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

November 6, 2011

JUVENILE BLACK HAWK AT AGE 4½ MONTHS
In mid June beside the white sand road near Mayan Beach Garden on the Quintana Roo Caribbean coast we first saw a fuzzy little head peep over a nest of twigs placed in a snag by a couple of Common Black Hawks. You can see our first view of the nestling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110619bh.jpg.

Over the months we watched the nestling grow, acquire new plumage, fledge, and finally begin hunting in the nest area. He always seemed nonchalant about people watching him, maybe because so many have stopped to admire him during his entire life.

Last Sunday on my last day at Mayan Beach Garden our hawk happened to appear, giving us a good view of what a Common Black Hawk looks like at 4½ months. See his newly darkened plumage and handsomely striped tail at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106bh.jpg.

*****

ARMY ANTS EN MASSE
Sometimes army ants move in lines a few ants wide, as we've documented several times at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/armyant.htm.

But sometimes they move en masse, as seen on the white sand road last Sunday near Mayan Beach Garden, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106aa.jpg.

That ant-blob was about the size of a large car with most but not all ants moving from right to left. My impression is that the same army-ant species sometimes moves in lines, sometimes in broad waves. Moving in a few narrow lines seems to be the quickest and safest way for them to get around, but moving en masse they are more likely to stir up insects such as grasshoppers who jump from one place to escape the ants only to land in the midst of the ant blob, where they are quickly torn apart.

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HELMET SNAIL SHELL
On our last hike up the beach last Sunday we came upon a kind of seashell I'd not seen yet. You can see that it was especially colorful and interestingly formed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106hm.jpg.

A bottom view showing its numerous "teeth" is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106hn.jpg.

Someone in our group said that it was an Emperor's Helmet and I mentioned that when I sent the pictures to volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario. Soon Bea was back saying that the helmet part was right but not the emperor. It's the Reticulate Cowry-helmet, CYPRAECASSIS TESTICULUS, a member of the Helmet and Bonnet Snail Family, the Cassidae.

Having the name, now I could look for more information about it.

I find that its preferred habitat is rocky shores bordering the Atlantic Ocean's warmer regions from North Carolina south to northern Brazil, and along the African coast as well.

And that was my last discovery to report resulting from my six-month stay at Mayan Beach Gardens half an hour north of Mahahual, Quintana Roo, Mexico.

*****

THANKS TO MARCIA & KIM
During the last six months you've seen how many interesting and beautiful things I've experienced, and you've witnessed the sense of discovery that I've felt every day. This has meant a lot to me, and none of it would have been possible without the invitation and hospitality of Marcia and Kim, the married owners of Mayan Beach Gardens.

Thanks to both, and also thanks to the staff whom I think of as real friends.

Also thanks to Hacienda Chichen's Don Bruce for lending me his bicycle, without which about half my observations never would have been made.

*****

STARTING THINGS WITH ANOTHER SNAIL
A new aquatic snail ended my fieldwork in Quintana Roo, and a new snail, an air breathing one, provided the first picture-taking opportunity upon my return to Hacienda Chichen adjacent to Chichén Itzá ruins in north-central Yucatán. Monday morning, my first day back, it was raining when the new snail turned up on my clothes-washing stand, or batea. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106sl.jpg.

Bea figured this one out as belonging to the genus Orthalicus, but we had problems deciding on the species. However, on the internet we found a real malacologist -- a mollusk expert -- specializing in neotropical snails. He was Bram Breure at the National Museum of Natural History in The Netherlands, and he helped us out.

Upon seeing the above picture he wrote, "It is always hard to ID a snail with only one picture, especially these orthalicids as they are bewildering variable. Your picture of Orthalicus is likely O. princeps (Broderip in Sowerby, 1833), given the locality. O. undatus is an Antillean species, and O. ponderosus a northern Mexican."

So: ORTHALICUS PRINCEPS is distributed from southern Mexico through Central America into northern South America.

On the Internet, except for a paper describing the species' sexual parts (authored by Bram Breure himself), there's not much more information about this snail. Therefore, maybe we're helping science a little by announcing that in the Central Yucatán at the end of the rainy season on a rainy morning in early November it's possible to find Orthalicus princeps slowly wandering across a fellow's built-of-stone, outside clothes-washing batea.

*****

OVERGROWN FRONT YARD
Late Sunday night when Don Bruce drove us down the leafy trail leading to the hut and parked with his headlamps shooting into a wet tangle of herbage I got disoriented. We'd seemed to be headed to my hut but suddenly we appeared to be someplace in wilderness. During the rainy season, which just now should be ending, plants I'd planted six months earlier in front of the hut simply had overgrown my yard. You can see a dry, daylight version of what I saw that night at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106hh.jpg.

In the picture the nearest plant with digitately compound leaves a bit like a Marijuana plant's is what's variously called Manioc, Cassava or Yuca, Manihot esculenta. The taller plant behind the Manioc is Tree Cotton, which we look at closer below. To the right of them is a Chaya bush, and then behind the Chaya is an eight-ft-tall Elephant's Ears, Alocasia macrorhiza. When I left, nothing was over knee high!

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TEN-FT-TALL COTTON
The most surprising overgrown plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106ct.jpg.

You might recall that in this year's February 6th Newsletter we profiled a cotton plant found in Pisté producing beige, not white, cotton. That mature plant struck me as non-woody, was three or four feet tall, and its leaves were three-lobed, so I thought it was Upland Cotton of the kind much planted in the US Deep South.

I carried seeds home with me, they germinated and I planted the seedlings right before I left the Hacienda six months ago. This woody, ten-ft-tall plant with mostly five-lobed leaves is what grew from those seedlings! Best I can tell, it's GOSSYPIUM HIRSUTUM, despite the fact that it's so woody, while the cultivars of this species grown in the US are treated as herbaceous annuals.

It happens that our Tree Cotton is flowering now, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106cu.jpg.

Most flowers are pale yellow as in the picture, but sometimes young corollas are purplish. Having many stamens in the blossom's center arising from a cylindrical "staminal tube" surrounding the style is very suggestive of a hibiscus flower. That's to be expected since both cotton and hibiscus are members of the huge Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae. A notable feature characteristic of cotton flowers is shown in a blossom side-view shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106cv.jpg.

Cotton flowers have calyx lobes, or sepals, similar to those of many other flower kinds, but that's not what you're seeing at the base of that flower's yellowish corolla. The pale green, purple-tinged thing deeply fringed at its top (left side in photo) is a bract, which is a modified leaf. Cotton flowers are subtended by three or more large bracts that obscure the calyx lobes and the entire bottom of the corolla. The flower bracts on our Tree Cotton bear many dark glands. I'm guessing that those glands repel insects that otherwise would travel beyond the bracts and eat the flower parts, which of course the plant doesn't want.

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ALTERNARIA LEAF SPOT ON MY ZINNIAS
Only one of my zinnia plants survived the rainy summer and competition with ten-ft-tall cotton and other rampaging neighbors, but that plant is loaded with flowers and attracting many butterflies. However, it's petty diseased.

I read that only two diseases are commonly troublesome for zinnias: a powdery mildew, and Alternaria Leaf Spot. Both diseases are especially common during hot, rainy summers such as we've had here. Last summer my zinnias stayed stunted and died early because their leaves became dusty with talcum-powder-like powdery mildew. My single surviving zinnia shows no sign of powdery mildew, but its leaves are spotted as shown as http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106zz.jpg.

The infections affect the flowers, too, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111106zy.jpg.

Those spots are infections of the second zinnia disease, Alternaria Leaf Spot, also called Alternaria Blight, caused by the fungus ALTERNARIA ZINNIAE.

Alternaria is a genus of ascomycete fungi -- what in the old days were called "sac fungi" because they produce spores, called ascospores, in special pods or sac-like structures known as asci (singular ascus). I've prepared a drawing of an ascomycete fruiting body at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/fungsac.gif. The best-known ascomycete fungi are mildews, molds and the highly edible mushrooms known as morels.

That genus Alternaria is a very big and important one containing about 300 species. It's estimated that 20% of all agricultural spoilage is caused by Alternaria species, plus many species are important for natural decay and decomposition. Many other Alternaria species cause plant diseases, such as our Alternaria Blight on zinnias, as well as animal diseases on skin, mucous membranes, eyeballs and the digestive tract. The terms alternariosis and alternariatoxicosis are used for disorders in humans and animals caused by fungi in this genus. The air, water and soil are so full of Alternaria spores that you just can't get away from them. If you're into ecology, pathology or just about anything dealing with natural science, you need to know about and respect the Alternaria fungi.

Alternaria zinniae -- whose species name zinniae indicates its preferred host -- is passed from one generation of zinnia to the next by spores on the seeds and in contaminated debris in the soil.

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DESCENDING SPIRITS MAKING RAIN
On Tuesday, November 1st, at breakfast at Hacienda Chichen, just to have something to say, I remarked to my Maya friend Edgar that yet another shower had begun, so apparently things were destined to stay lush and muddy awhile longer.

He replied, "Espíritus bajando -- spirits coming down. It always rains like this at this time." Then he moved away to serve a visitor. When José the shaman came to eat with me I asked about Edgar's cryptic remark.

"It's the Día de los Difuntos, the Day of the Dead," he explained. "On this day spirits descend to the Earth to gather up souls, to lead them upwards. Spirits are pure energy so when they gather in the sky before coming here they concentrate their energies, that changes the atmospherics, so it rains... "

Notice that spirits are different from souls. Spirits are pure energy, but souls can be accompanied by visible features from their previous lives. And there are different degrees of spirits, the higher degrees possessing more energy. Under certain circumstances souls can be seen. Not all souls wandering on Earth after the deaths of their bodies return with the spirits. Some souls might wander for hundreds of years, or longer. Later Edgar told me that it'll rain again at the end of the month when the spirits come together again to lead the souls upward.

"It's all a bit complex," José admitted, seeing me trying to piece it all together.

In the afternoon José presided over the construction of an altar where offerings were left for wandering souls. It was still raining, as the spirits descended.

*****

PASSING THROUGH FELIPE CARRILLO PUERTO Last Sunday Don Bruce arrived at Mayan Beach Garden to fetch me back to Hacienda Chichen up at Chichén Itzá, for the winter tourist season. By the time we got underway already daylight was fading and it was looking like rain, so nearly our entire trip northward took place in the night as we passed in and out of mists and drizzles, and little Maya towns where water from the afternoon's downpour puddled deeply and still ran through the streets.

It's always pleasant passing through little Mexican towns in the early evening, Maya or not. They remind me of small-town Kentucky back in the 50s when everyone wasn't inside at that hour with their faces glued to some kind of screen. In little Mexican towns at dusk, people of all ages come out to see what's happening, to visit family, or sit in tiny restaurants with their elbows on red and white, metal Coca-Cola card tables laughing and nursing sodas.

At that hour, even dogs look particularly alert and good natured. Most stores, tiny ones, are open on their street sides so you can see inside them, their colorful and always-the-same-as-every-other-store's items cheerful and homey to look at. Limones, Uhmay, Señor, Tusik, Tihosuco, Xtobil, Tixcacalcupul, in early evening and with so many people smiling and socially engaged, even the towns' names are friendly and celebratory.

You don't get lost in these towns, just drive straight through them, the main streets -- sometimes the only real streets -- perfectly identifiable as such by everyone. Except in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. There it's impossible to get from one side of town to the other without asking, unless you already know the way, because at one critical juncture there's no signage at all. When we traveled the same route six months earlier no signs helped us coming from the other side, either. Once you realize you're lost, you just have to stop and ask, or have very good luck, for Felipe Carrillo Puerto is by far the biggest town in the region, until you get to Valladolid, which is bigger.

But, in the early evening, almost you don't mind getting lost in Felipe Carrillo Puerto. Once you know you're lost and you're going slowly down dark streets looking for the right person to ask for directions, you see nice things. Folks inside churches singing, their heads bobbing back and forth. Old men drinking together on somebody's doorstep. Little kids playing while mama watches hard just feet away.

Felipe Carrillo Puerto hasn't always presented such a congenial and homey image. The town was founded in 1850 by rebelling Maya during the Caste War, when it was called Chan Santa Cruz. It wasn't conquered by Mexican troops until 1901. The Caste War is one of the most interesting, bizarre, and overlooked, historical events in the Americas. It's described here.  

The town's early history is outlined here.

Traveling northward through the darkness, drizzle and those agreeable little towns, I thought about Felipe Carrillo Puerto's fight to protect Maya culture from outsiders. What's wrong with wanting to protect your own way of being, when you're not hurting anyone else? But, in this case, the foreigners won, and the homefolks lost many rights and privileges. In fact, history shows that combatants with superior arms and strategy usually win, no matter which side is the most aggrieved, or has "the purer heart." Most conflicts are resolved along Darwinian lines, with the most powerful winning out.

That's a hard insight to deal with -- that sometimes, maybe most times, injustice wins if the ones committing it are strongest.

However, in Nature -- which is the whole Universe -- everything keeps evolving, even until perspectives warp or rearrange themselves so that bad becomes good and vice versa, even until there are no bad and good, just things being, and changing.

And in that context, all those little Maya towns in early evening remind us that even amidst ruin eventually there are agreeable, even beautiful blossomings that spontaneously appear.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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