Saturday, February 23, 2019

This week in birds - #342

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:


This Red-tailed Hawk doesn't look too happy about the drenching he just got from a sudden rain shower. He's been getting a lot of those showers lately as our rainy winter/early spring continues.

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Extreme weather events continue to be a common occurrence around the country and around the world. This week, for example, the city of Flagstaff in northern received three feet of snow in twenty-four hours. It was the highest single-day snow total in the 126 years that records have been kept.

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Say goodbye to the Bramble Cay melomys, a tiny island rodent that the government of Australia has confirmed as the first mammal known to have become extinct because of climate change. The rodents were wiped out by sea-level rise on their island. 

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A colony of these cute little Burrowing Owls is thriving alongside Los Angeles International Airport. If there is a niche somewhere, Nature will provide an occupant for it.

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The current administration in Washington is assembling a panel to study whether climate change poses a national security threat. Before you get too excited about that news though, you should know that the person heading the panel is a climate change denialist who thinks that carbon emissions are an asset rather than a pollutant.

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Wallace's giant bee is a bee that is as large as a human thumb and about four times as large as a honeybee. You wouldn't think such a critter would be inconspicuous, but it had not been seen for 38 years and was feared to be extinct. Recently, though, it has been rediscovered alive and well in the Indonesian islands of the North Moluccas.

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And yet another giant feared to be extinct has been rediscovered: A giant tortoise of the Galapagos, the Chelonoidis phantasticus, also known as the Fernandina giant tortoise, has been found on that island 113 years after the last one was known to exist. The one discovered is a female and it is believed that others must be present on the island.

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The melodic song of the House Finch is familiar around much of the country, but the song of individual birds can vary quite a bit over time and distance. Most animals inherit the sounds that they make but about half of the bird species learn to speak by imitating their elders and they don't always imitate them perfectly, and thus the language evolves from one generation to the next. The House Finch is one of those. 

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The chemical additives used in plastics have been found in the eggs of Northern Fulmars nesting in the High Arctic. The fulmars are seabirds that spend most of their time at sea. 

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White-nose syndrome is the fungal disease that has decimated bat populations in many parts of eastern North America and it is rapidly spreading westward. Wildlife biologists are studying bat habitats and bats in the West to try to determine vulnerabilities and try to find a way to help bats resist the deadly disease.

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Many residents along the U.S.-Mexico border have come up with what they think is a much better idea than any kind of wall. They are calling it the Mesquite Manifesto. It uses the native tree that thrives in this unforgiving land as the basis of a restorative economy that will benefit communities on both sides of the border. 

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How do we account for all the different shapes of skulls and bills that can be found among birds? Well, it is evolution, of course, but what drives the evolution? Since Darwin, it has mostly been thought to be a factor of how the bird forages, but a new study indicates that shared ancestry and behavior are more important than foraging activities and the food that the bird eats. 

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The Kirtland's Warbler has long been one of North America's most critically endangered bird species, but the little bird is staging a comeback and gladdening the heart of bird-lovers everywhere. The latest sign of this recovery comes from Jamaica which has just reported its first ever confirmed Kirtland's Warbler. Scientists are not sure if this is a range expansion or a migration mishap but either way it is more evidence of the improving status of the little birds.

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A climate scientist who worked under contract with the National Park Service for several years, studying and documenting the effects of sea rise on national parks, has lost her job because she refused to remove all references to human causes of climate change in her scientific report.

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In an encouraging sign for the critically endangered right whale, seven new calves have been spotted so far this winter off Florida's Atlantic coast. Although one expert opined that it still wasn't enough, it is a vast improvement over the last calving season when exactly zero calves were seen.

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Why do zebras have stripes? A study in Britain using horses dressed as zebras gives evidence that the stripes confuse flies. And maybe they confuse other critters that harass or prey on zebras as well.

Friday, February 22, 2019

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear: A review

We first met Maisie Dobbs in the years before World War I when she was a young girl who had lost her mother and was being raised by her father. Her father found a position for her as a maid to an aristocratic family. That benevolent family took an interest in the young girl and helped to educate her. Her relationship with the family was the making of her. It was through them that she became the person that she was as an adult, and eventually, she married the son of the family and emigrated to Canada. But tragedy followed her. Her husband was killed and she returned to England.

In this latest installment, we have progressed all the way to the beginnings of World War II. It is 1940 and England is on edge. It has not been attacked directly yet, but an attack is expected imminently. Meanwhile, their forces in Europe are being pushed back to the sea. The Dunkirk rescue looms.

Maisie is still pursuing her profession as an investigator and psychologist, ably assisted by her longtime right-hand man Billy Beale. 

A local pub owner asks Maisie's help in finding out what has happened to his son. The young man had taken a job with a painting firm that had a government contract to paint various government buildings with fire retardant paint. He was away in Kent doing this work and had been in contact with his family on a regular basis but now has missed calling them for a couple of weeks and the parents are worried. Maisie agrees to investigate.

Meantime, Billy is worried about his older son who is with the forces in Europe and his younger son who is chafing at the bit to get involved in the war effort. And Maisie's friend Priscilla is terrified of losing her three sons in the war as she lost her three brothers in the First World War. Her oldest is in the RAF; the middle son wants to join the military but is too young without the parents' permission; the youngest is not yet old enough but if the war continues for years, he, too, will want to be involved.  

To further complicate the book's plot, Maisie has decided that she wants to adopt Anna, the young girl that she took in as an evacuee along with her grandmother. The grandmother had subsequently died and left Maisie as the child's guardian. Now she wants to become her mother, but the authorities are reluctant to allow a single mother (widow) to adopt.

And it's all just too much. Yes, I do realize that in real life all of these things do happen simultaneously, but in a work of literature, I think it is helpful to have the focus on one or perhaps at most two events. Winspear is asking us to focus on and care about all of these different occurrences. She rushes from one storyline to another and the various stories lose some of their emotional impact in the process.

As always, Winspear does an excellent job of setting the historic scene. One can feel the fear and uncertainty experienced by those who lived through these perilous times. For those of us who take for granted our ability to travel and to communicate and stay linked to friends and family far away, Winspear helps us to feel what it was like not so very long ago when those things were not possible. 

And that is why I keep reading these books - for the historical perspective which they provide of the daily lives of ordinary people. It's there that Winspear really shines. 

My rating: 3 of 5 stars 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Throwback Thursday: What rock did these guys crawl from under?

Looking back at some of my old blog posts from years ago, I came across this one which is just more evidence that there is nothing new under the sun. Intolerance and hate have been with us forever and were alive and well nine years ago - as they are today.

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Monday, February 22, 2010

What rock did these guys crawl from under?

I don't even know how to begin to say anything sensible about this state legislator from Virginia:
State Delegate Bob Marshall of Manassas says disabled children are God's punishment to women who have aborted their first pregnancy.

He made that statement Thursday at a press conference to oppose state funding for Planned Parenthood.

"The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children," said Marshall, a Republican.

"In the Old Testament, the first born of every being, animal and man, was dedicated to the Lord. There's a special punishment Christians would suggest."

So children that are born with disabilities are God's punishment on the mother.

And then there was this statement by a member of the House of Representatives from Iowa:
Steve King To Conservatives: 'Implode' IRS Offices

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) told a crowd at CPAC on Saturday that he could "empathize" with the suicide bomber who last week attacked an IRS office in Austin, and encouraged his listeners to "implode" other IRS offices, according to a witness.

That suicide bomber with whom Mr. King "empathizes" murdered one innocent American citizen whose only crime was to go to work that day. He also seriously injured several others who committed that same crime.

I guess the only thing I can possibly say is, thank God they are not from Texas.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: A review

Let me just get this out of the way right up front: I loved this book! I thought it was brilliantly written, the characters were engaging, and the pace of the plot kept me turning the pages and made it hard to put the book down and sorry to see it end. Hard to believe that this was actually Lisa Halliday's debut novel, although she has been an award-winning writer of other fiction.

The book, like Gaul, is divided into three parts. The first part follows 20-something Alice, an assistant editor at a publishing house in New York, and her developing relationship with Ezra, a much older and much-honored writer. The second part deals with Amar, an Iraqi-American economist, detained on his way to visit his brother in Kurdistan and stuck in a holding room in Heathrow Airport in London. And the final part features Ezra doing a radio interview with a public radio type.

We follow Alice as she sits on a park bench one day and is joined by a man who is perhaps in his sixties - old enough to be her grandfather. They talk briefly and each goes his/her way. But they meet accidentally (on purpose?) at the same bench several times and finally the man, Ezra, asks "Are you game?" It turns out Alice is and they become friends and lovers.

I read somewhere that Lisa Halliday had a relationship with Philip Roth who was in his sixties while she was in her twenties, and it's hard to read about Alice and Ezra without speculating that the fictional relationship is informed by the real-life one. But I didn't really care. What I did care about was the asymmetry of their lives as explored by Halliday. One is entering old age, with the physical challenges that implies, while one is very young and in the full vigor of good health. One is world famous and much honored in his art while the other longs to enter that world of creativity, to become a writer. One is rich and one is weighed down by student loans and just getting by.

Theirs is the story of a May-December romance, but it is so much more than that. These two develop a deep friendship and really care for and take care of each other. The book could have easily gone on in this vein for another couple of hundred pages, but Halliday shifts course and gives us another story. Another example of asymmetry.

Amar's family were immigrants to the United States from Iraq. He grew up in America but maintains strong ties to his family back in Iraq. His older brother, Sami, a doctor, chooses to go back to Iraq, marries and has a daughter there. Amar visits him regularly. He is on his way to visit him after 9/11 and shortly after the American invasion of Iraq when he is held up in London. He is refused entry to the country and immigration authorities intend to send him back to Los Angeles. He argues that he's only there on a layover and will be flying out to Baghdad soon and that he should be allowed to take his flight. After much back and forth, his argument prevails but he is still stuck in the airport holding room for two days.

Amar's story shows us the asymmetry in the way people are treated based on where they are born, the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or anything else that singles them out as different from the ruling class. It could be a depressing story but it is lightened by his sarcasm and wit which help him to face a world which challenges him at every turn and which help the reader to view more equitably the roles that luck and birth play in all our lives. That, it seemed to me, was the philosophical center of this engrossing book.

In the final section, Ezra's radio interview, we can see a glimmer of the asymmetrical lives that coexist in this tale and that, perhaps, run along parallel lines in spite of their differences. The stories build on each other to give us, finally, a view of the world as it is.

Ezra's interviewer is a young woman and the interview ends with him saying to her, "Are you game?" We never hear her answer but I'm betting she is!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars        

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Poetry Sunday: I Opened a Book by Julia Donaldson

I happened upon this little poem early last week and it has stayed in my mind ever since. Those who love books and who lose themselves in books will understand. That's reason enough to feature it as the poem of the week.
I Opened a Book

by Julia Donaldson

I opened a book and in I strode
Now nobody can find me.
I’ve left my chair, my house, my road,
My town and my world behind me.

I’m wearing the cloak, I’ve slipped on the ring,
I’ve swallowed the magic potion.
I’ve fought with a dragon, dined with a king
And dived in a bottomless ocean.
I opened a book and made some friends.
I shared their tears and laughter
And followed their road with its bumps and bends
To the happily ever after.
I’ve finished my book and out I came.
The cloak can no longer hide me.
My chair and my house are just the same,
But I have a book inside me.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

This week in birds - #341

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Is there a more attractive bird native to North America than the female Northern Cardinal? This beauty is part of my count for the Great Backyard Bird Count that is taking place this weekend. Remember: You can be a part of it, too. Just visit the website and register, then follow the directions.

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Our Senate did something wonderful this week. By a vote of 92-8, they passed the most sweeping conservation bill in a decade. The legislation will protect millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of wild rivers across the country. It will establish four new national monuments, expand five existing national parks, and permanently withdraw mining claims around Yellowstone National Park and North Cascades National Park. In addition, the bill reauthorizes and funds the Neotropical Bird Conservation Act through 2022! Good on you, Senate. See what you can do when you work together?

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And in another example of the good that can be accomplished by a functioning legislature, the House of Representatives passed the bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown, legislation later passed by the Senate and signed by the president. But the very good news for conservationists, especially those of us who have been worried about the fate of some of our public lands and conservation sites along our southern border, is that Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas managed to insert into the bill protections for five sites imperiled by plans for barriers along the border - the National Butterfly Center, the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, La Lomita historic Catholic chapel, and a tract of land that will be a commercial spaceport for SpaceX. It was not a minute too soon for the Butterfly Center where the bulldozers had already moved in. Thank you, Rep. Cuellar!

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Receding Arctic ice has been forcing polar bears off of their preferred habitat and farther inland. Recently, dozens of the big bears have invaded and laid siege to a small military settlement in the Russian Arctic. Conservation authorities turned down a request from the settlement to shoot the bears, which are protected in Russia as an endangered species. So, the residents are just going to have to wait them out.

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The pair of Bald Eagles that nest every year in a tree at the Washington D.C. Police Academy have produced their first egg of the year. You can watch the progress of the nest on Earth Conservation Corps Eagle Cam.



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Temperatures have been far above normal in Alaska this winter. Readings near 40 degrees above normal are anticipated in parts of the Arctic area this weekend.

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And in Hawaii, more extreme weather, including a blanket of snow on peaks as low as 6,200 feet.

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A study of the effects of aboriginal fires in Australia has found that the small hunting fires used by the Martu people are actually vital for sustaining several wild species and adding to the diversity of vegetation.

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A federal court in Texas has ruled that the Golden-cheeked Warbler which only nests in the Texas Hill Country is still in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

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The removal of a dam on Maine's Kennebec River twenty years ago has fulfilled its promise of the return of fisheries and new recreational opportunities and revitalization of the riverfront. Perhaps even more importantly, it has had a beneficial ripple effect on how people of the area view and utilize the resource of the river.

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A rare black leopard has been caught on camera by a Contraptions camera trap in a wilderness camp in Kenya.


Although there have been reports of black leopards in Africa, this is the first photographic evidence of one in more than a hundred years. The last image was taken in 1909.

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Another near-mythical creature is the Black Rail. Recently, scientists in Louisiana have been looking for the bird in the remote wetlands that are its preferred habitat. Those wetlands themselves are now endangered by encroaching seawater. 

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French researchers have figured out which genes make a rose smell sweet and how they can tinker with the genome to enhance its distinctive scent. The rose they have been working with is 'Old Blush' which originated in China and was introduced to Europe in the 18th century - and one of which now grows in my backyard.

This is one of last year's blooms. The bush isn't in bloom at the moment.

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Cuvier's beaked whales can dive deeper and hold their breath longer than any other marine mammal. It is frustrating for scientists trying to study them because they only emerge for a few minutes before diving again.

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A 99-million-year-old bird whose foot got caught and preserved in amber had feathers. Fossilized feathered birds or feathered dinosaurs have been sought by scientists for decades so this represents a significant find

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The Mandarin Duck visiting Central Park has gotten a lot of publicity this season. Well, it is a very colorful bird. But the real draw for birders is the owls of Central Park. Barred Owls, Saw-whets, and Great Horned Owls all have gotten the birders' attention.









Thursday, February 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2019



 Does one daffodil make a spring?


Maybe if you add a few narcissi. 


And some sweet little leucojum, aka snowflakes - the only kind of snowflakes we'll see here this winter. 


 The pansies have been blooming since fall and are well past their prime.


As are the violas.

The Turk's cap also has been blooming all winter, but, in the absence of a freeze, it blooms 12 months of the year in my garden. 


A few gerberas are still going. 


They just bloom on and on and on... 


The Carolina jessamine is not in full flower yet but it's getting there.

The feverfew, too, has been in bloom for quite a while and shows no sign of waning.


Salvia greggii (autumn sage) is another native plant that blooms almost year-round here.


 The white yarrow continues to bloom by the goldfish pond.


'Peggy Martin' rose has already been flowering for more than a month.


 Purple oxalis is at its best in winter here.


 The loropetalum is a mass of fuchsia blossoms now.


I do love its fringy little blooms.

Thank you for stopping by my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas this month. Spring is just around the corner here and on most days this week, it has felt as if it had already arrived.

This month, our host, Carol of May Dreams Gardens, begins her thirteenth year of hosting this monthly meme. Amazing! Twelve years of bringing together gardeners from around the world to share their gardens. Thank you, Carol. I'm looking forward to the next twelve years.

Happy Bloom Day!