Sunday, August 30, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Some Beasts (Algunas Bestias)

I have this old much-thumbed, dog-eared book with yellowing pages that contains selected poems of Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet who was winner of the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature. It is a bilingual edition. The poems are presented in their original Spanish and with English translations.

There are many of his poems that are favorites of mine - poems that have meant something important to me at various times in my life. But most of them are quite long, too long to be featured here. However, I did find one that is fairly short and that I especially like for its sumptuous imagery.

Neruda's poems seem to flow easily, naturally. He was endlessly inventive, weaving poetry of both surreal and real images, encompassing the earthly as well as the metaphysical. This is an example of that.

Some Beasts (Algunas Bestias)

by Pablo Neruda

It was the twilight of the iguana:


From a rainbowing battlement,
a tongue like a javelin
lunging in verdure;
an ant heap treading the jungle,
monastic, on musical feet;
the guanaco, oxygen-fine
in the high places swarthed with distances,
cobbling his feet into gold;
the llama of scrupulous eye
the widens his gaze on the dews
of a delicate world.

A monkey is weaving
a thread of insatiable lusts
on the margins of morning:
he topples a pollen-fall,
startles the violet-flght
of the butterfly, wings on the Muzo.

It was the night of the alligator:
snouts moving out of the slime,
in original darkness, the pullulations,
a clatter of armour, opaque
in the sleep of the bog,
turning back to the chalk of the sources.

The jaguar touches the leaves
with his phosphorous absence,
the puma speeds to his covert
in the blaze of his hungers,
his eyeballs, a jungle of alcohol,
burn in his head. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

This week in birds - #171

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

Fall migration is picking up steam. Colorful warblers like this Black-throated Green are passing through my backyard.

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This week the nation marked the tenth anniversary of the storm called Katrina and the human and ecological disaster that ensued from its passing. The lives of thousands of people were brutally disrupted and many of them were ended, but the damage to the ecosystem was enormous also. Ten years later, Nature still has not entirely healed itself.  

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Wind turbines have such promise as a means of producing renewable and sustainable energy without destroying the Earth in the process, but it has to be acknowledged that they present a potentially deadly hazard to birds and flying mammals. Eagles seem to be particular victims of wind farms in the West. Researchers are continuing their work to try to find ways to ensure that Golden Eagles, as well as other birds, can coexist with the energy-producing turbines.

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Pollinator populations of all kinds are in serious trouble for a number of reasons related to habitat loss, pesticides, diseases, as well as other factors. One way to save them, or at least to help them, says "The Prairie Ecologist," is to save the thistle, the spiny pink/purple-flowered plants that wildlife loves and humans often hate. 

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Cities are "urban heat islands" with all their concrete and impervious barriers that interrupt natural processes. In fact, research shows that they have average summer temperatures that are 1.9 degrees C. higher than surrounding rural areas. 

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Which is all the more reason to plant more trees in urban areas. Trees make everything better!

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It is estimated that as many as 25 million birds are killed around the Mediterranean during spring and fall migrations, in spite of the fact that there are, theoretically, strong laws in place to protect the birds. Killing them has long been part of the culture of the region and it is difficult for laws to overcome that. The most affected species is the Eurasian Chaffinch, of which 2.9 million are killed each year.

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Newly found fossil penguin skulls are revealing more about the evolution of the brains of penguins. Adaptations in the brain have allowed the formerly land-bound bird to make the transition to life in the water.

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Although the drought in California gets most of the press, maybe because it is the biggest state, it is, in fact, affecting other western states as well, with devastating effects in some instances.

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A hydroelectric project in India is a major threat to the winter habitat of the vulnerable Tibetan (Black-necked) Crane. Interestingly, local Buddhists consider this crane to be an incarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama.

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Old World vultures are in serious trouble virtually throughout their range but most especially in Africa. All too often, much of that trouble is manmade. People poison them. But their decline is having a deadly domino effect. The incidence of rabies is increasing because there aren't enough vultures to clean up the carcasses of diseased animals and ensure that other mammals do not contract and spread it.

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Melting sea ice in the Arctic has once again forced thousands of walruses that normally live on that ice to come ashore in Alaska, threatening their survival. The winter may not offer much relief. Sea ice cover in the winter months this year fell to a new low because of global warming and abnormal weather patterns. 

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Evidence shows that New Caledonian Crows, a very smart corvid, have at least some ability to transmit knowledge to each other. Their capacity for social learning is being studied further.

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A researcher who studies birds from around the world has documented that tropical birds have fewer offspring than birds in other regions but their offspring have a higher probability of survival.

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New Zealand's iconic bird, the Kiwi, is threatened with extinction, but a paltry one million dollars more per year could potentially make the difference in its fight for survival.

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Ash trees in North America are being destroyed by the invasive emerald ash borer, but in the insect's native region of East Asia, it causes little trouble because the trees there have developed defenses against it. Given time, North American trees would likely also develop such defenses, but they may not have that time. Research is concentrating on ways to slow the insect's progress and provide more time for the trees.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

Dune by Frank Herbert: A review

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Dune, Frank Herbert's epic science fiction novel, winner of many awards and considered by some to be the best science fiction book ever written. Thus, 2015 seemed the appropriate time to once again return to Arrakis, the planet that once mesmerized my reading self.

I first read the book about 35 years ago and it completely captured my imagination.

The world described by Herbert is some 21,000 years in the future and the human race is now living on countless habitable planets. This universe is ruled by a collection of aristocratic Great Houses and they, in turn, owe their allegiance to Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV.

This society has seen fit to prohibit artificial intelligence and advanced computers, and, instead, humans have adapted their minds to effectively become those advanced computers. They are capable of extremely complex tasks, including mental computing.

The Bene Gesserit, a powerful matriarchal group, hopes to further the human race through controlled breeding. One of their number, Jessica, is the concubine and only mate of Duke Leto Atreides. The Atreideses come from a planet called Caladan, a world with plenty of water.

Arrakis is the opposite of Caladan. It is a desert planet, but it produces the most valuable commodity in the empire. That is a substance called melange, or spice. Controlling the production and trade of spice ensures power and wealth.

The Padishah Emperor grants Duke Leto control of the spice operations on Arrakis. Although Leto realizes this is probably a trap, he cannot refuse. He moves his household to Arrakis and the real action of Dune begins.

Many have remarked upon the parallels between the planet of Arrakis (Dune) and the Middle East of our Earth. Both are covered in vast areas of desert. In fact, Arrakis is practically nothing but desert. Both have a plentiful supply of a valuable commodity: Spice in the case of Arrakis and oil in the case of the Middle East. Each has a group of its population that is nomadic. In the case of Arrakis, it is the Fremen, who have adapted beautifully to living on this desert planet.

Duke Leto sees the Fremen as an asset and knows that if he can gain their loyalty, he will have the key to controlling Arrakis. He never lives to accomplish that goal, but his son, Paul, will in time become leader of the Fremen and so much more. Paul, as the foreigner who adopts the ways of the desert-dwelling Fremen and leads them to military victory has overtones of the career of T.E. Lawrence.

The parallels with the Middle East and with Arab and Persian culture continue right through to the language that Herbert gives the Fremen. So many of their words, titles, and names are derived from Persian and Arabic - words like jihad, Shaitan, Mahdi, Bashar, Hawat, and erg. Even the Fremen name that is given to Paul, Muad'Dib, sounds faintly Arabic. It gives one pause to wonder what would be the reaction of the right-wingers if this book had been written in the early 21st century instead of the middle of the 1960s. I expect they might seek to ban it at the very least. It would be called a dangerous incitement to terrorism. Context matters, and the world of the 1960s was certainly more accepting of the Middle Eastern references than many parts of our society today would be.

Dune was the first in a series. Frank Herbert went on to write five sequels. I read and loved them all. His son has carried on the franchise after Herbert's death, but I haven't read any of these later books. As is often the case, I think, the sequels never quite live up to the original. And Dune was original.

Looking at the book from today's perspective, one of the most interesting parts for me is the ecological and environmental aspects of it. The secret that the Fremen carry is that they have a grand plan to change their desert planet. They will transform it into a world more like Caladan, where humans can live in the open without special suits and where water flows on the surface of the planet. They realize that they will not live to see the culmination of their efforts but they have faith that generations to come will enjoy the benefits of their plans.

Today, we have something of the reverse transpiring, where people in power ask why we should worry about global warming. (And, of course, many even deny that it is happening.) After all, we're all right. Who cares about those generations to come? The Fremen would be appalled by such a selfish philosophy.


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Thursday, August 27, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Global warming is causing four foot snow drifts!

In December of 2010, I wrote this post about the complicated effects on weather that the warming of the planet generates in various places. Those effects continue and are intensifying as the underlying causes of global warming continue to go unchecked.

The effects on the deniers of global warming seem to be intensifying as well. Thus, every winter, as soon as the first snow falls, we can count on the usual suspects to start chortling about all those "liberal lies" about Earth getting hotter, and we can expect some of our elected representatives to throw snowballs around on the Senate floor, claiming that that proves that "global warming is a hoax." 

Of course, these are the deniers that live in the northern hemisphere. They never mention what's going on in the other half of the planet, the southern hemisphere, when there is snow on the ground in Washington. But then perhaps the southern hemisphere doesn't exist in their world - at least not in their consciousness.

As we continue to set records for global high temperatures every month and as 2015 seems certain to become the hottest year on Earth since we started keeping records, here's a blast from the past, something to keep in mind as our half of the planet begins to cool down and edge its way toward winter.

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Global warming is causing four foot snow drifts! 

Much of the East Coast is struggling to dig out from under four foot snow drifts. Much of Northern Europe, too, has been stopped in its tracks by giant storms and in some areas people have died as a result of the cold weather.

At the same time, the World Meteorological Organization has just released a report showing that 2010 will be among the three warmest years on record - possibly the warmest on record. Moreover, the decade ending with 2010 will be the warmest decade on record.

How does one resolve the seeming dichotomy between the fact of four foot snow drifts and the fact that the world will be setting a record for heat this year? According to Judah Cohen, writing today in The New York Timesit is all due to the topography of Asia.

The high topography of Asia influences the atmosphere in profound ways. The jet stream, a river of fast-flowing air five to seven miles above sea level, bends around Asia’s mountains in a wavelike pattern, much as water in a stream flows around a rock or boulder. The energy from these atmospheric waves, like the energy from a sound wave, propagates both horizontally and vertically.

As global temperatures have warmed and as Arctic sea ice has melted over the past two and a half decades, more moisture has become available to fall as snow over the continents. So the snow cover across Siberia in the fall has steadily increased.

The sun’s energy reflects off the bright white snow and escapes back out to space. As a result, the temperature cools. When snow cover is more abundant in Siberia, it creates an unusually large dome of cold air next to the mountains, and this amplifies the standing waves in the atmosphere, just as a bigger rock in a stream increases the size of the waves of water flowing by.

The increased wave energy in the air spreads both horizontally, around the Northern Hemisphere, and vertically, up into the stratosphere and down toward the earth’s surface. In response, the jet stream, instead of flowing predominantly west to east as usual, meanders more north and south. In winter, this change in flow sends warm air north from the subtropical oceans into Alaska and Greenland, but it also pushes cold air south from the Arctic on the east side of the Rockies. Meanwhile, across Eurasia, cold air from Siberia spills south into East Asia and even southwestward into Europe.


And so we get the Metrodome in Minneapolis collapsing under the weight of snow, people dying in Poland due to subzero temperatures, and New York shut down for days because of four foot snow drifts. Even here along the humid Gulf Coast, we are not totally immune. We had our first frosts in November, almost three weeks ahead of schedule this year.

But all of this cold weather is not a contradiction of global warming. It is, in fact, confirmation of it. If we don't begin to take steps to walk back our human influence on the climate, we can expect to experience even more severe extremes in weather - both hot and cold - in the future.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Purslane

Common purslane (Portulaca oleracea) grows throughout many regions of the world. It has been so widespread for so long that its beginnings are a bit hazy, but it is believed to have originated on the Indian sub-continent. It is now found in the wild throughout the Old World, and there is evidence that it reached the Americas in the pre-Columbian era. It is now well naturalized in all of these places, including in my backyard.

Purslane is a close cousin of the ornamental succulent called portulaca which many gardeners grow from seed or purchase plants from nurseries. It is known by many common names, such as hogweed, pursley, moss rose, pigweed, and verdolaga. Though it is considered by many to be a weed, it can be quite pretty and it has surprising nutritional and health benefits.

Purslane can serve as a leafy green vegetable, good in salads. It is rich in dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The fresh leaves of the plant contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant. Consuming foods rich in omega-3 may help to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease as well as other diseases.

Purslane is an excellent source of vitamin A, a powerful antioxidant and an essential vitamin for vision. It is also a good source of vitamin C and some of the B-complex vitamins.

Although it is primarily used fresh in salads, purslane can also be sauteed or gently stewed and served as a side dish with fish and poultry. It can be stir-fried with other greens such as spinach. In the South Indian region, it is extensively used in soups and curries, often eaten with rice.


Purslane is an annual, but it reseeds itself extensively and I find new plants growing in my garden, sometimes in surprising places, every spring. The flowers are actually quite pretty, although they open only for a few hours on sunny days. They are single blossoms located at the center of a leaf cluster. Most of the flowers in the wild seem to be yellow and I used to have yellow ones, along with the pink, growing in my yard, but over the years, for whatever reason, the yellow seems to have fallen by the wayside. In recent years, I've only seen the pink blossoms.

  
If you have purslane growing in your garden, don't just reflexively pull it out as a weed. Consider its ornamental possibilities. And by all means, consider its many uses in the kitchen. You might find that you like its slightly sour and salty taste. Moreover, its health benefits are unquestioned. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Born to Run + 40

People who know me well know that I am an unapologetic Bruce Springsteen fan. His music speaks to me, as it does to so many people around the world, in a way that seems to reach right through to the soul.

Today is the 40th anniversary of what might be termed the phenomenon of Springsteen and the E Street Band. Forty years ago today, the album Born to Run was released, and the rest, as they say, is history. Many publications have marked the anniversary with articles about it, including the Slate.com article which I read.

It wasn't his first album. He had had a couple of them before but neither had made much of a splash.

Born to Run was not a spur of the moment album. Ever the perfectionist when it comes to his music, he took a long time to get it just right. For example, it took him six months during the spring and summer of 1974 to record just one track, the title song. A typical song on a modern album might take up to three hours to get just right. Obviously, Springsteen felt a lot was riding on that song.

It would be hard to choose a favorite Springsteen song. Some of my favorite lines come from Thunder Road, The River, Jungleland, Glory Days, Badlands...well, you name it. But it would be difficult to argue against Born to Run as THE iconic Springsteen song. There's a reason why his fan, Jon Stewart, requested the song for his recent sendoff on The Daily Show.  

The song was so iconic that it even made it to Sesame Street. Sort of.




Let's mark this 40th anniversary with a compilation video of performances by Springsteen and the E Street Band of the song that made them famous. They were all much younger then and some of the faces on the video are no longer with us in the flesh. But in spirit, they will live forever. I dare you to watch the video and not smile at the obvious joy these performers take in the music and in the connection with their audiences.


Monday, August 24, 2015

The Maltese Goddess by Lyn Hamilton: A review

The Maltese Goddess (Lara McClintoch Archeological Mystery, #2)The Maltese Goddess by Lyn Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lara McClintoch is the half-owner of an antiques shop in Toronto. One of her customers, an internationally famous architect and world-class jerk, wants to hire her to go to Malta to set up his newly built house there. He wants her to oversee the delivery and placement of furniture and see that the house is ready for a big soiree that he's planning to entertain various highly important people.

Lara, with some misgivings, agrees to take the assignment, but when she arrives in Malta, she finds the house still not completed and workmen in a feverish race to get everything done on time.

Soon after she arrives, strange things start happening. She sees a mysterious hooded figure at the edge of the garden at night. Then a cat is murdered and left on the property. The brake lines on the car she had been given to use are cut. And perhaps creepiest of all, an odd and obnoxious man whom she first saw on the plane keeps turning up everywhere she goes in Malta. It seems apparent that someone is trying very hard to scare and/or warn her.

The architect's housekeeper and her husband and son are on hand to assist Lara, but she feels intuitively that something is not as it should be.

Finally, the furniture arrives and Lara notices that one of the pieces is different from the pieces that were chosen back in Toronto. Instead of an armoire, there is a large chest. She opens it up and inside she finds the body of the architect. Someone has put an end to his jerkitude by murdering him. There seems to be no lack of possible suspects, his wife being perhaps first on the list.

The first question to be settled is, where did the murder happen? Was it back in Canada or when the plane had a layover in Rome? It takes a while to settle this question definitively, but in the meantime, the RCMP sends one of their sergeants over to assist in the investigation since the man killed was a Canadian.

The mystery deepens further when the odd man from the plane also turns up dead. Murdered. Is there a connection between the two murders and does it have anything to do with some allegedly lost treasure on Malta that is somehow related to the worship of the Great Goddess?

Complexities and complications abound and red herrings are strewn all over the place, but Lara manages to assist the local Maltese police and the visiting Mountie in their inquiries.

I liked the fact that the author started each chapter with a brief entry that addressed some aspect of the history of the Great Goddess and of Malta, and I liked the character of the feminist Professor Stanhope who was engaged in teaching her students about the Great Goddess. However, I felt that Lyn Hamilton did this character a disservice in the arc of the story that she gave her. She was very stereotypically described as a dried-up spinster who fell madly in love with the first younger guy who showed up and showed an interest in her. That just didn't mesh with her image as an accomplished historian with a deep interest in and understanding of the Goddess culture.

I felt this book was an improvement over the first entry in the archeological mystery series. Lara seemed not quite as ditsy as she was in the first one and her interaction with the visiting Mountie seemed fraught with possibilities. I wonder if we'll meet him again in later books.



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Sunday, August 23, 2015

Poetry Sunday: The Road Not Taken

It has been called the "Great American Poem" and "America's Most Popular Poem," even though those two appellations may be contradictory. David Orr of The New York Times Book Review has now written a new book about it in which he argues that it may also be one of the most misunderstood of American poems. Orr's book, like the poem, is called The Road Not Taken

Many, probably most, readers take Robert Frost's most famous poem at face value. A traveler comes to a fork in the road and ponders which one he should take. Even though they both seem equally fair, he decides to take the road less traveled and that in the end made all the difference to his life.

A closer and more in-depth reading of the poem offers another meaning. It can be read as a joke on the rugged individualist myth, as I pointed out when I featured this poem once before on Poetry Sunday. The traveler chooses at random between two equal roads, but later in his life, when he tells the story of his choice, he will imbue it with greater importance and significance.

Orr's book argues that the poem actually embodies both meanings. As the Times review of the book states, "It doesn’t accept or reject its myth of choice but sets us up to feel the tensions involved in having to choose, as if each reader were the traveler. His ­decision might have been arbitrary, it might have been meaningful. It might have changed him deeply, it might not have." All meanings are possible and exist together.

Or as Yogi Berra put it much more succinctly, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"


The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

This week in birds - #170

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

Rock Wren photographed at Big Bend National Park.

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Earth just keeps on getting hotter. July was the hottest month since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration started keeping records of the planet's temperature back in 1880. Last year was the warmest year on record, but it is now almost certain that 2015 will beat it out for the record.

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A trail camera in California has documented the presence of a litter of wolf cubs in the state. Gray wolves historically lived in the state but were extirpated and had not been seen there since 1924 until the now famous wolf OR7 was photographed there in 2011. That wolf is now living and breeding in Oregon, but these pups apparently come from a newly formed California pack.

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A rare Philippine Eagle was rescued after being shot three years ago. It was rehabilitated and finally returned to the wild two months ago. Now comes the sad news that it has been found shot again, but this time it was dead.

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An update on the Great Lakes Piping Plover Recovery Effort details information about the group's captive rearing and release of chicks during the 2015 breeding season. The little Piping Plover remains on the endangered list and needs all the help it can get from its friends.

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White-nose Syndrome is a deadly disease that has been wreaking havoc on bat populations in North America. Scientists have worked feverishly to try to find some way to help the critters and now they have had some success. They have recently released back into the wild bats that they have successfully treated for the disease and which had fully recovered.

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A new study using spectrophotometers reveals that the colors that birds see are radically different from those that humans are able to perceive. They can see a whole range of colors that we, quite literally, cannot even imagine. Thus, if our field guides could depict birds as they appear to other birds - well, suffice to say, we probably wouldn't recognize them. 

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The Obama Administration has given permission for some drilling for oil in the Arctic. Hillary Clinton has come out against such drilling.

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The Farne Islands, off the Northumberland Coast of Britain, have been a sanctuary for seabirds and sea mammals for 90 years. They are considered the jewel of British conservation efforts.

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Mimicry is a survival tool used by many plants and animals. This article in The New York Times tells how it works and why it is so successful.

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Nearly a year after President Obama designated the San Gabriel Mountains as a national monument, progress has been slow in cleaning up the area and making it into the cleaner, safer wilderness area promised by that designation.

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How do hummingbirds manage to sip nectar as the hover on rapidly beating wings? It seems that their tongues function as pumps that bring the nectar to them.

A hummer pumping gas.

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Many coastal towns around the country have built seawalls to try to keep out the ocean. So many have built such walls that fully 14% of the nation's coastline is now covered in cement.

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Outside a former chemical plant, now a Superfund site, in Brunswick, Georgia, Least Terns have been found to be contaminated with a toxic chemical that was formerly manufactured there.

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As part of the Smithsonian Bird Center's continuing research on the Black-crowned Herons that nest at the National Zoo, scientists have attached radio transmitters to three of the adult birds in order to track their migration.

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Researchers have completed the first worldwide survey of non-native flora and have found 13,168 species of plants growing in areas that are foreign to their origins. In some cases, those non-natives are benign, but all too often, they become invasive and have disastrous effects on the native plants with which they compete.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday Fotos: Backyard butterflies

Dainty Sulphur

Dog Face Sulphur

Dorantes Skipper

Fiery Skipper

Tropical Checkered Skipper

Gray Hairstreak

Black Swallowtail

Pipevine Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

Giant Swallowtail

Queen

Monarch

Soon-to-be Monarch - chrysalis

Variegated Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary

Painted Lady

American Painted Lady

Red Admiral

Tawny Emperor

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Hallowed Bones by Carolyn Haines: A review

Hallowed Bones (Sarah Booth Delaney #5)Hallowed Bones by Carolyn Haines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And here's another of my guilty pleasure reads for the summer - the fifth entry in Carolyn Haines' Sarah Booth Delaney series. It was great fun to read and, indeed, may be my favorite in the series so far.

Sarah Booth Delaney's private investigation business in the little delta town of Zinnia, Mississippi, now has an actual business office. She has set up a couple of rooms of her family's plantation home, Dahlia House, as offices for herself and her partner, Tinkie. There's even a place for a receptionist's desk, just in case the business ever grows to the point that it needs one.

Sarah Booth's latest case begins when she is contacted by a nun from New Orleans. The nun is a friend of a woman who is now being held on a warrant from New Orleans in the local Zinnia jail. The woman, Doreen, is a spiritualist and alleged faith healer with a large following in New Orleans. She had a baby who had severe birth defects and the baby has recently died. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death, which was at first thought to be Sudden Infant Death syndrome, had actually been sleeping pills that were put in the baby's formula. The mother has been charged with murder in the case, but the nun doesn't believe she did it and she wants to hire Sarah Booth to establish her innocence.

This creates a bit of a problem for Sarah Booth who has to go to the jail to see Doreen. She had been trying to stay away from the sheriff's office so she wouldn't run into the sheriff, Coleman Peters, for whom she has strong and tender feelings. Problem is Coleman, who reciprocates those feelings, is trying to save his troubled marriage because his deeply troubled wife is pregnant, and he doesn't need to be tempted by Sarah Booth.  

Meeting with Doreen does give Sarah Booth and Tinkie the sense that she is most likely innocent of killing her baby, but if she didn't do it, who did? Suspicion settles on the father, but who is that? Doreen refuses to name him.

Doreen is returned to the custody of the New Orleans Police Department and Sarah and Tinkie travel to New Orleans to continue their investigation. They are also (very conveniently) just in time for the Orange and Black Ball, one of the most popular social events of the year. Of course, the two get invited and, of course, just in time, a wealthy suitor from Sarah Booth's past, Hamilton, shows up to escort her to the ball.

In addition to being wealthy and cultured, Hamilton is incredibly handsome and is engaged in trying to make the world a better place. In other words, he is a paragon of virtues. He's also apparently very good in bed, though, naturally, Sarah Booth never gives us the details.

At length, their client, Doreen, is persuaded to give Tinkie and Sarah Booth information about the three men who could possibly be her dead daughter's father. One is a well-known evangelist/faith healer; one is a United States Senator; and one is the financial manager for Doreen's ministry. She had had sex with all three men in an attempt to "heal" them.

The plot becomes very convoluted, with many twists and turns, but I actually figured out pretty early who the culprit was here. That's always satisfying. In the end, Sarah Booth got it, too, and again saved the day.

But she lost Hamilton. And Coleman, at least for now. Coleman ends up taking his mentally deranged wife to a sanatorium in Arizona for the remainder of her pregnancy, so we'll have to wait for the next book to find out how all of that turns out.

Sarah Booth is once again alone at Dahlia House with her nagging ghost, Jitty, who had been the nanny for her great-great-grandmother; her dog, Sweetie Pie; and her horse, Reveler. Will she ever find true love? Probably not for that would put the kibosh on the greater part of the plots of these books.



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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Hummingbird migration (With update)

This is one of the two most exciting times of the year for birders. The first, of course, is spring migration when wave after wave of bright and noisy songbird migrants pass through on their way north to their nesting grounds. The second is fall migration which is a much quieter affair.

Fall migrants do not bear the bright colorful feathers that they wore in spring when they were ready to attract mates and get on with nesting. Moreover, they are much more silent for the same reason. They are not looking for a mate; they are looking to safely get to their winter homes. They are entirely focused on that goal. The result is that, unless one is out specifically looking for the birds, thousands can easily pass through unnoticed in a matter of days.

Most of the fall migrants pass through relatively quickly. They don't tarry with us for long. Hummingbirds are something of an exception to this rule. They may stick around for days or even weeks while they fatten up to ready themselves for their long journey. The hummingbirds that come through here - primarily Ruby-throated, Black-chinned, and Rufous - may go as far south as Costa Rica and Panama, although many Rufous hummers do winter in the Gulf Coast states. For the past several years, I've had as many as three Rufous Hummingbirds wintering in my yard.

Here are some maps from Journey North which show where hummingbirds have been reported this week. (You can report your own sightings to their website.)     


This map shows reports of adult male hummingbirds. The adult males generally lead the way in hummingbird migration both in spring and in fall. Look along the Gulf Coast of Texas and you will see a lot of those red circles stacked up on top of each other. Well, those are right over my backyard! My yard is teeming with hummingbirds this week. 

This map shows reports of all species, sexes, and ages of hummers. You can see that there are still some circles far north, even well into Canada. These would primarily be females and immatures by this time of year.
Hummingbirds are endemic only in the Americas. There are more than 300 species of the unique little birds and most of those live in the tropics. Historically, there are 18 species that make their summer homes in North America, although as the climate changes, more and more of those tropical species are moving farther north and some now routinely are found in the United States during summer.

In the same way that tropical species are moving farther north, western species are being found more often in the eastern part of the continent. Again, historically, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird was the only one found in the East, and it still comprises the vast majority of the sightings east of the Rocky Mountains. But Anna's, Costa's, Calliope, Broad-tailed, Violet-crowned, and Buff-bellied are becoming more and more commonly reported in the eastern parts of the country.


The gorget of a male Ruby-throated hummer glows as he comes in for a sip from one of my nectar feeders.

This is a female Ruby-throat who has spent the summer in my garden. She will probably be here at least a few more weeks before she moves on southward.

I haven't yet seen a Rufous Hummingbird in fall migration. This is one of the females that spent the winter with me in 2014-15. I usually start seeing the Rufous hummers coming through in late August, so any day now...

This is a subadult male Rufous that was here last winter.
Last spring, we took a trip to South Texas to see the birds there and one of the ones that we saw was the Buff-bellied Hummingbird.


Our Buff-bellied was visiting a feeder that had been set up at the visitors' center of one of the parks we visited.

Note his distinctive red bill. That is an unmistakable field mark for this bird, which is actually becoming quite common in South Texas. It hasn't made it as far north as my yard yet.
Wherever you are on the North American continent, keep your eyes open over the next several weeks and you may just see one of these tiny visitors passing through. And if you are in a situation where you can hang out a nectar feeder for them, you will better your chances because these guys are hungry!

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UPDATE: Here's a link to an interesting story in Slate.com today about hummingbird aggression. They are very fierce little birds.