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" )

October 30,  2011

SNAKEBIRD
If you crossed a snake with a bird you'd approximately get what's shown on a power line beside the mangroves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030aa.jpg.

That's an Anhinga, also known as Snakebird, Darter and Water Turkey, ANHINGA ANHINGA. Back in Mississippi we've seen them in swamps where on chilly mornings they perched on snags rising from the water, spreading their wings against the early sunlight. People usually assume that when they do that they're drying their wings but studies show that Anhingas have unusually low metabolic rates but high rates of heat loss from their bodies, so it's assumed that their wing- spreading is mainly for absorbing solar energy to warm their bodies. Wing-spreading seems to be more of a "thermoregulation behavior" than a wing-drying one.

Anhingas dive into water after fish, frogs, aquatic snakes and the like, and when they surface they float low in the water, maybe even with nothing but their snaky heads emerging from the water. When ours flew off he circled a few times with wings held out at right angles, reminding me of a kid's balsa glider.

People often confuse Anhingas with cormorants. Cormorants belong to the same bird family, but they are placed in a completely different genus. Cormorants have long, hook-tipped beaks while you can see that the Anhinga's bill is sharp.

In the US, Anhingas nest throughout the Deep South but in the winter withdraw to coastal areas. In Mexico they're permanent residents throughout the non-desert lowlands, south to Ecuador and northern Argentina in South America.

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COOTS: MINNESOTA TO MEXICO
Seeing coots mentioned in last week's Newsletter, Ethel in Minnesota wrote:

When do coots arrive in the Yucatan and do you suppose some of them come from Minnesota? For the last week there have been uncountable numbers of them on Lake Minnetonka - they arrive suddenly when the weather begins to get cold and disappear just as suddenly, and I often wonder how far they go each year...

The only way I knew to figure out where Minnesota coots overwinter was to look for bird-banding data -- information on where birds who have been banded in Minnesota turn up later.

A website produced by the US Fish & Wildlife Service provided that information in a user-friendly format here.

On that page you can conduct a four-step search for bird banding information on waterfowl such as ducks, geese, swans and other "game birds," but not other kinds of birds such as songbirds.

In Step One I, under "Other Game Birds" I chose "Coot." In Step Two, the "Banded In" step, I tagged "State" and chose "Minnesota. In Three, I clicked on "Recovered In" and tagged "Anywhere." In Four, I tagged "All Years" and clicked on "Go."

The resulting map showed 126 records, with Minnesota-banded coots turning up all along the Mississippi Flyway and beyond, as far south as central Mexico and Cuba. Learning that coots migrate so far south, I'll bet that some Minnesota coots do overwinter in the Yucatán.

What a hoot playing with this new page is. If someone knows of a similar page for other migratory birds, let me know and I'll pass it on.

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HERON POSE
Great Blue Herons are widely distributed and so common that usually I don't give them a second look. However, this week one landed near me and struck such a classic pose that I just had to photograph him. He's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030he.jpg.

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BIG-TOED WATER-LILY WALKER
I was watching a leg-long crocodile drifting through water lilies pads when a rusty-backed, yellow-billed, long-legged bird came walking across the water's surface, atop water lily pads. It was a Northern Jacana, JACANA SPINOSA. He was too far away for a decent picture but I took one anyway, hoping it'd at least show those amazing toes. It did. You can see my blurry picture nonetheless showing those crazy toes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030jc.jpg.

Of course the toes distribute the jacana's weight over the pads, to keep the pads from collapsing.

*****

SPITTLEBUGS
You don't think of Buttonwood mangrove as being particularly buggy, but nowadays a good number of them have spittlebugs on their outer, younger branches. You can see a spittlebug's surprisingly pretty spittle at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030sb.jpg.

If you're familiar with spittlebugs you know you can poke your finger at the spittle, the spittle will stick to your finger, and when you withdraw the finger the spittle will collapse and sometimes you can see the "bug" creating the spittle. All this is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030sc.jpg.

That egglike thing with a nipple at one end is the spittle-producing "bug." It's the larva of a kind of insect whose adult form is known as a froghopper. Froghoppers belong to the True Bug Family, the Hemiptera, so spittlebugs and froghoppers are real bugs, along with cicadas, aphids, planthoppers, leafhoppers, and shield bugs.

So, why does that little egg-shaped larva spew spit around itself? You can see that the bubbly stuff effectively hides the larva from predators, though in Mississippi I've seen Orchard Orioles and Red-bellied Woodpeckers probe spittlebug spittle on pine trees, apparently looking for and capturing the larvae, to eat.

Experts, though, often emphasize other advantages to living inside a gob of spit. The foam effectively insulates the larva from surrounding temperature and humidity extremes.

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SADDLEBAG DRAGONFLY
Beside the mangroves a curious dragonfly perched, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030df.jpg.

The black items midway the dragonfly's body are what's unusual. From below they looked like little black bundles attached to the abdomen, though up close you can see that they're just darkly pigmented cells at the bases of otherwise transparent wings. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario figured out that this is a kind of "saddlebag glider," a glider being a kind of dragonfly.

Paul up in Merida helps me with this ID. He believes it must be TRAMEA CALVERTI, the Striped Saddlebags.

*****

SPIKERUSH
At wet mangrove margins where woody vegetation for some reason doesn't grow, as where road crews have scraped up dirt for elevating the levee above the surrounding wetlands, sometimes you get lushly green carpets of tufted, grasslike plants with stiff, sharp- pointed, spearlike stems, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030eo.jpg.

Up closer you can see each plant's tufted nature, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030ep.jpg.

Most of the cylindrical stems are topped by clusters of overlapping, brownish scales, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030eq.jpg.

These scaly things are flower clusters, or inflorescences. A simplified flower resides behind each scale. At the top of the spike at the left you can see slender, curling stiles extending from behind the scales, to catch pollen. The spike at the right is more mature. It's been ripped apart by an animal, probably a bird, foraging for grainlike, achene-type fruits, to eat. You can see such an achene that's come loose and now perches on its subtending scale at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030er.jpg.

That achene is 1/10th of an inch tall (2.5mm).

If you're familiar with the northern flora, probably you recognize that we're dealing with what's called a spikerush, which means that it's a member of the genus Eleocharis. That's a big genus, found worldwide in mostly aquatic environments. The Flora of North America lists 67 species for North America. Four are listed for Quintana Roo, the Mexican state I'm in now. Our photographed one is often called the Gulf Coast Spikerush. It's ELEOCHARIS CELLULOSA.

The most famous spikerush is Eleocharis dulcis, better known as the Chinese Water Chestnut. The rhizomes of Chinese Water Chestnuts produce tubers that can be peeled and eaten raw or boiled. Our Gulf Coast Spikerush, though, bears no tubers.

Gulf Coast Spikerushes live in mostly coastal, brackish to saline marshes, ditches, and along beaches from the US Deep South through Mexico and the West Indies south to Nicaragua.

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WATER LILIES FLOWERING
A few weeks ago we met our local White Water Lilies, Nymphaea ampla. At that time I couldn't get close enough for a good flower picture. While crocodile watching this week I got a bit closer. The resulting picture, showing the distinctive black dots on the undersides of the greenish sepals, can be admired at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030wl.jpg.

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SEA COCONUTS
It must have been the passage of Hurricane Rina this week that accounts for an amazing lot of seabeans floating onto our beach. Seabeans are seeds and fruits of many kinds deposited on shore by ocean currents, often from far away. There's a whole beachcombing subculture of seabean-collecting traveler known as seabeaners. The Seabean website is at http://www.seabean.com/.

This week that website helped me identify what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030p3.jpg.

That's a fruit. Cracking it open you see what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030p4.jpg.

The identification page, or Sea-Bean Guide, at the seabean site called our three-lobed fruit a Sea Coconut or Golf Ball, which didn't tell me much. But they also gave the technical name, which helped a lot. The fruit is produced by MANICARIA SACCIFERA.

And that's pretty interesting, because Manicaria saccifera is a palm tree not native to the Yucatán. It grows spottily from Belize to Brazil and Peru, so, taking into account our sea currents these days depositing much trash from Trinidad, Columbia and Venezuela, I'd guess that the fruit came from thereabouts.

Manicaria saccifera is a tall, stately palm famed as producing gigantic leaves -- up to 26ft long (8m). Where it grows, people often call it Palma Real, or Royal Palm, but here another palm species is better known by that name.

From pictures on the Internet it seems that typically this species' wave-deposited fruits bear only one or two seeds inside, instead of three like ours. All the seeds in our fruit were waterlogged and dead.

Manicaria saccifera mainly inhabits swamps and estuarine areas where rivers meet the ocean. Unfortunately these are precisely the places people like to convert to banana production, so these palms are threatened by enormous habitat loss. Earlier their big leaves were favored by the poor as roof thatching but now the trend is toward plastic and tin, which is easier to collect.

A seabeaner in Florida blogs that Manicaria saccifera's fruits and seeds are among the most commonly found on the Eastern Florida coast. Elsewhere I read that finding a Sea Coconut covered by the bumpy outer husk, as ours is, is rare.

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SEA HEARTS
Probably Hurricane Rina also was behind what washed up Wednesday morning as the rains began -- what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030et.jpg.

That's a typically messy tangle of seaweed and washed- up plastic trash attended by an astonishing collection of flattish, Oreo-Cookie-size seabeans called Sea Hearts. Typically you're lucky if you see one or two on a beach walk but for some reason that day untold thousands washed onto our beach!

Sea Hearts are true botanical beans produced in legumes of Bean Family woody vines, or lianas. They're ENTADA GIGAS, which is famous for its enormous legumes, or seedpods, which can reach 6.5 feet in length (2m). Inside the pods reside ten to fifteen beans. You can see a couple of vaguely heart-shaped beans in my rain-puckery, rain-bleached hands at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111030eu.jpg.

These seeds contain hollow cavities enabling them to float, so they wash into rivers and then the ocean. Studies show that they remain viable for at least two years, and of course during that time they can float great distances on ocean currents.

In fact, this is another species that despite all the seabeans strewn along our beach this week doesn't grow in the Yucatan Peninsula. Still, because the seeds are so mobile on ocean currents, the liana that produces them occurs not only throughout much of South and Central America, and the Caribbean, but also Africa.

The beans float far beyond the tropics. One legend is that a Sea Heart that floated ashore in Europe inspired Columbus to set forth in search of lands to the west. To this day Sea Hearts are called "Fava de Colom" or "Columbus bean" by Portuguese residents of the Azores. Also, in Norway, a bitter tea traditionally was made from sea hearts, and in England they were used as teething rings and as good luck charms for sailors setting off on long sea voyages.

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HURRICANE RINA
Early this week Hurricane Rina formed in the Caribbean and headed our way. Early Wednesday morning when its winds reached 110mph (177kph), it was pointed right at us, though the experts predicted that the storm would jag northward before making landfall. Still, on Wednesday, people here were nervous. In area towns long lines formed to buy essentials. In chilly rain that morning I shoveled sand into sandbags and cut big coconuts from palms, to keep them from becoming cannonballs.

Right before dusk on Wednesday with Rina still approaching and already so close that the eastern horizon was a dark, dramatic and grim thing to look at, the wind calmed, a warm heaviness came into the air, and Marcia said, "The calm before the storm... "

Right at dusk, beneath heavily overcast skies, the landscape suddenly lit up and grew amber colored. There was a heavy, muffled, vacuum-like feeling in the air and everything, even the green palms, seemed to be glowing with internal amber light. There was more light than could be accounted for by such a cloudy sky, and there were no shadows. It was as if light came out of the ground, and the light was amber. I've read that such phenomena are caused by sunlight from the setting sun to the west reflecting off towering storm clouds to the east. Now we know that if you have a hurricane to the east, not a normal storm, the effect is even more eerie.

Before turning in, Marcia said that there was a tremendous amount of rain poised to fall upon us. I figured that that Wednesday night would be a rough one.

But, neither heavy rain nor high wind materialized. By Thursday morning Rina was moving away, toward Cozumel. This summer I've experienced more turbulence from unnamed "areas of disturbed weather" drifting over us than from Rina. The animated radar showing Rina's approach revealed that exactly when she was about to be upon us in all her rage, suddenly she jagged to the north, as if bouncing off a glass wall -- just as the experts had forecast.

So, that's my closest call with a hurricane, and maybe it's a good thing that my most vivid memory of it always will be of those few moments before dusk when it seemed that everything in the world was glowing with its own internal amber light.

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REMEMBERING FAHRENHEIT 451
Joe in Washington State was clearing books from his library to sell on eBay when he came upon an old paperback copy of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Passages in the back were underlined so Joe read them and was inspired to send them to me. The words were spoken by the novel's grandfather, who believed that if you want to leave a legacy behind you must change things by physically doing them:

It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.

There's some truth there, but I disagree that "The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there," and here's one reason why:

The evolution of the Universe shows direction, as outlined with our Six Miracles of Nature described at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/.

During the Universe's evolution, first came the physical building blocks, then life, then gene- influenced thought and feelings, and finally -- at least here on Earth among some people some of the time -- inspired thoughts and feelings not genetically influenced.

So, evolution points the way from mere physicality toward unfettered mentality. In terms religious people use, God "wants" inspired thoughts and feelings.

The lawn-cutter's work is important because it's a working out of the mental notion that mowed lawns are desirable. And that idea is of value in human evolution because later people can use it as a steppingstone to gain the insight, perhaps, that lawns ought to be turned into gardens, or simply left to Nature to begin with.

And reaching new insights, encouraged by ever-more-exquisite thinking and feeling, appears to be what the whole evolution of the Universe is about.

*****

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