Saturday, May 16, 2009

Some mesoamerican critters

I have seen just a few interesting animals, as I have only been in Guatemala for a week so far, and most of it has been dedicated to studying spanish at the Escuela de la montaña, about one hour down from Quetzaltenango.

This is the white-throated magpie-jay, Calocitta formosa.

Actually from the Reserva Biológica Huitepec, in Chiapas, this is the slate coloured solitaire, Myadestes unicolor. Most of the birds are impossible to photograph as they reside in the canopy, like the mountain trogon, or they hide in the low plants, like the quails and wrens (although the band-backed wrens act and sound like flocks of angry magpies).

I just came back from a trip to the Finca Santa Anita la Unión, a community of former guerrilla members, where I got to see one of the few remaining Ceiba trees remaining in this part of Guatemala. A quick look at the trunk will explain why they are almost extinct here.

This is a Dendrobates - looking tree frog, that I caught in the school's garden last night.

And this mushroom I found in Chiapas brought back some memories. It looks just like Geastrum striatum, a cool and common fungus in France.


Friday, May 8, 2009

¡No hay tos!

When I got to Mexico City I expected the place to be reminiscent of Camus' "The Plague," or Saramago's essay on blindness, but the panic had largely ebbed by then, and all that could be seen was about a quarter of the people wearing surgical-type masks, signs in pharmacies that said "We don't have any dust masks," restaurants with signs that said "for takeout only, because of official order," and no tourists. This is actually the most outrageous thing I saw there, which reminded me of the problem that Saramago raised: What do you do when you enter the church, and catch the disease? (It says: Please use your mask to enter the church)

The guy at a ticket counter in one of the big Mexico City bus stations (those are just like Paris train stations, if you are familiar with those but haven't been to DF) looked at me as I tried to rush him. "No hay tos." Apparently, that means "no problem," but it seemed to fit perfectly, as it normally means "there's no coughing."

As Mexico relaxes its preventative measures, the government has sent phalanxes of masked people with hand sanitizers and questionaires; "do you have a fever?" "Are you coughing?" etc...

At the prestigious museum of anthropology, on their first crisis day, we were issued masks, and even told to wear them. By this time in the real Mexico City, only about 20% of riders in the crowded metro were wearing them. Many people wore their masks around their neck.

And things were largely back to normal, as can be attested by people going about their business, ususally mask-free, on the Alameda:

I am now, as of today, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the state of Chiapas. My goal was to visit the famous Mayan ruins at Palenque, but when I got here I thought I'd rather just enjoy the town, and forget about the long bus rides there and back.

The town is pretty all around, and so far everyone I talked to has been quite friendly.

There's a lot of yellow walls, with smatterings of other colors (probably depending on what's on sale at the time), which is always a delight for tourists with overpriced cameras, and I am no exception.

The beauty of the place is enhanced by the rain that comes and goes, always messing with the light and sky.

Rain wasn't an issue at the nearby Grutas de Rancho Nuevo, where I went to climb the nearby mountain. It turned out that the mountain was the site of a live-fire excercise of the Mexican Army, so I wisely stayed mostly underground. The cave is blocked off by a funnily translated sign, which I studiously ignored (upon seeing that I had a headlamp, the guard told me: "Lo que yo no sé, no me duele") The parts beyond the sign were fun, but there were a lot of small ponds, and I couldn't take pictures because my headlamp makes them come out in gray halos.

It was much easier to take pictures in the touristy part:

There were not a lot of stalagmites in the lighted part, as many had been chopped off to make way for visitors.

Because of the lights, enlarged entrance, and tourists, there was algal growth on most of the pillows at the entrance, but this one was largely okay.

And at the entrance, I found the cave's dragon! Update: this is the dragoncito de labios rojos, or Abronia lytrochila.

How about that, for a first day in Chiapas?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Yellow cedar

I was going to post pictures of fishes, or other interesting stuff seen while kayaking, but I am starting to run out of steam for that, so here are some pictures of one of my favorite trees: the yellow cedar Chamaecyparis nootkatensis. By the way, it's not at all a cedar in the taxonomic sense, so don't be surprised when you see a cypress-type tree.

I am somewhat part of a totem pole carving project, which aims to carve and install poles for the university building. Totem poles are generally carved out of red cedar, which only grow south of here. Their wood is much softer, lighter, and possibly a little more durable.

This is the master carver Tommy Joseph, sawing part of that same tree, with some future poles in the background (and also chunks of a future US forestry service cabin).

Yellow cedar is a very impervious tree, mainly thanks to some toxins that take decades to leach out of the wood fibers. However, it still gets attacked from time to time.

The species is wind-pollinated. In this photo, it is easy to observe the fruit, and the male flowers.

Female flowers are much less common, which makes sense in light of the mechanism of pollination, and the relation of genetic gain to energy investment in male flowers, versus female flowers (which are the little, terminal blue ones).

And a higher-altitude specimen, which has yet to flower this year although it is clearly mature.


A few spring birds

Ahh, springtime...

This is a great time for birding, though I've been rather lazy about it, simply peeking at ducks on the lake from my living room window, and taking pictures of these marbled godwits, Limosa fedoa as I relaxed in the sun on the Taigud Islands.

There have been a lot of greater yellowlegs Tringa flaviceps lately. I like to think that some of those are the same ones that I watched (and heard, most conspicuously) at Lake Titicaca a few months ago.

I love the call of sandhill cranes Grus canadensis:

And everyone loves the common loon Gavia immer. In fact, some people love it enough to call it by its more dignified, British name: the great northern diver. I heard them sing several times during my latest kayak-based foray.

This snow goose Chen caerulescens hung out in town for a while, and was photographed by everyone (often with cell phone cameras). It was even featured on the front page of the local paper, in a wonderful photo by James Poulson.

This merlin Falco columbarius was nice enough to kill an American robin right in front of the Seven Fathom Bay Cabin while I was reading my book in it. The only reason the photo isn't perfect is that the windows were dirty, which is my fault.

A neat perspective of the head of a raven Corvus corax.

More greater white-fronted geese, Anser albifrons.

And a late common redpoll, Carduelis flammea, eating birdseed that should have been removed weeks ago, when the bears were starting to come out.