Sunday, May 1, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Counting Birds

I featured a poem by Jim Harrison in early April on the occasion of his death, but at the time I was looking at his poetry, I came across this one as well. Since I am a birder and one who counts birds, of course it spoke to me.

Last week I was reading the "By the Book" feature in The New York Times book review section. It was an interview with Louise Erdrich, a favorite writer of mine, and one of the questions asked was about her favorite poem. She mentioned this one. 

Never one to ignore signs from the universe, I said to myself, "Yes, that's my poem of the week!" 

Counting Birds

by Jim Harrison (1990)

As a child, fresh out of the hospital 
with tape covering the left side
of my face, I began to count birds.
At age fifty the sum total is precise and astonishing, my only secret. 
Some men count women or cars
they've owned, their shirts --
long sleeved and short sleeved --
or shoes, but I have my birds,
excluding, of course, the extraordinary 
days: the twenty-one thousand
snow geese and sandhill cranes at 
Bosque del Apache, the sky blinded
by great frigate birds in the Pacific
off Anconcito, Ecuador; the twenty-one 
thousand pink flamingos an Ngorongoro Crater
in Tanzania; the vast flocks of sea birds
on the Seri coast of the Sea of Cortez
down in Sonora that left at nightfall, 
then reappearing, resuming 
their exact positions at dawn;
the one thousand cliff swallows nesting in the sand cliffs of Pyramid Point,
their small round burrows like eyes, 
really the souls of the Anasazi who flew 
here a thousand years ago
to wait the coming of the Manitou.

And then there were the usual, almost deadly
birds of the soul -- the crow with silver 
harness I rode one night as if she 
were a black, feathered angel.
the birds I became to escape unfortunate 
circumstances -- how the skin ached
as the feathers shot out toward the light;
the thousand birds the dogs helped 
me shoot to become a bird (grouse, woodcock,
duck, dove, snipe, pheasant, prairie chicken, etc.).

On my deathbed I'll write this secret 
number on a slip of paper and pass
it to my wife and two daughters.
It will be a hot evening in June
and they might be glancing out the window
at the thunderstorm's approach from the west.
Looking past their eyes and a dead fly
on the window screen I'll wonder
if there's a bird waiting for me in the onrushing clouds.
O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud 
into the marvel of this final night.


He was wrong, of course, about the time of his death - it wasn't a "hot evening in June." But I hope he got that final passage right and as he waited he could say, as he counted his last birds:

"O birds, I'll sing to myself, you've carried
me along on this bloody voyage,
carry me now into that cloud
into the marvel of this final night." 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

This week in birds - #204

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

Get out the oranges and the grape jelly! The Baltimore Orioles are on their way. Early May is usually when they arrive in my yard. I'm putting my oriole feeders out for them and hoping that they don't pass me by this year.


Did you hear about how the large hadron collider in Switzerland was brought down by a weasel? Yes, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator was brought to its knees by a beech marten, a member of the weasel family, that chewed through wiring connected to a 66,000-volt transformer. It put the collider offline temporarily, but it was curtains for the poor marten. The collider is expected to be out of action for a week while the connections to the transformer are replaced. Any remains of the intruder are likely to be removed at the same time.

R.I.P., marten. Your last act made headlines around the world.


Nest cams and other types of cameras set up to record and transmit the action of Nature in the raw can sometimes show images that shock the sensibilities of viewers. So it was with a Bald Eagle nest cam in Pennsylvania this week. The video clearly showed the parent eagles feeding their eaglets a dead cat. Whether they killed the cat or picked it up already dead is unknown. Eagles do scavenge as well as hunt. Either way, it is one more reminder if one was needed: Please keep your cat(s) indoors where they are safe from wildlife and wildlife is safe from them.


Climate change has already disrupted the lives of half a billion people around the planet as drought and heat waves create water shortages and wreck crops, resulting in hunger on a massive scale.


One area where drought is rampant is in India, which is suffering its worst drought in fifty years. Already, many farms, hospitals, and schools have had to shut down because of water shortages. 


Thirty years ago this week the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl occurred. The human death toll from the disaster is really unknown. People are still dying as a result of their exposure and the site will continue to be a threat for at least another 3,000 years. Nature itself, though, has recovered to a remarkable extent. The area around Chernobyl, essentially devoid of human activity, is being repopulated by plants and animals.


Summer is cicada season and five states are preparing themselves for an auditory onslaught by the raucous 17-year cycle periodical cicada. After 17 years underground, the adults will be emerging and will be ready to make some noise in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia. If you live in one of those states, you might want to invest in earplugs!  


Good news regarding the Kakapo, New Zealand's extremely endangered ground-dwelling parrot: So far, 37 chicks have survived this year, making it the most successful breeding season for the bird in twenty years. A veritable baby boom of Kakapos.


The Peacock's tail feathers make a glorious visual display, but it turns out they also create an auditory display. In addition to spreading the feathers to show his lady friends, the Peacock also rattles them to get their attention.


Migratory shorebirds need protection from human activities on the beaches they frequent and that includes humans walking their dogs - especially letting dogs run free off the leash. The harassment by dogs is just one more stressor that the shorebirds, weary from their long journey, don't need.


In guidelines released on Monday, China halted plans for new coal-fired power stations in many parts of the country, and construction of some approved plants will be postponed until at least 2018. Coal-fired power plants have been one of the main causes of China becoming the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.


Central Park in New York is a welcome sight for migrating birds and a Mecca for birders who want to see them. This week a Swainson's Warbler, a rare and very shy bird, was causing birders in the area to drop all their plans and converge on the spot in the park where the little bird was hanging out. 


All animals, most scientists agree, sleep in some way. Some doze standing up; fish sleep while floating; some birds are allegedly even able to sleep on the wing. But until now the stages of sleep experienced by humans have only been documented in mammals and birds. Now, however, researchers have found what they believe to be the same phenomenon occurring in lizards.  

Do you engage in REM sleep, my little green friend?


New research shows that the evolution of beak shape in birds of prey has been constrained by the birds' skull shape.


The Black-throated Finch is now extinct in New South Wales. A few of the rare birds still exist in Queensland, but mining activities could push them to extinction there as well.


Never underestimate the value of even small green spaces. Small urban green areas can be home to a dazzling diversity of vertebrate and invertebrate species, as well as plants. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Random Friday

Here are some things that are on my mind on this last Friday in April.

1.  Remember that old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times"? Well, we certainly do live in interesting times, but this week I'm particularly thinking about interesting weather. 

We are no strangers to extreme weather here along the Gulf Coast and Mother Nature has delivered that in spades recently. Since April 17, we've had a total of 12.77 inches of rain and the forecasters tell us that more is on the way this weekend. 

The last storm that came through, early Wednesday morning, was especially destructive in our community. One woman was killed when a tree fell on her house; others were injured and some areas were flooded again before they had even recovered from the floods of a week before. 

The storm knocked us off the electricity grid from 4:30 in the morning until 9:30 that same morning. Even so, we were a lot luckier than many of our neighbors whose power was out all day. We heard the sound of generators and chain saws throughout the day Wednesday. It was enough to make one think that hurricane season had come early this year. 

2.  As you can imagine, the rain has played havoc with my gardening. Fortunately, our house and yard are on a bit higher ground than many in our neighborhood, but our soil was completely saturated by all that water and many areas are still spongy to walk on. At least we've had a few days to dry out before the next deluge comes.

I've spent the week doing clean-up, pruning, trying to stay ahead of the weeds, and setting out some of the plants I had started under my grow-lights. On the bright side, I didn't have to water those seedlings when I planted them!

3.  So, this was the week that Game of Thrones returned to HBO and Jon Snow is still dead, but I think they are just messing with us and he'll wake up like Sleeping Beauty at some point. 

Maybe most importantly we learned that the Red Woman is actually the Gray Woman. What's up with that??? Speaking for Gray Women everywhere, I think this may be the most revolutionary GOT story line of all.

4.  April, of course, is the month that major league baseball returns. As a lifelong baseball fan and a long time Houston Astros fan, it's a time I always look forward to. 

Last year was an excellent one for the Astros and their fans. They had a really good season and made it all the way to the playoffs. Individual players swept many of the year-end awards, and several prognosticators predicted they would win the pennant and possibly the World Series this season. On paper, their chances looked really good, but they don't play the games on paper.

April has proved to be the cruelest of months for the Astros and their fans. They are off to a 7 - 15 start, a win rate of .318. We are disappointed and frustrated, but we have to remind ourselves that it is a long season. October is still five months away and there is plenty of time to recover from this bad start.

Interestingly, in spite of their team record, for the first three weeks of the season, individual Astros won the Player of the Week award in each week! Tyler White, Jose Altuve, and Colby Rasmus are on their game. Now the rest of the team just needs to pick theirs up.

5.  I am a constant reader and historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I'm currently reading Helen Simonson's latest, The Summer Before the War. The war in the title is World War I, so the time period is 1914 and the setting is Sussex, England. 

I thoroughly enjoyed Simonson's last book, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. It was a very gentle and uplifting story, a relief from some of the more bloodthirsty fare that I sometimes read. So far this book is in much the same vein and yet, knowing the horror that will soon be visited on these people, one is moved by a sense of foreboding. 

Reading such stories gives us a clearer awareness and understanding of a historical period and gives us some reason to hope that such history may not repeat itself.

What is going on in your world on this last Friday in April?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Playing the woman card

(Update: Gail Collins also wrote on this subject today, with her usual humor. Be sure to check out her column.)

The odious Donald Trump just can't seem to stop insulting women. He is an equal opportunity misogynist. He insults women from his own political party as easily as he insults Democratic women, but, of course, his most extreme and downright bizarre insults are reserved for his probable opponent in November's general election, Hillary Clinton.

Thus, in his victory speech after winning primaries in five states on Tuesday, he just couldn't help himself. The only thing Clinton has going for her, he opined, is the fact that she's a woman. If she were a man, he said, she'd probably only get 5% of the vote. He sneeringly chastised her for "playing the woman card."

Well, Hillary Clinton is a woman and if anyone has a right to play that card, it would be her, after having devoted her professional life to trying to raise the status and improve the lives of women and children around the world. I wrote about her efforts four years ago, as another of our interminable presidential election cycles was in full swing. Here is that blog post. It seems pretty apt again this week. 


June 27, 2012

Hillary Clinton, my hero

There is a long and very positive piece in The New York Times Magazine about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entitled "Hillary Clinton's Last Tour as a Rock-Star Diplomat."  I read it with some avidity since Clinton is a hero of mine, one of the people that I admire most in the world.

I am certainly not unique in being a Clinton-admirer. She is the most admired woman in this country, topping that list year after year and is arguably the most admired woman in the world.

There are good reasons for all that admiration. Wherever life has taken her, Clinton has always worked to make the world a better, safer, more equitable place, especially for women and children. She has taken up the cause of women and children around the world and made elevating their status a prime aim of her professional life.

By all accounts, she has been relentless in pursuing her passion for women's and children's rights. Everywhere that she goes in the world as Secretary of State - and she goes everywhere! - that cause is always part of her agenda. She is ever on the lookout for ways in which the lot of the common women in the countries where she visits can be advanced and, in her dealings with heads of state and diplomats, she is not shy about bringing these topics up and making them a part of the negotiations.

Improving the lot of women in developing countries often means paying attention to the most basic of human needs. Things like making access to clean water easier or providing ways of cooking food that do not pollute houses and the atmosphere and make families sick. Or making sure that women and children have access to health care and that women can have the means to limit the numbers of their children. Our Secretary of State is attuned to such commonplace needs and makes them a part of her writ. After all, there are rock-solid data that show that the key to improving society as a whole lies in improving the lives of women. As a rising tide lifts all boats, the rising status of women raises the status of all humanity. Not everyone in the world of politics and international relations accepts that truth, of course, but Clinton does and she is its most effective ambassador.

Clinton has said that she will end her term as Secretary of State with the end of President Obama's first term, regardless of the outcome of this year's election. I would very much hate to be the person who tries to fill her shoes when she goes.

It will be interesting to see what the next act of Hillary Clinton's life will be about. She has certainly earned a rest if that is what she wants, and, indeed, she may want that for a while. I suspect it will be a short while.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Blue-eyed grass

Out by the goldfish pond, the blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) has been in bloom for a while. This plant is a California native, a clump-forming perennial in the iris family. The plant, indeed, looks like a small iris. The grass-like leaf blades grow from 6 to 12 inches tall and stand erect like iris leaves. 

The bright blue flowers are carried on a tall branching stalk that bears clusters of bloom all along its length.

These pretty and delicate blossoms are quite long lasting. When they fade, a seed pod containing abundant seed develops and eventually breaks and scatters the seeds around the area. Thus, the plant can pretty easily spread.

Blue-eyed grass grows well in sun or part shade - mine is in part shade - and it is said to be tolerant of most types of soil as long as it has good drainage. It is also tolerant of wet or dry conditions. It does not require irrigation and so is drought-tolerant, but if planted in a wetter area, it will adapt and do well there, also. It will survive cold down to around 0 degrees F., and there are reports of it surviving in even colder conditions.

Are you getting the idea that this is a very versatile plant? You are correct! It is a very nice plant to grow with grasses, sedges, poppies and lupines, and meadows of native plants. I've certainly enjoyed having the lovely little blooms in my garden.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen: A review

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Department Q, #1)The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me since I generally like Scandinavian mysteries. It was sitting there in my reading queue, so I thought why not? I'll read you next.

Then I started reading and I groaned because it seemed this was going to be just another moody Scandinavian mystery with a dour, emotionally and psychologically damaged detective with a crazy ex-wife. But I kept reading and soon discovered how wrong my first impression was. This was one funny book!

Well, perhaps I should explain here that the main mystery involves a horrendous crime starting with the kidnapping from a ferry of a young, dynamic, and beautiful Danish politician. Details of her kidnapping and the crimes against her are sprinkled throughout the book, interspersed with the chapters that detail the detectives' efforts to solve her mysterious disappearance, and some of those chapters are very hard to read, particularly if one suffers at all from claustrophobia. Fortunately, the chapters about the detectives are much lighter, some of them laugh-out-loud funny. I found myself frequently chuckling at the interactions between the two main characters.

Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces us to Carl Mørck, a detective with the Copenhagen police. We meet him as he is just recovering from a terrible experience.

As he and two partners were following leads on a case, they were jumped by two gunmen. In a hail of bullets, one partner was killed outright; another was paralyzed and there seems no hope for his recovery; Carl Mørck was shot in the head but escaped with only an interesting scar. His shame and guilt, however, is that he never drew his weapon during the shootout.

Carl is a brilliant and intuitive detective, but he is also a pain in the butt. None of his colleagues wants to work with him, so when his boss gets news that funds have been allocated for a new department, an ideal solution occurs to him: He will assign Mørck to be the head and only member of the new department.

That is Department Q, The Keeper of Lost Causes. The commission of the department will be to reopen cold cases, lost causes, and clear them.

Carl Mørck is not amused by his new assignment. So he sits with stacks of these "dead" cases on his desk and plays games on his computer. Then he learns something about the amount of money that has been appropriated for his department and he demands of his boss, Marcus, that he hire an assistant for him, someone he envisions as a janitor to keep the place clean. He also demands more up-to-date equipment and a car. Marcus gives him everything he asks for just to keep Carl in his basement office and out of his hair.

The "janitor" that Marcus sends him turns out to be much more than that. His name (he says) is Hafez el-Assad. He is a Syrian refugee, a political asylee, who, slowly, during the course of the book unpacks a bewildering package of skills and knowledge.

Who is this man and what is his background? When it comes to detecting, he matches the brilliance of Carl Mørck. Even though he is not supposed to be involved in the investigatory side of the department, he manages to insinuate himself and Mørck gradually learns to depend upon him, even though he is still suspicious of his background.

Assad prods Carl into action on the case files covering his desk, and the first one they pick up is that politician who was kidnapped back in 2002. It is now 2007 and that case is very cold indeed.

As Carl and Assad look at the case file, they realize that it was sloppily done. Things were overlooked or mishandled and slowly they follow every little discrepancy, teasing them out, and looking for a solution to the problem.

Reading the interactions between Carl and Assad was just a delight. They play off each other very well and as their relationship grows and deepens, the humor becomes both drier and broader. I fell in love with charming Assad and even dour Carl and I am eager to learn more about them in future books. I think Jussi Adler-Olsen has created a couple of winners here.

View all my reviews

Monday, April 25, 2016

The grosbeaks are here

Each spring and fall, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Blue Grosbeaks pass through my yard on their way north or south. I haven't seen any of the blue guys yet, although I am sure they are around, but over the weekend I had some Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at my backyard feeders. Unfortunately, I didn't have a camera at hand when I saw them, but here are some representative pictures from previous years.

The adult male gives the species its name. It is unmistakable with the red breast and the big chalky white beak.

The female looks a bit like a large sparrow but, again, with that very big white beak - the "gros beak."

They most often travel in pairs, so when you see one, generally, its mate is nearby.

They are lovely birds. This pair was likely on its way to somewhere much farther north for the summer, either along the northern tier of the United States or even into Canada. But with any luck, we'll see them or their relatives again in the fall.