Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving thoughts

I hope your Thanksgiving is everything you want it to be. While you are celebrating, spare a thought for the roots of this, my favorite, holiday. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us. (Hat tip to Being Liberal.)

Photo: (M) Native Americans were clearly more compassionate than conservatives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Muscadines

One of the disadvantages of living in subtropical Southeast Texas is that we don't get that much autumn leaf color here. There are a few trees, some of them non-native like the Chinese tallow, that do present good color but they are the exceptions. I have a Shumard red oak in my front yard and in some years it has blazing colors, but it's a bit unpredictable. One plant I can depend on showing some fall color is the native grape, muscadine. 

My two muscadine vines, a 'Cowart' and a 'Fry' cultivar, beginning to "color up" in late November.

I grow muscadines in my garden more as an homage to my childhood than for any actual use. Muscadines grew rampantly in the area where I grew up and I used to look forward to picking them in the fall and eating them right off the vine. I also looked forward to the muscadine jelly that my mother made.

In truth, muscadines are not really that great for eating because they have very tough skins and are quite seedy, but I was not a connoisseur as a child and I loved them. They are probably best used for making jellies and jams, and, supposedly, they can make a quite decent wine, although I can't say that I've tried that. 

Here are a few of the fruits of my two vines, muscadine grapes.

Since I only have the two vines, I don't have that many grapes to work with, even in years of heavy production like this one has been. Also, the grapes don't all ripen at once - they ripen in stages, so there are never very many of them ripe at once. Thus, I've never attempted to make jelly or jam or to use the fruits other than very occasionally picking one or two to eat. But the grapes are utilized by the other denizens of my garden. Birds and other wildlife readily eat them and since mine is a habitat garden, that is sort of the point.

In addition to providing food for the animals, the vines also provide shelter and a hiding place for the birds. They are located quite near my backyard feeder system and I cannot begin to count the times I've seen the birds at the feeder suddenly dive into those vines to escape an attack from a Cooper's or a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

As for me, I just enjoy looking at the vines, watching as the leaves turn yellow and the grapes turn purple. They add a lot of fall color to my garden.

A cluster of muscadine leaves in late November is a bouquet of gold.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


My backyard has been an exceptionally quiet and boring place in recent weeks. The garden that for most months of the year is filled with birdsong and bird activity has been mostly deserted by the birds. All of the permanent resident birds of the area, except for the Carolina Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and (sigh) House Sparrows seem to have totally disappeared. Even the usually ever-present Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves and the raucous Blue Jays have been absent.

This Great Abandonment is an event that happens every year in early fall. I have theorized in the past that it coincides with an abundance of wild food being available so that the birds do not feel the need to visit my feeders. I don't know that to be the case, but it seems reasonable. This year, however, the GA has lasted longer and has been even more complete than in other years, and I am really at a loss to know why.

Watching the feeders on Sunday afternoon, all I saw were the House Sparrows and an occasional chickadee and woodpecker. I could hear the wrens in the shrubbery but they never visited the feeders while I watched. I could also hear in the shrubs a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the first of our winter visitors to arrive, and the resident Eastern Bluebirds calling as they flew overhead. But the yard was mostly still and silent.

Then, suddenly, in mid-afternoon, things started to look up. The goldfinches had arrived!

The first American Goldfinches to arrive in my yard in the fall usually do not visit the feeders right away. Instead, they will typically visit the wild food that is available, in this case the seeds of the crape myrtle, a particular favorite of the birds.

It's always exciting to see the first goldfinch of the fall. This year even they seem a little later in arriving than usual, but, in truth, they could have been here for the past week and I might not have seen them since I hadn't spent much time in the yard during that period. Nevertheless, I rejoiced to hear that familiar song once again.

So far, their presence is just a trickle, but if they are true to form, that will soon swell to a flood and, by the end of December, the yard will be overrun with these little finches and maybe even a few Pine Siskins. I can only hope.

And just to be sure that I am ready for the expected deluge, I went out today and bought a fresh supply of the goldfinches' favorite nyger seed!

One other postscript to my Sunday backyard bird watching: I had thought that all of our hummingbirds had left, but as I watched yesterday, there was one Rufous visiting one of my nectar feeders, so perhaps we will have a winter hummingbird after all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones: A review

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The prince was drunk." It's one of those memorable first sentences that draws you right in and makes you want to know more. Who is this prince and why was he drunk? Why was his being drunk important? What were the consequences of that drunkenness?

It is from such minor, sometimes seemingly insignificant threads that the entire fabric of history is woven, and Dan Jones has an eye for those threads. He teases them out and shows them to us with style and wit and in great detail throughout this popular history of one of the foundational dynasties of England. From that drunken prince, William the Aetheling, who, along with his drunken crew, was about to die in an 1120 shipwreck, to the beginning of the reign of Henry IV in 1399 - which marked the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Lancasters' dynasty - Jones keeps his reader engaged in the events of this medieval world. And in so doing, he shows us that their world was not so different from our contemporary one.

That drunken, now dead, prince, William, had been the only legitimate son of Henry I, who was the son of William the Conquerer. With the death of his son and his inability to father another legitimate son, Henry took the unprecedented step of appointing his daughter Matilda as his heir. Her right to the throne was not universally accepted, however, and she and her supporters engaged in a long struggle with her cousin Stephen ("The Cousins' War) for control of the realm.

Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou who was known for wearing a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom in his hair. The Latin name of the plant was Planta genista. From that plant, a dynasty received its name - Plantagenet.

From these beginnings, the son of Matilda and Geoffrey sprang - Henry II, the first true Plantagenet king. His queen was the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I well remember the first time I ever heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It was in my freshman history class in college. The class was just after lunch and I was sitting there dozing when my professor started talking about this amazing woman. The excitement and passion in her voice as she spoke of Eleanor woke me up for good. I decided that maybe this history thing wasn't so boring after all.

After Henry and Eleanor came their son, Richard I, the Lionheart, but, unfortunately, his reign only lasted ten years and then came his brother, John I of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame.

Then came the period from 1216 to 1399 when it seemed that incompetence alternated with competence, and sometimes brilliance. Thus, we have the hapless Henry III, son of John I, followed by the successful Edward I who was followed by the incompetent and cruel Edward II.

Then England got lucky with the most brilliant of the Plantagenets, Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377. But he was followed by perhaps the worst of the lot, Richard II, who was deposed in 1399.

This is only the barest of outlines, but Dan Jones fleshes out that sketch brilliantly with psychological portraits that are dotted with small but enlightening details of character that make these people come alive for us as fully-fleshed human beings. It is a tour de force of storytelling which once again confirms for me my conclusion in that long ago classroom. This history thing isn't so boring after all. It is Game of Thrones but for real.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Pumpkin

For Thanksgiving week, here's a classic American poem by John Greenleaf Whittier about an iconic ingredient of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, "the rich Pumpkin pie." It was written in 1850.

The Pumpkin

by John Greenleaf Whittier 
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Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, — our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

This week in birds - #135

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

The Whooping Cranes of the last natural-occurring wild flock of the birds are returning to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast from their summer home in Wood Buffalo Park in Canada. They will be with us until around April next year when they will head north once more. Meanwhile, conservationists continue efforts to increase the numbers of a flock they have been working to establish that migrates from Wisconsin to Florida and back each year, as well as a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. The hope is to have healthy flocks in different areas so that the species is somewhat protected from a catastrophic event at any one site.

A hazard faced by any migrating bird, especially large birds like the cranes or like the Trumpeter Swan, is that some people like to blaze away at them with their guns. The Trumpeter Swan is not as endangered as the the Whooping Crane, but it is still pretty rare. Even so, every year a number of them get shot in migration, either accidentally or on purpose.


Despite protests from environmentalists and opposition from the governor of Virginia, the federal government has decided to allow fracking in the largest national forest on the east coast, the George Washington National Forest. I do not think the forest's namesake would be pleased.


Here's a weird one for you. On Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to fur seals and King Penguins, scientists have observed some fur seals attempting to copulate with penguins and in some cases apparently succeeding. They speculate that the sexual harassment may be the behavior of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced seal. Or it could be an aggressive, predatory act or a playful one that turned sexual. The truth is they don't know. It should be noted that the fur seals also sometimes eat the penguins. 


Wars have an impact far beyond the lives which they destroy. There is also the damage that they do to the environment. The deadliest war in our country's history, the Civil War, took place on our territory and has had detrimental and long term effects on our ecosystem. This is true of all wars. The countries where they occurred still deal with the environmental consequences of World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, and so on and so on and so on. 


New Yorkers buried under five or six feet of snow right now might find it a little difficult to look on the bright side. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to winter. It is a great pest control system. Last winter's polar vortex weather did serious damage to many invasive species of insect pests.


Environmentalists have long lobbied to have the Gunnison Sage Grouse given protection as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. Well, this week they got half a loaf. The bird was given partial protection as "threatened" but not the full protection of endangered. Meanwhile a decision is still to be made on the status of the Greater Sage Grouse.


The hardest working bees of North America may well be our many species of native bees. The Mother Earth Network has some extraordinary facts about these bees


Scientists have been looking at the genetic recipe for making feathers and they have found that it is not just birds who have these genes. In fact, human beings have most of them as well!


Starfish on the west coast of North America are wasting away. They literally seem to melt. The condition is called starfish wasting syndrome and scientists now believe that it is caused by a virus. It is a virus which may find a friendlier environment in the warming waters of an ocean affected by global climate change. 


Exotic species have often been introduced to the continent through New York City. This has been true of the European Starling and the House Sparrow, to name two birds that have been extraordinarily destructive to native species. But it is also true of such things as the fungus that killed practically all the American chestnut trees and an invasive grass called cheatgrass. And too many others to list.


Some bats in Africa have been implicated in harboring the virus that causes ebola, but that doesn't mean that all bats or even most bats are vectors for the virus.


People who try to help the declining Monarch butterfly by planting milkweed should really try to plant native milkweeds rather than the tropical variety. Apparently, using the tropical milkweed may throw off the Monarch's inner calendar which helps it to migrate. Who knew? This is a real problem for gardeners because all I see in the nurseries around here is the tropical milkweed plants. I suspect that is true in many areas of the country.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Washed Up

Poor Simon's Cat. All he wants is a nap, but the world conspires against him. I know just how he feels.