Saturday, October 31, 2015

This week in birds - #180

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

Beautiful Sandhill Cranes are returning to their wintering grounds. Luckily for us, some of those wintering grounds are along the Gulf Coast, so we get a chance to see them during the winter months.

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If winter is truly coming then it must mean that the Snowy Owls are, too. In fact, the beautiful and charismatic owls appear to be moving south even earlier than usual this year. Reports of sightings are already coming to eBird.

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Greenland is melting, but our science-averse Congress does not want scientists investigating the mechanism or reasons for the melting, how fast it is happening, or if anything can be done to slow or prevent it.    

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In more bad news for Hawaii's rarest and most endangered birds, a recent study projects that they will lose 50% of their habitat due to climate shifts that are expected to occur before the end of this century.

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Unfortunately, the news is just as bad for Mexican wolves. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a plan to introduce two adult wolves with pups, along with ten captive-born pups into the Mexican Wolf Recovery Area in southern New Mexico and Arizona, but the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission has rejected the plan, increasing the likelihood of the species' extinction.

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A tiny fossilized bird skeleton is helping researchers to understand the explosion of diversity that occurred in feathered species after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

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Africa's vultures are in serious trouble due to poaching and deliberate poisoning caused by a lack of understanding of the birds' importance to the environment. Up to half of the species are now facing extinction. 

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Bird migration continues to fascinate ordinary citizens and scientific researchers alike. Why do they migrate? How do they know when to migrate? How do they choose the route they will take? That last question has some interesting answers, for often the routes chosen are not the shortest. But when scientists took the time to map the most efficacious, safest, most efficient routes, they found that usually those were the routes that birds were actually taking.

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Of course, sometimes, for whatever reasons, those maps in the bird's brain go awry. How else to explain how a Hooded Warbler that should be in South Texas or Mexico by now has ended up in Calgary?

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Once a fetid mess, the waters around Jamaica Bay in New York have been cleaned up and are now a serene wetland that offers shelter and food to migrating birds. It just proves that, with the will to do it, such transformations can take place. If we do our part, Nature will take care of the rest.

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Warmer sea waters, a result of the warming climate, are forcing Indian Ocean King Penguins to travel farther in search of food, which in turn is cutting into the time they have for breeding. This has dire implications for the species' future.

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Big cats are under severe pressure from poaching around the world. But it's not just lions and tigers that are the victims. Clouded leopards, one of the lesser known species, have become the latest target of the illegal traders.

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Atlantic Puffins and European Turtle Doves now face the same extinction threat as African elephants and lions. Their numbers have plummeted in recent years, mostly due to the effects of changes in the climate. They've now been added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list of species that are at risk of being wiped out.

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One of Europe's rarest birds is also one of its largest with a wingspan of 2.8 meters - the Lammergeier or Bearded Vulture. It is also commonly known as the "bone breaker" for its habit of dropping bones from a great height in order to break them so that it can get at the marrow inside.

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A study of one of America's rarest birds, the Whooping Crane, has shown that captive-raised chicks are better able to adapt to new conditions.

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Noah Stryker continues on his Big Year quest and, on day 299, he saw his 5,000th bird of the year - a Flame-crowned Flowerpecker in Mindanao. I wonder if I'll break 300 this year.

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Around the backyard

Well, it's not a Flame-crowned Flowerpecker but it sure put a smile on my face.

As I walked out my back door Thursday morning, I heard its insistent cry, "fee-bee, fee-bee, fee-bee." Yes, the Eastern Phoebes are back. They usually arrive here in late fall and some spend the winter with us while most continue on farther south. For the last several years, we've had at least one with us throughout the winter. Is it the one that arrived this week? I have no way of knowing, of course, but I'd like to think so.



Friday, October 30, 2015

Let Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford: A review

Let Me Be Frank with YouLet Me Be Frank with You by Richard Ford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Love isn't a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts."
- Frank Bascombe's meditation upon visiting his ex-wife


We thought we'd heard the last of Frank Bascombe in The Lay of the Land, published in 2006 and the last in what was billed as the "Frank Bascombe trilogy." But it turns out that Frank wasn't finished with us, or, perhaps more accurately, Richard Ford wasn't finished with Frank. And so we get a fourth Frank Bascombe book. Lucky us.

Each of the three previous books were focused on a particular holiday and this one continues that tradition. This time we are in 2012. Hurricane Sandy has hit and devastated the East Coast, including Frank's New Jersey. We are now several weeks past that tragedy and coming up on Christmas. It's a Christmas that Frank had hoped to host as a "festive family fly-in to ole San Antone" where he looked forward to visiting the Alamo and the River Walk and later heading out to see the LBJ sites. But it was not to be. Now, he can only look forward to a solo Christmas trip to Kansas City to visit his son Paul - not a particularly appealing prospect.

As we meet Frank this time, he is 68 years old and retired from the real estate business. Both that career and his earlier one as a sportswriter are well into his past now. He is still married to his second wife, Sally. In addition to his son, he has his daughter who is a veterinarian in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the mother of his children, his first wife Ann, who is in what Frank refers to as a "high-end old folks home" nearby, where she is being treated for Parkinson's disease.

Let Me Be Frank with You is structured as Frank's meditation on his life as he nears the end of his seventh decade. It is entirely in his voice and Frank's voice is acute, sometimes cynical, and often (to me) laugh-out-loud funny. (I do appreciate Ford's humor. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we come from the same place.)

The book comprises four novellas or extra-long short stories. They all take place in the days leading up to Christmas in the weeks after Sandy and they all feature a character who wants something from Frank.

"I'm Here" features Arnie Urquhart, who, years before, had bought Frank's house on the Jersey shore. That house was upended and destroyed by the hurricane. Now, Arnie insists that Frank come and see it. He needs him to bear witness and to give him his advice.

"The New Normal" finds Frank visiting Ann in her "old folks' home" to deliver a special pillow that she wanted. Once again, this couple who shared so much, including the death of a son, contemplate the failure of their marriage.

In "Everything Could Be Worse," a well-dressed, middle-aged black woman comes to Frank's home in Haddam, New Jersey, and asks if she can see the house. She explains that she grew up there. He invites her in and eventually she tells him the sad and tragic story of her family that occurred in that house.

Finally, in "Deaths of Others," Frank gets a call - several calls, actually - from an old acquaintance, Eddie, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Eddie asks Frank to visit him and, most reluctantly, he finally does. It turns out that Eddie needed to see him in order to make a shocking deathbed confession.

I enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. One of the things that I found most appealing and which made me empathize with Frank/Richard Ford was that much of his meditation on this stage of his life was in the form of a complaint about the sad decline of the language, something which I, too, find appalling. One of Frank's examples of this is the constant use of the word "awesome" to describe things that are barely mediocre. (Yes, it's one of my many pet peeves!)

Frank Bascombe is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American literature. He is funny, profane, often politically incorrect, and an acute observer of American life. I wonder if we've now heard the last of him. Or perhaps in another ten years we'll meet him again as he enters his ninth decade. I, for one, look forward to that meeting.


View all my reviews

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ADDENDUM: Here are links to my reviews of books in the Frank Bascombe trilogy in their order of publication:

The Sportswriter

Independence Day 

The Lay of the Land

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Throwback Thursday: The Finkler Question

Five years ago, in 2010, I read that year's Man Booker prize winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson and reviewed it on my blog. I had, frankly, forgotten all about the book and the review until I came across it again today. Perhaps the book will appeal to you. Here is my review.

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The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A review


I'm not sure that Howard Jacobson would welcome the comparison, but he reminds me of Philip Roth. Roth at his best, that is, because Jacobson's Man Booker prize-winning The Finkler Question is very good. It is an exploration of the Jewish identity - the Jewish (Finkler) question - laced with good humor and a comic sensibility that is accessible to any reader without respect to religious background or preference.

Jacobson tells his story through the perceptions and worries of one Julian Treslove, who isn't a Jew. In fact, he is one of the few characters in this book who isn't. His two best friends, Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, are both Jews and Treslove is envious of them. He feels excluded from their culture and he very much wants in.

Treslove has lost his job at BBC and now makes his living impersonating famous people like Brad Pitt and Colin Firth. His life is changed when he is mugged one night - by a woman! - and he comes to believe that he was attacked because the mugger thought he was a Jew. He becomes more and more obsessed with making the mugger's misidentification of him become reality.

Treslove's friend, Libor, is an elderly man, a recent widower who has lost his beloved wife, Malkie, and who was teacher to both Treslove and Finkler when they were in school. He has passed his ninth decade and now he feels bereft and alone without Malkie. He finds it difficult to come up with a reason to go on living without her.

Sam Finkler is a wildly successful writer of pop psychology or pop philosophy books of the self-help variety. He, too, is a recent widower, having lost his wife Tyler. Tyler, who had had an affair with Treslove, which Finkler apparently never knew about. Finkler is a stereotypical self-hating Jew. When Finkler remarks to Libor that he doesn't have anti-Semitic friends, Libor replies: "Yes, you do. The Jewish ones." In the context of this book, that seems all too true.

Jacobson is dealing here with free-floating anxiety. It's the anxiety of the individual "Finkler" as well as the anxiety of the larger Finklerish (i.e., Jewish) community. He explores Jewish attitudes regarding all facets of Middle East politics, as well as attitudes toward Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, and toward the religion of Judaism. He paints with a broad brush, and yet within those sweeping swirls of paint, he manages to delineate the finer details of his characters' personalities.

This is a book that is both funny and sad, bombastic and subtle. It is extremely well-written, as becomes the Man Booker prize winner, and I think it will appeal to a wide audience. It certainly appealed to me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Lemongrass

Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), also spelled as lemon grass, is not native to North America. Its original home was India but it spread throughout Asia, Africa, Australia, and many tropical islands, where it became a staple in cuisine. It is particularly familiar to us from Thai and Vietnamese cooking, and it has also become a fairly commonplace plant in many American gardens, like mine.

I got my start of lemongrass almost ten years ago when I was working as a volunteer at the Montgomery County Master Gardeners' test garden. That spring, I was helping to clear out the herb garden and there was a large clump of the grass there that needed to be divided. The Master Gardener in charge of herbs divided the clump into many different sections, some of which would be sold at our plant sale, and she gave each of her helpers who wanted it a sprig for their own gardens. I brought mine home and planted it where it pretty quickly grew into a substantial mass that was about three feet tall and just as wide. That clump has since been divided and I now have three large stands of lemongrass in my backyard. Next spring, I'll be dividing all three clumps once again and adding it to more beds in my garden. (Every gardener is familiar with the concept of multiplication by division!)

Lemongrass makes an attractive plant that is very pleasant to observe as the breezes pass through it, shaking its long leaves. In addition to its well-known culinary uses, it has utility as an insect repellent especially for mosquitoes. Antithetically, oil from the plant is also used to attract one insect - honeybees. Apparently, it emulates a pheromone exuded by the bees and so is useful in facilitating the trapping of swarms.

In fact, oil from lemongrass has many uses in soaps, sprays, candles, and aromatherapy. Also, in the garden, intercropping the lemongrass plants with vegetables like tomatoes and broccoli can help to protect them from insect damage without having to use pesticides.  

Lemongrass is a perennial and so it comes back year after year, the clumps getting bigger with each year's growth. Here in zone 9a, I leave it in the ground over winter. It dies back to the roots and then comes back strong in the spring. In late winter, I cut back last year's growth so that the new growth will have full rein. In colder areas, it would be necessary to pot some of the plant and bring it inside during the winter in order to protect it.  

Lemongrass in October, with just a few leaves beginning to turn brown. Most of it will stay green until our first frost when the plant will go dormant.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Lamorna Wink by Martha Grimes: A review

The Lamorna Wink (Richard Jury Mysteries 16)The Lamorna Wink by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This sixteenth entry in the "Richard Jury Mysteries" is actually a Melrose Plant mystery. Richard Jury only makes a brief appearance in the story at the end of the book during the wrapping up phase.

The hook of the story is that Jury is in Ireland on Scotland Yard business and his friend Melrose, bored with his existence in Northumberland and hoping to get away from Aunt Agatha, decides to rent a house for three months in Cornwall. Of course, there is no easy escape from Agatha and soon she is ensconced in Cornwall as well, staying at a B-and-B and learning the real estate trade from her new friend there.

The house which Melrose has chosen to rent is right out of Rebecca or Jamaica Inn or some other Daphne du Maurier tale. It exudes an air of tragedy, even in the harsh beauty of its surroundings. Melrose wonders from where the feeling of sadness and mystery which surrounds the house emanates. He doesn't have to wonder long.

He soon learns that four years previously two children who lived in the house drowned in the nearby sea. After the horror of this event, their parents moved away, never to return and the house was put up for rent. Even though Commander Brian Macalvie was on the case of the drowned children, it was never really solved. Was it simply an inexplicable accident or was it something more sinister? As we've learned previously, Macalvie never closes a case that he hasn't solved, so he is still looking for answers.

Melrose Plant settles into the Cornwall community for his three-month vacation and begins visiting the pubs and pastry shops and talking with the locals. He is soon engrossed in the tales that he hears of the place and particularly of the family which occupied the house where he is now living and the tragedy that befell them. His avocation as an amateur detective leads him to snoop further.

But soon there are more and newer mysteries to ponder. The half-owner of the local pastry shop, and aunt of a young man who works several jobs around the town and whom Melrose meets and likes, has disappeared without leaving any word for her nephew as to where she was going. At the same time, the murdered body of a woman is found in a nearby village and Melrose fears at first that it is the missing aunt, but it turns out to be someone else altogether. However, the victim is someone who had had public disagreements with the aunt. Suddenly, the missing person becomes a possible suspect in the murder.

Melrose visits a local hospice where his landlord is presently living. It turns out to be more like an upscale retirement home. The old man, his landlord, is the grandfather of the two children who died. Also, living at the home is the man's long-time chauffeur, who is suffering from AIDS and whose survival prospects are dim. (This book was published in 1999.) But soon even those prospects are ended when the man is shot dead while sitting in his employer's wheelchair. Was the shot to the back truly intended for him or was it a case of mistaken identity?

Well, the bodies continue to drop while Melrose and Macalvie puzzle through the clues and try to determine if there is a connection among all these deaths or are they merely coincidences?

We do get a bit of respite from the doom and gloom of Cornwall when Melrose takes a trip to London and there meets with the artist Bea Slocum with whom he's having a bit of a romance. And I say "Bravo!" to Martha Grimes for actually finally giving him an adult emotional experience. More, please.

Grimes' plots are very loosely constructed and tend to wander here and there. Once again, we get to spend ample time in Long Piddleton, and once again Vivian Rivington is threatening to marry her Italian count. Therefore, it follows as the night does the day that the usual Piddletonian suspects are engaged in their juvenile shenanigans meant to thwart the nuptials. Contrast their silly antics with the grotesque explanation of the two children's deaths which Macalvie finally uncovers. It's enough to make a reader queasy, but that's Grimes for you - from shock to comedy routines to intrigue all within the covers of one book.


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Monday, October 26, 2015

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: A review

Fates and Furies: A NovelFates and Furies: A Novel by Lauren Groff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lauren Groff was born in Cooperstown, New York and grew up near the Baseball Hall of Fame. I thought about that as I was considering how I would sum up my thoughts about her latest book. I think she has written the story of a man who was born on third base and thinks he's hit a home run, and his wife, a woman who knows that you have to learn to bunt and run out those bunts, then steal second base, third base, and be prepared to go home when the flustered pitcher makes a wild pitch.

This is a remarkable story of a marriage, but the marriage is just a vehicle for getting into the nature of human existence, a way to explore philosophical truths as revealed by mundane events. Baseball is sometimes seen as a metaphor for life; here, marriage is the metaphor for life.

The book is divided into two parts, as the title might suggest. The first part, the Fates, is Lancelot (Lotto) Satterwhite's story. Is it coincidental that Lancelot is familiarly known as Lotto, evincing thoughts of lotteries and luck? I think not. Nothing is coincidental about this book.

Lotto was born into a family that had made its fortune from bottled water. His father, Gawain, whom Lotto worshiped, had recognized the value of the water on his family land and, almost casually, he made his fortune from bottling and selling it. One could almost say that it was fate.

From his birth, Lotto was seen by the three adults in his family - his father, his mother, Antoinette, and his Aunt Sallie - as a golden child meant for greatness. Lotto never questioned that fate or his luck in having been born rich. In fact, he never questions much of anything. He is essentially a narcissist who goes through life simply accepting that all the good things that accrue to him are the way things are meant to be. It is the will of the universe.

In his teenage years and early twenties, Lotto is known for being notoriously licentious, casually bedding scores of women and girls. It is because of this behavior that his mother (his beloved father has died by now - the tragedy of young Lotto's life) sends her teenage son away to boarding school in order to get him out of the community. This presages a rift with his mother that is never healed.

At the age of 22, at Vassar, Lotto meets Mathilde Yoder at a party and immediately asks her to marry him. She is a tall (6 feet), willowy blonde, the perfect accompaniment to his well over six foot athletic frame. They are fated to be together, he thinks.

A couple of weeks after meeting, they do marry and Lotto embarks on his chosen profession of acting. Trouble is, he really isn't very good at it and, through several years of trying, he never manages to break through and truly gain any financial stability. Through all those years, Mathilde is the breadwinner with her work at an art gallery and with an online company.

Finally, one night, in despair over his lack of success, Lotto sits down and, in a white hot fever, he writes a play. The next morning when Mathilde gets up, she finds the play on his laptop and proceeds to edit it and clean it up. She molds it into a product that can be presented to backers and eventually the play is performed to great success. Lotto's true profession is found. He becomes a successful playwright and Mathilde continues to work in the background to smooth the way for him and to edit and sharpen his writing. Theirs is a successful marital partnership. They are considered by all who know them as the golden couple. Their partnership lasts until Lotto's death.

In the second part of the book, the Furies, we get Mathilde's take on their life together. Lotto's story had, in a sense, been the public view of their marriage, the way things looked from the outside. From Mathilde's perspective, we learn the private view; we see all the hidden gears and pulleys working to create that smooth public image.

The first thing that we learn is that Mathilde is not the pure, uncomplicated spirit that Lotto had always imagined her to be. There was an early tragedy in her life, but it was not necessarily or entirely the workings of fate. There was some fury involved, even there.

She was born in an idyllic section of France and spent her early years there, but when tragedy struck, her golden childhood ended and she was banished from her family, eventually ending up with an uncle in the United States where she grew up. Through a convoluted series of events, she came to attend college at Vassar where she met Lotto, but we learn that the meeting was not at all fated. It was, in fact, meticulously planned and choreographed by Mathilde. For the rest of their lives together, her planning and choreography will guide their existence and ensure the success of their creative partnership.

This is truly a remarkable book by a wonderfully talented writer. I had read Groff's previous book Arcadia in December 2012 and enjoyed it immensely. (Read my review here.) If possible, I liked this one even better. 


As I read Fates and Furies, It occurred to me that there are parallels with a couple of blockbuster novels of recent years, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, in that all three owe something to the mystery genre and have the structure of seeing the story unfold through different perspectives. But this is much the richer blend, combining concepts and ideas from Greek drama, from Shakespeare, from Nabokov - Groff only borrows from the best. A delicious read! 


View all my reviews

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Poetry Sunday: A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp

Halloween is coming, a time for celebrating mythology and folklore and shivering to tales of ghosts and the supernatural.

There are plenty of poems that commemorate this time of year, but here's one that I had not heard of before. It is from Irish poet Thomas Moore, who lived from 1779 to 1852. Many of his poems were variations on the theme of the supernatural and contained elements of folklore, like this one that tells a tale of the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia and North Carolina.
 
A Ballad: The Lake of the Dismal Swamp

by Thomas Moore 
Written at Norfolk, in Virginia
“They made her a grave, too cold and damp
For a soul so warm and true;
And she’s gone to the Lake of the Dismal Swamp,
Where, all night long, by a fire-fly lamp,
She paddles her white canoe.

“And her fire-fly lamp I soon shall see,
And her paddle I soon shall hear;
Long and loving our life shall be,
And I’ll hide the maid in a cypress tree,
When the footstep of death is near.”

Away to the Dismal Swamp he speeds—
His path was rugged and sore,
Through tangled juniper, beds of reeds,
Through many a fen where the serpent feeds,
And man never trod before.

And when on the earth he sunk to sleep,
If slumber his eyelids knew,
He lay where the deadly vine doth weep
Its venomous tear and nightly steep
The flesh with blistering dew!

And near him the she-wolf stirr’d the brake,
And the copper-snake breath’d in his ear,
Till he starting cried, from his dream awake,
“Oh! when shall I see the dusky Lake,
And the white canoe of my dear?”

He saw the Lake, and a meteor bright
Quick over its surface play’d—
“Welcome,” he said, “my dear one’s light!”
And the dim shore echoed for many a night
The name of the death-cold maid.

Till he hollow’d a boat of the birchen bark,
Which carried him off from shore;
Far, far he follow’d the meteor spark,
The wind was high and the clouds were dark,
And the boat return’d no more.

But oft, from the Indian hunter’s camp,
This lover and maid so true
Are seen at the hour of midnight damp
To cross the Lake by a fire-fly lamp,
And paddle their white canoe!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

This week in birds - #179

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


This is a relatively quiet time of year at the feeders. Many of the birds that visit the feeders in winter or at other times of the year are either not present or they are finding food somewhere else at the moment. But one bird we can always count on visiting the feeders every day throughout the year is the perky little Carolina Chickadee.

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Global temperatures are running far above last year’s record-setting level, all but guaranteeing that 2015 will be the hottest year in the historical record — and undermining political claims that global warming isn't happening or has somehow stopped. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which tracks worldwide temperatures, said on Wednesday that last month was the hottest September on record, and that it had taken the biggest leap above the previous September that any month has displayed since 1880, when tracking began at a global scale. The agency also announced that the January-to-September period had been the hottest such span on the books.

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How will birds adapt to climate change? Can they adapt? Observations by European birdwatchers are offering some possible answers to those questions.

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The Galapagos Islands are still yielding up secrets nearly two hundred years after Charles Darwin's visit there. Now a new species of giant tortoise has been discovered on Santa Cruz Island.

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Landfills serve as fast food restaurants for young Bald Eagles just learning to make their way in the world, but, as their hunting skills become more proficient, they visit the landfills less often.

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New York City has had a project going to add one million trees to the cityscape. With the planting of a lacebark elm in Joyce Kilmer Park in the Bronx this week, they reached that goal - one million new trees planted.

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Bird migration can involve a complex set of strategies for the migrant to reach its destination. Research has established that birds with longer migration routes also take longer stopovers along the way for feeding and resting.

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Bugblog has a feature about a very interesting family, the jumping spiders. They may look malevolent, but, in fact, for the most part, they are harmless and are our allies in the environment. They often dine on the bugs that we would rather not have around.

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In the 14th century, an epidemic of plague known as the Black Death killed up to one-third of the population of Europe. Scientists have long searched for the origins, the earliest incidence, of this plague among humans. Recent research has found the oldest evidence thus far, which indicates that the plague was present at least five thousand years ago. 

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A recent shorebird fossil find in New Zealand lends more evidence for a family connection between New Zealand's and Australia's birds and those of South America.

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Charismatic Minifauna has a feature on the beautiful Wood Thrush, a bird whose population has dropped by 55% since 1966 and which has been identified as a bird in danger of extinction. In order to help the bird survive, it is necessary to gather information about where they go and what they do. That is being done now using radio telemetry.

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More research on bird migrations: Migratory birds make their trips faster, even when they involve longer distances, if they are able to maximize support from the prevailing winds.

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A new analysis of fire activity in Alaska's Yukon Flats finds that so many forest fires are occurring there that the area has become a net exporter of carbon to the atmosphere. In other words, more carbon is being produced than can be absorbed by the remaining trees. This is worrisome, the researchers say, because arctic and subarctic boreal forests like those of the Yukon Flats contain roughly one-third of the Earth's terrestrial carbon stores.

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Sometimes "facts" get reported and then repeated and repeated until they take on a life of their own and become "common knowledge," even though they never had any basis in truth. That can be true even in science as it is in our political life. Such is the case with some myths about the density of penguin feathers, but scientists are now taking pains to bust those myths.

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Radio telemetry has helped to uncover the endangered European Roller's migration route between Africa and Europe.

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Did you ever wonder how vultures are able to digest the decaying foods that make up their diet while guarding themselves against the pathogens that may be present in those carcasses? A new study published in Genome Biology offers some of the answers which involve the birds' unique genetic makeup.




Thursday, October 22, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Pictures from October 2010

Looking back at my posts from five years ago, I was struck by some of the pictures that I posted in October 2010. They brought back some nice memories. I would like to share them with you again. I hope you enjoy them.

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The title of this picture posted on October 3 was "Got birdseed?"

We were having some cooler weather in that October than we've had so far this year. This picture of a hummingbird fluffed up against the cold was called "Chilly morning."

At that time, I had a lovely Japanese maple in my garden. Unfortunately, it later succumbed to our drought, but in 2010, it was providing some nice fall color. The title of the October 10 post was "Ah, autumn!"

"Navel gazing" was the title I gave to this October 20 posting of a picture of a Laughing Gull.

One of the ways birders talk about Snowy Egrets is to refer to them as the bird with golden slippers. The title of this October 24 post was "Golden slippers."

My favorite picture from that month was this one from my last post of the month on October 31. The title just identified what was there - "Spicebush Swallowtail and Mexican sunflower."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Muscadines

Muscadines are native Southern vines that are valued for their fruit, thick-skinned sweet grapes that make excellent jelly, a favorite of mine in my childhood. They also can be made into a sweet table wine which many people enjoy. Moreover, the vines themselves provide a touch of color in the autumn landscape as their leaves change to their fall colors.

The quick-growing vines will provide enough growth each year to arch over and shade a walkway, an arbor, or provide an umbrella of shade over a deck or terrace. Indeed, the vines should be carefully pruned each year to direct their growth and to keep them from taking over the world! 

The grapes begin to ripen at this time of year. The bunches don't ripen uniformly; rather, they turn color one or two at a time in each cluster. I have only two vines in my garden and they don't provide enough fruit for a lot of preserving. But they do provide enough for me to pluck a few for a snack as I walk by. And they serve their main purpose which is to provide food for wildlife - especially the birds. As the fruits ripen and fall to the ground, mockingbirds are on them like ducks on a June-bug! They do love those muscadines.

As more of the leaves fall, the fruits will be exposed to the sun and ripening will come more quickly.

Muscadines are very hardy vines that are resistant to many of the diseases that afflict grape stocks that come from Europe or other parts of the world. They are easily grown in the South, where, in fact, they grow wild, and they require very little care beyond winter pruning, but their fruit production can certainly be enhanced by the regular application of a 10-10-10 fertilizer or organic plant food. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian: A review

The Hundred Days (Aubrey/Maturin, #19)The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Boney has escaped his captivity on Elba and is threatening Europe once again. And once again, the British Navy and one of its most illustrious captains, now Commodore Jack Aubrey, are called upon to meet the challenge.

Aubrey and his squadron of ships head to Gibraltar to begin their new campaign. As they are approaching the Rock, two old salts watch and discuss Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin and their exploits. It is from their discussion that we learn of a tragedy that has befallen the pair. A coach carrying Stephen's wife, Diana, and Aubrey's mother-in-law as well as various household members and servants has gone off the road and into a creek. Everyone except the groom was drowned.

Fortunately, the faithful Padeen and Mrs. Oakes were not aboard the coach and they now remain at home caring for Stephen's young daughter, Brigid. Stephen is deep in mourning and yet Patrick O'Brian doesn't really make much of that - perhaps not as much as he might have. Surely the loss of the love of his life must have had more of an effect on Maturin's actions than simply inspiring him to write some sad music!

At any rate, Maturin once again throws himself into the intelligence game, working to get the information that will help to thwart Bonaparte one more time.

Napoleon sets out to pursue his enemies across the continent, hoping to corner the British and Prussians before their Russian and Austrian allies arrive to help. His plan is to lead his French armies to triumph at Waterloo.

Meanwhile, in the Balkans, a horde of Muslim mercenaries is gathering. They are sympathetic to Napoleon because he had allegedly converted to Islam during the time of his Egyptian campaign. Their role is to thrust northward into Europe and block the Russians and Austrians from being able to aid the English and Prussians. However, before they will move, they await a shipment of gold from one of their sheiks that is on its way by camel caravan to the coast of North Africa. Aubrey and Maturin are sent to intercept that gold shipment and stop it from reaching its intended recipient.

My favorite parts of these books, aside from the humor, are those which take Stephen on his intelligence-gathering trips into the hinterlands, during which he gets to do his Nature observations and collections, especially his bird-watching. It is always a delight to read these sections, and there is ample time given to them in this book.

Much of the book, though, is given over to the kind of naval jargon which is such a delight to O'Brian's more devoted naval history readers. I'm more of a relationship reader and I freely admit that I often gloss over these sections.

Aubrey makes his plans to intercept the corsair craft that will be carrying the gold and the encounter has the outcome that would be fully expected by anyone who has followed the Aubrey adventures through (now) 19 books. There are some bumps along the way, the result of Ministry politics, but, as most often happens, Aubrey comes through it all smelling like a rose.

One interesting aside is Maturin's stroll through a market that includes selling of slaves. He happens upon two Irish children that had been captured by the corsairs and are being sold. Of course, he buys them and takes them on board ship, not the first time he has saved children, and he is at his most sympathetic in his interactions with them. He makes plans to send them back to their village in Ireland as soon as he can find a reliable ship headed there.

During all of these activities, word comes of the battle at Waterloo in which Wellington has finally vanquished Bonaparte. So, where does that leave Aubrey and Maturin? One more book to go. I hope to learn their fate before the end of the year.



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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Theme in Yellow


The frost may not yet be on the pumpkin, at least here in zone 9a, but the pumpkins are definitely out. You see them everywhere it seems. And pumpkin, or pumpkin spice, is the favorite flavor of the moment.

Carl Sandburg certainly wasn't thinking of pumpkin spice lattes when he wrote this ode to the pumpkin, but he was celebrating the joy that we find in the big yellow-orange squash. It is very much the symbol of the season. 

Theme in Yellow


BY CARL SANDBURG
I spot the hills
With yellow balls in autumn.
I light the prairie cornfields
Orange and tawny gold clusters
And I am called pumpkins.
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o'-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.


Saturday, October 17, 2015

This week in birds - #178

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

Wild Turkeys photographed at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

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The ABA Blog has a post about the common language of birders, which can sometimes be an inexplicable dialect for non-birders.

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The worst extinction that Earth has suffered so far occurred at the end of the Permian Age and was caused by volcanic activity which drastically increased the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. This in turn caused a rapid change in the climate to which many plants and animals were unable to adapt. Scientists continue to study this phenomenon and new research has just been published. 

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A new study using eBird quantifies the effect of participation in Citizen Science projects on the citizen scientists themselves. Does it make them better observers? The answer seems to be "yes."

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Did you know that snails can jump? Well, some of them can anyway, and it seems that that ability may give those snails a "leg up," so to speak, in an era of climate change.

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The City Birder has an interesting post about birds that can be seen in the city while the birder is using public transportation.

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Winter is coming, and it looks like it will be strongly influenced by El NiƱo. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting that there will be higher than usual temperatures in the northern and western parts of the continent, while southern areas are likely to be cooler. The southern tier of states and right up into New England are also predicted to have a wetter than usual winter. 

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Wisconsin is filling in its Breeding Bird Atlas using eBird. This is its inaugural year and they have counted 229 species so far that breed in that state.

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The caffeine in coffee gives bees a mental kick just as it does humans. It makes them busier and they work harder to find food. But research shows that they may misjudge the quality of that food and thereby make the colony less productive overall. Hmm... Wonder what message that holds for humans?

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Velvet ants may look fuzzy and make you want to pet them. Not a good idea. They bristle with formidable weaponry that gives a nasty sting and makes them almost invincible to predators. And they would definitely see you as a predator.

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It's happened again. A severely endangered California Condor was shot and killed in Arizona. I fail to understand why anyone would shoot a vulture of any kind and certainly not one as large as a condor.

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A symbiotic root fungi that coexists with milkweed can have an effect on Monarch butterfly health. A study has shown that the fungi may assist the transmission of a parasite that affects Monarchs, but it also aids the butterflies in resisting infection and surviving if they are infected.

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In other news from the world of parasites, Burrowing Owls are known to carry the fleas that can be the vector for bubonic plague; however, the fleas on the owls and the owls themselves are plague-free.

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Famed artist Ralph Steadman has teamed up with conservationist Ceri Levy to produce a book about endangered birds called Nextinction. This is their second collaboration. Their previous book was called Extinct Boids, about birds that have already lost their battle for survival.

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The emerald ash borer, a destructive invader, continues to colonize additional territory. It was recently found in new areas of New Jersey, though it was previously known to be in other parts of the state. 

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There's a new and colorful flock of birds in New York, thanks to the National Audubon Society and muralists. A colorful mural of thirteen different bird species has been painted on a building located at 155th Street and Broadway as a way of raising awareness of birds. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

We remember

The Iran hostage crisis of 1979 was a story that consumed Americans for months. When the American embassy in Tehran was stormed by revolutionaries, 50 Americans were taken hostage. The failure to get them back was probably what doomed the reelection hopes of President Jimmy Carter. Of course, we later learned that his opponent in the 1980 election, Ronald Reagan, was working behind the scenes to make sure all those people stayed captive until after the election. Such is politics - at least as some people practice it.

But there was another part of the storming of the embassy that went under the radar at the time. Six Americans managed to escape and had to find refuge in a city that had gone mad for American blood. Where could they turn?

They turned to the Canadian embassy and its ambassador, Ken Taylor. Mr. Taylor gave shelter to the six and worked on a plan to get them out of the country. In fact, he was the person who President Jimmy Carter called the "main hero" of their eventual rescue.  

As The Washington Post wrote this week:
When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed by Islamist students and militants, six American diplomats escaped and found sanctuary in the homes of Taylor and his first secretary John Sheardown. In addition to shielding the Americans from Iranian capture, Taylor also played a crucial role in plotting their escape.
Working with CIA officials and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark, Taylor obtained for the Americans six Canadian passports containing forged Iranian visas that ultimately allowed them to board a flight to Switzerland. He undertook all these covert actions at a high personal risk, as he and his team would have been taken hostage themselves in the case of discovery by the Islamist militants.
Thanks largely to Mr. Taylor's efforts, the six Americans made it home safely and did not have to join their 50 colleagues in their long captivity. 

Ken Taylor died this week at the age of 81. Condolences to his family and loved ones, and may he rest in well-deserved peace. 

We remember.