Saturday, February 17, 2018

This week in birds - #293

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

Franklin's Gull (note white dots on black wingtips) photographed on a pier at Rockport, Texas.


Are you counting the birds in your neighborhood this weekend? Yes, it's the weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count. The count is now a worldwide event. It used to be limited to North America but was expanded in recent years and reports are now received from far-flung places on every continent, except possibly Antarctica.


It is feared that a reorganization of the Interior Department, planned by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, will muddle the responsibilities of various sections of the agency and will reduce the role of science in agency planning.


The number of oil and gas rigs in the United States increased by 38% last year. This is expected to have a significant climate impact since the oil and gas industry is a huge source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.


A new study of wildfire management that appeared in the Journal of Applied Ecology this week makes the point that the wrong kind of management can actually devastate wild bird populations. The study was based on findings from California's destructive and expensive year of firefighting.


Researchers have found that bees seem to prefer fields with borders. Interestingly, croplands with more divisions actually benefit pollinators more than increasing crop diversity.


A new study demonstrates that the nesting success of the Louisiana Waterthrush -- a habitat specialist that nests along forested streams, where the potential for habitat degradation is high -- is declining at sites impacted by shale gas development in northwestern West Virginia. This is believed to be evidence that "fracking" to extract shale gas is impacting the breeding success of songbirds, possibly because of the pollution of water which it creates.


Polluters in the United States are facing fewer consequences these days. Scott Pruitt's EPA has fined those that flout regulations 49% less than the past three administrations.


Meanwhile, the Interior Department appears to be in a state of all-out attack on the public lands which it is supposed to protect. One prong of that attack has been the promotion of "multiple use" of public lands. This essentially means opening up those lands to mining, oil and gas drilling, and the grazing of cattle.  


Plastic of all kinds and sizes is turning up in great quantity in the previously pristine areas of the European Arctic. This detritus of human occupation is causing great harm to the wildlife, especially seabirds, that live there. 


Using genetic and fossil data, lepidopterists have produced a new and improved evolutionary tree which, they claim, more accurately reflects the evolution of butterflies and how the various species are related to each other.


Science is slow. It rests on painstaking research with accumulating evidence. This makes for an inherently uneasy relationship with the modern media age in which people often take their "news" from such sources as Facebook and Twitter. This is especially true of issues that are politicized as climate change has been. A prime example is the recent winter that has been colder than usual in many parts of the northern hemisphere. Climate change deniers have taken that to mean that global warming is not happening, and, in fact, that we may be entering a new ice age. They tend to ignore the fact that there is a southern hemisphere of the planet that has experienced record HIGHS in temperatures during these same months. It's called cherrypicking your facts to make them fit your conclusion.


An Oregon State-led research analysis of bird diversity in the mountains of southern Costa Rica has concluded that old, complex tropical forests support a wider diversity of birds than second-growth forests and, thus, such old-growth forests have an irreplaceable value for conservation.


A massive oil spill in the East China Sea that resulted from a collision that sank an Iranian tanker last month is threatening some of the most important fishing grounds in Asia, from China to Japan and beyond. The oil condensate that is leaking is especially insidious because it is almost invisible. 


A study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers has found that the survival of the Sharp-tailed Grouse will likely be negatively affected by the predicted increased temperatures across the Great Plains which will reduce appropriate nesting sites.


Global warming has caused the world’s oceans to rise over the past 150 years. Warming seas expand, and water from melting glaciers and ice sheets have had nowhere to go but into the oceans. The rising seas have slowly and steadily eaten away at coastlines. But a new study finds that in recent decades, the pace of sea-level rise has picked up and coastal real estate could be under water faster and faster in the coming decades. Sea-level rise could double its rate within the next century, with disastrous consequences for coastline communities.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2018

Shhh! My garden is still sleeping.

The shrubs have been pruned back.

Winter clean-up is underway.

There's a bit of green to go with the brown in spots.

Undaunted by our colder than usual winter, the little leucojum blooms right on schedule.

These sweet little blossoms do give the gardener hope.

When they are the only thing blooming in the garden, they are precious indeed.

But everything else is sleeping still.



Hold on! Spring is just around the corner.

It's nice to be able to visit Carol of May Dreams Gardens and find that some gardeners do have actual blooms this February. Happy Bloom Day to you all, whether or not you have any blooms.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz: A review

I love a good mystery. That's why I read so many of them. What I don't like is gimmicky mysteries. I especially don't like mystery writers who don't play fair; who use tricks, games, wordplay like anagrams, etc., to mislead and misdirect their readers. 

I'm looking at you, Anthony Horowitz. I am most seriously displeased.

I had had Magpie Murders in my reading queue for months, but decided to read it now because of a television show. 

We had just finished watching the third and final season of Mackenzie Crook's wonderful gentle comedy about metal detecting, Detectorists, in which magpies play a major part in the plot. Can you say "serendipity"? It seemed the universe was sending me a message so I decided to get on with it and read the book. I had read mostly glowing reviews and my expectations were high.

At the beginning of the book, we meet book editor Susan Ryeland who has a new book from her publishing house's most popular author to read. That writer is Alan Conway and he writes a very successful mystery series featuring detective Atticus P√ľnd. She starts reading the manuscript of the new book and we read along with her.

I was perfectly happy with this mystery and quickly burrowed into the small village atmosphere, following clues, sniffing out red herrings, trying to zero in on a suspect. It was a nice homage to the sainted Agatha. I cut my reader's teeth reading her books, so this was a trip down memory lane for me.

Then, halfway through the book, the manuscript ended. The problem was that there were pages missing - the important final pages that identified the killer and gave the denouement. The editor, Susan, set about trying to find the missing pages. But in the interim, the author Alan Conway has died, apparently as a result of suicide, and Susan doesn't have a clue as to where the missing pages may be.

As she looks for them, she finds herself examining the life of Alan Conway and the known facts about his death. The result is that she becomes convinced that his death was not suicide but murder and she sets about trying to solve that mystery. She intuits that there are clues hidden in that manuscript she was reading. 

And so we get the gimmick of a mystery within a mystery. But that is just the beginning; we also have tricks, games, anagrams to solve. Horowitz pulls out every trick in his considerable bag of them and proudly spreads them all out for us to admire.

Much of this book seemed self-referential. Susan Wyeland seemed like a stand-in for Anthony Horowitz, and she was, frankly, unconvincing as a woman. Throughout, there are all these little asides referring to things that Horowitz has worked on. At one point, Susan mentions that a particular character has watched every episode of Poirot and Midsomer Murders. Well, me, too. In fact that is where I first encountered Horowitz and grew to admire his work as a screenwriter.

Magpie Murders seemed like the tongue-in-cheek creation of a writer eager to show off his cleverness and wow us with his literary connections. It did not seem like a work written with a reader in mind, a reader who the writer wanted to entertain. And, in the end, I wasn't.    

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Poetry Sunday: On Aging by Maya Angelou

There are many poems by Maya Angelou that are very well known and are integral parts of modern culture. Poems like Caged Bird, Still I Rise, and Phenomenal Woman spring readily to mind, but not all of her poems are so well known. This is one of those.

It may not be so famous but when I read it last week I felt a flash of recognition from this poem. As a woman who is no longer young, I understand very well the sentiments expressed here, and it comforts me somehow to know that Maya Angelou felt them, too.

On Aging

by Maya Angelou

When you see me sitting quietly,
Like a sack left on the shelf,
Don’t think I need your chattering.
I’m listening to myself.
Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me! 
Hold! Stop your sympathy! 
Understanding if you got it,
Otherwise I’ll do without it! 
When my bones are stiff and aching,
And my feet won’t climb the stair,
I will only ask one favor:
Don’t bring me no rocking chair.
When you see me walking, stumbling,
Don’t study and get it wrong.
‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy
And every goodbye ain’t gone.
I’m the same person I was back then,
A little less hair, a little less chin,
A lot less lungs and much less wind.
But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.  

Friday, February 9, 2018

This week in birds - #292

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

Pine Siskins having a meal at my backyard feeder today. Siskins will be one of the species I'll be looking for next weekend during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Have you signed up to count? If not, never fear; there's still time. The count is always held on Presidents Day weekend. It starts on Friday and runs through Monday and it is a great way to become more familiar with the birds in your neighborhood.


Birds don't understand glass which is why they tend to fly straight into it and why large buildings with lots of glass are such death traps for birds. That most definitely includes U.S. Bank Stadium, home of this year's Super Bowl. It is the cause of more bird deaths than any other building in Minneapolis. 


The toad thought he had found a tasty meal, but once inside the amphibian's stomach the beetle exploded and was expelled and lived to fly another day. That is the modus operandi and the defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle and Japanese scientists have managed to capture footage of the insect's great escape. Perhaps most surprisingly, they were even able to hear the explosion inside the toad!  


The famous Washington, D.C. Bald Eagle pair, named Liberty and Justice, are nesting again and have laid their first egg. There is an eagle cam trained on the nest so you can watch the action through egg-laying, brooding, and, if everything goes well, hatching and raising the chicks.


Outside online magazine has put together a timeline of the current administration's regulation rollbacks and revoked protections of the nation's public lands.


Nature finds a way and that includes domesticated animals that are returned to Nature. Even the abandoned pet dogs of Chernobyl learned to survive when they were left behind in the contaminated exclusion zone around the nuclear reactor. They have formed their own society and their descendants continue to live there. 


Wetland plants are often dispersed from one site to another through the medium of duck feces. Thus, ducks become important vectors in the spread of such plants and they help to encourage the production of the plants which they find desirable to eat. 


Migratory birds use a magnetic compass in their eye for navigation. The involved sensory mechanisms have long remained elusive, but now, researchers believe they have located exactly where in the eye avian navigation is situated. There is one specific part of the retina - the outer segment of the double-cone photoreceptor cells - which makes the navigation possible.


The precipitation total in January over the contiguous United States was 1.81 inches, which is 0.50 inch below the 20th century average, tying it for the 21st driest January on recordDrought intensified and expanded across parts of the West, Southern Plains, and Southeast.


Wilderness study areas are more wild and untouched than national parks. But a bill introduced in early December threatens this unique terrain, environmentalists say. It would eliminate wilderness protection from the Big Snowy Mountains of Montana as well as from another 358,500 acres in Montana that have been shielded from development since the 1970s, opening the way for development of the areas.


"The Prairie Ecologist" writes about the importance of diversity, redundancy, and resilience in the continued survival and thriving of the prairie.


Researchers have shown that Great Spotted Woodpeckers of Europe may be able to recognize one another by the individual pattern of their drumming.


"The Incidental Naturalist" tells us about a pint-sized poisoner - the green and black poison dart frog.


There are more than 2,500 sites that handle toxic chemicals and that are located in flood-prone areas in the United States. Several of them are located in the Houston area where, last summer, Hurricane Harvey caused deadly chemicals to be released into waterways. 


Small birds are more energy-efficient than bats when flying, which is important for their ability to make long-distance migrations. Researchers are identifying some of the mechanisms behind their energy-efficient flight. 


Image from The New York Times.
Here's a creature for your nightmares - a mutant crayfish that is able to clone itself. It is a six-inch-long critter called the marbled crayfish that appears to have developed as a species only twenty-five years ago. Apparently, a drastic mutation in a single crayfish produced the marbled crayfish in an instant and now its population is exploding across Europe.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin: A review

Once again we enter N.K. Jemisin's richly imagined world called Stillness. It's a world that is never still.

As we learned in the first entry in this trilogy, The Fifth Season, Stillness is populated by human or humanoid beings called stills, orogenes, stone-eaters, and guardians. And floating somewhere above them all are a series of obelisks. It is unclear who made the obelisks or just what purpose they serve.

At the time of events in The Obelisk Gate, the apocalyptic, world-shattering action of The Fifth Season is in the past and the residents of Stillness are trying to find ways to adapt and survive in a world gone mad.

In the first book, we had the point(s) of view of Damaya/Syenite/Essun. In the aftermath of everything, we now get Essun once again as she makes a place for herself in an underground comm (community) led by a strong female head. This comm is not without its conflicts and some of the arguments sound very like what we hear in the daily news in our own country, especially those arguments which seek to set one group against another.

Essun is searching for her daughter, Nassun, who is an orogene like herself. Nassun was spirited away from her home by her father, Jija, and Essun is concerned for her safety and for her further training and education as an orogene.

We meet Nassun and Jija and learn that Essun is right to fear for her safety. Jija is taking her to a place where he has heard that she can learn how to not be an orogene and that is what he fervently wishes for.

Fortunately for Nassun, she meets Schaffa, her mother's former Guardian at the Fulcrum. Schaffa takes over the training and protection of Essun's daughter.

The action in this book is slower than in the first book. The apocalypse becomes a slow-moving disaster and we see how different groups position themselves to try to survive. Meanwhile, Essun's friend/lover/teacher, Alabaster Tenring, the world-destroyer, is present in the same comm with Essun and he continues her instruction, including urgently trying to teach her how to utilize the obelisks. 

I found the narrative in this book somewhat confusing. For example, it wasn't entirely clear to me just who the "you" addressed in the narratives at the beginning of chapters was. Best guess: Essun. But it seemed unnecessarily ambiguous. 

And what's the deal with the Moon being flung out of orbit and into space at some point in the past? And that's why Father Earth is angry and is taking it out on the inhabitants of Stillness? He wants his Moon back and apparently Nassun and/or Essun will attempt to deliver it. Maybe in the next book? Stay tuned.

In short, I think this book suffered just a bit from "second book syndrome." It didn't seem quite as fresh and powerful as the first one. Still, overall, it was a compelling story - good enough to win the Hugo Award just like the first one, so what do I know?

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Poetry Sunday: Harlem by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was an American poet of the twentieth century who gave voice to the experiences and aspirations of African-Americans. This is one of his more famous poems.


by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?