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

September 6, 2015

BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT
Around Yaxunah there's plenty of weedy land -- abandoned cornfields -- that's prime habitat for small, seed-eating birds such as finches and sparrows. In our area the most commonly seen species of this type is the Blue-black Grassquit, VOLATINIA JACARINA. One is shown on a Switchgrass stem at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150906gr.jpg.

The bird in the picture has his beak open as if singing, but he isn't. I think he's just hot, cooling himself with moisture evaporating from his lungs. He's a male, females being brownish.

Male Blue-black Grassquits remind us of Indigo Buntings, but the male grassquit's indigo color merely appears as patches of mottling, not covering the whole body as with male Indigo Buntings. If you're in poor light wondering if the dark bird you're seeing might really be an Indigo Bunting, with shadowing causing the bird's blackness, male Blue-black Grassquits do something I've never seen other birds do: From their perches on conspicuous twigs or fences they suddenly fly straight up a foot or two, then just as suddenly return to their perches, maybe to the same spot or maybe nearby.

My books say that they do this as they make an inset-like buzz. Often I don't hear such a buzz, but I don't hear higher frequencies well. However, I certainly see them jumping, which occurs every 15 seconds or so when it's taking place. Jumping periods last or maybe 20-30 minutes, then they take a break.

I've wondered whether the jumps are to make the male birds more visible to other males who might invade the territory, or to impress females with their vigor, or maybe for both reasons. This week I got a photo showing that when the bird jumps he flies straight up and then dive-bombs back to his perch head-first, his tail pointing skyward. The camera caught one bird's incredible plummet earthward, seen through some flowering panicles of Switchgrass, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150906gq.jpg.

That kind of acrobatics requires a strong, healthy body, so it can be imagined that such a dive would impress both males thinking of invading territory, and females looking for vigorous mates.

*****

GRAY-CROWNED YELLOWTHROAT
Out among the weedy, abandoned cornfields all around town another common "weed bird" is the one singing his heart out at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150906yt.jpg.

At first glance I wasn't sure what I was seeing, for the bird's feathers are in such disarray. Surely he'd just bathed, or maybe he was sick, despite his lusty calling, which was a rich warble similar to that of some buntings -- which is interesting because these weedy fields are prime bunting habitat. Is there something about a wide-open, weedy field that makes a bunting-type song so advantageous that a warbler species' song would evolve toward it?

Anyway, with that slender warbler beak, the yellow throat and blackish face and crown, it could only be the commonly seen Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, CHAMAETHLYPIS POLIOCEPHALA. In the old days the species was placed in the genus Geothlypis along with the North's Yellowthroat.

You can see what a more composed Gray-crowned Yellowthroat looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/15/150906yu.jpg.

You might notice that this bird's beak -- distinctively pinkish-white below but with a black upper mandible -- is heavier than the Yellowthroats Northern birders are so familiar with. That's one reason the species was exiled from Geothlypis.

Gray-crowned Yellowthroats are distinctive species of weedy fields and pastures all through Mexico's tropical lowlands and all the way south through Central America into western Panama.

*****

DOG BRUJO
The villagers can't figure me out, and I just never know how somebody I start talking to will react. The other day a middle-aged man told me that deep in certain nights Yaxunah's streets are visited by a brujo, pronounced BROO-ho, and meaning something like a male witch.

"What does the brujo look like," I asked.

"A dog," he replied, looking me squarely in the eye. "A big one, one this tall (like a Shetland Pony), and pure white. Especially on foggy or misty nights he enters on one side of town and walks straight through and out the other. He lives in the woods. Just passes through... "

"How do you know he's not just a big dog," I wondered.

"No dog's that big," he replied almost contemptuously, implying that even a gringo should have more sense than to think a dog could be that big.

"What does he do?" I continued, becoming clear that this was more than a villager telling me one of the village's secrets, that he wanted to see how I reacted to the news.

"Nothing," he admitted, "just passes through."

"Guess he's nothing to worry about then... "

Somehow with that we ended up with our faces close, eyeball to eyeball though I was a head taller than he, not saying anything else, just looking at one another, and I don't think either of us figured out what the other really thought about the dog-brujo, or one another, for that matter.

*****

STILL NO INTERNET CONNECTION
Our Internet connection at Yaxunah still has failed to materialize, though people keep predicting that it'll be established during the next two weeks -- as they've said for the last month. This Newsletter will be uploaded when either a connection is established, or I manage to hitch a ride to town with a ciber.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Tomato Flower" from the January 22, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120122.htm

"Tree of Life" from the September 27, 2009 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/020407.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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