Monday, July 27, 2015

Esperanza: Hope for the summer garden

Tecoma stans, or Esperanza, has been designated as a Texas Super Star plant, meaning that it can take just about anything Mother Nature in Texas throws at it and keep on ticking, keep on performing its role as a mainstay of our summer gardens. The most common variety that one sees is the yellow form, popularly known as "Yellow Bells." I have a couple of those plants in my garden but both got pruned back severely in late spring and they haven't produced blooms yet. I also have two plants of the variety shown blooming here which is called "bronze." It has a touch of orange or rust in its bell-shaped blooms. Both varieties, the yellow and the bronze, are greatly loved by bees of all kinds. The flowers provide abundant nectar as a reward for their pollinators.

These plants generally grow 3 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide, although one of my yellow plants gets up to ten feet tall by the end of summer. In addition to lovely blossoms, the shrub also sports very attractive shiny green foliage which holds up well through the heat and drought of summer, seldom wilting even in the noonday sun. Their water requirements are low; they perform well whether or not it rains.

Esperanza is deciduous and my plants generally die back in the winter, so one shouldn't place them where winter interest is needed. They always return with a vengeance in the spring, ready to grow like Jack's beanstalk as soon as the ground warms up. They will bloom throughout the summer and fall. The flowers have a very faint but pleasing fragrance.

Esperanza is completely hardy only to zone 8b. Farther north it would need protection and could be grown in pots. In my zone 9a garden, it seems very contented.


This is one of my "Yellow Bells" from last year. It will be in bloom again later this summer, making all the local bees happy.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Poetry Sunday: A narrow fellow in the grass

Perhaps not so many people find poetry in snakes, but then the Belle of Amherst was no ordinary person or poet. Emily Dickinson wrote with empathetic feeling of the "narrow fellow." As one who admires snakes, I find her poem quite expressive of their nature.

A narrow fellow in the grass (1096)

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him—did you not
His notice sudden is,
The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your feet,
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,  
A floor too cool for corn,
But when a boy and barefoot,
I more than once at noon
Have passed, I thought, a whip lash,
Unbraiding in the sun,
When stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled and was gone.

Several of nature’s people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality.
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

This week in birds - #166

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

The Cactus Wren is an especially raucous member of that large and raucous family.  It favors hot, dry, rocky habitats, the same kinds of places where cactus is found.  

The wren is well-named for it builds its large, untidy, distinctively wren-like nest in cacti, where it should be well-protected from most predators. Clever birds!


A study of Cooper's Hawks that is under way in New Mexico is showing that the abundance of these hawks that prey on birds is tied to the availability of prey, not exactly an earthshaking conclusion I would think. The type of prey that they favor is exemplified by birds like the White-winged Dove. This explains why I have a Cooper's Hawk year-round in my yard and I see it most often when White-wings are prevalent in large numbers.

My resident Cooper's Hawk waiting in hiding (he thinks) for an unwary dove.


National Moth Week is winding down but there is still time for you, the citizen scientist, to participate and report on the moths in your neighborhood.


More than 70 percent of pollen and honey collected from foraging honeybees in Massachusetts showed contamination by pesticides containing neonicotinoids, the type of pesticide that has been linked to colony collapse disorder. 


Bald Eagles, which had been extirpated on California's Channel Islands, have now been reintroduced there. A study of their diet found that they were preying heavily on seabird colonies on the islands in addition to taking fish. Efforts to conserve the seabird colonies have also apparently aided the eagles.


And in other eagle news, a study of White-tailed Eagles in Germany shows that they do not compete with the fishermen of the area. The types of prey which they take are not the same as those sought by humans who fish. 


The usual American summer hysteria about sharks has been fed by some unusual attacks on humans off the Atlantic coast. This latest find may provide an antidote.

This new species of shark, called a pocket shark, measures only six inches long and has been found by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists in the Gulf of Mexico. It fits easily into one human hand. In the words of The New York Times headline, "You're going to need a smaller boat!"


Snakes haven't always slithered. Their ancient ancestors had the ability to walk, as shown by a fossil snake found in a museum in Germany. This snake had four legs


Dark plumage can make birds harder to see and increase their chances of survival in certain habitats. It is not surprising then to find that darker plumage is more prevalent among birds that are found on small islands.


The orcas of Puget Sound are still endangered, but the latest count shows that their population has increased slightly.

Here's part of that increase. A baby orca leaps out of the water as shown in this picture from AP that made the rounds on the Internet this week.


Horseshoe crabs are an ancient species, older than dinosaurs, and so they have survived much that Nature has thrown their way. Their biggest challenge, though, is humans and we still don't know if they will survive us. The survival of many migrating shorebirds is linked to them, so it is important that we do everything possible to see that they do survive, for their own sake as well as for the birds.


Science continues to make progress in sequencing genomes of various animals. One of the latest to be sequenced is that strange little bird of New Zealand, the Brown Kiwi


Offshore wind farms are raising hopes for a new dawn of clean energy production in the country.


The emerald ash borer is an invasive green beetle that is laying waste to ash trees on the continent. It has spread to white fringetrees and entomologists believe its impact on them will be widespread.


Barnegat Bay's Sedge Island State Wildlife Management Area, off the coast of New Jersey, is home to 25 to 30 nesting pairs of Ospreys this summer. 


Shorebirds are well known for wandering far and wide across the planet and often turning up in unexpected places. This summer, some American shorebirds are showing up on the south coast of England. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton: A review

The Xibalba Murders (Lara McClintoch Archeological Mystery, #1)The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This series was recommended to me recently because of my interest in archaeology and my love of reading mystery series. Since this is billed as an archaeological mystery series, it certainly seemed like the perfect fit.

The Xibalba Murders, the first book in the series, seemed especially promising since it is set in Mexico and involves a mystery about a Mayan artifact and archeological dig. I've been fascinated by Mayan history ever since my long ago college days when I did a research paper about that culture for my Cultural Anthropology class. And so, I settled down to read the book with some enthusiasm.

On the whole, I found the book to be mildly entertaining. There were things that I liked about it and things that I didn't like, but considered as a whole, it was okay.

What I liked about it could be summed up as the Mayan aspects. The author names every chapter after a day in the Mayan calendar and she relates the events of that day to the characteristics which the Mayans attributed to the day. That was a clever way of telling the story.

Also, throughout the book, Hamilton gives brief dissertations on various parts of Mayan mythology, especially as it relates to the Hero Twins and their battles with the Lords of Death, rulers of Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. These explanations were to the point and clearly stated, something that can be difficult to accomplish with that very convoluted mythology. They added a lot to the story and made the fascination with the potential of discovering a  previously unknown Codex, which is at the center of the plot, more understandable.

The plot itself was pretty interesting. A noted Mexican archeologist is on to what he believes will be a great discovery of a Mayan artifact. For some inexplicable reason (and this was a weakness in the plot), instead of turning to other archeologists for help, he calls his friend Lara McClintoch, an antiques dealer in Toronto, and asks her to come down to help him. McClintoch has just gone though a messy divorce and has had to sell her antiques store and divide the profits with her ex. Now, she is at loose ends and jumps at the chance to go to Mexico, to the little Yucatan town of Merida to aid her friend.

When she gets there, she receives a message from the archaeologist delaying their meeting. Soon the action heats up and dead bodies are appearing around town - the first one discovered by Lara, which in the eyes of the local police, makes her the prime suspect.

Into the mix comes a tall, dark, and handsome British-born archaeologist and his handsome and darker Mexican friend. Lara, of course, is almost immediately besotted with the Brit, which perhaps tells us everything we need to know about her judgment in men since the guy is obviously such a rotter!

Okay, here's a thought. Why do mystery writers with women as their main characters seem to always feel they have to throw in that "tall, dark, and handsome" guy as a romantic interest for the woman? Did Miss Marple ever have a love interest? I don't think so, and yet she managed to solve mysteries just fine. Unlike Lara McClintoch who doesn't really solve the mystery so much as having its solution thrust upon her.

Do you get the idea that I didn't much like Lara? Well, you would be correct in that deduction. She really came across as much too slow-witted to ever be a successful detective. I knew who the culprit(s) was(were) as soon as I met him/her and I found myself wanting to shake Ms. McClintoch as she made bad decisions at every turn. Moreover, Lara often trusts the wrong people and distrusts those she should trust. Not a good recommendation for a "detective."

Well, this was the first in the series and it wasn't uniformly awful, just kind of meh. One of the attractions of reading series is that they often get better after the initial offering, so I think I will probably read a couple more in the series to give it every chance to grow on me. Maybe Lara will wise up a bit by then.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The summer of magical thinking

Five years ago, in July 2010, I wrote a commentary on the political discourse of that summer. Reading it today, I realize that the old adage that "the more things change, the more they remain the same" was never more true. Here's that post from July 14, 2010.


The summer of magical thinking

There are certain groups in our country who seem to honestly believe that if they say a thing is true, no matter how outlandish it is, that makes it true. That, I believe, is clear proof of a faith in magical thinking that bedevils our national discourse this summer. You might also think of it as the "Tinkerbell philosophy." If I close my eyes and believe real hard and clap just as loud as I can, then I can make it true.

Thus we have highly placed members of the Republican Party claiming with a straight face that reducing taxes for the richest people in the country will not increase the nation's deficit and that it will stimulate the economy. They make these statements in spite of the fact that all empirical evidence points to the conclusion that any tax reductions received by these people go straight into their own savings. They have no effect on the economy at large - except to depress it by increasing the deficit. Furthermore, it is self-evident to anyone who is not a complete idiot that if you reduce a country's income, while continuing to spend at the same rate, you will increase the deficit. But Republicans still insist that isn't so and that is the philosophy they will run on this year.

Then we have the case of the tea partiers. Their rallies are full of signs with racist innuendo and sometimes unmistakable racist expletives. Their ranks are virtually 100% white. Many of the groups that are their strongest supporters, both financially and with personnel, are outright racist groups - groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the notorious White Citizens Councils of the '60s and '70s. And yet they reject any implication that they are in any way racist. This week, when the NAACP passed a resolution calling on them to repudiate racism and the racists in their organization, this is what one of their leaders, Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express, had to say about that:

You’re dealing with people who are professional race baiters, who make a very good living off this kind of thing. They make more money off of race than any slave trader ever. It’s time groups like the NAACP went to the trash heap of history where they belong with all the other vile racist groups that emerged in our history.

No, no, nothing racist or historically incorrect in that statement. Just squint your eyes and believe as hard as you can and clap those little white hands and it will all be true.

Like I said, magical thinking. But it is very likely that both the Republicans and their cohorts, the tea partiers, will get away with it because there are not enough journalists in this country who are willing to call them out on this utter stupidity. I think it's going to be another long, hot summer of lies.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Rue the caterpillar!

On my inspection walk through of my garden a couple of days ago, I noticed that my little rue plant was looking decidedly the worse for wear. I looked for the reason for its disheveled appearance and it didn't take long to find the culprit.

And here he is - a big, fat Black Swallowtail caterpillar! It was obvious that he had been feeding on the plant, unnoticed, for several days, and he is now very near to the end of his life as a caterpillar. Soon, he'll find a place to spin his cocoon and pupate. And then, with a bit of luck, I may meet him in the garden in his new form as a beautiful Black Swallowtail butterfly.

This was a Black Swallowtail that visited my garden earlier this year. Perhaps he was an antecedent of my present-day caterpillar.

The rue will grow new leaves and the caterpillar will move on to the next stage in its development. And so the circle of life continues.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The throwaway kitten

We have lived in this neighborhood for 27 years. During those years, especially the early years, there have been a number of animals, mostly cats or kittens, that have been abandoned here or have found their way here after being abandoned. I came to think of them as throwaway kittens, a prime example of humanity's inhumanity. They were animals that had been betrayed and abandoned by the humans who should have cared for them.

We did our best to care for them and adopted many of them. When our children were growing up, hardly a spring or summer went by without them bringing another throwaway kitten home. The last of those adoptees finally died last year at the age of 16.

Four years ago, we adopted Beau and Bella who had been rescued by our younger daughter along with one of her friends when they turned up, abandoned, near that friend's house. Since then, we have not had the occasion - or the necessity - of adopting another animal. Until last week.

Last Tuesday, as I was getting ready to go to an appointment, my husband told me he had seen a kitten in our driveway earlier. As I pulled out of the driveway, I noticed that there was a kitten-shaped lump lying under the front end of his pickup. When I came back, more than an hour later, the lump was still there, so I went to investigate.

The lump was a tiny gray tabby kitten. It looked to be not more than five or six weeks old. There were no siblings, no mother anywhere in sight. It appeared to be all on its on. I'm sure it didn't get there by itself. No doubt it had had human help.

When I picked it up, I could feel that it was just skin and bones and very limp. I brought it inside and opened a can of cat food, unsure of whether or not it would be able to eat. I needn't have worried. The kitten fell on the food and, small as it was, devoured a good portion of it. Over the next couple of days, eating, drinking, and sleeping comprised its major activities.

After spending some time with him, my husband announced that the kitten had told him his name was Bertie. That made it official: He's been named, so that means he's been adopted. Beau and Bella are not amused.

By the weekend, Bertie was taking more of an interest in his surroundings, and my daughters, who were both excited at having a new "brother," came to meet him. My younger daughter weighed him on the food scale and found that he weighed 12.03 ounces. My older daughter took several pictures with her phone to record the event of their meeting.

And here's Bertie, sitting on the coffee table in our den on Sunday and wondering what all the fuss is about. Another throwaway kitten who has found a home with us.
This should never happen, of course. Please, if you have cats - or dogs - have them spayed or neutered. And if you have cats, in particular, keep them indoors. Cats who are allowed to roam can do inestimable damage to wildlife and they themselves are vulnerable to attack by dogs, other cats, coyotes (in some areas) or humans and their automobiles. The safest place for a cat is inside where he can entertain his humans and be cherished by them. The world does not need any more throwaway kittens.