Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 15, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve, QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

Early that morning, high up the scrubby slope west of town, I heard drawn-out, nasal ZWEEIRS amidst varied twittering warbles: A strikingly yellow-bottomed, black-topped, male Lesser Goldfinch in full courtship plumage (black-backed form) accompanied his somewhat less stunningly colored mate inside a kitchen-size thicket of candelabra-like organ-pipe cacti. The birds feasted on the cacti's globular, red, sublimely spiny fruits.

Before I could get into position with my binoculars to see how the birds were handling such spiny fruits, they'd flown away. I could see clearly, though, that nearly all the mature fruits had been split open. The goldfinches had been feeding in the fruits' open wounds, but I couldn't be sure whether the goldfinches or something else had made the deep gashes.

A couple of weeks earlier I'd been riding with my friend Pancho as we'd passed a cluster of organ pipes. Pancho had smacked his lips and said it wouldn't be long until the "pitayas" would be ripe. They were ripe now and the goldfinches were eating them. I'm sure Pancho could have knocked one or two pitaya fruits down and expertly opened them so that the glistening, crimson, strawberry-like flesh could be eaten without getting spines in our fingers and lips, but I was alone that day and I knew from experience to not even try.

People here call all large cacti with definite trunks and upward rising arms órganos, (organ-pipe cacti), and this was one of those. I'm pretty sure it was the endemic STENOCEREUS QUERETAROENSIS. You can see this cactus's almost-ripe, baseball-size fruit below:


I continued up the slope, the rest of the morning finding nothing more to report on than the fact that everything is in a stunned state of suspended animation waiting for the rainy season, which again this year is coming late. Descending the slope in late morning, the entire valley silent in the stinging heat, I decided to rest near the organ pipes, hoping for a better view of the goldfinches eating their pitayas.

The Goldfinches didn't return but for half an hour two Broad-billed Hummingbirds zipped about the cactus copse dipping their red, black-tipped bills into the pitaya gashes as if the pitaya were flowers, not fruits. Instead of pecking at the flesh they appeared to sip the sweet juice glistening on the exposed pitaya flesh. The birds were mostly green and black and the male's gorget shimmered iridescently blue. How pretty it all was, the birds, the green cactuses soaring around them, the red fruits, the blue sky beyond...

The hummingbirds competed for the sweet pitaya juice with honeybees and flies. In fact, often a hummer would hover before a gashed pitaya a few seconds but then move on, there being too many honeybees clustered there with no inclination to move on.

A Brown-crested Flycatcher glided in and staged a foray or two past fly-orbited pitayas. A White-winged Dove on whistling wings fluttered onto a branch and parked himself so that nothing showed through a slit between two órgano arms but his glassy, amber-colored eye surrounded by a blue goggle looking exactly at me.

So, here's how it seemed to me: That morning, that entire slope was so dry it was next to dead, awaiting rain. But there was an oasis of life in one tiny spot, right there where a handful of organ pipes grew. But those cacti wouldn't have meant anything if their pitayas hadn't been gashed. Had the goldfinches cut the fruits open, or woodpeckers, or maybe bats or rodents in the night?

What a thing, that so much life depended on a few gashed pitayas!