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

JUNE 12, 2016

*****

VULTURE AT THE BIRDBATH
A little before dusk I was reading outside, beside the hut door. When my eyes needed a rest I looked up and was surprised to see a Black Vulture perched on my birdbath about ten feet away. You can see him at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612vu.jpg

I knew how he'd gotten there without my noticing. Earlier I'd seen individual Black Vultures land a fair distance from the hut, then awkwardly walk along the little trail to the hut, stand looking around awhile, and when they felt safe make their way to the birdbath. At the time of the vulture's visit earlier this week we still haven't had a good rain here, and the extended dry season made it hard on everything needing an occasional drink.

Up close, the vulture's featherless, wrinkled head-skin was almost handsome. A closer look just at the head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612vw.jpg

When the Black Vulture drank he stabbed his head into the water so fast, and withdrew it just as quickly, that all but one of my pictures showed the head as a mere blur. You can see the one shot of the bird quickly taking water into his beak at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612vv.jpg

Something interesting in that picture is the white legs. This looks like a case of the vulture pooping on his own legs. Several species of storks and New World vultures are known to poop onto their legs, presumably as a cooling mechanism. As the poop dries, evaporation takes place, and evaporation cools, as with sweating, which birds can't do. The process of pooping onto one's own legs for cooling is known as "urohidrosis."

In the old days, taxonomically, field guides lumped our Turkey and Black Vultures with Old World vultures. However, nowadays genetic sequencing indicates that our New World vultures are related to storks, and not Old Wold vultures or raptors. Urohidrosis occurring in New World vultures as well as storks, then, makes perfect sense. It's a behavior inherited from a distant ancestor of both storks and New World vultures.

It's also been pointed out that when vultures poop on their own legs, the uric acid in the poop kills any bacteria the bird may have picked up standing on a carcass. Vulture stomachs are known to be highly acidic. When fed disease-causing organisms, including anthrax, a study found that most bacteria were killed in the vulture's stomach.

*****

BLACK IGUANA EATING SPANISH PLUMS
Most mid-afternoons as I'm working at the computer, at one point or another a motion catches my attention through the openings of the pole wall beside me, I glance outside, and see something like what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612ig.jpg

That's a Black Iguana feeding on a ripe Spanish Plum fallen from the tree behind the hut.

We have a lot to say and show about Black Iguanas on their page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/iguana-b.htm

The same is true about Spanish Plums, and their page at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/spondias.htm

One thing worth noting is that those Spanish Plum fruits consist mostly of a large seed surrounded by just a little flesh. Somewhere our hut iguana must be leaving piles of poop substantially composed of Spanish Plum stone-type seeds.

One reason the above picture is worth posting is because it documents a known species feeding on another known species, and such specific documentation often is hard to come by. Their Wikipedia page says that Black Iguanas are "... primarily herbivorous, eating flowers, leaves, stems, and fruit, but they will opportunistically eat smaller animals, eggs, and arthropods."

Now we are closer to answering which fruits Black Iguanas eat, as well as which dispersal agents help the Spanish Plum disseminate their seeds.

*****

MOTTLED OWL IMMATURE UPDATE
Last Monday for the first time both parents of the fuzzy-white Mottled Owl juvenile reported on last week appeared nearby the young one, the couple shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612ow.jpg

This Tuesday morning they were still there, and the little one was entertaining the work crew by perching on a lower branch of the big Mango tree above the sidewalk next to the laundry room, watching us below with big, black eyes.

That night we received the first puddle-forming rain of the rainy season, about half an inch (13mm), and Wednesday morning the whole family had disappeared. However, late Friday the immature was spotted high in a tree several trees from his last known location. Unless during the night he went to the ground, it's hard to see how he got to that tree, since his wing feathers don't look anywhere near developed enough to fly. I suppose the parents are nearby, but they're hard to see, since they're so well camouflaged, stick to the shadows, and don't move.

*****

PEPEROMIA
Along a trail through the woods not far from the hut a tangle of herbaceous stems and leaves hangs in the fork of a tree at about chest level. The tangle isn't rooted either in the ground below the tree, or in the tree it's living on, so it's an "epiphyte," like many bromeliads, aroids and orchids, just innocently living on the tree. The tangle is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612pp.jpg

Leaves on this viny plant arise opposite one another at stem nodes, and the leaves themselves are semi-succulent, with three or four obscure veins running from one end to another, ± paralleling one another instead of having secondary veins branching off the midrib. A leaf close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612pr.jpg

Many of the epiphyte's stems end in slender, down-curving, tail-like things such as the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612pq.jpg

Notice that here and there on the tail-like thing there appear tiny, brown items. A close-up of some of those is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612ps.jpg

The brown items are individual fruits, so the tail-like thing is a spike-type flower or fruit cluster. All these details weren't needed, though, to know that here we have a species of peperomia, genus Peperomia. Peperomias are well known to Northerners because they're often grown as potted plants, some species producing pretty clusters of succulent, variegated leaves and interesting flowering spikes. Peperomias belong to the Black Pepper Family, the Piperaceae, so the tiny, brown fruits in the above photo are almost peppercorns. The peppercorns providing the North's black pepper are produced by Piper nigrum of tropical Asia, so they're from a different genus of the same family as our Peperomia.

About a thousand Peperomia species have been described, mostly from tropical South America. Several occur in the Yucatan Peninsula, though mainly they're in the Peninsula's southern part, since the northern Yucatan is too arid for most species. Our present species is an exceptional one that tolerates long, severe dry seasons. It's PEPEROMIA PERESKIIFOLIA, occurring from southern Mexico south through Central America to northern South America.

Maybe the main field mark for members of the Black Pepper Family is that their tiny, simplified flowers are clustered into long flowering spikes. In the above picture you can see that each flower is associated with a green, scale-like bract. Peperomia blossoms, though almost microscopic in some species, bear both male and female parts. Peperomia flowers consist of two minuscule stamens and a pistil, which matures into the peppercorn-like fruit. Technically the fruit is considered a thin-coated berry.

Peperomia pereskiifolia is uncommon here, and I can't find mention of its use traditionally. It's just an interesting, somewhat unusual little plant, one I make a point of nodding to each time I pass it by.

*****

MOUSE'S PINEAPPLES IN JUNE
In January of 2011 we found Mouse's Pineapple weedily twining among other vines on a stone wall in Pisté. At that time the vine was flowering and its "pineapples" weren't well formed. Our Mouse's Pineapple page showing the flowering vine is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/redgal.htm

Nowadays along trails through the woods the "pineapples" are still immature, but they're much larger than on our earlier January vine. You can see some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612nn.jpg

A close-up of a single fruit is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612no.jpg

Each crater-like hole in the fruit is the scar from where the blossom fell off. Therefore, what's shown in the above picture is a "multiple fruit" consisting of several to many crammed-together "simple fruits," each simple fruit forming from the ovary of one flower. In the above picture you can see where individual ovaries have fused together at lines between the craters. Mulberries, Osage Oranges, pineapples and figs are examples of other multiple fruits, which are to be distinguished from "aggregate fruits," which look like multiple fruits, except that each bump on a multiple fruit develops from one of several separate ovaries or pistils in a single flower -- one flower with several pistils. A diagram making all this clear is provided at http://www.backyardnature.net/frt_3grp.htm.

I was tempted to wait to take these photos until the fruits matured. However, we've noted that Mouse's Pineapple is closely related to the Noni -- famous for its medicinal value -- profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/noni.htm

And Noni fruits are edible. You might remember our picture of a Gray Fox carrying a Noni fruit in his mouth, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/110717fx.jpg

I was afraid I'd never see a ripe Mouse's Pineapple, but if I do, I'll show it to you later.

*****

CROSSOPETALUM BUSH #1
Along an overgrown trail through the woods a slender, stiff-stemmed, belly-high bush bore pea-sized, green fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cr.jpg

The fruits were immature, but such clusters issuing from the axils of opposite leaves rang some kind of bell with me. A closer look showed what appeared to be minuscule flowers among the fruits, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cs.jpg

The bush's spindly, green stems and opposite, simple leaves reminded me of Euonymus bushes up North, bushes sometimes called Hearts-a-bustin' or Strawberry Bush. You can compare our present bush with a Euonymus in Mississippi at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/w/euonymus.htm

A good field mark for Euonymus bushes up North is that their slender, green, stiff stems are four-angled in cross section, with low ridges accentuating the stems' corners. You can see this very feature on our Yucatan bush at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cu.jpg

However, flowers on our Mississippi Euonymus looked very different. Still, just the stems and leaves made me think our bush was in the same family as Euonymus, the Staff-tree Family, or Celastraceae, so that's where I began looking.

Our green-stemmed bush is indeed a member of the Celastraceae, but it's not Euonymus, which mainly is a northern Temperate Zone genus. Our plant is CROSSOPETALUM PARVIFLORUM, found from southern Mexico south through Central America to Peru in South America. In rainier areas than ours it can grow over 25 feet high (8m). The fruits don't grow much bigger than those in our photos, but at maturity turn yellow or red,. A fruit with part of its flesh removed to show the bony seed inside is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612ct.jpg

I find no use stated for the bush, though in areas where it grows into a small tree its trunk is used for firewood and fenceposts.

*****

CROSSOPETALUM BUSH #2
In late March I photographed a spindly, green-stemmed, knee-high bush along a forest trail that, despite its bearing dense, handsome clusters of small flowers, I simply was unable to identify, and therefore never told you about it. I saved the pictures, though, and you can see what it looked like in late March when the forest wasn't as dry-season parched as now, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612c5j.pg

Flowers with four stamens and petals are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612c6.jpg

This week as I was discovering for myself the genus Crossopetalum, it occurred to me that our March mystery bush was somewhat similar. In fact, the March plant turns out to be a second species of Crossopetalum, CROSSOPETALUM GAUMERI, endemic just to the Yucatan Peninsula south to Honduras.

I should have recognized this back in March, for the flower close-up clearly shows that the bottom of each flower is covered with a fleshy disc, exactly as with our northern Euonymus species, plus the green stems are somewhat four-angled as well. I just wasn't a member of the Staff-tree Family, or Celastraceae, down here, much less one with maroon flowers.

Ignorance blinds us, sometimes it's been said.

*****

FAIRY BENTSPUR ORCHID
In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, beside the informal little family campground where I pitched my tent, at the edge of the forest, a viny orchid twined among thick bushes, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fb.jpg

A shot of the flower clusters is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fc.jpg

My first thought was that this was the Vanilla Orchid, the species from whose fruits the vanilla flavor is extracted, occurring in this part of the world. But then I took a closer look at the flowers. A shot of them face-on is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fd.jpg

Vanilla Orchid flowers are very irregular in shape -- they're strongly bilaterally symmetrical -- but you can see that, at least from the front, these flowers are almost regular, or radially symmetrical. Looking at the blossoms from the side, however, we see that the back part of each flower bears a strongly curving "spur," where nectar might be stored, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fe.jpg

This is CAMPYLOCENTRUM MICRANTHUM, sometimes called the Fairy Bentspur, found from southern Mexico and the Caribbean south through Central America to Amazonian Brazil. It needs more rain than the central and northern Yucatan affords, but does turn up in the extreme southern Yucatan Peninsula, where it's the rainiest.

Though Fairy Bentspurs seem to be fairly common in its range, not much information is available about it, other than it likes partially shaded forest. I suspect that my Landandon campground host had hung the orchid where it was, since I couldn't find it in the nearby woods, and other orchids definitely had been planted in trees not far away.

*****

HAREFOOT MUSHROOM INKY-CAPS APPEAR
Soil around the hut is thin to nonexistent, with white limestone bedrock emerging here and there. To make flowerbeds, I form circles using rocks or sections of cut tree trunks as frames, and inside the frames dump loose soil contributed by the local pocket gophers, or Tuzas, who throw up nice hills of it next to their entry holes. Into this dirt I mix lots of organic matter, mainly tree leaves and small, fallen woody twigs collected by the gardeners wanting to keep the Hacienda's lawns "neat." Therefore, I wasn't surprised when one morning in a new bed, among seedling cosmoses, overnight there had appeared clusters of hundreds of white, shaggy little items mostly less than half an inch tall (5mm). You can see a typical cluster beneath a cosmos seedling at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cp.jpg

I wasn't surprised to see these because they were clearly young mushroom fruiting bodies. and we've seen this kind of mushroom many times in many places. They belong to a group of species known as inky caps. This specific kind of inky cap lives on decaying leaves, stems and such in soil, and I water the bed every day, keeping the soil moist, so this cosmos bed with all its mixed-in leaf litter just couldn't have been a better place for them.

Inky caps pop up overnight, form mushrooms by early morning, and melt back to an inky goo by nightfall. I was going to be in the hut all day, so I resolved to photograph the mushroom's entire growth and melting-back process.

By 9AM the cluster of immature fruiting bodies shown in the above photo had matured into a pretty gathering of delicately elegant mature mushrooms mostly about 2½ inches tall (6cm), as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612co.jpg

A view from below a mushroom cap shows the gills fringed with black spores, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cn.jpg

In that picture you can see that in some places the gills already appear to be starting to melt, turning into spore-rich "ink." A view of the top of a mushroom's cap is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cm.jpg

An important field mark to note in that picture is that the entire cap is covered with silvery hairs. That helps us pen down the species. In the above photo's lower, right corner, note the stem atop which the cap already has melted away, leaving just a gob of black, sticky stuff. By 11AM, already all our inky caps had passed their peak and were fading fast, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612cl.jpg

By 2PM mostly just their wilted stems were left, the caps now hardly distinguishable from the dark soil, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612ck.jpg

When at 4PM I passed on my way to give the 4 o'clock walk in the garden, it was hard to find any trace of the mushrooms.

I'm calling this COPRINOPSIS LAGOPUS, or at least a member of the Coprinopsis lagopus complex. Because the young fruiting bodies vaguely resemble the fuzzy paw of a white rabbit, sometimes the species is called Harefoot Mushroom. The species is common throughout much of the planet, wherever woody debris is decomposing. Often it's seen in urban settings on wood chips, yard litter and such.

But, there are many similar, tiny inky cap species. Some live on different organic matter -- dung, straw, sand, heaps of grass, etc. -- but some also arise from organic woody debris, and those can be told from Coprinopsis lagopus only through the microscope. One common and widespread lookalike occurring in similar habitats differs in its smaller, less elliptical (American football-shaped) spores.

Therefore, the name Coprinopsis lagopus is just a good guess, since it seems to be the most commonly encountered species, plus mushrooms like ours have been called Coprinopsis lagopus for a long time, so any expert looking for information on members of the complex in our part of the world will know to search on that name.

The job of Coprinopsis lagopus in Nature is to break down woody tissue, making its nutrients more available to other organisms. The broken-down cellulose becomes organic matter in the soil, which helps the soil hold both water and nutrients better. Coprinopsis lagopus is a worthy and welcome citizen of my flowerbed ecosystem.

By the way, the inky caps' process of dissolving into a black ink is called "deiquescence."

*****

THE RAINY SEASON BEGINS
The Maya tell me that in the old days the rainy season started in May, sometimes as early as April. Over they years I've developed the notion that it begins in the latter half of May. If that's so, in our area it arrived a little late this year, our first puddle-making rain after many rainless weeks coming late last Tuesday when we got half an inch of rain (13mm), then on Wednesday another 13/16ths of an inch (21mm).

Above we noted the Black Vulture on the birdbath, the picture taken the last day of the dry season, last Monday, when everything really was suffering from the drought. After the Tuesday afternoon rain, on Wednesday morning the birdbath the vulture had visited was just slopping over with frog eggs, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fg.jpg

Notice how eggs form an almost continuous film over the water, and have splashed onto the rock and the birdbath's rim. They'd washed over the rim, onto the ground. One imagines a frog orgy Tuesday night. A close-up of eggs floating at the water's surface is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612fh.jpg

Not just frogs welcomed the rain. Tuesday afternoon as raindrops continued to fall a Squirrel Cuckoo, who often visits the birdbath to drink, despite being a relatively shy bird, came to the hut at his usual time but this time didn't descend to drink. He was soaked, and by the way he preened in the rain, fluffed out his feathers so the rain could reach his skin, shook himself and scratched and looked around just getting wetter and wetter, he seemed to enjoy it. You can see him perched inside the stickery stems of a Gaumer's Acacia at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/16/160612rn.jpg

*****

CIRCLES WITHIN CIRCLES
A concept that throughout my life has helped me think about "things" is that of "Circles within Circles." The concept conceives of the Universe as a circle, with all things in it -- from lizards and magnetic fields to ideas and emotions -- as being reducible, conceptually, to circles. Then the circles can then be thought about abstractly.

Possibly all of the near-infinitude of circles within the Universe Circle have other circles inside them, and other circles within those circles, on and on, plus many circles overlap to lesser or greater degrees. Keeping straight in our minds which circles are within which can be important. For instance, here's an example of how confusing a circle's relative status to other circles can produce possibly catastrophic results:

There are those who say that if something is of critical environmental value, such as drinkable water, the free market system, by its very nature, will recognize the water's value and protect it appropriately. Do away with environmental laws, and the free market system will protect what really needs to be protected.

But, the free market system is one of many circles within the circle of human economic theories, and economic theories make up a circle within the circle of human concepts, and the human concepts circle is a circle within human mentality, and humanity itself is a circle within the animal kingdom, which is a circle within the circle of living things, which itself is a circle within the biosphere, on and on. We've skipped lots of circles-within-circles but this is just an outline.

Compare the deeply buried free market circle with that of the circle of Earth's drinkable water. The circle of the Earth's drinkable water presses up snugly inside the prime planetary biosphere circle itself, so snugly that Life on Earth is impossible without the circle of Earth's drinkable water. It's hardly a step at all from the outer circle to the inner one, but remember how many steps were taken from "free market system" to "biosphere."

In the broad view of things the free market system circle is such a lower-level entity that it gets lost among such other subsidiary circles as the circle of squirrel courtship behavior, the circle of snowflake formation at a given temperature, and the circle of children's fairy tales.

The free market system circle is defined by money flow, so the wisdom of that circle goes only so far as it can relate to money. The wisdom of the free market system proposes that if we run out drinkable water, people will pay to have polluted water filtered, or have it distilled from seawater. Those without money... are losers.

In profound contrast, the wisdom of the circle of the Earth's biosphere proposes that all living things should have their share of drinkable water. We just have to not destroy what we've been given, is all.

But, the human mind finds it hard to keep straight how all these circles relate to one another, resulting in delusional ideas about many things. The situation is made dicier because the human mind really wants to believe simple, pretty notions that assure us that everything will work out in the end, with very little effort or even attention on our part, if we just believe, if we just have faith.

The Circle within Circles concept helps us sort out the true value and relative importance of things.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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