestyle gurus in many books. "Live in the moment and don't worry about what's happened or what might happen," they advise.

But, I wonder: Is "living in the moment" a good general living strategy for a human?

If "living in the moment" means what I think it does, most of us doing it wouldn't study hard or work, because we wouldn't care much about the future. Yet, in this world, studying and working are necessary if we're to escape repetitive, dead-headed, spirit- defeating jobs, and instead position ourselves in life where we can experience and feel to the maximum the world around us.

Maybe one reason Heldado gets away with "living in the moment" is that he never overdoes it. After about a minute of being scratched he gets distracted and wanders away.

In fact, sometimes I think that maybe each morning Helado comes to my door to instruct me on the matter of enlightened living.

"When something feels this good, go with it," he woofs ecstatically as I scratch, even as his eyes begin wandering with inattention. "But, once you get the general idea behind something, go on to something else and find what delights you there... "

Then he trots down the outside stairs to sniff the tires of a visitor's rental car. Enraptured with a certain tire's fragrance, he slyly rolls his eyes up to where I'm stretching on the stairs.

"But, you know, really it's more nuanced than that," he whispers between deep, tire-studying snuffles. "What I said up there works for life's beginners, the ones with little sense of reality's endless possibilities and layers of meaning, and no clue as to what long-term fulfillment is all about. Fact is, if you study and work yourself to where most of the time you're doing what you want, like us, that whole matter of whether to 'live in the moment' becomes rather moot... because you're already doing it!"

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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