JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Rancho Regenesis
in the woods ±4kms west of Ek Balam Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

April 12, 2018

MOUNTAINS EAST OF SALTILLO, COAHUILA
Last Friday, April 6th, from Ciudad Acuña on Coahuila state's northern border, across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, I took an overnight bus to Saltillo in southeastern Coahuila, about 260 straight-line miles (±360kms) exactly southward. At dawn the next morning, from Saltillo I headed east, through Arteaga, to mountains of the Eastern Sierra Madres. No precise location is given because at this location I've documented interesting plants, especially cacti, and certain people mine the Internet for locations of valuable species they can rob from the landscape, sometimes for their own collections but more often to sell.

A crammed taxi costing the same as a bus ticket deposited me in a small town in a valley. We're on the altiplano here -- the high-elevation flatland between the Eastern and Western Sierra Madres -- so even on the valley floor at noon it was chilly. The climate must be good for truck farming because on the way we'd passed extensive greenhouse installations in which grew tomato, cucumber and chili pepper, and acres of apple orchards beneath black netting. Here at the end of the dry season, I was told that soon big fields of corn, wheat and oats would be planted.

As I hiked out of town toward the mountains I was buffeted by strong gusts of wind, and dust devils swirled all around. On the lower slopes of the mountain I'd chosen to climb, the wind increased, and continued to increase the higher I got, my backpack catching wind like a sail, many times knocking me off balance. There were lots of cacti and I felt lucky not being blown onto them.

At the top I found ground level enough to pitch a tent on, but that was a job because of the wind. My spot was beneath a gnarly pine through whose boughs the wind hissed like an upset dragon. For some time storm clouds had been building over neighboring peaks and now the thunder started. At dusk it rained maybe 3mm, ±3/16ths inch, and the wind dropped.

At dawn the next morning the inside cover of my tent's fly was covered with thousands of ants. Only a few had made it into the tent, probably through holes gnawed through the tent's fabric during previous ant encounters. As ants go, these were nice ones, not biting and not obviously chewing on the tent. They were regular sized ones, but chunky and slow moving, like little black cows. When they felt threatened, they'd stick up their oversize, plump abdomens.

This was a threat, for when you touched one your fingers ended up smelling strongly of the formic acid presumably filling theri bloated abdomens. After several ants had been removed from inside the tent, the whole area stank mightily of formic acid, and that's an oily, nauseous odor. The duff below the pine was their home, so after a thorough tent de-anting I moved to an open area of flat limestone covered with clumpgrass and cacti.

Part of the ant story is that I'd left my smelly hiking boots outside, in the tent's vestibule, and at dawn it had looked like an ant nest was forming inside one boot's toe. Or maybe they were just foraging en masse for minerals left by my sweaty feet. A good thing about ant encounters is that they remind us of ecological principles. The teaching here is that living things may require a complex web of interactions with other species, but the needs of individual lives are like a chain, not a web, and as with any chain, everything depends on the weakest link. Here the ants' chain links consisting of air, sunlight and carbohydrate may have been robust, but other links such as water during the dry season, and the limited supply of certain nutrients like phosphorus, nitrogen and salts, constitute severely limiting factors, or weak links. The ants in my boot were trying to reinforce one or more of their weak links.

To get a feeling for the weak link issue, just watch the feeding frenzy caused by a single tiny crumb off an oatmeal flake fallen among the ants. And, look what happens when you poop, and flies swarm over what you're depositing before you've finished.

From the valley floor it looked like this mountaintop was covered with a typical forest, but actually what's here are widely spaced trees only about 15ft tall (4.5m) with most of the surface covered with clumpgrass, cacti, and a few wiry bushes. The trees are broad and gnarly. It's a kind of savanna. The only woody plants that might qualify as trees are Pinyon Pines, a juniper, and a tall yucca. These will be featured in later Newsletters.

The following day and night there was little wind and no rain, though dark clouds with thunder were even more impressive than on the previous day. As is normal for my visa trips I've developed a cold, and this one is worse than normal. At night, my constant coughs, sneezes and nose-blowings must contribute to the edginess of the Coyotes' yelps and howls. This cold saps my energy, and I doubt that my plans for more camping in the cold uplands south of here would be helpful. Therefore I'm cutting short my camping trip and now will shoot directly toward the heat and rest awaiting me in the Yucatan.

The next morning just as I'd packed things up, strapped on my backpack, and in a kind of groggy stupor began the long hike back to the town in the valley, from overhead came a loud, raucous, laugh-like krrah-rrah rah-rah rah-rah, as Steven Howell describes it. Right above me at the mountain's peak flew two parrots. Silhouetted against the bright sky they displayed no colors, but what could be seen was very unusual.

Howell lists for Mexico 22 species of the order of New World Parrots, the Psittacidae. Of these there are parakeets, all of which are much smaller than what was flying above me that morning, laughing. The other big group is the parrots, which are large like these laughing ones, but parrots have short, squared tails. The overhead laughers had long, slender tails. This brings us to the macaws, and I've seen Military Macaws not too far from here, in the El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in southern Tamaulipas. Therefore, my first thought was that these might be adolescent Military Macaws with half-formed tails.

However, that species isn't supposed to be in Coahuila, plus Military Macaws don't "laugh" like these. After consulting Howell's field guide, it's clear that the laughers are Maroon-fronted Parrots, RHYNCHOSPSITTA TERRISI, endemic just to a small area consisting of mountainous extreme southeastern Coahuila and adjacent Nuevo Leon, and ranging into a small corner of southwestern Tamaulipas.

Maroon-fronted Parrots live in pine forests, the pines providing their main food, and are known to feed on flowering agaves. They nest colonially in crevices of cliff faces. In JM Forshaw's 1981 Parrots of the World the species' total population in 1977 was estimated to have been between 2000-3000 birds. In 1980, PW Lawson and DV Lanning, in Conservation of New World parrots ICBP Tech. Pub. #1, reported a single roost count of up to 1600 birds. Under IUCN 3.1 the species is considered to endangered. You can see and read more about Maroon-fronted Parrots on their Wikipedia page.

I returned to Rancho Regenesis on Saturday, April 7th, my head so clogged up that I could hardly hear the dogs barking their welcome.

*****

JAZZING THIS NEWSLETTER
Since June of 2001 I've issued this Newsletter nearly always once a week. However, nowadays I'm going through another of those growth spurts and it seems right to abandon the discipline of meeting a weekly Newsletter deadline. From now on, the Newsletter will appear only when it feels right to do so. Also, probably there'll be less profiling of species, and more on how my particular mentality in this particular environment is figuring out how to deal with the current human-caused, planet-wide environmental and spiritual catastrophe.

Never in human history has Life on Earth been so threatened, yet also never in our history have so many people in so many parts of the world spontaneously began offering anyone who'll pay attention such important and beautiful insights and feelings relative to the situation. Even though this Newsletter is a tiny, obscure forum, it's what I have, and I want to be part of the jazzy improvisation of saving Life on Earth. In Jazz, the beat has its place, but it's not necessarily a weekly one.

I don't know how it'll work out. The end of anything improvised and done with feeling instead of formality is never clear at the beginning. We'll see how it shakes out. If you have some ideas, let me know. We're all in this together.

Jim

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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