Thursday, April 24, 2014

Butterflies of Houston & Southeast Texas by John & Gloria Tveten: A review

Butterflies of Houston and Southeast TexasButterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John Tveten
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A book that I have owned for many years, which I am constantly re-reading sections of, and which I refer to almost every day especially at this time of year, is Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten. This is the most accessible and, at the same time, the most comprehensive guide to butterflies that I have found for this area.

The guide describes and illustrates with color pictures more than 100 species of butterflies that can be found in Southeast Texas, as well as often occurring farther afield in other sections of the state. In my many years of relying on this easy-to-use guide, it has never failed me. Every butterfly that I have come across in Southeast Texas has been found in the book.

As a habitat gardener and amateur photographer who delights in photographing butterflies, I particularly admire the work of those who photographed the butterflies for the book. They are indeed striking and, in most cases, feature both ventral and dorsal views, making identification of the critters a snap.

But it is not just the adult creatures that are featured here. There are lovely photographs of the caterpillars as well, which allow the gardener to see what it is that is munching on her plants and to be tolerant and protective of these "worms" which will some day take to the air as fully-formed colorful butterflies.

The authoritative text of the book is based on the Tvetens' lifetime of observing these flighty flutterers. They also rely upon and frequently refer to the observations of other experts in the field of lepidoptery. The text describes each species' life history, habits, flight patterns, characteristic markings, and the plants on which the caterpillars feed and on which the adults prefer to nectar.

The guide is arranged in sections featuring each butterfly family: swallowtails; whites and sulphurs; gossamer-winged, metalmarks; snout butterflies; longwings; brush-footed butterflies; satyrs, wood nymphs, and browns; milkweed butterflies; and skippers. I'm proud to say that long usage of and familiarity with the book has finally given me the skill to (almost) always know immediately to which family a new butterfly that I'm seeing for the first time belongs.

There is a general description of each butterfly family in each section that precedes the descriptions of the individual species. This includes characteristics which all members of that family share.

In addition, in the introduction, the Tvetens provide a fairly comprehensive discussion of butterfly biology. Also, in the back is a complete checklist of area butterflies with their common and scientific names and there is a list of butterfly organizations and journals and of public butterfly houses and gardens that one can visit.  

I have several bookshelves filled with field guides, habitat gardening books, and general information books about many subjects in Nature, but there is none among them that I refer to more often or that I rely on my completely for accurate and easily accessible information on this subject. It is certainly the book that I would recommend first to any amateur naturalist interested in the butterflies of this region.


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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Leopard Frog

While I was weeding the area around my little backyard goldfish pond last Saturday, I happened to interrupt the nap of this handsome fellow.

He is a Southern Leopard Frog (Rana sphenocephala) and he and a number of his relatives inhabit my pond and its immediate environs.

Leopard Frogs are pretty common anywhere there is shallow water. This can include lakes, marshes, streams, or backyard goldfish ponds. They are nocturnal and become active at night. Throughout the day, they generally hide among the plants, like my little friend. Sometimes, if they are startled, they will leap into the water. This guy, though, seemed too sleepy to bother.

These frogs are large and slender and can grow up to about five inches long. They can be green or brown or, as this one is, green AND brown. with the large dark spots which give them their common name.

Southern Leopard Frogs breed from March to June. Once mated, the female frogs lay egg masses of up to 4,000 eggs in shallow water, usually attached to plant stems. The tadpoles hatch from the eggs and eat algae and small organisms in the water. They transform to adult frogs by late spring or early summer.

After mating, adult frogs often wander away from water and into woods or fields, where they hide among plants or debris. They return to water by the end of summer.

They eat a wide variety of foods from algae to crickets, beetles, butterflies and spiders, and a wide variety of animals prey on them. Their enemies include herons, fish, bullfrogs, raccoons, opossums, snakes, skunks, and snapping turtles.

One of the great pleasures of having a habitat garden is getting to know the little critters that come to call it home. The Southern Leopard Frog is a welcome resident of my garden.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi: A review

Wildflowers of TexasWildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Earth Day, it seems appropriate to consider some of the gifts that Earth gives us. One of the loveliest and at the same time most useful of these is wildflowers.

If you are an admirer of wildflowers, you know very well that you need a field guide to help you identify what you see. If you live in Texas and/or want to know about the wildflowers of this state, one of the very best guides you can pick up is Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi.

I got my copy of this book several years ago on a visit to that shrine to Texas wildflowers, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, and it has been well-thumbed over the years. It is my go-to guide for figuring out what I am seeing along the roadways and byways of the state, as well as, sometimes, in my own backyard.

There are more than 5,000 species of flowering plants identified in the state and this revised edition of the book which I own has information about 482 of the state's most common wildflower species that are found in its major vegetation zones. It is a big state and it contains at least seven distinct vegetation zones: the mountains of the west, swamplands in the east, piney woods, desert, coastal plain, the semitropical Rio Grande Valley, and the Panhandle. These zones encompass a dizzying variety of wildflowers.

The book is organized in an easy-to-use, straightforward fashion. Flowers are divided in sections by color, first of all, since that is their most obvious characteristic. There are four sections: white-green, yellow-orange, red-pink, and blue-purple. One can easily turn to the section that best describes the color of the blossoms he/she sees and thumb through it in order to locate the plant.

Within each color section, the plants are organized alphabetically by family, then genus and species. There is a color picture of the flower on the left-hand page and the right-hand page contains information about the plant's bloom period, range and habitat, its botanical description, and other information, such as its therapeutic, culinary, or other traditional uses. It really could hardly be any more practical and useful for the average reader or lover of wildflowers.    

The writer herself is a vascular plant field taxonomist, as well as a freelance writer and photographer. Her expertise and her passion for the plants is evident. She has produced a guide that is particularly useful to those of us who are amateur naturalists, who do not have extensive botanical training but who do have a sincere interest in these plants and a desire to protect their habitats in the wild as well as to use them wherever possible in our own gardens.

Personally, I have many of the wildflowers featured here in my own garden and I'm always looking for spots where I can add more of them. Since bringing this book home with me, I have depended on it to help me identify those wild plants which I can successfully incorporate into my habitat garden plan, making it an extension of the natural environment around me.  The book is as much an indispensable garden tool for me as is my favorite hoe.


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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Reverse of the Medal (Aubrey/Maturin #11)The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jack Aubrey is such a dunderhead. He really should not be allowed abroad on land without a keeper.

At sea, he is authoritative, knowledgable, decisive, charismatic, a man of action that other men delight in following. He is "Lucky Jack."

But on land, he is decidedly unlucky. He is "Dunderhead Jack," an easy mark for any scam artist.

A scam artist is just what he meets on his way home from his duties of protecting whalers off the South American coasts. This well-spoken, well-dressed gentlemen convinces Jack that he has inside information that peace is going to break out in just a few days and that certain investments in the City, made before the news becomes public, are bound to make the lucky investors a fortune. Jack, who is always only half a step ahead of bankruptcy and ruin, jumps at the chance to make his fortune. He never considers who the man is or why he might be giving him this information or if the information might have been planted by his enemies to bring him down.

It doesn't take long for everything to fall apart. Jack has only just made it home and his beloved Sophie has just returned from a trip north and they are reunited when the bailiffs show up to arrest him for manipulating the market, in effect, for insider trading. Clapped in prison and not allowed bail, it is up to his friends to try to extricate him from the mess.

His particular friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin, works tirelessly to achieve that extrication. He visits all the important people of influence who owe him favors to ask for their help in freeing Jack. But things look bleak. None of them seem to have sufficient influence to achieve what is needed. It seems certain that Jack will at least be fined and pilloried and possibly even sent to prison for an extended period. Worst of all, he could be "struck off" and lose his naval career. It is an ill omen that the judge in his case is a political creature who is bent on punishing Jack's father, the loudmouthed Radical Gen. Aubrey, through his son.

Stephen has his own worries as well. His beloved Diana has run away to Sweden with another man, because she believed, wrongly, that her husband had been unfaithful to her and had flaunted his red-headed "mistress" all around the Mediterranean. The enemies of Aubrey/Maturin strike again.

Meantime, Jack is unworried. He maintains an innocent trust in British justice, "the best system of justice in all the world." He believes that if the jury hears him tell his story, they will believe him and free him. Even when told that he will not be allowed to tell his story because of the rules of evidence, his faith is unshaken.

If Aubrey's faith in British justice is misplaced, his faith in his men, the men of the Surprise and in all the men he has served with in his long naval career is not misplaced. When he is at his lowest ebb and just about to founder in the shoals, they are his lifeboat, his shield.

This was a quick and easy read because it was all about the characters and the characters' relationships. It didn't have a lot of the nineteenth century naval jargon and descriptions of naval battles that often slow my reading of these books. It focused, in fact, on the main thing that I read the series for - the relationship between Aubrey and Maturin.

As the book ends, that relationship is at a turning point and Maturin, the spy, has just learned some very valuable information, the result of which will (perhaps) be revealed in the next book. O'Brian did have the knack for keeping his readers turning those pages - and those books.      



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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Easter Day

Easter morning. A day that I have many fond memories of from my childhood.

My mother always got me a new dress and shoes for the day, and, usually, a special bow or sometimes a little hat for my head. New clothes were not that common in my life so I always looked forward to this chance to dress up.

Then on to church where there was, of course, a special service and special music for the day. And there would be some kind of program involving the children. A chance to perform! A chance to show off for an appreciative audience of parents.

After that, of course, came the high point of the day for us kids - the Easter egg hunt with the possibility of being the lucky one to find the Prize Egg.

Finally, home for a very special lunch, shared with company - uncles, aunts, cousins, and sometimes, when it was our turn, the preacher and his family.

Simple pleasures for simple lives.

In some parts of the world, Easter is a far more grand occasion. Oscar Wilde wrote of such grandiosity and compared it to the life of the man whom the day is supposedly all about.

Easter Day

by Oscar Wilde

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.

Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.

My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”

It must be said that the present pope seems much more in empathy with the "One who wandered by a lonely sea, And sought in vain for any place of rest" and with those who still wander and seek. Most likely, he would wash his/their feet and offer him/them a place to rest.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

This week in birds - #105

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

Rose-breasted Grosbeak visitors like this pair were common in my backyard last spring. They have reached and passed the Gulf Coast in their spring migration. Will any of them show up here this year? It always seems to be boom or bust - I have a lot of them or I have none. My birdfeeders are stocked and ready and I'm hoping for "boom" again this year.

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One of the big stories in science this week was the occurrence of the so-called "Blood Moon" eclipse which generated the usual prophecies of the Apocalypse from the usual suspects. But it turns out such lunar eclipses are really not that rare. They've happened many times in history without triggering an Apocalypse.

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I've reported here before about brainy New Caledonian Crows learning how to use water displacement to obtain food. Now here's a video from The New York Times science desk showing one of the crows in action.

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Scotland's most famous Osprey, Lady, has returned to her nesting area for the 24th straight year and has laid her 69th recorded egg. The bird has raised 50 chicks during those previous 23 years.

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Four years after the explosion of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico, the cleanup is finally winding down, but the environmental damage continues and its far-reaching effects are yet to have their final reckoning. One of the latest effects documented is a dramatic dwindling of insect populations in the Louisiana marshes. Since these critters are near the bottom of the food chain, that does not bode well for those that are higher up on the chain and that depend on them.

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New research confirms that forests on nutrient-rich soil are better able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere than forests on poorer soil.

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The Nature Conservancy is using data garnered from eBird reports to identify spots where shorebirds stop on their migration through the California valley. They are then paying farmers in those areas to make their land more welcoming for the birds.

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In another big science story this week, it was reported that NASA's Kepler planet-finding mission has found a planet which appears to be a twin, or a cousin, of Earth, in that it seems to have the right conditions to foster life. The planet was given the name Kepler 186f. As far as I know, no one has yet suggested that this is a sign of the Apocalypse.

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The La Brea tar pits of California are famous for the megafauna which they have yielded up, but some of the minifauna, which has received very little attention, has proved especially interesting as well. For example, bees, which it seems are connecting California's past to its present.

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Some overwintering Snowy Owls are lingering on Massachusetts beaches and that is bringing them into conflict with returning Ospreys who consider those beaches their own.

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More bad news for bats: The bat-killing white-nose fungus has now been identified in at least 25 states and bats continue to die by the thousands.

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Colombia is suffering through a devastating drought which is raising fears of increasingly harsh summers in the region.

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Hundreds of environmental activists have been killed around the world in the past decade. South America seems to be the most dangerous region for such activists.

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Around the backyard:

Scenes like this have become common around my yard again this week. This picture was actually taken during the winter of 2012, but my backyard feeders are again being mobbed by White-winged Doves. Curiously, I hardly saw any of these birds during the recent winter, but now here they are again en force.

Also curiously, the doves have been joined by a large number of Blue Jays. Now, I always have Blue Jays around but not ten or fifteen at a time like this week. And if you have any doubts, yes, ten or fifteen Blue Jays can raise quite a ruckus!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Thoughts on Good Friday: I guess I just don't understand

So...I've been thinking about that freeloading rancher in Nevada who has inspired various gun nuts to show up and instigate a standoff with federal authorities. The deal is that the man had been grazing his cattle on federal lands - i.e., lands that belong to all of us - for about a quarter of a century and never paying any of the required, relatively minimal, fees. The Bureau of Land Management had finally decided to try to collect and confiscated his cattle on the lands. And that's when the rancher and his supporters decided to bring on the guns. (And why is it that the first impulse of people like him is always to wave their guns around?) The federal authorities, not wishing to start a bloodbath, stood down and will pursue remedies by other means.

And now this old white guy with his cowboy hat and his gun is the newest hero of the right-wingnut faction of American politics and their hysterical media outlet, Fox News, which has been giving the incident the 24-hour "news" coverage and doing its best to whip up the flames of insurrection.

Now, here's the part I don't understand. This man is a thief. He has been stealing from all of us for years. Overall, it amounts to thousands of dollars. And yet he is a hero to the right who believe that he should not be punished for his breach of the law and he should not even be made to pay his fees. (And, incidentally, I wonder how that makes all the thousands of law-abiding, patriotic ranchers in the West who regularly pay their legally-required fees feel?)

Let's consider a slightly different scenario.

An impoverished black family, say a mother and two children, receive food stamps. Through some sort of error or bureaucratic glitch or even because the mother had misstated her income, the family receives $10 more in food stamps than they were legally entitled to. What would be the right-wingnuts' response to that? Would they show up en masse to protect this family from the collectors?

The rancher says that the reason he doesn't have to pay the grazing fees is that he doesn't recognize the United States government, just as certain corporations say they don't have to comply with some laws because they don't agree with them. And the right-wingers just love that! But what if a left-wing commune somewhere in the heartland of America decided on its own that the federal government is not legitimate and they are not bound by any of its laws. Would Fox News trumpet their resistance and rally people to support them?

The response of Fox News and those who live and breathe by every word emanating from that network is very much predicated on the political philosophy of the person involved in the story. Conservative, good. Liberal or progressive, bad. Salon.com calls it the Clive Bundy Syndrome or why Christian Conservatives think they are above the law.

It's an interesting philosophy for a group of people who say that they follow the teachings of a man who said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Just a thought for Good Friday.