Saturday, February 25, 2017

This week in birds - # 245

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

American Goldfinch in my redbud tree this week. The goldfinches appear to be leaving our area early this year. Last week, they were all over my feeders, but by the weekend when I was doing my Great Backyard Bird Count, there were very few left to count and by late this week, I was only seeing single birds like this one present in my yard. In previous years, they remained in the area through March.

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It's not exactly news of OUR environment, unless you count our astronomical environment, but the big news in science this week was the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a small, faint star named Trappist-1 in the constellation of Aquarius. The star and its planets are 39 light years away, making the system a prime candidate for the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists and geeks everywhere are very excited about this!

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Meanwhile, in discoveries here on our planet, you can add four new species of frogs to the list of known life on Earth. The miniature amphibians were discovered in the Western Ghat mountains in western India. They had apparently been overlooked in the past because of their diminutive size, measuring from 12 to 16 millimeters, end to end.

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Texas' very own Senator John Cornyn introduced two bills this week that would essentially gut the Endangered Species Act. His proposed legislation would give local governments, Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and other industries the right to veto settlement agreements requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make decisions about the protection of endangered species. In other words, Big Oil and Big Agriculture would be making those decisions. Hmm...I wonder if they would choose to protect vulnerable species if it interferes with their profits?

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A new report shows just how successful the Endangered Species Act has been in protecting those vulnerable speciesOverall, 70 percent of all listed U.S. birds are stable, on the road to recovery, or already delisted, while only 21 percent are in decline.


The Brown Pelican, just one of the ESA's success stories.

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The newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, had his emails made public this week by order of the court. The documents revealed that, as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt had closely followed oil lobbyists' instructions in challenging environmental regulations and he more than once put the AG's letterhead to oil firm complaints.

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The Oregon Silverspot butterfly is seriously endangered, but a team of scientists and land managers are working hard to pull the fragile creature back from the brink. They are hand-rearing butterflies to be returned to the wild in order to increase the population.

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There was an interesting story from France this week about how the French are using the ancient art of falconry in the fight against terrorism. Terrorists are building drones to be used in their attacks, and now the French are training Golden Eagles to take down the drones.

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Mallard Ducks are helping to connect isolated wetlands merely by going about their usual activities. The wintering ducks visit their favorite feeding sites at night and share a common roost during the day. They connect the wetlands by dispersing seeds through their excrement.

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We tend to think of owls are being denizens of the deep, dark woods, but, in fact, many owls live quite successfully in urban areas because they find plenty of food there. 

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Many Utah politicians, most prominently Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have been very vocal about selling off public lands to the highest bidder. Now, Utah is beginning to see some of the results of that opposition to the protection of public lands. The outdoor recreation industry is very big business there and it is in full revolt against the state. Outdoor Retailer, a twice-yearly trade show that pumps an estimated $45 million a year into the state’s economy, has announced plans to move from Salt Lake City, which has hosted the convention for the past 20 years. 

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Viburnum, common name arrowwood, is a beautiful and useful native shrub, which, in the past, has had few, if any, pests. Now, however, it is under attack by the larvae of the viburnum leaf beetle, an introduced Old World pest, yet another example of the damage that can be done by invasive species.

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The warming climate is impacting the migration of birds. A climate-controlled study indicates that as the climate continues to heat up some species, such as the White-throated Sparrow, may give up migration altogether.

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The Bald Eagles that, in recent years, have nested at the National Arboretum in Washington are nesting there once again and have produced their first egg. You can watch their nest live on the DC Eagle Cam.

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Penguins are uniquely vulnerable to climate change and scientists who study them are concluding that the best way to protect them may be to safeguard more of the habitat where they do their foraging.

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A new study finds that up to 16% of hydraulically fractured (fracked) oil and gas wells have significant spills every year. This is much higher than had previously been reported. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Roots of My Obsession redux

I was idly thumbing through my shelves of gardening books yesterday when I came across this little gem. I had frankly forgotten that I had it.

I picked it up and read a few random pages which were more than enough to remind me that I really, really loved this book. I had read and reviewed it back in 2014.

The essays here speak to the gestalt of gardening, the thing that makes the enterprise more than just about planting seeds, weeding, pruning, harvesting. The committed gardener sees the world in the garden and sees gardening as a transcendent experience. 

If you want to understand why people garden, you might want to pick up this little book and read these essays.

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The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They GardenThe Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden by Thomas C. Cooper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this little book. It speaks to my soul and to my own obsession.

Yes, I admit it - I, too, am obsessed with gardening, sometimes to the point of nuttiness, but reading this book with its short essays by thirty great gardeners (thirty-one including the introduction by the editor Thomas Cooper), some that I knew about and some I had never heard of, made me realize that this particular obsession of mine is a holy gift from the universe and from all my gardening ancestors who, somewhere, must be laughing up their angelic sleeves to see that I have finally joined their band after so much whining and complaining.

You see, I learned the basics of gardening at my mother's knee, but I didn't do it willingly. I hated every moment of my childhood gardening experiences. At least, I thought I did. Now I look back on those days with fondness and with regret that I was not a better listener.

The reasons for gardening and the paths that one takes to becoming a gardener are as myriad and unique as the gardeners themselves - in this case thirty of them. Some people are born to gardening, some have it thrust upon them, and some come to it later in life in a roundabout fashion, but however we get there, all gardeners share the impulse to achieve their own personal vision of beauty through the creation of their gardens. It was fascinating and instructive for me to read how that impulse found expression in the lives of these thirty gardeners.

Although I enjoyed each one of the essays presented here and I found something to identify with in each of them, there are a few of them that particularly stand out in my mind and that had special meaning for me.

One of those was "The Web" by Douglas W. Tallamy. The first two sentences of his essay explains it all for me: "Most people garden because they love plants, but I garden because I love animals - all kinds of animals. Animals with two legs (birds), four legs (box turtles, salamanders, and foxes), six legs (butterflies and beetles), eight legs (spiders), dozens of legs (centipedes), hundreds of legs (millipedes, and even animals with no legs (snakes and pollywogs)." I found myself nodding as I read that. As a habitat gardener myself, I knew exactly what he meant.

Another favorite was "Chaos Theory" by Page Dickey who expounds upon the pleasures of weeding. You see, weeding is all about bringing order out of chaos and achieving that personal vision of beauty, but each gardener knows in his or her heart that this is a battle that can never be won. The aphorism that "Nature abhors a vacuum" is too true. She will continue to fill that vacuum with weeds and, in the end, we will be defeated. Any victory is only temporary. But that's all right, and knowing that and accepting it is the beginning of wisdom. Acceptance is learning to be at peace with what Nature brings us and seeing that imperfection can be beautiful, too.

It is Thomas Christopher, though, who sums up my feelings about gardening and about the wisdom contained in this book in his essay, "The Apprenticeship." He writes:
This is for me the greatest power and attraction of gardening, the transcendence it yields at unexpected moments. Occasionally, when I excise a dandelion from the lawn with one of the patented weed-pullers I inherited from my mother, who, late in life, developed an insatiable appetite for gardening gadgets, I hear her telling me how the task should be done. When I plant a tree, I may see my father, still young, punching holes in the hard earth of a pasture with a digging bar, sweat dripping from his nose, his glasses slipping off, a bucket full of saplings resting in the shade nearby.

A physicist has told me that time is a dimension that extends as readily backward as forward, and that our inability to see what we think of as the past is just a peculiarity of our limited powers of perception.

It's only in the garden that I have ever felt myself escaping this perceptual constraint. Sometimes the experience takes the form of an instant so beautiful and rich as to move me, for a moment, outside of time. In others, usually while planting, the sensation is of jumping forward to glimpse the seedling grown large, the landscape as it will be. What I continue to prize most, though are the reconnections with people, places and times otherwise lost to me.
Yes. Transcendence. That's what the gardening experience is all about. In the end, that is what each of the essayists here is saying.

(Note: A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in return for my honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill: A review


Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of my favorite characters from an ongoing series. The series is set in Laos in the 1970s. Dr. Siri and his wife Madame Daeng fought for many years to free their country from foreign domination and to establish a communist government that would provide justice and equality for all citizens. The Pathet Lao were ultimately successful in their struggle and the communist government was established, but it hasn't quite worked out as Dr. Siri and the others who fought for it had hoped.


Dr. Siri is now nearing eighty. After the revolution, he served for a few years as the country's coroner, but finally he was allowed to retire. However, he hasn't retired from solving mysteries and from pursuing adventure.


Siri is surrounded by a coterie, one might call it an entourage, of quirky characters, starting with his wife, the noodle shop proprietor, who assist him in his adventures. They include his former co-workers at the morgue, a Vientiane policeman, and a former member of the politburo who maintains his connections in the government. In this particular adventure, they are all involved. They all take part in different aspects of the investigation.


Siri and his wife live above her noodle shop, but Siri has a house in Vientiane that was provided for him by the government when he served as coroner. Now, he provides shelter in that house for an odd assortment of characters who live communally. This latest adventure begins when one of those characters, a Buddhist monk named Noo, rides out one day on his bicycle and doesn't return. 


Noo left a note asking for help for a fellow monk in Thailand who had run afoul of the law there. It seems that there have been three murders and the monk is accused of involvement in them. Of course, Siri and his entourage jump into action to find Noo and to solve the mystery of the murders. Along the way, they must deal with the three isms that hold sway in Southeast Asia - animism, communism, and Buddhism - and Siri will wrestle with supernatural spirits as he struggles to understand what is happening.


These books give what feels like an accurate picture of conditions in Laos in the 1970s. It is a small country poor in material goods but rich in spirit and in history, one that is struggling to establish itself on the world stage. Cotterill's cast of eccentric characters are Laotian through and through, proud of their country, although not blind to its shortcomings, and wanting it to succeed.


Spending time with these characters is always fun. Humor is very much a part of their story and one often finds oneself smiling or chuckling over their outrageous antics. This book, though, was just a little too outrageous for my taste. The plot was even more convoluted than usual and it kept heading off in strange directions that seemed completely unrelated to the main thrust of the story. I thought that the writer lost his way and couldn't quite get back on track. True, he wrapped it all up in the end, but the denouement felt strained and the story didn't "flow."


Even so, time spent with Siri is never completely wasted. He is such a charming, lovable old codger. One hopes that he has many more adventures yet to come.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wrapping up the GBBC

The weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count concluded on Monday, Presidents' Day. The count had participants from around the world. You can check out the reports from any area that interests you by visiting the GBBC website.

My personal count was a bit hit or miss, not my most successful GBBC experience. I was busy gardening on three of the days, so I combined gardening with bird counting and I'm sure I missed some. On the last day of the count, we had heavy rains so that put a bit of a damper (sorry!) on my counting.

Overall, I managed to find 24 species around my yard. In my best years of counting, I've had more than 30 and there were probably that many or more here this year, but they didn't show themselves to be counted. So, here's what I saw.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Did you participate in the count? If so, what did you see?

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Redbud buds






Most of the native redbuds in the area have been in bloom for several days now, but my specimen is a variety that was purchased from a nursery. It's called 'Forest Pansy' and its blooms always come about a week later. This week the buds are popping out all over and the bees are feasting. Yes, it really is spring here!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: A review


I first read this book many, many years ago; it must have been in the '70s. It was devastating. Reading it again this weekend, I found it, if anything, even more devastating.

The cover of the book calls it "The classic that launched the environmental movement," and indeed it is. One can trace a straight line from the publication of this book to the public outcry that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

Carson's book was published in 1962. It outlined in overwhelming and incisive detail the damage that was being done to Nature and to human beings (who are, after all, a part of Nature) by the profligate use of chemicals, especially DDT, to fight insects and plants that are labeled as pests and weeds.

Carson argued that those chemicals accumulated in the cells of plants and animals, working their way up the food chain and becoming more and more potent at each step along the way. Thus, at the top of the food chain, for example, animals such as Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Brown Pelicans received the most fearsome dosage of those chemicals; enough to kill them outright or to make them sterile, unable to produce viable young.

By the early '60s, all three of these species were well on their way to extinction. It is not an overstatement to say that Silent Spring saved them. Nor is it an overstatement to say that it saved many other species, less well known or less iconic.

Silent Spring contained a wealth of scientific data and information, but it was written for the public, for the average person with no particular scientific training but with a concern for the welfare of his/her family and the environment in which that family lived. Carson was able to make the destruction of that environment personal for her readers. She was also able to convey to them that it didn't have to be this way; that there was an alternative, a better way.

Today, informed citizens take for granted that biological control of plant and insect pests makes more sense than flooding the environment with more chemicals that will inevitably wind up in the water that we drink and the food that we eat. We understand that we are a part of Nature and that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. We understand it because Carson taught us. At the time that she wrote her book, none of that was clearly understood at all.

The tragedy is that Carson never lived to see the full impact that her little book had. Within two years after its publication, she was dead of cancer. But at least she lived long enough to know that the book was a success and that people were paying attention.

One has to wonder what Rachel Carson would think if she were alive today, as the EPA is given into the tender care of a man who seeks its destruction and the Endangered Species Act is under attack by those who would kill it. Would she despair? I think that she would try to find a way to communicate to her fellow citizens that the progress we have made over the last fifty years in protecting the environment and protecting ourselves is a very fragile thing and it can be easily reversed by those whose only thought is for the almighty dollar. And I think that she would urge us to continue her fight to make sure that we never have to see a spring when no birds sing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Fire and Ice

Brief and to the point. That's Robert Frost in this little poem. It is actually one of his most popular poems.

He considers the end of the world and the debate about whether it will end in fire or in ice and comes to the conclusion that both would accomplish the task equally well.

Fire and Ice

by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.