JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid in
Yucatán, MÉXICO

March 12, 2017

*****

MAGNOLIA WARBLER AT BREAKFAST
These days as the dry season grows ever hotter, ever drier, most deciduous trees are losing their leaves so as to save water that otherwise the leaves would transpire. The forest is more open now, you can see through it, and birds are much more noticeable than just a month ago. Also, maybe birds are more active now, diligently foraging migrants storing up fat for their spring trip north, but even permanent residents having to forage more vigorously as food grows scarcer.

At dawn during my campfire breakfasts normally several species show up working through dense growth beside the hut. White-eyed Vireos, Clay-colored Thrushes, Melodious Blackbirds and Blue Buntings are among the most frequent visitors, while White-tiped Doves call Wh' whoo-ooo, wh' whoo-ooo from the forest floor just beyond, and a Pheasant Cuckoo calling with an echoic whee whee wheerr-rr with the last note quavered.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312mw.jpg you can see a winter-visiting woodwarbler that this week passed by the hut. I had to study my field guide awhile before feeling confident that this was a Magnolia Warbler, DENDROICA MAGNOLIA. Up north, Magnolia Warblers normally are easy to recognize because their brightly yellow underparts are boldly marked with black streaks running lengthwise, their wings bear substantial white wingpatches, their rumps are yellow, and they frequently flash the conspicuous white patches atop their tail feathers.

The bird in the picture, however, with its overwintering immature or basic plumage, was furtive, not eager to attract any attention at all, so it didn't flaunt any of its memorable field marks.

Still, surveying all woodwarblers possibly found here, it turned out that if a warbler displays white wingbars -- even modest ones like ours shows -- has a yellow throat and underparts, a belly showing at least hints of dark, longitudinal markings, and around the eye there's a definite white ring, it's a Magnolia Warbler and nothing else.

Up North, Magnolia Warblers nest in moist hemlock and spruce forests of Canada and New England in the US, and at higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains. They migrate through most of eastern North America, and winter from southern Mexico and the Caribbean south to Panama. Down here we don't have hemlocks and spruces, but the birds seem to content with our humid to semiarid forests and edges, secondary growth and plantations.

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CANIVET'S EMERALD HUMMINGBIRD
At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/canivets.htm on our Canivet's Emerald Hummingbird page, you can see that mostly green little bird preening and flying about. The Canivet's can be hard to distinguish from other mostly-green hummers, except that the species has an unusually deeply forked tail.

Until now I've not been able to show that tail. However, nowadays a Canivet's often can be found visiting a beautifully flowering Yucatan Caesalpinia tree not far from the hut, so now you can see its deeply forked tail at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312cv.jpg

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THE BLUE-EYED BLACK-HEADED TROGON
A couple of months ago so many bitter oranges littered the ground here that the fellows gathered them up and dumped them at the woods edge next to the garden. Before long flies began to buzz, beetles of all sorts moved in, and then insectiverous birds of several species began hanging around the pile, swooping in for a meal from time to time. One of the most colorful and conspicuous visitors to the rotting pile of oranges is the Black-headed Trogon, whose page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/trogon.htm

A striking and distinctive feature of this species is its blue eye ring, and this week I got a good picture showing that feature. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312tg.jpg

Other frequent visitors to the orange pile include Turquoise-browed Motmots, Clay-colored Thrushes, Melodious Blackbirds and Groove-billed Anis.

*****

ACKEE FRUITS ON A TREE IN MÉRIDA
This week I visited Mérida for my final checkup after my eye operation. While there I enjoyed some quality time with my old park-sitting buddies. One morning my friend Eric arrived at the park carrying a blue plastic bag filled with unusual fruits he'd found beneath a tree next to a sidewalk a few blocks away. When I expressed interest, Eric set a couple of fruits on the wall of a nearby fountain and took the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312ak.jpg

Those opened-up fruits are about 2½ inches across (6cm) at their widest, the black seeds being 5/8-inch long (17mm). They are capsule-type fruits, meaning that they're dry pods developed from a flower's ovary divided into two or more compartments, or carpels, and the pod splits along one or more suture-like "lines of dehiscence." The fruits in the picture split along three lines causing the surprisingly hard, almost woody covering to split into three parts.

Inside the fruit, the hard, black seeds are embraced at their bases by soft, gummy, yellow growths known as arils. When fruits produce such seeds associated with eye-catching arils, it can be understood that the arils probably draw the attention of animals who will eat it, in the process spreading the seeds into new territory. In short, these fruits display a beautiful seed-dispersal mechanism.

Later Eric supplied more pictures, including one showing open and unopened fruits still hanging on the tree, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312am.jpg

In that picture you can barely make out that the tree's leaves are pinnately compound, with four or five pairs of leaflets. The tree, about ten feet tall (3m), was fruiting prodigiously and dropping the fruits onto the sidewalk, necessitating the property owner to sweepnthem into a pile, as Eric's picture shows at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/17/170312al.jpg

With such unusual, aril-producing, capsular fruits it was easy to determine the plant family the tree belonged to, and then to identify the tree. It's the Soapberry Family, the Sapindaceae, a family of tropical and subtropical trees. Soapberry Family members you might know include the Soapberry, the Guaya or Spanish-Lime whose fruits are much eaten in the Yucatan, Litchi, the Balloon-Vine, and the Goldenrain-Tree. But Eric's sidewalk tree is none of those.

It's BLIGHIA SAPIDA, usually known as the Ackee. The genus Blighia is named for the famous Captain Bligh, commander of the English ship "Bounty." Blighia sapida is such an unusual plant that it's the only species in the genus Blighia. Ackee is native to western Africa but is grown in the tropics worldwide for its edible fruit, and maybe for its novelty.

Ackee often is associated with Jamaica because there the tree's fleshy aril is collected and made into a local dish that enjoys international fame. Ackee products are an important export item for Jamaica.

Despite the aril's edibility, the black seeds are highly toxic. Still, the plan here is to plant the seeds, grow some Ackee trees like those in Mérida, and someday prepare our own good-tasting meals with them. If the seeds sprout, you'll learn more about Ackee in the future.

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THE HAWK
On a dead tree snag in the Papaya plantation below the hut, a Roadside Hawk, Buteo magnirostris perched for nearly an hour. Yellow eyes below sharp brows, powerful, hooking orange beak black at its tip, the bird profoundly alive and alert in searing afternoon heat, at first issuing raw challenges to the sky and all around rreeeaew....! but then it grew silent, silent and still, watching, watching piercingly, waiting.

Then a leap forward, a brief gliding straight at me but then an eruption of spread wings, braking in midair, wingtip primary feathers extended like flat fingers on hands signaling Halt! Stop everything exactly here, now! and then so fast my eyes couldn't follow, a steep dive into bushes. Five long seconds of quietness and stillness, and then silently he rose, beak forward like the explosive tip of a straight-running torpedo skimming atop the field's shocked quiescence, long legs dangling something stiff and mummy-like in curved claws, the thing pale, unmoving, not even quivering, already having given up everything, and the two of them vanished into the woods leaving an empty stage.

There'd been something in the bushes foraging or maybe moving out of the sun into a leaf's shade, and then that living entity existed no more. In an instant, a hole was rent into the day's living fabric, a hole that closed as soon as the hawk flew away, these words and my memory and maybe for a few minutes the hawk's own memory all that remained of something that a few seconds earlier had had its own interests, its own needs, pleasures and troubles, now nothing, nothing, nothing.

In these pages often the thought has been forwarded that human perceptions are illusory, that the sense of all we experience depends on how our fickle, erratic and often malfunctioning brains interpret electrical stimuli fed into our brains by neurons connected to sensors exposed to our environment. In that context the hawk soars as metaphor and appends a footnote:

For, of all illusions humans are vulnerable to, none is greater than this: That there is comfortable, dependable security. All defenses and safe zones are exactly like a leaf offering shade at the edge of a Papaya field, with hawks in the neighborhood. Security is a mental fabrication beset with cracks, warpings and imaginary boundaries through which at any moment a hawk may enter, talons and beak razor sharp, yellow eyes set exactly on us.

This insight is exquisite. It generously reminds us that we are such transitory, inconsequential stuff that we have every right -- maybe even can interpret from our condition that we have an obligation to the Creator of the situation -- to delight in the present, the here and now, to exult in craving whatever shade beneath whatever leaf comes our way, even as we anticipate the talons.

Rreeeaew....! the hawk snarls telling us to drink in the sky, even knowing that hawks soar there. Take joy in rich, productive soil, knowing that a hawk will spill our blood there. Laugh just from the pleasure of looking around, knowing that everywhere hawks outnumber the living. Delight in one moment passing into another, if only because a hawk hasn't yet descended.

And, why are there hawks?

It is because creation requires a hand to fashion it, and our Universe's system is that the hand is in the form of a hawk. It is a hawk that elegantly removes the weak, slow, old, or just unlucky, leaving for the moment others with temporary excellence, to carry on and propagate until they, too, succumb to the hawk.

Rreeeaew....!

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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