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" )

July 3,  2011

PARROT SNAKE
Mid-afternoon sunlight glared off the road's white sand as I approached the 2.5-ft-long (75cm) snake seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703bb.jpg.

Because of the snake's length and extreme slenderness I thought it was either a Brown or Green Vine Snake, which are fairly common here. However, then I noticed that the head wasn't long-pointed like a vine snake's. A closer shot of the road snake's front is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703bc.jpg.

The bronzy line down the snake's back finally reminded me that we've run into this species before, back in 2008 near Telchac Pueblo in northwestern Yucatán. That time, our snake had been inside a densely branched tree systematically circling a mother ground-dove on her nest. My Maya friend Roberto told me that the snake was "mareando" the mother -- charming her, we might say in English, though literally mareando means "making seasick." Roberto explained that once the mother was "mareada" the snake would attack.

We caught the snake and identified it as the Bronze-backed Parrot Snake, LEPTOPHIS MEXICANUS, found from southern Mexico south to Costa Rica. Here along our road between the mangroves and sandy beach I've seen the species several times crossing the road or hanging in bushes. Despite my "bird-charming" observation in 2008, I read that the species specializes in preying on frogs.

*****

STORM STINGRAYS
Early this week as Tropical Storm Arlene formed in the Bay of Campeche across the peninsula from us, we had continual winds strong enough to push a fellow on his bicycle, and to form waves that looked dramatic coming ashore. Maybe that's why this week stingrays suddenly showed up in very shallow water next to the beach. I've heard local fishermen talk about the wind blowing new fish into the area. "We're all fished out here inside the reef," they complain. "We need a good storm to blow in a new crop of big ones for us."

So, there were two rays, both about a foot across, right at the water's edge, in water so shallow they almost got stranded when the waves were out. One stingray was positioned atop the other and I figured they were mating. When I got close for a picture they separated. You can see one of them then at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703ry.jpg.

I figure that this is the Southern Stingray, DASYATIS AMERICANA, which occurrs in the western Atlantic from New Jersey to southern Brazil. I read that adults reach 6.5 feet across (2m), so what were these two juveniles doing, one atop the other?

I read that Southern Stingrays are mostly nocturnal and feed on bivalves, worms, crustaceans and small fish. They feed by flapping their wings to stir up sand, exposing their prey.

In fact, stirring up sand seems to be important to these fish. As the stingray in the picture was swimming around my feet I moved a little, apparently scaring him. He quivered in such a way that sand billowed up covering him so uniformly that when it settled he was practically invisible. In fact, I took a picture of his camouflaged position but when I put the image onto my laptop's screen I couldn't find him.

There's much more on this species and a picture of one underwater at http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=521.

*****

HAWK NEST UPDATE
Since our last picture of the nestling Common Black Hawk taken two weeks ago, dark feathers have begun emerging through the white fuzz that covered him earlier, and of course he's grown a lot. You can see a funny picture, Mama hawk seeming to be laying the law down while the nestling isn't paying much attention, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703hk.jpg.

Actually I think the mother was yelling at me. A while back a tourist stood too long below the nest snapping pictures as she screamed and when the tourist didn't go away she began swooping at him until he left.

So far I've still seen only one nestling in the nest. Both parents continue to be very attentive, one of them always close to the nest watching.

*****

A CARIBBEAN PERSIMMON
Along the road exactly in front of the hawk's nest I've been thinking that a certain tree with slowly enlarging, spherical fruits and glossy leaves with herringbone pinnate venation was one of several kinds of American fig trees found here. After taking the above hawk picture I noticed that the tree's fruits were ripening, turning an orangish yellow, so I walked over to pick one. You can see a ripe fruit and leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703p6.jpg.

When I tugged on the fruit, however, it broke apart in an unfiglike way, revealing four large seeds, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703p8.jpg.

Seeing the large seeds I began thinking "persimmon." Remembering that the Common Persimmon of eastern North America produces delicious fruits subtended by a calyx that with age enlarges and turns woody, I examined one of this tree's calyxes and saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703p7.jpg.

That calyx isn't nearly as oversized and woody as those on North America's Common Persimmon fruits, but it's larger and tougher looking than an average calyx, so maybe it was indeed some kind of persimmon. Now I tasted the fruit, and it was good. It wasn't as sweet and gummy as a northern persimmon picked just after the first frost. It was more like a dry, crumbly, baked sweet-potato, which wasn't bad.

So, a bit of Googling revealed that really it was a persimmon tree, a species occurring only in the Yucatán, Belize, Guatemala, Cuba and several other Caribbean Islands. In its English-speaking locations sometimes it's called Wattle Tree. It's DIOSPYROS TETRASPERMA.

The Maya of course know all about the tree, calling it Sak Tsilil. For my part, it looks as if for the next month or two whenever I visit the hawks I'll get to snack on persimmons. In return for the pleasure I'll spit the big seeds along the road as I bike back home, planting new ones.

*****

A TINY, GREEN PASSIONFLOWER
Maybe you remember various passionflower blossoms we've run across, including the three-inch-wide ones (7.5cm) on the passionfruit vines up at Hacienda Chichen, whose complex anatomy can be admired at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100509pf.jpg.

Nowadays weedily twining among the bushes and small trees along the road up our sand ridge there's a passionflower vine producing flowers with the same structure of the above passionflower, but which is a bit less than an inch across (2cm), and is totally dark green. You can see a flower among leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703pf.jpg.

A close-up of the Lilliputian flower is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703pg.jpg.

In that picture the green, petal-like structures are the flower's sepals, or calyx segments; the flower lacks any real corolla or petals. The slender, outward pointing items are considered to be parts of a "corona," or "crown," rather like a daffodil's, except that this corona is divided into many hairlike segments.

The flower bears five outward-arching, green stamens surrounding a stalk (gynophore) raising the oval, green ovary above the flower's center. Atop the ovary, three styles diverge and bend backwards. Each style is tipped with a rounded stigma. Once pollination takes place, these parts will shrivel and fall away, except for the ovary on its gynophore. The ovary matures into a blackish, plumlike fruit on a stem, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703pe.jpg.

Because its older stems bear corky ridges, the vine's English name usually is given as Corky-stemmed Passionflower. It's PASSIFLORA SUBEROSA. You can see a tendril-bearing, corky stem at the vine's base at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703pd.jpg.

Despite the vine's small proportions, it's an especially hardy species, thriving on well-drained, sandy soil or limestone in tropical and semitropical lowlands throughout the Americas, where it's native, plus it's become a serious invasive weed in many hot parts of Eurasia and Africa. It's a variable species. Our vines' flowers are more consistently dark green than other Corky-stemmed Passionflower blossoms found on the Internet.

The mature fruit's jellylike, seed-crammed interior is edible and somewhat sweet like other passionfruits I've eaten, just that there's not much of it. As often is the case with passionflower vines, various butterfly caterpillars eat the leaves. One host is the Gulf Fritillary, which currently is our most frequently seen butterfly species.

*****

TURKEY-TANGLE FOR DANDRUFF & PILES
Often you see a certain perennial herb's runners emerging from roadside weeds, inching onto the road, where car tires prune their tips by running over them. Overlapping runners sometimes form ankle-deep mats. Nowadays bean-size heads crowned with tiny, white flowers rise above the ground-hugging stems, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703ph.jpg.

A special thing about those egg-shaped flower heads is how the flowers open. First a ring of white blossoms appears at the bottom of the head, then as time passes the flower ring migrates up the head, leaving maturing ovaries bearing brown, shriveled-up corollas below, even as not-yet-open, immature flowers remain above. You can see a middle-aged head with a ring of tiny, white flowers situated about 2/3rds up the head at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703pi.jpg.

This native of the American tropics and subtropics has become a weed throughout the world's hot and warm lands. Residing in many English-speaking countries, it goes by many English names, including Creeping Frogfruit, Sawtooth Fogfruit, Matgrass, Capeweed, Matchweed, and Turkey-tangle. It's PHYLA NODIFLORA, a member of the Vervain Family, the Verbenaceae. In botanical literature the words "fogfruit" and "frogfruit" have been used more or less interchangeably.

While Googling the species I encountered a website in India specializing in natural medicine and calling the plant Poduthalai. It said that Poduthalai is a natural cure for dandruff, piles, leucorrhoea, ulcers, and more. For piles, which these days in the US has been glorified with the name hemorrhoids, it suggested a "chutney" concocted of its leaves. Also the leaves can be ground into a paste and applied to the scalp for dandruff.

*****

QUEEN EMMA'S WEEK
This has been the very week when a certain Amaryllus- like plant has reached its peak of flowering, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703cm.jpg.

The plant, growing at the base of my stairs, stands about five feet tall (1.5m). The bent-down stem, or scape, bearing the flower cluster is about 3.5 feet long (>1m). You can gauge the flowers' size better at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703cn.jpg.

This species, native to tropical Southeast Asia, is commonly grown in Mexico's hot lowlands. It goes by several English names, including Spider Lily (a name applied to many different species), Crinum Lily, Stately Lily and Queen Emma Lily. All these names are misleading, since the plant isn't a member of the Lily Family, but rather belongs to the Amaryllis Family. It's CRINUM AUGUSTUM 'Queen Emma', the "'Queen Emma'" appended to the binomial being the cultivar name.

In other words, in Southeast Asia someone once collected wild plants of Crinum augustum from which later horticulturalists developed plants with certain "more desirable" features -- maybe plants with bigger, redder flowers. That cultivar, with a slightly altered genetic makeup, was named after Queen Emma.

Queen Emma, by the way, was Emma Rooke (1836-1885) of Hawaii, who was queen consort of King Kamehameha IV (1833-1863). Queen Emma, they say, was particularly fond of the plant, even though it wasn't native to Hawaii. The plant does grow there wild now, though, as it does in many tropical regions.

In fact, Marcia says that after Hurricane Dean in 2007, when all the garden plants here had been knocked down, swept away, or buried beneath sand, after four days the very Queen Emma shown in my photographs began issuing green blades up through the sand, and she's been grateful ever since to that plant for such an encouraging gesture. Marcia says that after Dean she saw lots of the plant's bulbs washed up along the beach, and I see plants thriving at the edge of the mangroves where apparently they were deposited by Dean. Therefore, in our area this beautiful, alien plant seems to be spread by hurricanes.

One reason Queen Emma's bulbs might withstand such rough treatment is their sheer size -- some bulbs weighing up to 20 pounds (9kg). Healthy offshoots arising from our plant's massive bulb are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703co.jpg.

The bulbs are so substantial that it would be nice if they were edible. However, I read that they're poisonous, though in Asia people apply slices of roasted bulbs to their skin to reduce rheumatic pain. They also use leaf juices for earache.

*****

SALT-SPRAY DAMAGE
Actually, this wasn't a good week for our Queen Emmas to reach their flowering peak. That's because during most of the week another big "disorganized zone of instability" weather system drifted over us, giving us unending stiff breezes, big waves and air so heavy with salt spray that I had to clean my glasses every five minutes or so. Where our Queen Emmas were most exposed to the wind, the flowers got "scorched" -- turned brown and shriveled up -- as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703bv.jpg.

Even many native plants suffered, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110703bu.jpg.

Those are young Chit Palms, Thrinax radiata, their outer leaf sections "scorched" by the salt. Chit Palms sheltered from the wind don't have frond segments tipped with dead tissue.

*****

WHEN THESE NEWSLETTERS DISAPPEAR
More and more I hear from Newsletter readers whose Newsletters stop arriving, sometimes just for a week or two, sometimes permanently. Maybe it's because, in this world where about 90% of all emails sent are spam, servers are always tinkering with their spam filters, and sometimes our Newsletters get classified and disposed of as if they were spam.

Whatever the cause, keep in mind that today's Newsletter as well as all previous and future ones eventually find their way to the archives at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

*****

AMOOOOOOOOOOOOR...
Mid afternoon is when unnecessary matters go away and things that are left become most vividly themselves. By then morning's squalls from off the water have cleared out but late afternoon's big purple storms haven't formed yet, so above there's just simple blue sky and a few white clouds sailing by. A casual breeze halfheartedly twists Coconut Palm fronds back and forth, the mockingbird interrupts his singing with some scratching and looking around, and biting yellow flies hang hopelessly on the screen door. Nobody and nothing is fully awake, or really sleeping. Mid afternoon is just for being.

Down in the kitchen Fabiola has a certain CD she plays every day, again and again, some lady with a sharp voice that's both complaining and beseeching, the one word most frequently ending her phrases being "amor," or "love," and the word is sung strung out so that it hangs in the afternoon air like sticky saltspray, like the feeling that somehow we've gotten stuck in this exact time and place for too long, but, it's OK, kind of, no... yes... maybe... "amoooooooooooor... "

And, why wouldn't the word "amor" be the very one right now holding this time and place together, this slender ridge of unstable sand pointing in opposite directions forever, the exalted, breedy ocean with its coral reef on one side, and horizon-to-horizon mangrove, just as exalted and breedy, on the other side, and in this in-between zone, same-charactered...

"Amoooooooooooor... "?

What a curious sensation to vividly see plants and animals here on the beach intimately harmonizing with disembodied, shrill callings of a lady frantically complaining while beseeching on the theme of "amoooooooooooor..."

What a curious sensation to recognize that the lady and her song, the song's sentiments and workings, and even the plastiky little CD player her words screech from are as much a part of irrepressibly evolving Nature as Sargasso heaped on the beach, Brown Pelicans winging by as I think these thoughts and, in fact, the very impulse that keeps me sitting here thinking, thinking, thinking.

What a curious sensation, pelicans and song, this mid-afternoon's mood and meanings, "amoooooooooooor," alone on the beach.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net