Backyard Nature Yucatan Peninsula
Issued from Diego Nuñez's office, Río Lagartos, Yucatán, Mexico
November 6, 2006
FROM EKBALAM TO RÍO LAGARTOS
With my work at Genesis finished, last Wednesday I packed up my backpack, thanked Lee the compound's proprietress for her wonderful hospitality and friendship, and set off hiking northward along my jogging road. What a blast that as I left town, inside a thatch-roofed hut with stick walls, someone was playing Bizet's Theme from Carmen, so I went down the road for a long time whistling that.
By mid morning it was 86°, very humid, and it looked and smelled like rain. Clouds were jagged, dark and threatening, and the wind was up. It was clear there'd be storms before the day was over, but it felt so good being on the road again heading into the unknown that I didn't care -- in fact could only think how nice it'd be that night with raindrops from wet leaves randomly tapping on my tent.
I carried lots of books in an extra suitcase so my load was heavy. By mid afternoon I was soaked with sweat, my muscles ached, and I couldn't resist taking a siesta beneath a certain tree whose dark shadows puddled on my hardly-every-traveled, one-lane gravel trail through the scrub. Leaning against my backpack piled in the middle of the road I snoozed gloriously.
Cold raindrops hitting my face awoke me. I could hear rain coming through the woods and in the sky above me was one mean-looking darkness, with a big blurred spot indicating heavy rain coming my way. I had just enough time to cover my backpack and suitcase with a poncho, and then I stood in the rain just letting it do what it wanted.
Cecropias on their slender trunks lashed in the wind, their umbrella-silhouettes gyrating amidst driving sheets of white rain. The temperature must have dropped 20° in 30 seconds. What a rambunctious symphony I'd awakened to. How sweet the rain running down my face, down my back, into my boots.
It stopped raining just long enough for me to find a spot in the woods for the tent. I set it up with endemic Yucatan Jays razzing me from just a few feet away, got inside, ate a few oily tostados and by then darkness was coming on and crickets were singing in the returning rain.
What a night of blackness and profound sleep that was.
The next day I reached the end of the trail, caught a bus north, and ended up in Río Lagartos, the main town in the 150,000-acre (60,348 hectares) Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Note that the town's name begins with "Río," which means river, while the biosphere's name begins with "Ría," which means "estuary." The reserve is famous as the most important of all flamingo nesting grounds, and as an overwintering site for an enormous number of migrant waterfowl. The town is a fishing village occupying a small peninsula jutting into the half-mile-across, salty estuary separating the mainland from a 50- mile-long, slender, mangrove-encrusted barrier island. You can get a fix on the area at www.riolagartosadventures.com
I arrive in town at the end of a cloudburst. About half the streets are flooded with ankle-deep and deeper water, so kids on bikes are having a field day splashing through them. I give up trying to keep my boots dry and just wade down their centers. Diego Nuñez, a self-taught birder- extraordinaire and ecotour guide is expecting me. He leads me to my room, which also is flooded, but it can be dried out.
My task here is to help Diego develop ecotour infrastructure. I'm to work with him and his cooperative of ecotour guides, all local fishermen who take boatloads of visitors into the mangroves, the main attraction being the flamingos.
Thus begins my current adventure.
A WALK AROUND RÍO LAGARTOS
On the southeastern side of town mangrove swamp comes right up to the corner of the last building. The swamp looks ragged, with lots of dead stumps and snags. That's the result of Hurricane Isidore's 2002 visit. I asked Diego how a hurricane could damage tough plants so well adapted to submergence in salt water and he jumped from our table at the Restaurante LA TORREJA and showed how high on the walls Isidore's water got, with the family huddled on the building's second story, and he showed with goggling eyes and rotating arms how water currents scoured and twisted and churned until all leaves, all buds, all soft branches were torn away, then days-long winds blew hot salt-spray encrusting the black snags with thick gray salt, for days and days... You can see what the mangroves are like four years later, with the afternoon storm prettily looming in the south athttp://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106m.jpg.
From there on the southeast side of Río Lagartos you can look back across a curve in the shoreline and see the eastern side of the town's peninsula. Note how low and strung-out the town is. Those are overwintering Royal Terns in the foreground, their heads pointed into the wind: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106t.jpg.
Nowadays boats here are equipped with long bamboo poles both fore and aft, as you can see in a pretty picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106b.jpg. The explanation for the poles is that currently it's octopus season, and everyone is fishing for octopi. The way it works is that you tie a crab to a string and affix the string to the bamboo pole. Each pole has four crab-ended strings hanging from it. At sea the fisherman watches the strings. When one goes taut, then probably an octopus has claimed a crab. Pull on the string, the octopus thinks the crab is getting way, and renews his efforts to hang on. In such a way, without a hook, the fisherman pulls in his octopus. This area exports lots of octopi to Japan and other countries. I can tell you that octopi are quite majestic in the water but when they are all puddled in a bucket or plastic bag, like a lot of curdled, brown Jello, they look pretty pathetic.
Río Lagartos itself is as colorful, odoriferous and laid-back as it can be. If you don't believe the colorful and laid-back parts just look at the picture with a dog sunning on some blue steps (Again, thanks to Jerry in Mississippi for bestowing a digital camera on me) athttp://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106d.jpg.
My daily runs are important to me, so I'm pleased to show you what a nice jogging road I have. Each morning as the sky is getting a bit milky with the day's first light I jog along the broad seaside boulevard at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106j.jpg .
Finally, here's a nice, moody picture of the cemetary down at the end of the street I'm staying on: http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061106c.jpg
TWO MINDS FOR THE ROAD
Wednesday as I set myself upon Ek Balam's north-running road toward anxious thunderheads and through wet-choking perfumes of flowers, crushed grass and mud my head swam in two oceans.
First, the ocean of being rootless, of being unsure exactly where I was going, no idea where I'd sleep that night, feeling detached from all the world's sanctioned currents, a human for whom humanity has no definite use or pressing concern.
Second, I was feeling the seed in my brain that lately has been hardening and composing itself more beautifully day by day, the thing hinted at by this clumsy and deficient notion: That all us living things are nerve endings for the Creator, who, through what we feel and experience, explores and discovers Her own worth and beauty. And I am more than happy, for Her and myself as well, to FEEL what's at hand.
Suspended in the weblike tension between these two headsets I went onto that road with salty sweat stinging my eyes and I found myself exulting in heat, sweat and sting. After some hours my body ached from the heavy load and I found myself inordinately pleased with having a body robust enough to feel and endure it.
My mind, lonely and detached beneath a sky about to rain horizon to horizon and me with no shelter at hand, soared like a spaceship halfway to the Universe's edge, everything around seen by me for the first time and I was filled with the sense of all things evolving, coming together, realizing itself before my very eyes.
My mind glided, beholding, FEELING for the Creator, feeding what I saw and felt with great gusto into the Universal Central Nervous System, helped along by silent prayers of thanks, thanks for the boiling sky, thanks for the rampant green growth and its photosynthetic poetry, the humid and perfumed air, the vultures in the sky, the heat, the unexpected nice touch of Bizet's Carmen Theme from a thatch-roofed hut, and this body that just goes on and on, so far...
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,
MY MORNING WALK
Though Río Lagartos offers all you could want in color, friendliness and tropical musicality and exoticism, in the end it's still a congested little town crammed onto a small peninsula jutting into the estuary, and I still have hermit, country tendencies. Therefore, each morning, first thing after my run, I take a long walk through the mangroves.
At first glance the road, the estuary and the mangroves look just as they did the day before. Once I pay attention to which species are present and what those species are doing, however, big differences become apparent. I haven't been here long enough to recognize cycles but I assume that if I should stay awhile it'd be the cycles that would attract me.
Maybe on a certain day, perched atop a former pier's legs emerging from the water, there'll be a pure flock of Royal Terns. Then the next day maybe about a third of the flock will be composed of Sandwich Terns, with a Common Tern or two as well. Then the next day it may be all Royal Terns again.
It's similar to how most of the time you only see small, local fishing vessels anchored offshore but then one morning you get up and there are larger, different- looking ships out there from ports all along the Yucatan coast. This happened last week, and at dusk I enjoyed sitting on the storm wall watching the crews on those usually-hangdog-looking ships fixing barbeque-like suppers on their open decks, and sometimes piling into rowboats and going visiting neighboring crews. I was told that those ships were riding out a passing storm I saw no indication of.
Maybe my pier-leg tern population fluctuations reflect similar big events I can't detect. Or, maybe the fluctuations are just random. In the end, each pier-leg gets its tern, and on a certain day if a tern can't find a perch it just goes someplace else, and this happens no matter how majestic the events of broader workings.
In the mangroves here, these are birds you can depend on seeing every day: Little Blue Herons, Tri-colored Herons, Snowy Egrets, Great Egrets, White Ibises, Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, Yellow-crowned Night Herons, Semipalmated Plovers, Spotted Sandpipers and Willets. Sometimes species show up not seen on days before. One day it was Least Sandpipers -- dozens of them all over the place mingling with Semipalmated Plovers as they daintily and nervously waded in the swamp's shallow water, jabbing their short, thin bills vertically into the alga-matted mud below.
Earlier I've reported how, inland, waves of migrant species, particularly overwintering warblers, appear and disappear through the season. I assume the same thing is happening with wetland migrants among the mangroves.
Speaking of mangroves, I've fixed up a nice page explaining why they're so important, diverse and fragile, plus you can see pictures of the four mangrove species any decent mangrove in this part of the world is supposed to have. You can take a look at the new page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mangrov2.htm.
Those Least Sandpipers amaze me. Actually they're not very flashy birds, especially nowadays wearing their drab, brownish-gray winter plumage. They're only about 4-¾ inch long -- half an inch shorter than a House Sparrow. You can see a small flock at http://www.monterey-bay.net/birds/least_sandpipers.htm.
What amazes me about them is that they nest in a fairly small part of Alaska and Canada's northernmost coastline, yet during the winter they spread over an enormous area, from the southern US and the West Coast all the way to Peru and central Brazil. Moreover, throughout their winter distribution area they're often pretty common. The summer nesting area seems impossibly small for producing so many birds for such a large and densely populated overwintering zone.
I read that Least Sandpipers occur in Mexico from mid- July through May, which is 10-½ months. That doesn't seem to give them much time for nesting. However, in the far north they don't have much time.
Trying to fit together in my mind how all these summer and winter maps, and arrival dates and departure dates relate, I visualize waves of these little birds converging on their northern nesting grounds en masse, creating a veritable local blizzard of Least Sandpipers, then there's a rush to get through nesting and fledging, and finally a rush to leave, maybe as the first snows fall.
Why don't Least Sandpipers breed along the US Gulf Coast, or here, instead of so very far north? I can't see that the stuff they'd peck from tidal basins along the Gulf Coast in summer would be much different from what they get now, here. One thinks in terms of their nesting so far north to escape competition for resources from other birds, but if escaping competition is such a concern then why do such huge numbers concentrate in such a small nesting area?
Who knows why Least Sandpipers are as they are? Maybe the last ice age or a now-extinct competitor is responsible for the species' migratory dynamics, or maybe it all can be boiled down to a mathematical formula showing that their migration strategy is the most energetically efficient for them. Eventually someone will figure it out.
The single road running into Río Lagartos comes up exactly from the south. Houses at the edge of town extend into the mangroves, at high tide having water lapping against their foundations. South of the mangroves there's an amazing transition zone where you can see glossy- leafed, sprawling, wetland mangroves standing next to scrubby, spiny, arid-land plants typical of inland northern Yucatan.
What's happening is that wherever saltwater occasionally floods the almost-flat, very-slightly undulating land, even if only during the rarest high tide, mangrove gets established. But just beyond that high-tide mark -- and that can be only a couple of feet away -- then the vegetation mainly reflects climate, not tides or soil salinity. And the northern Yucatan's climate produces scrub. You can see how deserty the vegetation can look, even when standing only a few feet from mangrove swamp, athttp://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061113s.jpg.
In the above picture I think the broadleaf bush with a pale, semi-succulent trunk is a Jatropha, possibly J. gaumeri. The grayish-green, long, slender, leafless stems are Pedilanthuses, probably P. tithymaloides. You may recognize a young Agave, and I assume that the arching, four-ribbed cactus is Acanthocereus pentagonus.
This glimpse of the scrub zone's exotic nature may help you imagine my frustration that no field guides are available to help me identify plants here. The problem is especially aggravating because so many of these arid-land species are endemic -- found nowhere else on Earth. Plant endemism has been estimated to reach nearly 10% of the Yucatan's Dry Forest vegetation. Northwestern Yucatan, the most arid part, is home to 10 of the Peninsula's 14 endemic cacti species.
The other day I was walking along the road running north to Río Lagartos, passing through the scrub zone, when Diego pulled up beside me in his car.
"Want to see Mammillaria gaumeri," he asked, knowing full well I'd be thrilled. Mammillaria gaumeri is one of those rare, narrowly endemic species that would delight any naturalist.
We found it growing not 50 feet from the highway, right along a trail Diego uses for his birding walks. You can see my picture of the ten-inch-high specimen at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mam-gaum.jpg.
I have no way of knowing for sure that this really is the endemic Mammillaria gaumeri since it's not flowering and I don't know what distinguishes the species from other Mammillarias. A specialist told Diego it was Mammillaria gaumeri and now Diego has told me. I'm sure it's a Mammillaria, and the Flora of Quintana Roo -- the state just east of here -- lists only one Mammillaria species for that state, and that's gaumeri, so probably it is.
Mammillarias are easy to identify as a group because their more or less spherical cactus bodies are composed of many protruding green bumps -- like a lot of green chili peppers packed together so their roundish bottoms face outward. The botanist who named the genus was thinking in terms of lots of round teats, thus the name Mammillaria, from the Latin "mamila," meaning "nipple- like."
If you want to learn about just one, easy-to-recognize cactus group, the genus Mammillaria makes a good choice. A website for learning all about the genus is at http://www.mammillarias.net/index.php.
By the way, here in the northern Yucatan I'm constantly running into unusual plants bearing the species name "gaumeri." Earlier we had Jatropha gaumeri. "Gaumeri" is the Latinized form of the name Gaumer. George Franklin Gaumer (1850-1929) was a US citizen residing in the Yucatan from 1884 to his death, and he collected a remarkable number of rare and endemic species, which he sent to specialists for identification or, if they were unknown to science, for naming. Many of those specialists named the undescribed plants after their discoverer, Gaumer. There's Acacia gaumeri, Caesalpinia gaumeri, Thevetia gaumeri, Vitex gaumeri, and many more.
What a heck of a lot of fun that guy must have had as he explored a land basically unknown to biologists!
GIANT LEATHER FERNS
South of town, waterlogged mangrove doesn't always give way just to thin-soiled, cactus-rich, desert scrub. In some places mangrove yields to grassy marshes -- clumps of grass rooted in mud, with soil between clumps either submerged beneath saltwater or soaked. Often, even in this important, officially recognized "Biosphere Reserve," cattle graze these marshes.
Sometimes Giant Leather Ferns, ACROSTICHUM DANAEFOLIUM, emerge from the soggy grassland. Taking in their effect, one might say "emerge like a Viking on a beach." In fern terms, these are huge, coarse-looking things giving the impression of having been rooted exactly where they are since dinosaur times. You can see one such fern, with fronds soaring nearly nine feet (2.5 m) above the muck at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/acrostic.jpg.
In the above picture the inset on the right shows a close-up of the fern's fertile pinnae. There you can see that this species produces its dusty, cinnamon-colored spores not in dainty clusters of spore-producing sporangia, like the North's little Woodsias and Shield Ferns, but rather they are randomly and abundantly spread across the entire lower surfaces of fertile pinnae.
Actually there are two species of Acrostichum fern found in places like ours, and I bet the other one, A. aureum, called Mangrove Fern, Golden Leather Fern, Swamp Fern and a host of other names, is found here, too. The "Flora of Quintana Roo" lists both species.
Speaking of that "Flora of Quintana Roo," which was written in Spanish and gives plant names in Latin, sometimes when you know what a plant's family or genus is it's helpful to have a list of species known to occur in the families and genera of the area you're studying, or next to. For example, I knew from experience that I had a Pedilanthus in the Mammillaria habitat shown above, but I had no idea which Pedilanthus it was. The "Flora of Quintana Roo" listed only Pedilanthus tithymaloides for that contiguous state, it looks like that species when I Google it, so a good guess is that what's shown in my picture is that species.
The "Flora of Quintana Roo" can be downloaded at http://biblio68.ibiologia.unam.mx/FullText/lfl2.html.
SEAGULL-EATING PEREGRINE FALCON
Friday I heard from my old friend Sandro. When he needs money he signs on as a crewmember on a big fishing trawler in northern waters. He wrote that, apparently because of global warming, during this last fishing season his ship had fished exceptionally far north -- "about 60/90 miles off Cape Navarin Russia just north of the peninsula of Kamtchaka."
Then he told me how one day the crew started talking about "some kind of hawk or a falcon eating seagulls on the bow... I observed the pajarito everytime I had a chance, and boy let me tell you that he kept a full belly, all he did was hunting and go eat on top of one of the spare nets that we had on the bow, this lasted for about 5 days and then he left."
Sandro managed to get a snapshot of the seagull-eater smugly perched on a heap of netting, and he sent the picture to me.
It was an immature Peregrine Falcon, an Arctic subspecies. I showed the picture to Diego, Río Lagartos's master bird-guide, expressing my surprise that any raptor would eat a seagull. Diego said that Peregrine Falcons overwinter here, he's already begun seeing this year's crop, and he's seen them attack seagulls here.
"In mid-air he hits into the gull with his shoulder, then before the gull can get its balance the falcon has circled back and put its talons into it."
I've seen Peregrin Falcons referred to as "the planet's fastest animal," and I've seen what a blur they are when they pass by, so I have no doubt that they could take advantage of a clumsy old seagull suddenly shouldered out of the sky.
For me the most attention-getting fish easily and habitually seen almost anytime I go walking along the storm wall or look into the shallow waters between boats tied up along shore is the Checkered Puffer, SPHOEROIDES TESTUDINEUS. You can see one, maybe 10 inches long, here.
That image shows a heavily spotted, big-headed, thick-bodied fish with bulging, froglike eyes. The fish in the picture is lying on the bottom, but the ones I see are always unhurriedly swimming along, so exposed to the world you have to guess that they possess some kind of secret weapon. I have no fish books so to get a name I had to ask a kid.
"Pez Globo," the boy said, absolutely amazed that a huge, bald gringo would simply walk up and ask something like that. The name means "Balloon Fish," and I said I couldn't see anything about it that reminded me of a balloon.
"When the fish gets scared, he blows himself up, all at once, like this, a GLOBO..."
Later I spoke with a fisherman and asked him whether that clumsy looking fish happening to be swimming by really was a Pez Globo.
"Yes, and we sell them to the Japanese. The Japanese eat everything from the water other people don't eat, even these, which are so poisonous. Yes, POISONOUS. You have to prepare the fish very carefully because if poison from the poison gland gets onto what you eat it'll kill you. In Japan they make people who order it sign a legal paper saying they've been warned and if they get sick or die the restaurant isn't liable, and still people want to eat it!"
The fish's poison is one known technically as a saxitoxin. In some places the fish has been used to kill dogs and cats and in Haiti it's been documented as an ingredient in a potion concocted to turn people into zombies. If you want follow up on that, go to http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/caribarch/zombi.htm.
So, being able to blow yourself into a balloon too big to fit between a predator's jaws, and having a poison gland that can kill enemies or maybe turn them into zombies -- no wonder this fish of all the estuary's species feels so at ease that it can swim in broad daylight in shallow water next to shore!
Up North English speakers call the fish Checkered Puffer, and the species is found all along the Gulf Coast and a good deal north along the Atlantic Coast. Southward it extends all the way to Brazil.
I've only seen Checkered Puffers try to catch immature, big-eyed shrimp moving along the storm wall but I read that the species eats bivalves, gastropods, foraminiferans and several other invertebrates, including it's main meal, crusty crustaceans like my shrimp, which it crushes with powerful teeth.
BAKING TAMALES IN A PIT
On Thursday morning I was walking to the famous freshwater swimming hole just east of town when I saw several men very busy around a large hole in the ground maybe 20 feet from the mangroves, and with a good view of the estuary to the north. Smoke rose from the pit. I figured I was seeing the traditional method of preparing a special, oversized tamale in earthen pits, so I just had to walk over and make the acquaintance of these men. When I got there I could see that they'd just gotten a small fire going and were about to add larger chunks of dried wood.
"Once we have a big fire, then we pile on these rocks and make them very hot. Right now the señora is at home making tamales. Later today when the rocks are as hot as they can be we'll bring the tamales and spread them over the rocks, and cover them to keep the heat from escaping. About sundown, then we'll come and remove the tamales."
I asked if I could come, too, and see what it all looked like.
I arrived as the sun was setting and an older couple and a young man were just removing the palm fronds and a large, quadrangular, metal plate from above the pit. Actually the pit had been fairly well camouflaged and I wondered what might have happened if I'd been there chasing a bird, not paying much attention to where I stepped, and suddenly made the acquaintance of that hot little pit. Anyway, you can see how it was immediately after the metal plate was removed, with the plate lying in the background and the pit absolutely crammed with tamales wrapped in palm fronds and baked to perfection at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061113t.jpg.
Another shot showing how they also were baking "camotes," or sweet potatoes, in aluminum foil, as well as some hard-shelled squash, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061113u.jpg.
The palm fronds wrapped around the tamales are similar to thatch fronds used for roofing buildings, except much smaller. Thatch Palms have regular trunks but these are a trunkless, palmetto-like species, maybe Thrinax radiata.
I was offered one of these special, oversized tamales, which the locals call "chachacua" in Yucatec Maya, and then there was the awkwardness of explaining my vegetarianism. However, I still walked away with a fine, foil-wrapped camote.
The wandering sprits then took their revenge on me for my culture having made the Day of the Dead -- which these chachacua were being baked to celebrate the end of -- into something as void of meaning as Halloween. For, I was so pleased with my very hot sweet potato that I bit off too much. Somehow it didn't burn my mouth at all but when it hit my stomach is caused a burning pain more intense than I've experienced in years. And there was nothing to drink. I tried to induce saliva and swallow, but of course my mouth had gone dry. It hurt so badly that I actually started running toward the estuary with plans to drink what I could of that sewage-rich brew, and I'd have done so if the storm wall's top hadn't been so high above the water.
In the end I just lay atop the wall until the misery passed and it was dark, and then I ate my camote more intelligently. From the grimmace on my face passersby might have judged me a philosopher wrestling with decades-accumulated Weltschmerz, but, really, there was nothing going on there but a sweet-potato bellyache.
I don't hear of things like this happening to other 59-year-old people. Sometimes I wonder how I've made it this far.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,
Tuesday morning I was walking along the road to Las Coloradas when movement caught my eye in the weeds, and there was a rustling sound. At first my mind couldn't digest what I then saw and heard. The impression was of grass smeared heavily with something greasy, crumby and Tabasco-sauce red. The movement was diffuse and uncoordinated. There were fluttering sounds, and sounds like cellophane being rustled.
This disorientation lasted only a second or two but it was creepy enough to do for a long time. I took a picture of what I was looking at -- it's a 100 kb file so it may load slowly -- so see how long it takes your mind to make sense of it. The image is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120g1.jpg.
I got closer, and details emerged. Grasshoppers, millions of them... A picture taken as close as I could get shows some at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120g3.jpg.
Long-time readers may recall my December 5th, 2004 Newsletter when I reported that "a whole black cloud of grasshoppers (in the sky) was moving from east to west, a fast-moving cloud maybe 150 feet thick and a quarter mile wide, a dark river of grasshoppers stretching from horizon to horizon." You can read that whole report at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/locusts.htm.
I think that Tuesday I saw what could possibly be the beginning of something like that 2004 cloud of locusts.
In the close-up picture linked to above notice that though the grasshoppers themselves are fairly large their wings are only beginning to develop. The grasshoppers in the picture couldn't fly because their wings were only a third or a fourth as long as they'll eventually grow. In the picture, the wings are black with yellow rims.
Tuesday's mess of grasshoppers extended about 30 feet up the road and maybe ten feet into the grass. Across the road lay another concentration, that one a little longer and maybe 20 feet deep. Beyond these two well defined populations I didn't see a single other grasshopper.
Clearly there weren't enough grasshoppers here to form a cloud of locusts. However, if many other gatherings such as these dot the countryside then in a couple of weeks -- in early December, as in 2004 -- who knows whether or not the dark, sinuous clouds will rise into the sky again?
On this particular morning walk a new silhouette appeared atop a jagged snag of hurricane-splintered Red Mangrove. He was some kind of raptor, about the size of a Red- tailed Hawk, but perching upright. When I began walking closer he got spooked and flew off, keeping low and using quick, shallow wingbeats. Then I heard it, a not-too-loud but clearly nasal "Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah... "
One of The Three Stooges used to laugh like that, and here that laugh came at me on shimmering heat through the mangroves. It was the Laughing Falcon, HERPETOTHERES CACHINNANS. You can see what a distinctive bird he is at http://www.badboybirding.com/LAFA_05062002.htm.
My field guide says that one of this bird's calls, when engaged in dueting with another bird, sounds as if he's "breaking into maniacal laughter." I've not heard that one, but I suspect that its effect in a mid-afternoon mangrove would be worth experiencing.
One curiosity about Laughing Falcons is that despite their being falcons they don't soar. They like to keep close to the land. I also suspect that they like the subterfuge of perching at the tips tree snags and poles so as to make themselves look like continuations of the things they're sitting on.
Laughing Falcons are non-migratory and fairly commonly seen in a variety of habitats all the way from Mexico to Peru and northern Argentina.
Most days when I hike the highway across the mangroves south of town when I pass the semi-submerged grasslands usually I see a little flock of birds fly from one small, silvery pond to another. During the brief flight there's a pretty eruption of brightly yellow wings outlined in black, then upon landing the forms resolve into rich chestnut-red bodies edged in black, punctuated here and there with small outbreaks of bright yellow. What I'm seeing is Northern Jacanas, JACANA SPINOSA.
Jacanas are among my favorite birds, not only because of their pleasing colors but because I still remember my astonishment the first time I saw them from a bus window down in Tabasco south of here. It was one of those ancient, rickety buses they used to have, the riding atop of which was more civilized than riding inside, but that day I was inside because we'd just had a cloudburst and the land was gloriously, revolutionarily flooded.
This first jacana I ever saw was walking atop lily pads in a marsh. When the bird lifted his foot to pass from one pad to the next, I saw something that made me hit my forehead against the window glass trying to get a closer look: The bird's toes were simply outrageously long. They were long beyond all sense of proportion or apparent rationality. The bird seemed to possess feet constructed for another, much larger species. You can see the bird and his wonderful toes on a rather slowly loading page at http://www.tierradeaves.com/fran/galeria/DSCN6322.htm.
When I finally got to watch jacanas living their lives in their normal habitat the sense of those outlandish feet began revealing itself.
For, walking atop lily pads can be problematical. The problem is that if you weigh much more than a sparrow -- and jacanas are much larger than sparrows, 8-9 inches long -- the lily pads sink beneath you. Even from the bus from which I saw my first jacana I could see that as the bird walked from atop one pad to the next he was always leaving a sinking pad.
Having very long toes distributes weight across a broader surface area, thus focusing less weight on the pad immediately below you, so maybe it'll sink slower, or not sink at all. Long toes make sense for waterlily-pad walkers.
Northern Jacanas occur from Mexico and the Caribbean to western Panama, eating mostly aquatic insects, small fish, and miscellaneous vegetable matter. They are non-migratory, and build flimsy platform nests of leaves and grass on floating vegetation.
NERITES IN THE MANGROVES
The other day Tom Eichhorst in New Mexico wrote to comment on something I'd written. At the end of his letter his signature revealed that he was the Editor of the American Conchologist, a journal dealing with what most people call seashells. I ended my reply to Tom by saying something like "I wish I had a conchologist down here because I'm seeing a remarkable community of snails or snail-like creatures at the water's edge in the mangroves, and some of the shells are amazingly ornate."
Tom wrote back admitting that he was an expert on just such organisms and he invited me to send photos for identification. Immediately I set off into the mangroves and photographed what I assumed to be at least half a dozen snail species. You can see one such photo at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/vitta_vi.jpg.
The organisms in that photo are submerged in about ¼-inch of clear water (see the fish in the upper, right corner?). Notice how some shells are black with white speckles, others are tan with zigzagging black lines, others are reddish with white dots, some have banding, etc. How many species would you estimate to be there?
Imagine my astonishment when Tom wrote back saying they were ALL "Virgin neritinas," NERITINA VIRGINEA. They are a special kind of snail known as a "nerite," belonging to the Nerite Family, the Neritidae, which embraces over 280 mostly tropical and sub-tropical coastal species. Sharp, closer images of a variety of shell designs are shown at http://microseashell.com/seashell/main/Neritidae/Vitta_virginea.htm.
Tom told me a lot about nerites, including this: They come in male and female organisms, the male having a penis near his right eye and tentacle. Despite their small size (about like peas) traditionally they served as a major food item for indigenous people, and still do in some underdeveloped countries. My Virgin neritinas (not virgins at all) have a life span of only two to three years, though most nerites live about five years, and one has been recorded surviving for over 20 years.
Finally, nerites possess a hard calcium "trap door" or operculum with which they can seal the hole from which their bodies extend from their shells. These doors protect the snails' soft parts, plus our intertidal- dwelling species can use them to seal in water while being exposed on rock surfaces during low tides. They can even slowly release small amounts of water around the operculum's edges to provide evaporative cooling.
Our Virgin neritinas are distributed from along the US Gulf Coast all through the Caribbean and along the South American Atlantic coast to central Brazil. In a paper Tom is about to publish he describes their habitat as "Brackish: on and under stones and vegetation in rivers and streams, especially near the mouth. Not found upstream of a point influenced by high tide or wave action." Mine were in the mangroves where saltwater poured into and out of the swamps through a cement culvert beneath a road.
A NORTE AND A CLAPPER RAIL
Wednesday night a norte, or "norther," blew in bringing rain, cooler temperatures and overcast skies. It was hard to sleep that night not only because of storms but also because men roamed the streets until dawn laughing, joking and good-naturedly cursing at everything that did or didn't move. They were fishermen from other ports who'd come into shelter at Río Lagartos to ride out the storm. At dawn on Thursday the estuary was thick with colorful rust-buckets tugging at their anchor lines and bristling bamboo poles and antennas.
One of our nortes is no more than a cold front that already has passed through North America, crossed the Gulf of Mexico, and now involves us. On internet weather maps it's easy to watch these systems descend upon us. Some peter out before they hit us but others ram on through, all the way into Guatemala to our south.
After so many days of heat and humidity, Thursday's unrelenting, house-corner-whistling wind and cooler temperatures was grand. I walked alongshore beside boats bobbing like corks on the choppy water. I wore a sweater with a hood and was amazed when I saw on my thermometer that it was still 80°. It sure felt blustery, though, almost wintry, to me.
The crazy weather seemed to disorient the birds, or maybe it put them into a festive mood, causing them to behave differently from usual. From my second-story room atop the restaurant I stepped onto the balcony/roof overlooking the estuary and ducked my head when a wind- tossed squadron of Magnificent Frigatebirds and Laughing Gulls flew over not five feet above my head, looking down at me just as I was looking up at them. Alongshore, Ruddy Turnstones swarmed over empty boats like pigeons on park sidewalks, pecking at whatever looked edible. How strange seeing a creature so exquisitely adapted to pebble flipping on rocky beaches lollygagging among an animation of brightly painted boats tied up at shore!
Out in the mangroves, right at the road's edge, I came upon a Clapper Rail with a crab in his beak. It was 2 PM, a time I'd not expect a Clapper Rail to be running around in full view. However, there he was and he just looked at me as his crab frantically wiggled his legs, looked at me fairly unconcernedly, as if all that wind, and all that shaking and whooshing and wave-action and wave-froth tumbling across the road and my unsteadiness in the wind somehow abolished the threat always attending me on normally hot, sunny days.
How nice that every now and then these nortes blow in changing everything around for a few days. I found it very acceptable to be looked at by a Clapper Rail as if I were no more menace than the Red Mangrove heaving next to me.
Clapper Rails are fairly large, gray-brown, short-necked, long-billed and long legged creatures with uselessly short tails, and this one seemed less interested in flying than running through the mud. You can see one at http://www.dbc.uci.edu/~pjbryant/biodiv/birds/gruiformes/220117.htm.
These mangrove swamps fill with salty water at high tide. In fact, there's a large array of evaporation and salt-crystallizing ponds not far to the east, near the town of Las Coloradas, where the Maya have been producing salt for thousands of years.
It's not surprising, then, that some unique-looking plants are found here highly adapted to salty conditions. One of them, a 15-inch high clump of which I pass daily on my morning walks, looks like a big cluster of many- jointed, slender, green, upward-pointed fingers. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/salicorn.jpg.
The plant is SALICORNIA BIGELOVII, sometimes called "glasswort" and sometimes "pickleweed." Pickleweed is a good name because the plant is succulent as a pickle from a jar, and salty-tasting. I just call them salicornias, their scientific name derived from Greek roots meaning "salt-horn," the "horn" being the skin, which can be salty when you lick it.
This plant looks like it's all stem. Its leaves have been reduced to sheathes that don't look leaflike at all, and its tiny flowers remain sunken in the fleshy stem-joints. When you see the swollen stems you can't avoid thinking of the fingers of someone with water-retention problems, who has slipped up and eaten too much salt. Both plants and animals apparently have to deal with a basic fact for living things on Earth: If salt builds up in your system, your body has to gorge itself with water to deal with it.
Salicornias are now placed in the Amaranth Family, which makes sense when you remember that both salicornias and amaranths produce tiny flowers, the ovaries of which generally possess only one compartment producing a single seed.
It was quite something a few years ago when I was a hermit in Mississippi occasionally passing entire months not saying a single word to anyone -- but being connected to the Internet by wires strung through the trees. As I developed the EarthFoot.Org ecotour site I found myself in daily communication with small-scale ecotour operators all over the world. One of my favorites, someone with whom I exchanged letters almost daily for years, until he died, was a young gay man in Bangladesh, Rengyu.
One day he told me that since I tended to sauté so many homegrown vegetables during morning campfire-breakfasts I absolutely needed to grow "Bitter Gourd." Yes they were bitter but if sautéed them correctly with other vegetables they could lend a homey, philosophical flavor pleasing not only to the palate but also to the soul. I acquired seed and what grew from them was what you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/momordic.jpg.
That image shows Balsam-pear, MOMORDICA CHARANTIA, a member of the Cucumber Family. Its yellow flower, visible in the image at the lower right, is similar to that of a cucumber vine. Its pointed but otherwise egg-shaped fruit is brightly yellow-orange and you can see that at maturity it splits open revealing vividly red, glistening seeds. The picture was taken right down the street from where I'm staying now. I've found Balsam-pear growing as a weed throughout the Yucatan.
Many varieties of Balsam-pear -- Rengyu's "Bitter Gourd" -- are available, each with its distinctive flavor. Good cooks specializing in curries grow a variety of them. The bitter, yellow-orange "rind" is what's used, not the pretty seeds.
I find our wild Yucatan fruits disappointingly not-so- bitter. In fact, they are so bland that I don't bother picking them even when I can prepare my morning campfires.
Still, the plant with is eye-catching fruit is worth knowing simply because it's such a conspicuous part of the flora. Of course it's an introduced weed here, an invasive originating in the Old World tropics.
My books report that in the Yucatan people traditionally have used either the root or the leaves for preparing an aphrodisiac, the leaves for a potion against intestinal worms, and the fruit in a cataplasm against itch, sores and burns.
AN ACACIA LIGNOTUBER, AND RUMINATIONS THEREUPON
All along the side of the road crossing the mangroves on the south side of town currently there are knee-high heaps of macheted weeds and bushes maybe fifteen feet apart. Atop one such a heap one day I found the item shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061120l.jpg.
That's a lignotuber. A lignotuber is a tuber-like woody growth some tree and bush species produce. In mature plants the lignotuber is entirely or mostly subterranean. It not only stores food for future growth but also provides a sprouting area for new shoots when aboveground shoots or trunks are destroyed, particularly by fire. My lignotuber lay atop a pile of acacia debris, so I'm guessing it's an acacia lignotuber, possibly of Acacia dolicostachya. On the internet I can confirm that some acacia species do produce lignotubers, but the most famous lignotuber producers are eucalyptus species.
Lignotubers are worth thinking about in themselves, but as I walked on that day I found myself cogitating on the weed-heaps. For, I knew exactly how they'd gotten there.
At the crack of dawn a few days earlier a pickup truck had arrived on that road, several men with machetes had piled out, and they'd spent the day cutting weeds and bushes away from the pavement. You can imagine that this is stooping-over, hard-hacking work that goes on the whole day, and leaves a man exhausted but not very well paid. However, since jobs are hard to find here there are always men ready to sign up.
Why don't the road-maintenance people just use herbicides or mowers the way they do up North? One guy with a big bush-hog could cut in a few minutes what this machete crew takes a whole day to accomplish. Part of the answer is the cost of herbicides, maintenance and spare parts for bush-hogs, but I'm told that the greater answer may be that the government's priority of employing people is greater than its interest in buying herbicides and machine parts.
In other words, the government has made an interesting decision:
It's decided that sometimes an "inefficient" method is preferable to an "efficient" one. Maybe it's even thinking in terms of "the dignifying effects of work."
The fellows here swinging their machetes don't seem to disdain their work just because chemicals or a bush hog might do it faster or more even. They always strike me as proud, lusty guys glad to have a job, and there sure aren't many fat, sick-looking, or depressed ones among them.
My lignotuber train of thought finally brought me to this question: If the hows and whys of "work" sometimes can be defined so that they favor lowly workers instead of industries and investors, then why can't we be similarly insightful and generous when defining what "work" is in the first place?
Our culture wholeheartedly embraces the notion that "work" is what you get paid for.
I regard that as a deadly, short-sighted concept, for it means that many of us end up performing tasks that destroy our environment, our societies, and our own bodies and minds.
Why shouldn't our concept of "work" be rooted instead in this concept:
"Work" is what benefits and nurtures the global Web of Life, which includes humanity in all its dignified and beautiful forms.
If such a definition were accepted, society would reward teachers more than bankers, and biologists more than weapon manufacturers. In fact, some of the people who now are among the most highly paid among us might be sent to jail for destroying so thoughtlessly and self-servingly the limited natural resources we all need for staying alive.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,
This week I decided to wander a couple of days in the mangroves and scrub. My friend Diego drove me to the biosphere reserve's wildlife-viewing tower at Petén Tucha where I'd begin my hike. As we approached the tower we heard a squeal which Ismael instantly recognized as that of a White-tailed Hawk. This is a tropical species distributed from the US border to Argentina, specializing in open savannas and scrub.
Once we'd climbed the tower and had a view over the forest canopy we saw who was squealing. The White-tail had a fledgling lounging in a treetop and when the parent came near carrying food the young one would beg. It looked as if the parent were trying to entice the kid to fly out and try hunting itself but the kid seemed to prefer having its food brought to it.
The parent teased the fledgling awhile, then fed it, then began circling the nest area. While the parent was circling a Turkey Vulture wandered into the vicinity and to my surprise the adult White-tail began dive bombing it. The hawk attacked several times until the vulture sailed away.
"Why on Earth would a hawk be so hard on a poor old vulture?" I asked Diego. To me it was just one of those many questions I scratch my head over every day, then move on. But, Diego, knowing the local birds better and maybe having a sharper eye than I, kept quiet as he binoculared the bird and then finally said:
"No es un zapilote" -- "That's not a vulture."
I was taken aback. Of course it was a vulture, a Turkey Vulture with slender wings tilted in a V, a long, thin tail, a black bird with primaries and tail a little silvery... A common Turkey Vulture like those I've known since I was a kid watching them circling over our soybean fields in Kentucky!
"Look at the legs," he said. "They're orange... "
It was true. Moreover, now that I studied the bird more closely, something just didn't seem right.
Diego was confused, too. He knew about a vulture- mimicking hawk here, the Zone-tailed Hawk, but that bird definitely has white feathers, while this one looked all-black. However, after we'd gone through all the possible species again and again we decided it had to be a Zone-tailed Hawk. For some reason we just weren't seeing the white feathers. Maybe it was the light. Also, my field guide said "...white tail bands of the adult are often partly concealed... " The book went on to say that sometimes Zone-tailed Hawks soar with Turkey Vulture flocks, further enhancing their deception. Zone-tails occur in a variety of arid and semi-arid habitats, wooded to semiopen, from the US border to southern Brazil.
So, the White-tailed Hawk had seen through the Zone- tailed Hawk's deception, even though I was so easily fooled. Moreover, now I know why the White-tailed drove off the Zone-tailed. My field guide says that Zone- taileds eat small mammals, reptiles, and BIRDS. The White-tailed parent hadn't wanted the Zone-tail to eat the squealing fledgling in the tree below.
You can see a White-tailed Hawk at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic30-182-5.html.
A Zone-tailed Hawk looking a little like a vulture is at http://www.schmoker.org/BirdPics/Photos/Raptors/ZTHA12.jpg.
TURTLE IN A FRESHWATER SPRING
That wildlife-viewing tower at Petén Tucha is quite something. It's built of rough poles and it stands beside an acre-size freshwater spring surrounded by saltwater mangroves. During my first night out I erected my tent on the top level, the tent being needed for mosquitoes despite the wind being so gusty that the tower swayed constantly. In the end, I stayed at the tower for 24 hours. Not a single other person visited there. You can see a picture from the top level overlooking the spring at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061127o.jpg.
That picture shows how blue the water is. You don't realize how clear it is until you see bubbles coming up from below, and then you watch them rise for so long that you know that they must have become visible many feet below the water's surface.
I also realized the water's clearness when a turtle swam right below me as I sat with my legs dangling over the top level's floor. Since there are no real rivers in the northern Yucatan, turtles are more uncommon here than you might expect, so I was tickled to be getting such a good view of one. I figured that in this remarkable ecosystem -- a freshwater spring surrounded by saltwater mangroves -- it would surely be an exotic species.
But as soon as that turtle poked his head out of the water I saw it: A conspicuous yellow stripe all along the head and neck, with a dingy red stripe above the eye. I'd seen this turtle before, and I've talked about it in this Newsletter. In March of 2002 I reported on eight of them sunning in a springy pond in Mississippi and in October of 2005 I told about one crossing Fred's driveway in California's Sierra Nevadas. It was a Red-eared Turtle, which I've said before is distributed from southern Michigan and New Mexico south to South America, plus there are introduced populations in Europe, Israel, South Africa and other places. This is the main "pet shop turtle," the turtle that has starved and dried up in a million kids' neglected fishbowls. You can see the picture I took of that one at Fred's last year, looking just about exactly like what I saw here, at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/r-e-turt.jpg.
Red-eared Turtles -- called Mesoamerican Sliders by my reptile book for this area -- are a freshwater species, so it's a mystery to me how this turtle got here across the enormous acreage of saltwater mangrove surrounding us.
My book says that Red-ears in this area are preyed upon by Morelet's Crocodiles. I saw at least one Morelet's in Petén Tucha and signs of more. I don't know whether Petén Tucha's clear water will mainly help the crocodile stalk the turtle, or help the Red-ear watch for the croc.
PETÉNS & MARSHES
The word "petén" in Petén Tucha describes an important component of this area's wetland ecosystem. A petén is a low rising or hammock, usually round to oval shaped, emerging from the wet marsh. You can see one of the marshes I hiked across this week at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/marsh.jpg.
No peténs appear in that picture but if they did they'd show up as no more than a clump of trees surrounded by flat marsh. The important thing about peténs is that they contribute enormously to a marsh's biodiversity.
In fact, a petén is typically surrounded by concentric rings of biological zones, each ring harboring plants and animals adapted to a particular water depth or elevation above high tide. At the heart of the petén ecosystem stand trees such as palms, strangler figs, Poisontrees (Metopium), Chicle Trees and frangipani (Plumeria). Next to the water Logwood trees appear. Eventually trees give way to grasses, cattails and the like, and then to submerged vegetation.
Often larger mammals take refuge among a petén's trees and birds often roost and nest there. A petén is an ecological island.
Those of you familiar with Guatemala may know that northern Guatemala is referred to as The Petén. That's because most of northern Guatemala is fairly flat, seasonally flooded, and during the rainy season there are lots of island-peténs there.
Hiking out of Petén Tucha, as I passed through a tunnel cut through the mangrove suddenly I was surprised by a loud whistle-like shriek that trailed off into a series of mammalian HOO-HOO-HOO-HOOs. I looked in vain for the hoo-er but the vegetation was as dense as a mangrove swamp can be.
My local naturalist friends and I agree that I probably had heard a Spider Monkey, ATELES GEOFFROY. There's no reason why I shouldn't have heard one since they are known to hang out around Petén Tucha, plus there just are no other animals here that go around HOO-HOO-HOO-HOOing. About 60 air-miles southwest of here a number of Maya families at Punta Laguna escort paying visitors to see their resident Spider Monkeys. Spider Monkeys used to be much more common here than now but they've suffered greatly from habitat destruction, being captured for the pet trade, and being hunted for food. You can see several pictures of one at http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/pictures/Ateles_geoffroyi.html.
Originally we had two monkey species in the Yucatan, the other being the Howler Monkey, Alouata palliata. Now the Howlers seem to be extirpated from the northern region. Farther south in Guatemala's Petén region and in the Mexican state of Chiapas I've often seen them and frequently heard them roar majestically and blood- curdlingly like lions.
Spider Monkeys appear to be more tolerant to habitat disruption than Howlers, and the Spiders don't call attention to themselves by roaring. Still, as with the howlers, the species is regarded as threatened with extinction.
A HORSESHOE CRAB'S UNDERSIDE
Usually the horseshoe crabs I find washed up on beaches are shattered, incomplete wrecks of the former organism. However the other day I came upon a very recently dead one in good shape, so I studied his parts closely, and photographed him. You can see that picture at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hs_crab.jpg.
In the picture I'm holding onto the crab by one of its 12 appendages. The ten large ones, called pedipalps, are for walking but the two small ones at the top, called chelicerae, are used for manipulating food into the mouth. Notice that the lowest, largest pair of legs each end in brush-like structures. These are used for stirring up and pushing aside sediment when the crab burrows into the seafloor.
In the creature's center, at the base of the leg I'm holding, you can make out a hole. That's the mouth. If you look closely you can see that the base of each leg arising around the mouth is equipped with small, brown spines called gnathobases pointing downward toward the mouth. These keep food from moving in any direction other than toward the mouth. As food works toward the mouth the spiny leg bases grind it. It's all a very simple system for a simple, primitive organism.
The five pairs of wafer-like items covering the shell's bottom half are gills. You can't see them in the picture but from each gill arise about 150 leaf-like membranes called lamellae. The moving gills keep oxygen-rich water flowing over the lamellae, which absorb the oxygen. The gills also function as paddles for propelling juvenile horseshoe crabs through the water.
Background info on horseshoe crabs, which are actually "living fossils" closely related to extinct trilobites, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/hs_crab.htm.
RED MANGROVE'S SELF-ROOTING FRUITS
Of the four mangrove tree species constituting the mangroves here, Red Mangrove is the most eye-catching. It's the one with gangling "stilt-roots," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mangred.jpg.
Red Mangrove inhabits the deepest water of the four species, and its fruits are the most curious-looking. You can see a fruit photographed during my hiking trip at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mangrove.jpg.
That picture shows two Red Mangrove flowers with fruits developing from the ovaries in the flowers' centers. The fruit on the right is much more developed, as indicated by the fact that inside it a seed has already germinated and now a very sizable root (technically the radicle, since it's the seed embryo's first "root") is emerging from the fruit, pointing downward.
The dangling "root" is about eight inches long. Sometimes when the fruit falls from its flower the "root" stabs into the mud, thus planting a new Red Mangrove right beneath the parent tree. More typically, however, the fruit with its "root" falls into water and floats away. When the "root" makes contact with mud it grows into it and then the tree develops as you'd expect. Still, it's fun to know that a Red Mangrove fruit, at least under certain conditions, can actually plant itself.
Mother Nature almost always prefers for offspring to settle farther away from the parent so that parent and offspring don't end up competing for the same resources. Red Mangrove may constitute an exception, however, since one of Red Mangrove's traits is that they often grow so closely together that their stilt roots interlock, forming impenetrable thickets that are the delight of shelter-seeking wildlife. Also, they catch soil particles that otherwise would wash away, building up the land. You can see a view through a maze of Red Mangrove stilt-roots at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mangmess.jpg.
Most of my hike back to town took place in cattle-chewed, cactus-rich scrub. On my second night out I camped next to a plant some potted-plant-loving North Americans might find vaguely familiar. You can see if the plant's appearance rings a bell with you by going to http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/beaucarn.jpg.
Local Mexicans call it Palmilla, saying it's a kind of palm, but if you look closely you'll see that it's very unpalmlike. For one thing, it's stem branches, and palm trunks rarely branch. For another, the leaves are neither palmately nor pinnately compound, like the vast majority of palms, but rather are long and slender like a sword's blade. Some of these plants are fruiting now and if you could see the fruit you'd see that it's not at all like a typical palm fruit -- like a small coconut -- but rather it's a dry, lightweight capsule.
In fact, this palmlike tree is a member of the Lily Family, not the Palm. In North America small potted specimens with gray trunks expanding enormously at their bases, and topped with topknots of arching, slender, green blades are sold under the trade names of Mexican Ponytail, Ponytail Palm, Bottle Palm, Elephant's Foot and other names as well. The species sold in pots is usually Beaucarnea recurvata. I think that ours is BEAUCARNEA PLIABILIS, because I've seen that species listed for the Yucatan. It's also listed as a threatened species. A page showing a potted Beaucarnea and describing its care is at http://www.plant-care.com/1602-ponytail-palm.html.
Our Beaucarnea pliabilis rises above the surrounding low, thorny scrub rather majestically, lending the landscape an extra touch of exotic feeling. In the picture you can see its swollen trunk-base, explaining one of it's names, "Elephant's Foot." This swollen trunk serves as a water- storage structure. Overwatered, store-bought potted specimens often possess grotesquely large, spherical boles with teeny, green topknots.
On the night I pitched my tent next to the Beaucarnea in the picture the wind roared across the scrub from dusk to dawn. Several times in profound darkness I awakened and just listened to the wind streaming through the tree's jutting-out branches and causing its stiff blades to flap and clack against one another. It was a homey feeling lying beside such a distinguished being, knowing its roots ran beneath where I lay on the ground.
In the morning an endemic Yucatan Wren came with its husky krrohrrrrr complaint glaring at my tent as he hung onto the Beaucarnea the way you expect a wren to do, even an endemic one.
"Krrohrrrrr yourself," I replied similarly huskily, feeling just splendid, with a full night of wind-roar and Beaucarnea-flapping and -clacking energy churning around inside me.
CHRISTMAS BOOKS FROM AMAZON.COM
I would appreciate it if those of you who buy Christmas gifts would consider purchasing nature books, CDs and such through my Amazon.com page. It adds no cost to your purchase but I receive a small referral fee, all of which goes to the maintenance of my educational websites and the publication of this Newsletter. You might also consider giving an Amazon.com gift certificate, which can be sent via email or on paper through the mail, and can be redeemed for millions of items, not only books.
Links to gift certificate information and many kinds of nature books can be accessed at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/.
EGRETS, HERONS & IBISES
Out in the mangroves it's normal to see mixed flocks feeding together in areas of open water 2-4 inches deep. A normal flock of about 20 birds may be half Snowy Egrets, 1/3 White Ibises, with a sprinkling of Tri- colored Herons, Little Blue Herons, Great Egrets and maybe a Willet or two. Feeding in a group like this seems to scare up more fish for everyone, plus there are more eyes to scan for enemies.
After you watch such a flock awhile you see that each species has its own strategy and personality. Often the flock I've been watching more or less follows the White Ibises who systematically probe the mud with their long, curved beaks, more interested in worms and other mud dwellers than fish. Snowy Egrets appear to follow the ibises stabbing at fish the ibises scare up, frequently getting into noisy fights with one another, and sometimes trying to rob an ibis of its catch. The other heron and egret species stay on the fringes and are less engaged with the group.
Then a Common Black Hawk comes YEEP YEEP YEEPing, lands on a snag amidst the mixed flock and everyone flies away, the ibises looking over their shoulders in absolute disgust.
In other words, such a flock of birds shows structural elements similar to that of a typical human society. Most people I know resemble the no-nonsense, work-a-day, nose- in-the-mud ibises, or else the boisterous, redneck Snowy Egrets, or the timid little Willet or maybe the philosophical outsider, the hesitant Little Blue Heron, and then there's always the loud, obnoxious one who rampages into town upsetting everyone by insisting on having things his own way, like the Common Black Hawk.
However, one great difference between a flock of birds and human society is that a White Ibis is stuck with his living strategy for his whole life, while a human can change. A human has the potential to learn from mistakes and to consciously change his or her assumptions about life as more and more information and experience is acquired, and to change his or her behavior accordingly.
Yet, it seems to me that most people don't like to change at all. They may talk about wanting to change but what they really want is to keep securely to their daily routines, to not rock the boat and not take chances, not be different from everyone else, just behave acceptably and do what's expected of them. This, even when it's clear that our society's distinguishing living strategy -- that of being consumption-based and depending on continual growth -- is unsustainable, and threatens Life on Earth.
So, there I am sitting in the mangroves watching egrets, herons and ibises, wondering what will happen to all the exquisitely adapted plants and animals around me as global warming manifests itself, pollution keeps getting worse, as more and more people cut more and more firewood from the surrounding scrub, and overfishing continues until basically the sea around us is fished-out. What will happen as these long established -- one could say traditional -- unsustainable behaviors continue, as most humans choose to keep doing what they've always done?
And I just wonder: Where did the loony idea come from that somehow it's more family-oriented and God-fearing to behave traditionally and unquestioningly of commonly accepted values -- to reject the Creator's gift to humans of being able to think and to change? Why do most people choose to live the lives they were born into, exactly as egrets, herons and ibises?
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,
DOWN THE ESTUARY TO THE SALTWORKS
The other morning Diego invited me on a birding trip. At first I'd be with a couple of English-speaking Dutch tourists being guided by Gabriel, who didn't speak English, so I'd be the translator. That day the flamingos were feeding only a quarter of a mile across the estuary so within moments our motorboat was within good viewing distance. You can see what it looked like from the boat at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204f.jpg.
Continuing on up the estuary we passed by an arboreal termite nest about the size of a bushel basket. I was surprised to see such a nest in an inundated mangrove swamp. Gabriel told us that the nest was made of termite feces and saliva, the feces being like sawdust from the wood the termites ate. He also said that in the old days Maya folks collected such nests, crumbled them up and fed them to their animals. You can see the nest mounted on a hurricane-killed Red Mangrove trunk at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204t.jpg.
During our passage up the estuary we saw four Morelet's Crocodiles, a couple of them seven or eight feet long. One of them escaped into the water with such speed and power that my toes tingled just thinking about one coming at me like that, regarding me as its next meal. Gabriel explained how they would come up under a heron's nest, flip it into the air, catch it in its mouth, and drown the nestlings, and eat them. He also said that you could go to prison for hunting them, but people killed them anyway, for the food and the hides.
We saw lots of White Pelicans, Great Blue and Snowy Herons, White Ibises, Neotropical Cormorants, Magnificent Frigatebirds, Ospreys and an Anhinga. At the end of the estuary we encountered mudflats busy with small waders such as Western and Least Sandpipers, Snowy and Wilson's Plovers, and Black-necked Stilts. I was astonished when Gabriel three times made a squealing sound and called flocks of sandpipers quite near him. Everyone knows you can "spish" birds such as warblers and chickadees, but I'd never even tried attracting shorebirds. It really works!
It's something how close the crocodiles, herons and shorebirds allowed us to approach. At the mudflats we exited the boat and you can see a picture of our Dutch friends approaching some Black-necked Stilts at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204b.jpg.
Part of the "Classic Flaming Boat Trip" is the offer to have your whole body smeared with the very sticky, white, pasty mud particular to this beach -- taking a "Maya bath," it's called. It's supposed to be very good for your skin, taking five years of its age. You can see the Dutchman having his face smeared by Gabriel at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204m.jpg.
After the smearing we met up with Diego and a second birding group, a family from Pensacola, Florida very serious about adding species to their Life Lists. Now I joined them, traveling by car along the beach and into the saltworks of Las Coloradas about five miles up the coast from Río Lagartos.
On the edge of Las Coloradas I was delighted to see three Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures tugging at what may have been the remains of a dead dog. How often I've tried to spot this species, and now here three were within 20 feet of the road in full view. They looked a lot like Turkey Vultures, except that the featherless parts of their heads consisted of yellow-orange cheeks and throat, and the tops of their heads were pale blue. You can see one at http://www.mangoverde.com/wbg/picpages/pic28-3-2.html.
What a surreal environment those saltworks were! The sky was dazzlingly blue, the salt blindingly white, and the carotenoid-pigment-saturated water weirdly pink, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204s.jpg.
In that picture you see a salt-crystallization pond with a mountain of salt rising behind it. The bridge-looking thing in the background is an elevated transport system conveying salt to ships offshore. This is a big operation. Just while we were there several double- trailer semi-trucks left the saltworks filled with salt.
One of the most remarkable sightings took place where wind was blowing white spume into great piles, in one place the spume avalanching across the road so deep it came up to the bottom of our car's windows. We talked about how such resilient spume could form and why the bubbles didn't burst but we came to no conclusion. If anyone out there knows, drop me a line, for I've seen this before and it's always mystified me. You can see a through-the-windshield view of our road-crossing spume at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204x.jpg.
Returning from the saltworks we stopped at the beach where immediately we were confronted with some unusual palms, Kuká in Maya, which I think is Pseudophoenix sargentii. You can see them, some being hurricane-topped, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204k.jpg.
What a strange-looking environment the beach is, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204u.jpg.
I think the small, trunkless palm is Coccothrinax readii, the bush with large, roundish leaves is Sea Grapes, Coccoloba uvifera, and the agaves with slender flowering stalks are Agave angustifolia.
The beach itself was smothered with brown, blown-ashore seaweed. You can see the waist-high heaps, with the long salt-transport system extending into the Gulf beyond, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204w.jpg.
A wonderful variety of seaweed was being blown ashore, some of them kinds I've never seen before. I photographed a selection and the picture turned out so pretty that I'm using it now as my screensaver. To keep the resolution high I've uploaded the picture full size, 146 kb large. If you have a fast connection or don't mind a slow download via modem you can admire and have this colorful image at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204z.jpg.
If anyone out there can identify the algae in the picture I'd appreciate hearing from you.
On the way back to Río Lagartos we were happy to spot a Bare-throated Tiger Heron and a Boat-billed Heron. However, the visitors still hadn't seen a flamingo so as we entered Río Lagartos Diego had us turn down a certain street, stop at a certain spot and look between two houses. And there was a flock of flamingos. You can see the curious circumstance of a birder eyeing a thin line of pink flamingos from a sidewalk -- and see how Río Lagartos really does extend right into the mangroves -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/061204p.jpg