JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Written about 20kms (12mi) southwest of
Chichén Itzá Ruins, in
Yaxunah, Yucatán, MÉXICO

August 23, 2015

CHICKEN-EATING OCELOT
At the edge of town where a little street becomes a muddy foot-trail through the woods, about ten men, some astride bicycles, stood in a circle looking at something on the ground. I figured someone had killed a snake, maybe a big Boa Constrictor, which happens often enough. But when I joined the circle, what lay sprawled on the ground was what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823oc.jpg.

It was an Ocelot, FELIS PARDALIS, apparently killed by a shotgun blast to the midsection. Except for the wound, the creature looked in good shape, a glossy coat and either with a full stomach, or pregnant.

The men were speaking Maya, with one excitedly relating his story and the others commenting on every detail. When I joined the circle the oldest man present switched to Spanish and, maybe suspecting that I'd be sad to see such a pretty animal gunned down, explained that this was a chicken eater. Apparently he'd been shot going after someone's chickens. I didn't press for details. A close-up of the big cat's head and a foot is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823od.jpg.

The man told me that in Maya an Ocelot is known as a Sacchikín, meaning "white ears." Hearing this I noted that in fact each ear bore a conspicuous white spot, though overall the ears bore more black than white. Maybe when you're hunting Ocelots in poor light it's the pair of white spots you look for, resulting in the Maya name.

From the Ocelot's perspective, maybe there's both good and bad about having a little Maya village inside your hunting range. Possibly the good is that Maya men are constantly chopping away at the woods, clearing for cornfields, and then abandoning the fields to weeds for several years so the soil can get built up again, plus continually they cut trees for construction and, at least men in Yaxunah, for the masks they carve to sell to tourists at Chichén Itzá. Such forest disruption favors rodents who feed on weed seeds, and rodents are Ocelot food.

The bad part for an Ocelot living near a little Maya village was clear enough from the bloody wound on the Ocelot's side.

*****

SHOWERS OF KIKCHÉ FLOWER-PETALS
Around noon, resting my eyes from the computer screen, a glance between the poles of the hut's walls showed what looked like small snowflakes lightly drifting to the ground. It was white flower petals, though, so the question was, what species nowadays is flowering so prolifically that it can produce such a shower of petals?

The ground outside the hut's door was speckled with petals looking like slender, white fingernail clippings. The flowers shedding the petals were easy to spot, despite being massed so far up atop a nearby tree. One branch lower down also was flowering, and you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823kk.jpg.

The flower clusters look yellowish instead of white, as expected because of the white petals. Up close, though, you understand: Most flowers in the picture have lost some or all of their white petals, leaving only the maturing fruits and their yellowish-green sepals. Maybe because nowadays most afternoons we have showers or downpours that beat upon the flowers, on this branch it was hard to find a single blossom retaining all its petals. Many blossoms bore just the large petal at the top, (the "standard," or "banner," in Bean Flower terminology, and this is clearly a bean flower). You can see a flower with its standard and one narrow "wing" at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823kl.jpg.

Three features are worth noting on that blossom. First, though the slender "wing" petal is all white, the big banner bears raspberry-color blotches. Also, the green calyx tube bears similarly colored, wartlike glands, and; the sepals are unusually large, and broadest at or above their middles.

The oversized, paddle-shaped (obovate) sepals and raspberry-colored glands reminded me that I knew this tree -- it's called Kikché in Maya but doesn't seem to have an English name -- and that we already have a page for it at http://www.backyardnature.net//yucatan/kikche.htm.

In November, 2009 we saw Kikché, Apoplanesia paniculata, heavily laden with crowded clusters of tan-colored fruits, each small fruit bearing five much-enlarged, papery, paddle-shaped sepals, which apparently served for wind dissemination. The tree's small, one-seeded legumes were freckled with tiny, raspberry-colored glands just like the ones on our flower's calyx. Kikché's one-seeded legumes, oversized sepals, and its raspberry glands, are very peculiar for the Bean Family. As we wrote in 2009, "All those unusual features have made it hard for taxonomists to figure out how to classify Kikché. Before it was assigned to the genus Apoplanesia it was placed in Eysenhardtia and Microlobium."

We didn't get to see flowers on our fruiting 2009 tree, so now it's good to meet them. When I arrived in Yaxunah three weeks ago another big Kikché at the Community Center was dropping a heavy crop of five-winged legumes, so -- also remembering that our 2009 tree was fruiting in November -- my impression is that Kikché can flower and fruit throughout the year.

The red glands remind us of an interesting feature of Kikché: A machete chop into its trunk brings forth a reddish sap. In ancient Maya times Kikché was one of the most important sources for a red dye used for painting murals.

*****

ORANGE-JESSAMINE FLOWERING
Back at Hacienda Chichen in 2010 we looked at the Orange-Jessamine, Murraya paniculata, growing next to the old church there. I halfway watched that tree for over two years, hoping to see it flowering, but I never did. Our Orange-Jessamine page showing the tree, its gland-filled leaves and its chili-pepper-like fruits is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/murraya.htm.

One reason I always missed the flowers is that they develop, open and fall away during a short period, about a week. However, I happened to be visiting a friend's hut here in Yaxunah when I noticed panicles of flower buds forming on the resident Orange-Jessamine, so this time I began checking for flowers every day. Soon the first blossoms appeared, but I resolved to wait until the tree was in full bloom for pictures.

Then at the peak of the tree's flowering, when it was loaded with spectacular clusters of thumbnail-size, white, star-shaped blossoms that drenched the area with a very sweet, fairly intoxicating fragrance, an afternoon storm knocked two big trees onto the hut, covering the Orange-Jessamine before I got my pictures. When finally the mess was cleared away, only two or three blossoms remained on the mostly undamaged tree. The last remaining flower of a small panicle is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823mu.jpg.

The flower has reason to look like a citrus flower because Orange-Jessamine is a member of the Citrus Family, the Rutaceae. However, the blades occupying the right half of the above picture are not leaves alternately arranged on a stem, as would be the case with an Orange, Lemon or Grapefruit tree, but rather are leaflets arising from the rachis of a pinnately compound leaf. This is a good field mark for the species, as are the facts that the tree is spineless, its leaflets are blunt-tipped, not sharply so, and that the leaves' rachises aren't "winged." A close-up of the flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823mv.jpg.

The most eye-catching feature of the blossom may be its sturdy style arising from the flower's center, topped by an egg-shaped, yellowish, granular-surfaced stigma. However, such stout styles are common in the Citrus Family.

Orange-Jessamine is originally from India but now is planted throughout tropical America, and sometimes escapes.

*****

SCHOTT'S CEIBA FLOWERING
In 2012 we saw that the often gigantic Ceiba, Ceiba pentandra, isn't the only ceiba species in our area. Around here we also have what we called Schott's Ceiba, Ceiba schottii, which is a smaller, spinier, and much-less-well-known ceiba species. The Maya here call it Pi'im. Our Schott's Ceiba page showing the species in fruit is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ceiba2.htm.

Our 2012 trees, profiled during the winter dry season, bore large pods filled with white fuzz, or kapok fiber. Those here at Yaxunah, now during the rainy season, are flowering, and I'm surprised to see how different Schott's Ceiba flowers are from those of the big Ceiba pentandra, whose flowers you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100314cc.jpg.

Compare those small, pinkish flowers with those of a Schott's Ceiba blossom found along a trail, measuring seven inches (18cm) from the calyx base to corolla-lobe tip,  at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823cb.jpg.

A wilting flower still on a tree better displays the sexual parts at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823cc.jpg.

Besides the corolla lobes being much longer and more slender than those of Ceiba pentandra, note that in this flower's center the five stamens join at their filament bases to form a cylindrical "staminal column" around the style's lower half. In flower anatomy, staminal columns are a big deal, and it's interesting that in Ceiba pentandra flowers the columns are hardly noticeable, but in Schott's Ceiba the columns are very well developed. Another curious feature about the genus Ceiba, barely visible in our picture, is that at the tip of each of the five filaments the anthers tend to twist.

A good field mark for Schott's Ceiba is its whitish bark, the vertical ridges of which bear lines of low, broad-based spines. You can our tree's paired trunks at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823cd.jpg.

*****

AFTERNOON STORMS, AS THEY SHOULD BE
Nowadays most afternoons around 2:30 or so, the first boom of distant thunder pokes its way through the landscape's soul-stunning heat and humidity. More thunder follows almost immediately, and you wonder if somehow you missed the lead-up booms, or if somehow that first one changed atmospheric acoustics so that now even lesser thunderings are heard. If the thundering comes from the southeast, we can expect a good rain in maybe half an hour, but if it's from the northwest, probably the storm will move away as it develops and we won't get anything.

On the Internet weather page's current radar loop you can watch how these mid-afternoon, rainy-season storms pop up across the region. More or less concurrently they splatter randomly across the Peninsula, like mushrooms emerging after a rain. Sometimes the storms coalesce or develop into large, radar-red splotches that with other splotches move generally northwestward with their high winds and lots of rain. As dusk approaches they all dissipate as quickly as they had appeared.

When the rain begins around 3PM, usually I'm at the computer in the hut, working in shorts and no shirt. I ignore the first raindrops, for sometimes the storm just glances us, peppering us with a few drops and moving on. But if it's going to be a good rain, soon cold mist floats through the hut's door, landing on my sweaty back and shoulders, and it feels good.

If it looks like a good one is about to hit, I unplug the computer to keep it from being fried by lighting, and go watch the rain through the crack between the doors. I like watching rainwater stream off the roof's thatch, and seeing how fresh and green the plants outside look. If the storm passes right over us, often there's small hail that bounces off the ground looking like popcorn popping from the earth. At the height of our most recent downpour I photographed the drenched Wild Papaya outside the hut's door, on which silvery droplets gathered along raspberry-colored petioles, and the big leaves shined with wetness, all framed by the hut's thatch roof and wooden door, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150823rn.jpg.

When the storm moved away, the rain ended and the air's coolness was delicious. All around the Community Center's compound you could hear Maya kids laughing and whooping, playing in puddles of cold water, or just running up and down the streets delighting in breathing cool, fresh air.

Something else I like about these afternoon storms is that they're perfectly normal for this part of the world at this particular season. It seems that for years I've only experienced extreme weather of one kind or another, and it was beginning to seem that Nature never again would be "normal" again. But, it seems to me that these afternoon storms we're having now are just right.

*****

STILL NO INTERNET CONNECTION
Our Internet connection at Yaxunah still has failed to materialize, though people keep saying that it'll be established during the next two weeks. This Wednesday at dusk I hitched a ride with a friend to Yaxcaba, about 15kms to the west, where there's a ciber, and I uploaded the batch of Newsletters accumulated during my stay at Yaxunah. I guess that with this Newsletter I begin accumulating another batch, to be uploaded at an undetermined date.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Grandma's Blackberries" from the April 27, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030427x.htm

"Grandma Taylor" from the June 22, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060622.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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