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

April 3, 2016

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ORIOLES SIPPING FLOWER NECTAR
The Spanish Plum tree, Spondias purpurea, in front of the hut is flowering, its tiny, red blossoms held in pea-sized clusters along its outer branches. We've looked closely at the Spanish Plum's flowers, fruits, leaves and other details, and reported on them at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/spondias.htm

Here during the heart of the dry season, especially in early mornings and late afternoons, I've noted a new feature of this fine tree, which is that a nice variety of birds visit it to walk along its branches dipping their beaks into one flower after another, clearly sipping nectar. The most commonly seen bird is the Altamira Oriole, an immature individual of which is shown taking a long, deep sip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403oo.jpg

Orioles in general are known to have sweet-teeth. The About.Com web page on feeding backyard orioles lists such oriole favorites as grape jelly, orange marmalade, fruits such as oranges and bananas, and suet mixed with bits of fruit, berries or peanut butter. Jelly can be offered in small dishes or in hollowed-out orange rinds, or smeared across the face of a cut-open orange.

That page also reports that orioles will sip sugar-water at hummingbird feeders, if the feeder is big enough to hold them. Moreover, they'll be happy with water containing less sugar than hummingbirds want. Hummingbirds need a water to sugar ratio of 4:1, while orioles will do with 6:1. The About.Com page with more information on feeding orioles is at http://birding.about.com/od/birdfeeders/a/feedingorioles.htm

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RED-BLOTCHED RATSNAKE
Accompanying some folks from Utah during the afternoon walk, our trail beneath the big Piich Tree next to the banana plantation was blocked by a little snake about 15 inches long (38cm). This delighted the Utahans, who'd been looking for snakes during their vacation, but had seen none. I could tell them outright that we had a Red-blotched Ratsnake, for we've encountered and photographed this species several times, as you can see on our Red-Blotched Ratsnake page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ratsnak1.htm

This individual displayed behavior not seen during previous encounters. Namely, when I got down on my hands and knees and focused the camera on him, he coiled into a pretzel shape, inflated his head into a cobra-like triangular shape, and jumped at me with his white mouth wide open, like an angry Water Moccasin back in Mississippi. You can see him the instant before his lunge at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403rs.jpg

The poor thing looked a bit skinny but I had to admire his chutzpah. During earlier encounters I'd gotten the impression that the species was halfway docile, but not this one.

The irregularly shaped diamonds across the back that are reddish with black margins, and the black line atop the spine extending onto the back of the head, are fairly good field marks. However, once we found one over a yard long (1m) and its splotches were more irregularly shaped and uniformly brown instead of red and black.

The one in our photograph wasn't far from a spot undermined by many tunnels made by pocket gophers called Tuzas. The Tuzas threaten our banana trees, for Tuzas love to come up under a tree, eating roots and lower stem as they do so, until one day the tree simply falls over, rootless and dead. Our Red-blotched Ratsnake could benefit from eating some of those Tuzas, and so would the banana trees.

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MEXICAN PRICKLY POPPY
Up in Texas at this time of year we used to admire the yellow-flowered Mexican Prickly Poppies, ARGEMONE MEXICANA, which to many folks there were despised weeds because they were so spiny. Nowadays several Mexican Prickly Poppies somehow have invaded a spot recently cleared to make a parking lot, and the visitors I've taken to seem them usually find them so attractive that they snap a photo or two. You can see one whose egg-size yellow blossom glows in morning sunlight at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403pp.jpg

A close-up of the flower's interior, featuring a spine-armored ovary topped with a fuzzy, reddish-brown stigma, and surrounded by many stamens with yellow, banana-like anthers splitting to release pollen, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403pq.jpg

Despite the species' names, it's unclear where Mexican Prickly Poppies originally came from, for now they're spread throughout most of the world's tropics and subtropics. Nowhere do farmers and ranchers like them, and it's not only for their prickliness. For one thing, they produce chemicals that retard seed germination and seedling growth of many cultivated plants, a phenomenon known as allelopathy. Harmful allelopathic effects of Mexican Prickly Poppies have been documented on germination and seedling vigor of wheat, mustard, sorghum, tomato, cucumber and many other useful plants.

Despite all that, most pages on the Internet concerning Mexican Prickly Poppy deal with the plant's medicinal and psychotrophic uses. Some people smoke the leaves to feel relaxed or have highs of various kinds, the effects being similar to those of opium, the Opium Poppy being in the same family as prickly poppies. Mexico's Aztecs used this species extensively in rituals. In today's drug culture, some regard Mexican Prickly Poppy as a "teacher plant," a plant whose use engenders deep insight. In the Caribbean, plasters made from the plant are used to remove warts. In fact, the plant finds all kinds of uses in many cultures throughout the world.

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GUATEMALAN INDIGO
At the edge of a trail through the woods a leafy bush with several slender, weak stems arising from the base reached shoulder high, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403in.jpg

The pinnately compound leaves could have been those of Wisteria, a twining member of the Bean Family up North, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403is.jpg

The flowers and fruits confirmed that we had a Bean Family member, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403io.jpg

In other words, the fruits are of the legume type, like regular green beans in a garden, and the flowers are "papilionaceous," like regular bean flowers . That means that they consist of five petals of which the top is the largest, then there are two side petals called "wings," and the bottom two petals are fused along their common margin to form a scoop-like structure called the "keel, all shown closer up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403iq.jpg

In that picture, one unusual feature is that the top petal, or keel, is red-striped, like peppermint candy. The stripes can be admired more fully from behind, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403ir.jpg

From the beginning the bush looked to me like a kind of indigo, genus Indigofera, of which we've seen several species. For example, you might compare the above pictures with those of the Lindheimer's Indigo we saw in Texas, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/indigo.htm

This is INDIGOFERA SUFFRUTICOSA, widely distributed throughout the American tropics and subtropics, and therefore known by several English names, including Guatemala Indigo, Wild Indigo, and Anil. The Indigo genus Indigofera embraces over 750 species, with this one and Indigofera tinctoria being the main ones from which indigo dye is produced. Traditionally Guatemalan Indigo was mixed with "Palygorskite clays" to produce Maya blue, a pigment used by the Mesoamerican civilizations, so being next to Chichén Itzá it's easy to imagine our present plant as a descendent of plants used by the Maya living here.

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"TREE CROTON" FRUITING
Last month we looked at a "Tree Croton" just beginning to flower, the quotation marks around the name used because the small, woody tree has no English name, but its Latin one, Croton arboreus, says that it's a tree. Now the species is fruiting. Since the genus Croton is so hard to figure out, and the Yucatan hosts so many of them, it's worth adding pictures showing this later stage of development, for there aren't many on the Internet. Our own Tree Croton page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/croton2.htm

First, now that the flowering racemes are fully developed, we can see that the close-packed, white flowers are uncommonly eye-catching for a croton, especially in the shade, as shown as http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403ct.jpg

Our earlier male flower pictures showed stamens just emerging, still greenish, and the anthers not yet splitting to release pollen. Now the male flowers are white, their anthers splitting wide open scattering white pollen, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403cu.jpg

Earlier our picture of a female flower showed the green, octopus-like stigma completely covering the tiny ovary. Now the stigmas' lobes have shriveled and turned brown, and the ovaries have completely filled the calyxes, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403cw.jpg

In fact, some ovaries have matured to the point of producing the species' remarkably bristly fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403cr.jpg

Earlier we showed the reddish scales covering vegetative parts. Now we look at the leaves' undersides, where they're covered with a soft, woolly mat of branched hairs interspersed with rusty items that are neither the usual scales nor glandular hairs. Whatever they're called, you can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403cv.jpg

These details must make for tedious reading for anyone looking for romantic reports from the tropics, but someday they'll please a researcher or two. Also, gathering this material is my own form of meditation. Passing them along, to me, are like a classical meditator's mantras being chanted into the wind.

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DANGLING ANGLEPODS
Back in 2010 we found a "climbing milkweed" pod amid a thicket of scrubby trees on the road to Pisté, which we identified as probably Macroscepis diademata. Now six years later a little more information about the plant is available on the Internet and the name seems to hold. Our page for the species is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/anglepod.htm

Moreover, now I'm seeing more of them, whole groups of them dangling in dry-season-leafless shrub and small tree branches, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403mc.jpg

A shot of another pod shows that they can have more "fins" than the one photographed in 2010, though an extra fin might be only partially developed, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160403md.jpg

That pictures confirms, however, that the stems and petioles retain stiff hairs late into the season.

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THREE FLYCATCHERS & FRACTURING SOCIAL ORDER
Two birders from South Africa needed help identifying shrilly calling, yellow-bellied flycatchers cavorting among Royal Palms towering beside the Hacienda's dining area.

I told them that they were Social Flycatchers, and that, interestingly, here we have three flycatcher species all looking like these birds, but with different calls, behaviors, and even belonging to different genera. They are the Boat-billed Flycatcher, the Great Kiskadee, and these Socials, all with yellow breasts, white eye-stripes, black crowns and olive backs.

When the guests compared pictures of the three species, they agreed, and wondered what forces of evolution brought these similarities about. Then we talked awhile about evolution in general, and how it can produce such unlikely outcomes as ostriches, angler fish, and the little "stone plants" they had back home, that looked just like brown pebbles, until they flowered, or popped when you stepped on them.

From birds and evolution the talk drifted into social trouble back in South Africa, and terrorism, and refugees streaming across international boundaries, and the growing tensions worldwide between haves and have-nots, between religions, between political parties, global warming believers and deniers, etc.

At day's end I sat beside the hut digesting all that had been said, and it seemed that in the end it was all natural enough and that, moreover, having three look-alike flycatchers in the context of growing social, economic, religious, and political tensions all hang together. It was all the working out of Nature's majestic and utterly impersonal impulses. Those impulses become easier to recognize when we remember the Six Miracles of Nature outlined at http://www.backyardnature.net/j/6/

For, the Six Miracles -- it seems to me -- indicate that in this Universe the trend is toward ever greater diversity of all things, with ever greater interrelationships among the parts, especially the living ones, and that among living things the impulse is toward ever refined mentality and feeling. Moreover, the mechanics of this evolutionary process involve recurrent tearing-down-the-old to salvage resources for new creations, and that process can be violent and painful on many levels. For example, the history of Earth's current rainbow of living species roots in the fact that more than 90% of all species ever evolved now are extinct. Even various forms of hominid -- transition states between ape-like ancestors and modern man -- have been extinguished, such as the Neanderthal, who new evidence suggests may have been artful, feeling beings.

Three look-alike flycatchers who behave and sound very different from one another, then, are just one expression of a robust evolutionary impulse that takes many paths toward diversity. Violence between religions is analogous to two species competing for the same resource, in religion's case the resource being the natural human urge for spirituality. Fracturing social order is exactly what happens to any very large institution distributed over a large area, the institution here being the consumption-focused part of humanity: In Nature, an analogy is a widely distributed species breaking into subspecies adapted to local conditions. The subspecies over time may crystallize into species themselves competing with one another for resources -- like Neanderthals once did with modern humans.

Nature, then, is a Bible advising us that we'd best respect Nature's laws -- laws such as those stating that we must controle our numbers and not squander resources. The Nature Bible also provides its Books of Prophecy, for there's a long history in the fossil record showing what happens to most species that evolve, then somehow run out of luck, or wisdom.

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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