Saturday, April 20, 2019

This week in birds - #350

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

Yellow-breasted Chat image courtesy of Houston Audubon Society.

I heard my first Yellow-breasted Chat of the season on Thursday. "Heard" is the operative word; I never actually saw the bird. It was in the shrubbery in my next-door neighbor's yard and, as is typical of the birds, was giving its strange hooting, whistling, laughing calls as it skulked about scouring the leaves for insects. I've always been fascinated by chats, partly I think because I remember them well from my childhood. Their behavior, as well as their calls, is unique and memorable. But the birds are fascinating for other reasons as well, mainly because ornithologists can't agree on what they are! For more than a century, they were classified as members of the wood warbler (Parulidae) family, even though they are more than twice the size of some members of that family and their behavior is not typical of wood warblers. In 2017, after taking another look, the American Ornithological Society decided the birds should be in a family of their own, the Icteriidae, and they changed the bird's scientific name to Icteria virens. That decision was not universally accepted and the controversy rages on. Who is the Yellow-breasted Chat? Meanwhile, the chat knows fully well who he is and continues his skulking migratory route north where he hopes to raise more little chats who also won't care what the AOS calls them!


The last known female Yangtze giant turtle has died leaving only three others that are known to exist. There is a male who lived at China's Suzhou Zoo with the female who died and there are two wild turtles who live at separate lakes in Vietnam and whose sex is unknown. So there is still at least a very faint hope that the species may be saved.


Meantime, there is good news concerning the North Atlantic right whales: They are experiencing a mini baby boom. No calves at all were reported last year, but so far in 2019 seven babies have been seen in New England waters. For a species whose total population is only known to be 411, that is a significant increase.


Here's proof that families, even eagle families, come in many different configurations. The Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge have documented a family of three adult Bald Eagles, two males and a female, that are raising three eagle chicks at the refuge. All three participate in feeding, protecting, and caring for the little ones.

And here they are. The mother, Starr, is on the nest (obviously before the eggs hatched), and the two fathers, Valor I and Valor II, stand by.


Over the past half century, under Democratic and Republican presidents, the killing of migratory birds, even accidentally, has been prosecuted to the full extent of the law. No more. Prosecutions are way down under the present anti-science, anti-environment administration. Malefactors are only prosecuted if the killing was deliberate and there is no guarantee they will be prosecuted even then.  


The Kluane Red Squirrel Project, known as Squirrel Camp to participants, has been going on in the wilds of Canada's Yukon region since 1987. It has collected masses of data on generation after generation of red squirrels, not unlike Jane Goodall's tracking of chimps over the years. The aim of the project is to observe and address such issues as the effect of climate change on squirrel reproduction, how squirrels defend their territory, and what happens when a squirrel takes over the food hoard of a dead squirrel. The project has produced a number of published scientific papers on these subjects.


A federal judge late Friday delivered a significant setback to the Trump administration’s policy of promoting coal, ruling that the Interior Department acted illegally when it sought to lift an Obama-era moratorium on coal mining on public lands. The decision by a district judge in Montana does not reinstate President Barack Obama’s 2016 freeze on new coal mining leases on public lands but it directs that the administration must do adequate studies of the environmental effects of mining before approving any such mining.


Sea spiders have proved to be extremely adaptable creatures. There is hope that this ability to adapt will save them as the oceans warm up.


The first Golden Eagle to be tagged with a radio transmitter in Yellowstone National Park was found dead in the park recently, only a few months after the tagging. A necropsy showed that the bird had died of lead poisoning. It had evidently ingested the lead from bullets that hunters had used in killing big game animals whose carcasses were then left in the wild for scavengers like the eagle to eat. There are lead-free bullets available, but apparently, they are not in wide use and are not mandated by most states.


Migrating birds rely on forested areas for sustenance on their overwintering grounds, but deforestation in these areas is threatening their ability to survive. Many birds are experiencing precipitous population declines because of the change in land use in Central and South America.


Data from eBird, the online citizen science site for reporting bird sightings, is helping identify areas that are important to migratory birds' survival. It has helped to locate sites essential to the survival of 117 neotropical migrants.


A six-decade plankton study, from the 1950s to the present, is helping to chart the rise of plastic in our environment and shows how it has grown into a global emergency.


Winter irruptions of birds like the Red-breasted Nuthatch appear to be followed by less successful breeding seasons, suggesting that birds do pay a price for their wanderings. Perhaps the stress of having to travel far in search of food makes it more difficult for them to breed successfully in the following season.


How do Jackdaws, members of the super-intelligent corvid family, remember where they've been and what they did? Neuroscientists at Ruhr University are hoping to determine that in their ongoing study of the birds.


The endangered Saltmarsh Sparrow is one of only five species of birds that are totally restricted to the saltmarsh habitat for their entire lives. Thus, the rise in sea levels as a result of climate change is an existential threat to their continued survival.


One tiny bit of good news emerged from the fiery devastation of Notre Dame cathedral this week. The 180,000 bees that lived in hives on the roof of the cathedral survived. The beekeeper who oversees them was able to confirm that the hives are intact and the bees are alive and well. He called it a miracle. Perhaps he is right.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Colors of All the Cattle by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

It's been quite a while since I traveled to Botswana, land of eternal sunshine and many-colored cattle, to have red bush tea with Precious Ramotswe. I was feeling a bit thirsty for that tea and so I decided to check in with Precious and see what was happening in the little town of Gaborone.

It turned out Precious had gone into politics! It was a most un-Precious-like thing to do but she had been pushed into it by her great friend Mma Potokwane, head of the local orphanage and a woman who knows how to get people to do her bidding.

An opening had come up on the Gaborone city council and the word was out that the council was to soon vote on whether to allow the building of the flashy Big Fun Hotel next to the city cemetery. Mma Potokwane was appalled at this effrontery and disrespect to the "late" people who reside in the cemetery. Mma Ramotswe was equally appalled when her friend told her about it, but she didn't see that there was anything to be done about it. That's when Mma Potokwane explained her plan; Precious would run for the empty seat and turn the council away from this very bad decision.

Precious was adamantly against the plan, but when Grace Makutsi learned who was also running for the council seat (her hated enemy Violet Sepotho), she added her voice to the insistence that Mma Ramotswe run and save the town from ignominy. No way could she withstand the pressure from these TWO determined women!

And so Mma Ramotswe ran and to her great surprise, she won! Meantime, she continued to do her day job as the No. 1 detective at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Botswana's one and only detective agency.

In that latter capacity, she cleared up a hit and run mystery in which an honored doctor had been injured; she supported her "apprentice detective" Charlie as he struggled with ethical issues and helped him with sorting out his love life; and she assisted other members of her team as they solved minor mysteries, the stock-in-trade of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. 

All in all, it was a very satisfying and relaxing Botswanan holiday for me and the red bush tea was delicious.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi: A review

Reading Helen Oyeyemi's latest book is a bit like looking at the mirrors at a carnival where everything is distorted and you can never be quite sure what you are seeing. Is this science fiction? Social commentary? Satire? A fairy tale? Magical realism? All of the above? Oyeyemi keeps the reader guessing and, frankly, I was never quite sure. 

One thing I am sure of is that this novel requires the reader's strict attention to every sentence. If one's attention wanders, as mine did midway through the book, one is quickly lost and must regroup to find one's way again.

So, what is this book actually about? Well, at its root, it is about a family of women: Margot, the grandmother; Harriet, the mother; and Perdita, the daughter. There are ancillary characters, the fathers and other relatives, friends, and those who exploit the women, but, mainly, it is the story of these three women.

The story begins in the magical country of Druhástrana. Where is this country? Well, it is magic so the location doesn't really matter, but the natives of the country are black, so perhaps it is intended to be in Africa. It is a land where the peasants are virtual slaves to callous landowners who are never satisfied with their efforts. It is in Druhástrana that the recipe for gingerbread is perfected. It is spicy and addictive and life-sustaining. 

In time, Margot and Harriet make their way to England where Margot eventually becomes a successful entrepreneur and Harriet continues to bake her gingerbread and gives birth to Perdita. This part of the book conveys much about what it is like to leave a homeland and try to find a new community and a place for oneself in a foreign land. Much of the novel revolves around Harriet telling her origin story to her daughter after Perdita suffers a near-death experience and must learn to communicate again. It's an origin story that might have been written by Lewis Carroll.  

This is a head-spinning tale of imagination. I find it almost impossible to adequately describe, possibly because I'm not really sure I have fully understood it. I give the writer full marks for the intelligence it took to put this plot together and the wild imagination it took to conceive of it. But if the aim of the writer is to be understood, that is a bit more problematic.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - April 2019

Happy Bloom Day! Welcome to my zone 9a garden near Houston, Texas.

The busiest gardening season of the year, spring, is very much with us here, but my gardening season has not been very busy so far. Some health issues have limited my ability to work in the garden. As a consequence of that, no new plants have been added this spring which means no new blossoms. Still, I'm happy to have the blooms that my old plants produce.

Many of the same plants that were blooming for March Bloom Day are still going strong. Things like...

...the pansies and violas.

And still more violas.

The snapdragons.

The yarrow.

And, of course, the 'Peggy Martin' rose. 'Peggy' has been in bloom since January but she is just now reaching her peak.

The gerberas.

The purple oxalis which I plant on purpose.

And its wild cousin that plants itself in many of my beds around the garden.

Feverfew has completed one bloom cycle and is just starting another.

The coral honeysuckle is still in bloom.

And now its invasive cousin, Japanese honeysuckle, is blooming in my neighbor's yard and hanging over the fence into my yard. Pretty and sweet-smelling as it is, it is an aggressive invader and I fight a battle against it every spring to keep it from taking up residence in my yard.

I have enjoyed having this long-blooming wildflower, Texas groundsel, in my garden this spring. The butterflies, like the tiny satyr pictured here, have enjoyed it, too.

'Belinda's Dream' rose is beginning to bloom.

And the pomegranate tree is full of these orange blossoms.

Yellow cestrum.

The red yucca is not quite in full bloom yet but soon will be.

The Salvia greggii, aka autumn sage, is blooming.

And so are the red columbines.

Justicia 'Orange Flame.'

The blue-eyed grass closes its eyes and goes to sleep by late afternoon and it was already beginning to close when I took this picture.

And the same goes for the water lilies. This one was beginning to close up.

If it is April, then it must be amaryllis season. Some of my early ones have already bloomed and faded, but this one, which may be my favorite, is still making my world a more beautiful place.

Thank you for visiting my garden this month. If you haven't already, be sure to visit May Dreams Gardens for a list of all the gardeners who are participating by sharing their gardens.

I wish you a happy spring in the garden.

Poetry Sunday: Song of Myself, 3 by Walt Whitman

The only time I've featured a poem by Walt Whitman here was way back in 2013 with "I Hear America Singing." Time to rectify that.

In this one, Whitman sings of himself. He celebrates the body and he celebrates it, as he did most things, with passion. He accepts and approves of every "organ and attribute" of that body; "Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile."

How much less anguish there would be in the world if we could all be so accepting of our bodies.

Song of Myself, 3

by Walt Whitman, 1819 -1892
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.

Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.

To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.

Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.

Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.

Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.

Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread.
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?

Saturday, April 13, 2019

This week in birds - #349

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

This Carolina Chickadee seems to be enjoying a refreshing shower in this brief spring rain.


A new study by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (apparently there are still some who haven't been purged) attempts to put a dollar cost to the effects of climate change. Their conclusion is that unchecked climate change will be costing the United States hundreds of billions of dollars per year by the end of this century.


Some fascinating news from the world of archaeology this week: Archaeologists on Luzon in the Philippines have turned up the bones of a distant relative of ours. They've named it Homo luzonensis. These cousins stood less than three feet tall and lived at least 50,000 years ago.


In a recently released report, conservationists have ranked the American cities with the most dangerous skyscrapers that present death traps for migrating birds. Topping the list was Chicago with its many glass-windowed buildings. Estimates are that at least 100 million birds and possibly as many as a billion die on this continent in collision with buildings each year.


Some people are trying to do something about the problem of birds and glass buildings. At Georgia Southern University, for example, a professor and graduate student are doing research to determine which buildings on their campus present collision problems for birds and attempting to determine practical solutions and their costs. And around the country, many other such projects are in progress. It's a start. 


A new National Park System study showed that 20% of urban coyotes' diet was composed of cats. The danger to small pets in these areas is extreme, which is one more reason to (PLEASE!) keep them safe inside when you are not able to directly supervise them. The study also showed that in 2016 there were 16 coyote attacks on humans in Los Angeles, up from two in 2011.


The eBird website for recording and keeping track of one's sightings of birds has revolutionized birding, especially for North American birders. Outside of this continent, the birders who most enthusiastically use the citizen science site are in India and the data from their entries are providing much-needed information about the distribution of birds on the subcontinent.


North America's largest waterbird is the Trumpeter Swan, but size did not protect it. In the last century, it was headed for extinction, brought down by over-hunting. But now the swans are protected and efforts at restoration are showing success. Several states have reported sightings and a few have nesting birds.

 Trumpeter Swan cygnets at Cleveland's Metroparks Zoo. (Image by AP.)


Black bears were wiped out in Texas several decades ago, but with protections in place, they are slowly returning to south Texas. Experts fear that a wall on the border would end the recovery. A tall wall envisioned by those who are pushing for it would also interfere with the passage of several low-flying species of birds. 


Something for the nightmares of those who get queasy around snakes. This is a 17-foot-long python that was captured in the swamps of the Florida Everglades this week. The female snake weighed 140 pounds and was carrying 73 eggs. Environmentalists continue to struggle to eradicate the invasive species which first got introduced to the wilds by people who released some as overgrown pets. The already thriving population got a further boost when Hurricane Andrew in 1992 wrecked a breeding facility and released more breeding snakes. 


How high do Golden Eagles fly? Well, research indicates it depends on the topography and that may provide useful information for those who plan and design wind farms. Eagles are among the birds that most frequently tangle with and lose encounters with the blades of the turbines.  


Scientists have mapped out an enormous network of potential marine protected areas that cover more than one-third of the world’s oceans and represent all marine ecosystem categories. Protecting these areas, they say, would help to ensure continued marine diversity.


But in the real world in which we live now, Donald Trump and his minions continue to sabotage conservation work in every way they can. Most recently, they have withdrawn funding from a large, successful conservation program in direct contradiction to instructions from Congress. The 22 research centers of the program tackled big-picture issues like climate change, flooding, species extinction, and tried to plan counteractions.  Sixteen of the centers have now been put on indefinite hiatus or closed.


A fungus called Candida auris which preys on people with weakened immune systems is causing concern in health care professionals around the world. It is tenacious and resistant to anti-fungal medications and represents one of the world's most intractable health threats: the rise of drug-resistant infections. This particular fungus has already spread a web of death through hospitals around the world.


A team of scientists argues in their recently published paper that the size of protected areas is less important than the actual biodiversity that exists in the area. A small area may potentially represent more biodiversity than a larger one and that is the key.


Critics of the "Green New Deal" point and cry "Socialism!" Historians point out that we've seen this show before. The plan for establishing national forests in the 1930s elicited the same criticism. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Sea of Troubles by Donna Leon: A review

This one was perfect. It was my comfort read and it provided everything that I needed just when I needed it. Visits with Commissario Brunetti and his families - both his own and his work family - are like that, but this one was even better than most.

It begins on the island of Pellestrina on the Venetian lagoon. Two clam fishermen, a father and son, have been found murdered on their fishing boat.  The older man's head had been caved in by a couple of brutal blows and the younger had been knifed in the stomach and bled to death. But that wasn't the end of it. In the middle of the night, the community was awakened by a loud boom as the boat's gas tank exploded and enveloped it in flames. The flames spread to the boats moored on either side and things looked very dicey for a while until the other fishermen managed to get things under control and extinguish the conflagration. When the neighbors finally realized that the owners of the burnt boat were missing, someone thought to dive and look into the cabin of the damaged boat and the bodies were found.

Of course, no one immediately called the police. Calling the police is not something that is routinely done on Pellestrina. At least they brought the bodies out because the crabs had already gone to work on them. Eventually, someone does notify the police and Brunetti and his sergeant, Vianello, head out to investigate. And thus begins their adventure.

This adventure will also directly involve the wonderful Signorina Elletra, super-secretary, who takes on the mantle of an undercover agent to try to break the wall of silence from the villagers about the murders and the men who were murdered. Elletra had relatives on and ties to Pellestrina where she often spends summer vacations and she volunteered her services. Brunetti tried to dissuade her, but she is effectively her own boss.

All of this culminates in a horrendous storm on the Adriatic where boats are tossed about like matchsticks and for a while, it seems like this may be the last adventure of Commissario Brunetti. He survives, but sadly, one of the recurring characters readers have come to care about does not. Sigh.

Nevertheless, all of that is in service of the plot and it is a very good, well-executed plot. The action is crisp, the likable characters are really likable, and the hatable characters are deliciously hatable. Really, what more can one ask of the mystery genre?

My rating: 5 of 5 stars