Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Praying mantis

While I was watering a pot of gerbera daisies yesterday, I became aware that the daisies had a visitor aboard.

See him? He's well-camouflaged, wearing the same color as the leaves, and sitting just to the right of the flower. That's right - he's a praying mantis, one of the most interesting of predatory insects.

Here he is from a slightly different angle.

From behind, you can get an idea of those relatively large front legs which he uses to capture his prey - things like moths, crickets, grasshoppers, flies, and just about any other insect that comes within reach. Those legs are equipped with spikes that help him snare his prey and hold it in place while he devours it at his leisure. Not only do the mantises eat other kinds of insects, they are also known to eat their own kind. The most notorious such behavior is that of the female mantis who sometimes eats her mate just after, or even during, the act of mating. This however does not seem to deter the horny males. Perhaps the hint of danger gives the act an extra fillip!

Those front legs that are formidable weapons also give this insect its common name. In its resting pose, the legs are bent and held together at an angle that suggest the position of praying hands - thus, "praying" mantis.

Whatever we call them, these insects are powerful and efficient predators. They have the ability to turn their triangular heads 180 degrees on their long neck in order to scan their surroundings with their two large compound eyes and the three other simple eyes that are located between them. While doing this, they remain virtually invisible because of their cryptic coloring of green or brown that blends in with their surroundings.

Praying mantids are welcome partners in the garden because they eat so many harmful insects. Indeed, gardeners often purchase egg cases of the insect to allow them to hatch in their gardens. I haven't found it necessary to do that since I seem to have plenty of naturally-occurring ones. And so can you if you eschew insecticides. The females regularly produce an egg case which holds hundreds of eggs. When the nymphs hatch, they look much like miniature versions of the adults. I frequently see large numbers of them around the garden in summer.

Here is a link to ten little-known facts about these fascinating insects.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The unguided Cruz missile

Ever since the voters of Texas in their infinite wisdom foisted Ted Cruz onto the national politics stage of America, we have read and listened to innumerable stories about the man that tell us that, whatever else he may be, he is very, very smart. And ever since he arrived on the scene and I've been reading those stories, I've been saying "Show me the evidence!"

Just ask my husband. We've had this discussion several times, because he tends to think that Cruz is very intelligent and that he just "plays stupid" for his tea party supporters. I maintain that he isn't playing.

But you won't convince any Beltway pundits of that. The "Cruz is brilliant" meme, which I suspect was started by Cruz himself, is now accepted wisdom with the Beltway crowd, and every time anyone mentions the name Ted Cruz, it is mandatory that they mention how smart he is.

So, mine has been a lonely voice indeed, which is why I was elated to see this headline on yesterday: "The 'Ted Cruz is smart' trap: Why this garbage is false - and dangerous." 

"Yes!" I cried. Vindication at last! Someone agrees with me.

Nathan Robinson, the author of the piece, writes, "It can't really be that we think Cruz has a sophisticated mind, given that the only thoughts he produces are angry pants-on-fire platitudinous drivel. Even those who lavish praise on his oratory seem to agree that his heat-to-light ratio nears the infinite, and that 'thoughtfulness' and Ted Cruz cannot exist in the same room."

Well said, Nathan. To those who take the opposite view, I challenge them to name one original thought expressed by the man since he has been a senator or one positive and forward-thinking act taken in that period. He is a smarmy, egotistical, bomb-throwing, arrogant, destructive force, who cheerfully lies in support of his agenda in the certain belief that no one will call him on it because everyone is so intimidated by his vast intelligence. 

Moreover, Cruz seems to be thoroughly lacking in people skills and has completely alienated his fellow senators, which is apparently not all that easy to do in the clubby atmosphere of that body. He makes enemies every time he opens his mouth. Which is often. Like some other senators - John McCain comes to mind - he lives for the spotlight and, unfortunately, the mainstream media cooperates with him by shining it on him pretty much 24-7.

Nathan Robinson again:
Any definition of intelligence is destined to be highly contestable. Yet it is hard to imagine a plausible one that does not include large measures of critical thinking and self-scrutiny. As Bertrand Russell put it, it’s always a central problem that “the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” Intelligence necessitates doubt, for doubt is the origin of wisdom. One whose mind is clamped shut cannot be intelligent, and yet Ted Cruz does not in his life ever seem to have taken on board a single challenge to his worldview.
We can be pretty sure that Ted Cruz is never troubled by doubt. Glib and loquacious, ambitious and confident he may be; a deep thinker he is not. The description once applied to Newt Gingrich - “a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person looks like” - seems to fit Ted Cruz perfectly. And since there are apparently plenty of stupid people around, especially among the media, we probably will continue hearing about how smart he is.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Anodyne Necklace by Martha Grimes: A review

The Anodyne NecklaceThe Anodyne Necklace by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that I could have easily read in one sitting if I didn't have anything else to do because it was just hard to put down once I got into it. But since I do have other things to do, it actually took me a couple of days. Two very pleasant days of reading.

Once again his boss sends Richard Jury off into the English countryside to solve a murder. This time it is in the tiny village of Littlebourne where a severed finger had recently been found. The finger pointed (pun intended) local constables to a boggy footpath where the corpse it had come from was found by a bird watcher out looking for a rare bird.

The murdered woman was a stranger to the village. It developed that she had probably come there for a job interview, but what was she doing on that footpath and why would anyone in the village want to kill her? Or was the deed done by some nefarious stranger?

Littlebourne, it turns out, is your typically wacky English village with eccentric denizens galore, all of whom we meet in the course of Jury's investigation. But strange things were happening in this village even before the murder. The year before had seen the theft of an extremely valuable emerald from one of the local gentry. Later, the owner of the emerald had died, leaving his widow essentially destitute and needing to sell their mansion to move on to something more manageable. The man suspected of the theft was himself killed in a road accident, but the emerald was never found.

Meanwhile, more recently, a young woman from the village had been attacked while she was in London for her violin lesson. She was left in a coma and is in the hospital, having not yet regained consciousness. Jury soon becomes convinced that all of these incidents are somehow related if he can only find the key. And if he can find that key, he can identify the murderer.

Aiding him in his search is the estimable D.S. Wiggins that we met in the first two entries in this series, as well as Jury's friend Melrose Plant who has become an amateur detective of sorts, one who enjoys assisting the police in their inquiries.

Richard Jury forms the opinion that the answer to the puzzle may actually lie in London and, returning there, he searches out a pub called the Anodyne Necklace where a game called "Wizards" is played. The game is played with a specially drawn treasure map and it seems that such a map may be instrumental in solving the murder.

But before the one murder can be solved, another one is committed in the village. It appears that a real crime wave has hit the sleepy little place and there are plenty of nasty people about who look suspicious.

As in the last book, The Old Fox Deceiv'd, Littlebourne has a charming and precocious child who figures in the plot. This time it is a nine-year-old horse-loving girl, Emily Louise Perk, and she seems to have the village pretty much under her thumb. (She actually reminded me somewhat of Alan Bradley's creation, Flavia de Luce, and I had to wonder if Bradley was possibly inspired by Grimes' child character.)

Of course, in the end, Jury, along with his "posse" of Wiggins, Plant, and Emily, manages to find the solution to the mysteries that surround Littlebourne and he wraps it all up in a neat little bow. But I'm sure his boss, who is always looking for an excuse to get him out of London, will soon find another quirky little village that is experiencing a crime wave and we've be off on another reading adventure.

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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

Statue of Liberty 7.jpg
Statue of Liberty 

The colossal neoclassical sculpture that is known to us as the Statue of Liberty, located on Liberty Island in the middle of New York Harbor in Manhattan, was originally called "Liberty Enlightening the World." It was designed by Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. Dedicated on October 28, 1886, it has become one of the iconic sights of New York and, indeed, of the country.

The statue features a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom. She bears a torch and a tablet upon which is inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. This symbol of freedom is a welcoming signal to immigrants and visitors arriving from abroad.

American poet Emma Lazarus (1849 - 1887) wrote a poem called "The New Colossus" that was a donation to an auction that was conducted to help raise money to construct a pedestal for the statue. The poem played no role in the actual opening of the statue in 1886, but later, after her untimely death, friends began an effort to memorialize the poet and her poem. Success came in 1903 when a plaque bearing the text of the poem was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal, where it remains today, a reminder to us from this "Mother of Exiles" that we are a nation of immigrants. Lest we forget...

The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Saturday, July 26, 2014

This week in birds - #118

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

It's that time of the year when some of our backyard birds begin looking decidedly strange. If you don't know what's going on, you might think they are sick, but no, it's all part of a natural process called the molt.  Summer through early fall, the adult birds, now mostly finished with their family-raising duties, begin to lose their old worn-out feathers and to put on fresh new ones for the winter.  By the time of late fall, all the transformations will be complete and the birds will be dressed in their pristine feathers for the new season. The Northern Mockingbird pictured above is getting an early start on the process.


When will architects and city planners ever begin to take the needs of migrating birds into consideration? Probably only when laws make them do so, and considering the current state of our law-making body of government, which essentially doesn't believe it should make any laws, that isn't going to happen. And so, we have structures like the new Minnesota Vikings football stadium going up. The stadium is expected to have 200,000 square feet of glass that could lure thousands of birds to their death every year. Up to 988 million birds a year die needlessly in this country through collisions with buildings, mostly glass windows, and this stadium, as it is planned, would only add to that total. Conservationists are fighting to have the design modified to make it safer for birds, but it is unclear if they will be able to succeed.


I remember very well when I saw the very first Eurasian Collared-dove in my yard. It was in February 2005 and for the next couple of years, they were the most numerous doves in my yard. Then the White-winged Doves arrived and most of the Collared-doves moved on. Since then, the Collared-doves have shown up and made themselves at home in most of the contiguous 48 states, and now, they've finally made it to New York City! In June, one was sighted by a birder in Manhattan. If they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.


The "Big Year" is a popular activity (sport? competition?) for obsessive listers of birds and last year was a very Big Year for birder Neil Hayward. He set out to see as many birds in North America as he could in a year, hoping to break the record of 748. By December 31, he had recorded 750 species of birds. Three of his sightings are considered "provisional" by the ABA and have not yet been certified, but Hayward thinks it might be possible to log up to 760 birds on the continent. But that birder would have to be extremely lucky.


And speaking of Big Years, a birder named Dorian Anderson is biking and birding across the country this year to raise money for conservation. His bird total as of today stands at 508. He blogs about it at Biking for Birds.


Peter Gleick writes about how California's response to the severe drought wracking the state has been complicated by its water system itself with its diverse sources of water and water rights, regulations, and demands.


A few years ago, we had a pair of Monk Parakeets resident in our neighborhood. (I should say we had two parakeets in the neighborhood - I'm not sure they were a pair because they never nested.) After about three years of entertaining us, they disappeared and we've not seen any of their species here again. But these birds are becoming numerous in many parts of the country and they are right at home on city streets.


Western states and energy companies are cooperating to try to make the world safe for the Greater Sage Grouse. Their aim is to try to keep the bird off the Endangered Species list which would give it much greater protection and impose more onerous regulations on the energy companies.


Researchers tracking migrating Wood Thrushes with the use of GPS "backpacks" have discovered that the birds that migrate farthest north in the spring also migrate farthest south in the fall, giving them overall the longest migration route in the species.


There is some good news for a change from the world of endangered species this week. A pair of wild California Condors in Utah have successfully hatched a chick in a nest there for the first time since the species was released back into that area in 1996. And farther south, a litter of five Mexican wolves were born to parents that were released into the Sierra Madre Mountains there about eight months ago.


Colombia has actually made significant strides in recent years in protecting areas for the preservation of wildlife. Now, conservation groups there have established a new protected area in the cloud forest of the mountains, an overlooked habitat. The preserve is only 750 hectares but it is a bird paradise and is home to many threatened and endemic species.


eBird reports that sea ducks have been unusually numerous this summer on the Atlantic Coast all the way from the Carolinas down to Georgia.


The United States has fallen sadly behind in the production of renewable energy like solar or wind power, mostly because of the obstructionist tactics of elected representatives who are beholden to oil, gas, and coal companies. But in some areas, the gap is being closed. California is about to break ground on another big desert solar project and additional solar power plants will be built within Los Angeles city limits.


Around the backyard:

"I tawt I taw..." 

Is it possible? Sitting in my backyard late one afternoon this week, I was gazing in the direction of a Hamelia patens ("hummingbird bush") when I became aware that the shrub was being visited by a hummer. But just as I noticed it, another hummer flashed in and chased the first one away. I sat and looked for quite some time, hoping he would return so that I could get a better look but he never did; however, in that instant that I saw him, his back appeared rusty-colored like a male Rufous Hummingbird. The other hummer was definitely a male Ruby-throat because he flashed his gorget at me.

It seems very early for a Rufous hummer to be here, but it certainly looked like one. I'm still on the lookout for him whenever I'm outside.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Cop Killer by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

Cop Killer (The Martin Beck)Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I can't help noting the similarity in titles between this book and the first of the Ed McBain books that I read earlier this month. McBain's book was Cop Hater. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo stated that McBain's work was an inspiration and model for their Martin Beck series, so was this title an homage to McBain?

Whether it was or not, Sjowall/Wahloo's writing style continues to owe much to that established by McBain in his police procedurals. The writing is spare and straightforward, although the series does allow for considerable character development. We've gotten to know Martin Beck and the members of his team very well in the course of these books.

The books have gotten progressively better as the series has continued, in my opinion, and I have to say that this one, the penultimate entry, is my favorite so far.

Cop Killer focuses on the working relationship between Martin Beck and Sten Lennart Kollberg, his most trusted colleague. Together they go to the village of Anderslolv in southern Sweden to investigate the disappearance of a woman. A few days into the investigation the woman's body is found in an out-of-the-way  location near a lake. She has been murdered, so now the two have a murder case on their hands. They are aided in the investigation by a local policeman, Herrgott Allwright, who seems to know everything about everyone in the small village.

Suspicion immediately falls on the woman's next door neighbor who turns out to be the culprit who was apprehended by Beck and his team in the first novel, Roseanna. The man had been released from prison and was trying to make a new life for himself in Anderslolv.

Beck's superiors insist that the neighbor be arrested and Beck and Kollberg reluctantly comply although neither really believes the man is guilty and they continue investigating.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, two inept young criminals have burgled an unoccupied summer cottage and taken everything that wasn't nailed down. In their escape, they drive without turning on their headlights which gets the attention of a police patrol and they are stopped by the infamous Karl Kristiansson and his new partner (His first one was killed in The Abominable Man.) Kenneth Kvastmo, who is just as inept as his old partner but is much more zealous in the pursuit of criminals. It is Kvastmo who insists on pursuing and stopping the car and he emerges from the police vehicle with his gun drawn. Before the encounter ends, two policeman are shot and another is injured in a very weird way and one of the young criminals is dead. The other one escapes and later ditches his car and steals another one. As serendipity would have it, that car turns out to be connected to Beck's murder case!

It all turns into a typical horrible mess, again exemplifying the ineptitude of the Swedish police system. As always in these books, Sjowall/Wahloo are very critical of the brutality and excesses of the police which they see as an outgrowth of failings of the Swedish welfare state of the period. All of this is portrayed in a very sardonic way in their prose. They use humor very effectively to make their points and often the reader can't help chuckling over some of the Inspector Clouseau-like episodes.

At the same time, individual policemen like Beck and Kollberg and several of their colleagues - Gunvald Larsson, Fredrik Melander, Per Mansson, etc. - are shown as dedicated and hard-working, if flawed, professionals who doggedly pursue their investigations of criminality, even in the face of bureaucratic indifference or ignorance.

On a lighter note, we finally see Martin Beck in a satisfying romantic relationship after so many years in a very unfulfilling marriage that ended in divorce. Rhea Nielsen, a woman that he met in the last novel, has become his lover and for the first time since we've know him, he actually seems happy! But will it last?

Only one more book to go in the series. I miss Martin Beck already and he's not even gone.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Trees of Western North America by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson: A review

Trees of Western North AmericaTrees of Western North America by Richard Spellenberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For those readers and Nature-lovers who need a comprehensive field guide to help them identify the trees of western North America, here is your book. This new guide, soon to be published by Princeton University Press, covers both native and naturalized trees of the western United States and Canada. The territory covered extends as far east as the Great Plains.

This book is very easy to navigate. It is divided into two main sections, the gymnosperms and the angiosperms, and within those sections it is further divided into families of trees. Overall, there are descriptions of some 630 species, which the publisher says is more than any comparable field guide. (I guess I'll take their word for it!)

An important part of any field guide, maybe the most important part, is the pictures. Trees of Western North America has thousands of meticulous color paintings of trees by David More. These are invaluable identification aids. The paintings are further enhanced by the detailed easy-to-understand descriptions and the accompanying range maps which, together, provide a quick and easy view of the individual species.

There is also copious information about recently naturalized species, as well as "Quick ID" summaries which make the information on each species more accessible. There is a key to shapes and structures of leaves along with an introduction to tree identification, forest ecology, and plant classification and structure.

The book defines trees broadly enough to include in its descriptions many small, overlooked species that are normally thought of as shrubs and it includes treelike forms of cacti and yuccas. The descriptions offer details of size and shape, growth habit, bark, leaves, flowers, fruit, flowering and fruiting times, habitat, and range.

In short, the book has everything one could ask for in a field guide of trees in western North America and it certainly seems to nicely fill that niche. I think it should become a very useful and popular tool among those who are interested in this subject.

(A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

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