Saturday, February 25, 2017

This week in birds - # 245

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

American Goldfinch in my redbud tree this week. The goldfinches appear to be leaving our area early this year. Last week, they were all over my feeders, but by the weekend when I was doing my Great Backyard Bird Count, there were very few left to count and by late this week, I was only seeing single birds like this one present in my yard. In previous years, they remained in the area through March.

*~*~*~*

It's not exactly news of OUR environment, unless you count our astronomical environment, but the big news in science this week was the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets orbiting a small, faint star named Trappist-1 in the constellation of Aquarius. The star and its planets are 39 light years away, making the system a prime candidate for the search for extraterrestrial life. Scientists and geeks everywhere are very excited about this!

*~*~*~*

Meanwhile, in discoveries here on our planet, you can add four new species of frogs to the list of known life on Earth. The miniature amphibians were discovered in the Western Ghat mountains in western India. They had apparently been overlooked in the past because of their diminutive size, measuring from 12 to 16 millimeters, end to end.

*~*~*~*

Texas' very own Senator John Cornyn introduced two bills this week that would essentially gut the Endangered Species Act. His proposed legislation would give local governments, Big Oil, Big Agriculture, and other industries the right to veto settlement agreements requiring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make decisions about the protection of endangered species. In other words, Big Oil and Big Agriculture would be making those decisions. Hmm...I wonder if they would choose to protect vulnerable species if it interferes with their profits?

*~*~*~*

A new report shows just how successful the Endangered Species Act has been in protecting those vulnerable speciesOverall, 70 percent of all listed U.S. birds are stable, on the road to recovery, or already delisted, while only 21 percent are in decline.


The Brown Pelican, just one of the ESA's success stories.

*~*~*~*

The newly confirmed head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, had his emails made public this week by order of the court. The documents revealed that, as attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt had closely followed oil lobbyists' instructions in challenging environmental regulations and he more than once put the AG's letterhead to oil firm complaints.

*~*~*~*

The Oregon Silverspot butterfly is seriously endangered, but a team of scientists and land managers are working hard to pull the fragile creature back from the brink. They are hand-rearing butterflies to be returned to the wild in order to increase the population.

*~*~*~*

There was an interesting story from France this week about how the French are using the ancient art of falconry in the fight against terrorism. Terrorists are building drones to be used in their attacks, and now the French are training Golden Eagles to take down the drones.

*~*~*~*

Mallard Ducks are helping to connect isolated wetlands merely by going about their usual activities. The wintering ducks visit their favorite feeding sites at night and share a common roost during the day. They connect the wetlands by dispersing seeds through their excrement.

*~*~*~*

We tend to think of owls are being denizens of the deep, dark woods, but, in fact, many owls live quite successfully in urban areas because they find plenty of food there. 

*~*~*~*

Many Utah politicians, most prominently Rep. Jason Chaffetz, have been very vocal about selling off public lands to the highest bidder. Now, Utah is beginning to see some of the results of that opposition to the protection of public lands. The outdoor recreation industry is very big business there and it is in full revolt against the state. Outdoor Retailer, a twice-yearly trade show that pumps an estimated $45 million a year into the state’s economy, has announced plans to move from Salt Lake City, which has hosted the convention for the past 20 years. 

*~*~*~*

Viburnum, common name arrowwood, is a beautiful and useful native shrub, which, in the past, has had few, if any, pests. Now, however, it is under attack by the larvae of the viburnum leaf beetle, an introduced Old World pest, yet another example of the damage that can be done by invasive species.

*~*~*~*

The warming climate is impacting the migration of birds. A climate-controlled study indicates that as the climate continues to heat up some species, such as the White-throated Sparrow, may give up migration altogether.

*~*~*~*

The Bald Eagles that, in recent years, have nested at the National Arboretum in Washington are nesting there once again and have produced their first egg. You can watch their nest live on the DC Eagle Cam.

*~*~*~*

Penguins are uniquely vulnerable to climate change and scientists who study them are concluding that the best way to protect them may be to safeguard more of the habitat where they do their foraging.

*~*~*~*

A new study finds that up to 16% of hydraulically fractured (fracked) oil and gas wells have significant spills every year. This is much higher than had previously been reported. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Roots of My Obsession redux

I was idly thumbing through my shelves of gardening books yesterday when I came across this little gem. I had frankly forgotten that I had it.

I picked it up and read a few random pages which were more than enough to remind me that I really, really loved this book. I had read and reviewed it back in 2014.

The essays here speak to the gestalt of gardening, the thing that makes the enterprise more than just about planting seeds, weeding, pruning, harvesting. The committed gardener sees the world in the garden and sees gardening as a transcendent experience. 

If you want to understand why people garden, you might want to pick up this little book and read these essays.

~~~


The Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They GardenThe Roots of My Obsession: Thirty Great Gardeners Reveal Why They Garden by Thomas C. Cooper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this little book. It speaks to my soul and to my own obsession.

Yes, I admit it - I, too, am obsessed with gardening, sometimes to the point of nuttiness, but reading this book with its short essays by thirty great gardeners (thirty-one including the introduction by the editor Thomas Cooper), some that I knew about and some I had never heard of, made me realize that this particular obsession of mine is a holy gift from the universe and from all my gardening ancestors who, somewhere, must be laughing up their angelic sleeves to see that I have finally joined their band after so much whining and complaining.

You see, I learned the basics of gardening at my mother's knee, but I didn't do it willingly. I hated every moment of my childhood gardening experiences. At least, I thought I did. Now I look back on those days with fondness and with regret that I was not a better listener.

The reasons for gardening and the paths that one takes to becoming a gardener are as myriad and unique as the gardeners themselves - in this case thirty of them. Some people are born to gardening, some have it thrust upon them, and some come to it later in life in a roundabout fashion, but however we get there, all gardeners share the impulse to achieve their own personal vision of beauty through the creation of their gardens. It was fascinating and instructive for me to read how that impulse found expression in the lives of these thirty gardeners.

Although I enjoyed each one of the essays presented here and I found something to identify with in each of them, there are a few of them that particularly stand out in my mind and that had special meaning for me.

One of those was "The Web" by Douglas W. Tallamy. The first two sentences of his essay explains it all for me: "Most people garden because they love plants, but I garden because I love animals - all kinds of animals. Animals with two legs (birds), four legs (box turtles, salamanders, and foxes), six legs (butterflies and beetles), eight legs (spiders), dozens of legs (centipedes), hundreds of legs (millipedes, and even animals with no legs (snakes and pollywogs)." I found myself nodding as I read that. As a habitat gardener myself, I knew exactly what he meant.

Another favorite was "Chaos Theory" by Page Dickey who expounds upon the pleasures of weeding. You see, weeding is all about bringing order out of chaos and achieving that personal vision of beauty, but each gardener knows in his or her heart that this is a battle that can never be won. The aphorism that "Nature abhors a vacuum" is too true. She will continue to fill that vacuum with weeds and, in the end, we will be defeated. Any victory is only temporary. But that's all right, and knowing that and accepting it is the beginning of wisdom. Acceptance is learning to be at peace with what Nature brings us and seeing that imperfection can be beautiful, too.

It is Thomas Christopher, though, who sums up my feelings about gardening and about the wisdom contained in this book in his essay, "The Apprenticeship." He writes:
This is for me the greatest power and attraction of gardening, the transcendence it yields at unexpected moments. Occasionally, when I excise a dandelion from the lawn with one of the patented weed-pullers I inherited from my mother, who, late in life, developed an insatiable appetite for gardening gadgets, I hear her telling me how the task should be done. When I plant a tree, I may see my father, still young, punching holes in the hard earth of a pasture with a digging bar, sweat dripping from his nose, his glasses slipping off, a bucket full of saplings resting in the shade nearby.

A physicist has told me that time is a dimension that extends as readily backward as forward, and that our inability to see what we think of as the past is just a peculiarity of our limited powers of perception.

It's only in the garden that I have ever felt myself escaping this perceptual constraint. Sometimes the experience takes the form of an instant so beautiful and rich as to move me, for a moment, outside of time. In others, usually while planting, the sensation is of jumping forward to glimpse the seedling grown large, the landscape as it will be. What I continue to prize most, though are the reconnections with people, places and times otherwise lost to me.
Yes. Transcendence. That's what the gardening experience is all about. In the end, that is what each of the essayists here is saying.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I Shot the Buddha by Colin Cotterill: A review


Dr. Siri Paiboun is one of my favorite characters from an ongoing series. The series is set in Laos in the 1970s. Dr. Siri and his wife Madame Daeng fought for many years to free their country from foreign domination and to establish a communist government that would provide justice and equality for all citizens. The Pathet Lao were ultimately successful in their struggle and the communist government was established, but it hasn't quite worked out as Dr. Siri and the others who fought for it had hoped.


Dr. Siri is now nearing eighty. After the revolution, he served for a few years as the country's coroner, but finally he was allowed to retire. However, he hasn't retired from solving mysteries and from pursuing adventure.


Siri is surrounded by a coterie, one might call it an entourage, of quirky characters, starting with his wife, the noodle shop proprietor, who assist him in his adventures. They include his former co-workers at the morgue, a Vientiane policeman, and a former member of the politburo who maintains his connections in the government. In this particular adventure, they are all involved. They all take part in different aspects of the investigation.


Siri and his wife live above her noodle shop, but Siri has a house in Vientiane that was provided for him by the government when he served as coroner. Now, he provides shelter in that house for an odd assortment of characters who live communally. This latest adventure begins when one of those characters, a Buddhist monk named Noo, rides out one day on his bicycle and doesn't return. 


Noo left a note asking for help for a fellow monk in Thailand who had run afoul of the law there. It seems that there have been three murders and the monk is accused of involvement in them. Of course, Siri and his entourage jump into action to find Noo and to solve the mystery of the murders. Along the way, they must deal with the three isms that hold sway in Southeast Asia - animism, communism, and Buddhism - and Siri will wrestle with supernatural spirits as he struggles to understand what is happening.


These books give what feels like an accurate picture of conditions in Laos in the 1970s. It is a small country poor in material goods but rich in spirit and in history, one that is struggling to establish itself on the world stage. Cotterill's cast of eccentric characters are Laotian through and through, proud of their country, although not blind to its shortcomings, and wanting it to succeed.


Spending time with these characters is always fun. Humor is very much a part of their story and one often finds oneself smiling or chuckling over their outrageous antics. This book, though, was just a little too outrageous for my taste. The plot was even more convoluted than usual and it kept heading off in strange directions that seemed completely unrelated to the main thrust of the story. I thought that the writer lost his way and couldn't quite get back on track. True, he wrapped it all up in the end, but the denouement felt strained and the story didn't "flow."


Even so, time spent with Siri is never completely wasted. He is such a charming, lovable old codger. One hopes that he has many more adventures yet to come.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars   

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Wrapping up the GBBC

The weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count concluded on Monday, Presidents' Day. The count had participants from around the world. You can check out the reports from any area that interests you by visiting the GBBC website.

My personal count was a bit hit or miss, not my most successful GBBC experience. I was busy gardening on three of the days, so I combined gardening with bird counting and I'm sure I missed some. On the last day of the count, we had heavy rains so that put a bit of a damper (sorry!) on my counting.

Overall, I managed to find 24 species around my yard. In my best years of counting, I've had more than 30 and there were probably that many or more here this year, but they didn't show themselves to be counted. So, here's what I saw.

Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Eastern Phoebe
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Did you participate in the count? If so, what did you see?

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Redbud buds






Most of the native redbuds in the area have been in bloom for several days now, but my specimen is a variety that was purchased from a nursery. It's called 'Forest Pansy' and its blooms always come about a week later. This week the buds are popping out all over and the bees are feasting. Yes, it really is spring here!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: A review


I first read this book many, many years ago; it must have been in the '70s. It was devastating. Reading it again this weekend, I found it, if anything, even more devastating.

The cover of the book calls it "The classic that launched the environmental movement," and indeed it is. One can trace a straight line from the publication of this book to the public outcry that led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and to the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

Carson's book was published in 1962. It outlined in overwhelming and incisive detail the damage that was being done to Nature and to human beings (who are, after all, a part of Nature) by the profligate use of chemicals, especially DDT, to fight insects and plants that are labeled as pests and weeds.

Carson argued that those chemicals accumulated in the cells of plants and animals, working their way up the food chain and becoming more and more potent at each step along the way. Thus, at the top of the food chain, for example, animals such as Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons, and Brown Pelicans received the most fearsome dosage of those chemicals; enough to kill them outright or to make them sterile, unable to produce viable young.

By the early '60s, all three of these species were well on their way to extinction. It is not an overstatement to say that Silent Spring saved them. Nor is it an overstatement to say that it saved many other species, less well known or less iconic.

Silent Spring contained a wealth of scientific data and information, but it was written for the public, for the average person with no particular scientific training but with a concern for the welfare of his/her family and the environment in which that family lived. Carson was able to make the destruction of that environment personal for her readers. She was also able to convey to them that it didn't have to be this way; that there was an alternative, a better way.

Today, informed citizens take for granted that biological control of plant and insect pests makes more sense than flooding the environment with more chemicals that will inevitably wind up in the water that we drink and the food that we eat. We understand that we are a part of Nature and that what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves. We understand it because Carson taught us. At the time that she wrote her book, none of that was clearly understood at all.

The tragedy is that Carson never lived to see the full impact that her little book had. Within two years after its publication, she was dead of cancer. But at least she lived long enough to know that the book was a success and that people were paying attention.

One has to wonder what Rachel Carson would think if she were alive today, as the EPA is given into the tender care of a man who seeks its destruction and the Endangered Species Act is under attack by those who would kill it. Would she despair? I think that she would try to find a way to communicate to her fellow citizens that the progress we have made over the last fifty years in protecting the environment and protecting ourselves is a very fragile thing and it can be easily reversed by those whose only thought is for the almighty dollar. And I think that she would urge us to continue her fight to make sure that we never have to see a spring when no birds sing.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Poetry Sunday: Fire and Ice

Brief and to the point. That's Robert Frost in this little poem. It is actually one of his most popular poems.

He considers the end of the world and the debate about whether it will end in fire or in ice and comes to the conclusion that both would accomplish the task equally well.

Fire and Ice

by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

This week in birds - # 244

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



Cedar Waxwings photographed on one of my previous Great Backyard Bird Counts. This year's count continues all weekend, through Monday, so plenty of time for you to participate. 

*~*~*~*

An avowed enemy of the Environmental Protection Agency, who would like nothing better than to see it destroyed, has been approved by the Senate as the new head of that agency. Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma's attorney general, who has made a career out of suing the EPA on behalf of gas and oil companies, will now be able to work to destroy the agency from within. Republicans refused to delay the vote on his confirmation even though a judge had ordered release of Pruitt's emails that he exchanged with oil and gas executives to be accomplished next Tuesday. I guess emails aren't important when they are written by Republicans.

Meanwhile, William Happer, the man who has been tipped as science advisor to the new president, refers to climate scientists as a "glassy-eyed cult."

*~*~*~*

The 66-year-old Laysan Albatross known as Wisdom has hatched another chick at her nest on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Memorial.




Mama Wisdom with her new chick.

*~*~*~*

It's time to start planning your backyard wildlife garden. The Meadowlands Nature Blog gives some tips and lists resources.

*~*~*~*

In 2005, three environmental groups filed a motion with the federal government as a part of the Oroville Dam's relicensing process. They urged the government to require that the dam's emergency spillway be lined with concrete rather than remain as an earthen hillside. If that action had been taken, it likely would have prevented the risk of collapse that resulted in the emergency evacuation of some 185,000 people this week. Unfortunately, their motion was ignored.

*~*~*~*

Pesticides, paving, and higher temperatures have contributed to the drop in butterfly populations in the U.K. as they have here. Studies show that the urban populations there have declined more rapidly than the rural ones over the last twenty years. Urban populations have dropped by 69% compared to 45% for the countryside. 

*~*~*~*

But on the bright side, the California Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, which had nearly disappeared in San Francisco is making a comeback with the help of humans and of one man in particular. Sam Wong, dubbed the "butterfly whisperer," has almost single-handedly brought the beautiful butterfly back from the brink. 

*~*~*~*

Scientists have plans for bringing the woolly mammoth back from extinction. They hope to be able to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid within the next two years. This could be the first of many "de-extinction" efforts. And is that a good idea? What do you think?

*~*~*~*

A new study of songbird dehydration and survival risk during heat waves in the desert Southwest suggest that some birds are at risk for lethal dehydration and die-off when water is scarce. The danger is expected to increase as the planet continues to heat up.

*~*~*~*

A newly discovered beetle hitchhikes by clamping its jaws around the waists of army ants and disguising itself as the ant's butt. Presumably, this also keeps the beetle from being eaten by the voracious ants.

*~*~*~*

Globalization has increased the number of species that get transported inadvertently or on purpose to places where they don't belong, thus greatly expanding the threat of invasive species.

*~*~*~*

A potential use of drones for birding places that are inaccessible or difficult to access by humans involves attaching audio recorders to them. The drones would then be directed to fly over an area, recording birdsong, thus allowing a census of that area.

*~*~*~*

Bison are returning to southwest Saskatchewan. The big animals, once almost driven to extinction, are at home on the prairies of North America, and now they will be a part of the Grasslands National Park there.  

*~*~*~*

"The Last Word on Nothing" tells us about the most massive living organism in the world - the quaking aspen tree.


Although it looks like a forest, it is really only one tree.

*~*~*~*

And "The Prairie Ecologist" tells us about the life of the single (bee) mom - native bees that lead a solitary life.

*~*~*~*

Earth's worst mass extinction happened about 252 million years ago, ending the Permian Period. It was a cataclysmic event known as "the Great Dying" in which about 90% of species went extinct. But fossil evidence from Idaho indicates that life made a relatively rapid comeback on the planet after that event. Less than two million years later, merely the blink of an eye in geologic time, there was a thriving underwater ecosystem present once again.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Why aren't you out counting birds?


Mrs. Cardinal says, "The Great Backyard Bird Count is underway. Why aren't you out counting birds?"

Yes, this is the weekend of the big count. It starts today and runs through Presidents' Day on Monday. Participating couldn't be easier. Just note the birds in your yard or in some other public or private space which you designate and then go to the website and report what you've seen.

You don't have to be an ornithologist or even an expert birder. Just be able to recognize the birds in your area by sight or by referring to a bird field guide. And if there are some you can't identify, well, you can report that, too.

This is important, because the information collected by citizen scientists, when collated, helps ornithologists to determine the winter movements of birds and the health of bird populations. Are populations declining or booming? This count will help to tell the tale.

So, get off the sofa, grab you binoculars and go out and count! You might see me because I'm heading outside right now.  

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Faithful Place by Tana French: A review


Faithful Place is the third in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, and, just like the first two entries, it is a gem.

We met Frank Mackey, the main character here, in the second book, The Likeness. He was the tough head of the Undercover Squad with a single-minded devotion to the job that left little room for emotion. He was not an especially likable character.

This time around, we learn Frank's backstory. We meet the hardscrabble working class family that produced him and we get to know the community where he grew up - Faithful Place in Dublin.

Frank's family represents the very worst of the Irish stereotypical family of the 20th century. The father is a drunken, brutal beast of a man who can't keep a job and spends most of his life on the dole. His mother is a harpy who hides and excuses her and the children's beatings at the hands of her husband because, what would the neighbors think? Actually, of course, the neighbors know only too well what is going on.

Frank is the middle child of five. He has an older brother and sister and a younger brother and sister. Of the five, he's the only one who made it out of Faithful Place.

When Frank was nineteen, he was in love with beautiful Rosie Daly, another Faithful Place denizen. Rosie was eager to get out and see the world and make a better life for herself. She and Frank planned to run away to London. They had to keep it secret from both families who would have opposed and stopped them.

On the night when they planned to leave, Frank packed his bag and sneaked out of the house to go to their designated meeting place to wait for Rosie. She never came.

Finally, Frank went to a derelict house on the street where they sometimes met, thinking there might have been a misunderstanding about the meeting place. There, he found a note from Rosie that seemed to say she was leaving on her own.

Devastated, Frank decided to leave on his own as well. For twenty-two years, he never returned to Faithful Place.

He did make a life of his own. He joined the Guard, eventually ending up in the Undercover Squad. He married and had a daughter and, in time, divorced. When we meet up with Frank this time, his daughter is nine years old and he adores her. He still seems to be hung up on the ex-wife as well.

Over the years, Frank had been in touch with his younger sister, Jackie. Now a call comes from Jackie. Something has been found in that derelict house where Rosie and Frank used to meet. It is Rosie's suitcase - the one she had packed to run away with Frank. It looks like Rosie might never have got out of Faithful Place after all.

The subsequent discovery of Rosie's decomposed body and the upheaval that this causes in the Daly and Mackey families is the central element in the story of Faithful Place. This novel is, in fact, not just a mystery and suspense thriller, it is in large part a reflection on the structure of families, how they work, how they make us who we are, and what we owe to the other members of our families. In the end, although we may run away from the family and make a new life for ourselves elsewhere, we can never truly escape the gravitational pull of that first social group.

Tana French writes splendid and thought-provoking fiction. She also has the knack for constructing an air-tight mystery/thriller that keeps the reader guessing all the way through. I'm already salivating at the thought of reading the next book in this series.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2017

Most days, spring seems to have arrived early in my zone 9a garden, but that has become fairly typical in recent years. True, we may still have some chilly nights, but it seems unlikely that we'll have another freeze. (I better hope that we don't since I planted my tomatoes this week!)

With the warming days, a few blossoms are beginning to show themselves. Here's what's blooming in the garden on this February Bloom Day.


The 'Peggy Martin' rose has a few blooms this week. By another week to ten days, it will be fairly covered in these pretty blossoms.



And the little tazetta daffodils are here to assure us that it REALLY IS spring.



A few African daisies bloom among the foxtail fern.



The Carolina jessamine is actually past its prime and looking a bit the worse for wear now after a heavy rain this morning that knocked lots of its blossoms to the ground. This was taken a few days ago.



Several primroses grace pots around the garden. Here's yellow.



And red.



And a mixture of colors.



'Tangerine Beauty' crossvine that lives on the veggie garden fence has begun its spring bloom cycle.



Here are the delicate bloom spikes of heuchera 'Coral Bells' with Dilly the armadillo.



The azalea looks pretty bedraggled after the morning rain.



In the herb garden, the chives are sending out their pretty little blooms.



A pot of pansies is always a happy sight.



A few snapdragons bloom in pots around the front door entry.



Violas that have bloomed all winter still have some color left.



And indoors, the last amaryllis is sending out its pretty blossoms.

In another month, the garden will have been completely transformed and it will be hard to remember that only a few weeks ago, everything looked brown and dead. In the meantime, these few early blooms are the sweet promise of things to come.

Thank you for visiting my garden this month and thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens, our gracious host for this meme.

Happy gardening and happy Bloom Day. 

Happy Valentine's Day!

TO ALL MY WONDERFUL READERS:



Monday, February 13, 2017

This week in birds - # 243

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment (better late than never edition):



American Goldfinches in their winter dress visiting my backyard thistle seed (nyger) feeder. I'll be reporting goldfinches and all the other birds in my backyard for next weekend's Great Backyard Bird Count. I hope you'll consider participating and reporting the birds in your yard.

*~*~*~*

What had seemed like a reprieve for the rusty-patched bumblebee when President Obama gave it protection under the Endangered Species Act near the end of his presidency looks like it may be snatched away by the new administration in Washington that has put a 60-day pause on federal regulations not yet implemented. Sixty days from now may be too late for the bumblebee which is near extinction.

*~*~*~*

Birds like the White-eyed Vireo that depend upon a healthy understory of brush in forests are harmed by an overabundance of white-tailed deer in those forests. The deer devour the brush that the birds need for survival.

*~*~*~*

The mountain lion designated as P-22 continues to survive in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, an island of wilderness in the midst of the city. No one knows how he came to be there, but he shares his habitat with millions of human visitors throughout the year, coexisting amicably.

*~*~*~*

A crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica has grown by 17 miles in the past two months, raising scientists' fears that it may soon break away from the continent.

*~*~*~*

Did you know that there was such a job as criminal forensic ornithologist? Well, there is and it turns out that this "dead bird detective" plays an important role in the investigation and prosecution of animal smugglers and the unlawful killing of birds.

*~*~*~*

Monarch butterflies had seemed to be mounting a bit of a comeback last year, but the news from their overwintering sites in Mexico and California put the kibosh on our rising hopes for the species. The numbers of butterflies in both areas were down again this winter, continuing a long decline since the 1990s that is estimated at 74% for the California population and 80-90% for the Mexican population.


A cluster of wintering Monarchs on the California coast - Xerxes Society photo.

*~*~*~*

The path to saving the endangered snow leopard of the Himalayas is paved in...um...feces. By studying the leopard's feces, scientists are able to determine what it eats and, it is hoped, prove to local farmers that it isn't eating their livestock, thus removing a reason for them to try to kill the animals.

*~*~*~*

Forty-four years ago the most important conservation law in American history was passed by the Senate on a 92-0 vote and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. Now, the Endangered Species Act itself is endangered by a much-changed Republican Party that will spend the next four years doing its best to kill it.

*~*~*~*

The Nature of Cities blog tells us about "Building for Birds," a tool that allows cities to plan for the creation and preserving of healthy habitat for birds in their environs. 

*~*~*~*

A year ago, the East Coast's Delmarva fox squirrel was removed from the endangered species list after fifty years on the list. Continued monitoring by the Fish and Wildlife Service confirms that the recovered species is continuing to thrive.

*~*~*~*

The saiga antelope, an ancient species that once roamed the grasslands of the world with woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers, has declined in numbers in recent years due to illegal hunting, lost of habitat, and competition for food. It is currently listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List and now it has been hit by a double whammy. A virus known as goat plague is racing through the population on the Mongolian steppes and leaving rotting carcasses in its wake. 

*~*~*~*

Semipalmated Sandpipers are another shorebird species that has suffered decline in recent years. Scientists are studying it on its wintering grounds to see how it is sustaining itself there and in hopes of providing help for its continued survival. 

*~*~*~*

The Yellow Rail is a small member of that family that is so seldom seen in its natural habitat, but we know that the population of the secretive bird has fallen and now it is threatened by a hydroelectric project in British Columbia. The project would destroy a wetland that is used as a nesting site for the bird. Conservationists are trying to save the wetland for the bird and other animals that depend on it.

*~*~*~*

A newly discovered species of frog in India makes a sound that mimics the call of the White-throated Kingfisher which inhabits the same area that it does. 

*~*~*~*

The gas industry leaks enough to power three million homes each year. In November, the Bureau of Land Management published a rule that would make the industry capture and sell the wasted gas. Now, it seems that Congress will likely overturn that rule. After all, what harm could all that gas leaking into the environment and the atmosphere possibly do?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Poetry Sunday: The Things I Learned as a Bartender

The Goodreads monthly newsletter came out this week. Each month they have a poetry contest and the newsletter features the winner. This is this month's winner.

I'm not familiar with the author but her poem touched me with its simplicity, a simplicity that masks a profound understanding and insight into people. It's the kind of insight that might easily be gained by an observant bartender or waiter who sees people in situations where they have "nothing to gain." It is then that their true selves emerge.  

The Things I Learned as a Bartender 

by Tricia McCallum (Goodreads Author)

There is no such thing as the perfect martini.
Jazz musicians make lousy tippers.
A couple can walk in fighting and after two shots of tequila
hold each other for dear life on the dance floor
like they did in high school.

A woman doesn't notice her date's drink order
as much as how he treats the waitress.
No matter how cool the pickup line
women want kind.
Even with nothing to gain
people can be small and mean.

A table of plastic surgeons
can be more obnoxious, abusive, than
a convention of professional wrestlers.
The plain girl alone at the end of the bar
has an achingly beautiful story
no one will hear.
The busboy with the bad skin.
His will also go untold.

Some people cannot be reached.
The hulking cab driver
who climbed the back stairs for his double cheeseburger
every night at 8:30, month after month,
stayed mute, no eye contact. He'd pay with a twenty
and wave away the change.
Leave without a word.
From him I learned 
it's impossible to imagine
all the damage done.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: A review


This book has been published in the U.K. with the title The Blot, which actually seems a much better title than A Gambler's Anatomy. In backgammon, which is the preferred game of the main character in the book, a "blot" is a piece that stands alone, vulnerable to attack. Alexander Bruno, the main character, adopts that term to refer to something that has gone horribly awry with his anatomy. There is something growing in his head, between his eye and his brain. Something that shouldn't be there.

It is a tumor, and when we meet Bruno for the first time, in Berlin, that unnatural growth is just about to land him in the hospital after he suffers a kind of seizure while he is playing a high stakes game of backgammon.

Bruno is a professional gambler. He travels the world, winning large sums of money from rich amateurs who are sure that they have what it takes to beat this professional. He has been inordinately successful for a long time, but then, in Singapore, his luck turns. Suddenly, he is losing more than he is winning.

He moves on to Berlin where he hopes for a turnaround in his run of luck, but, instead, the losing continues. And then his health fails. 

The doctors at the hospital in Berlin diagnose his problem, but are not equipped to treat it. He learns that perhaps the only neurosurgeon in the world who may be willing to try to rid him of his unwanted "blot" is in Berkeley, California, where he grew up. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the money to get to Berkeley.

But, luckily, Bruno has an acquaintance from high school days, who now just happens to be in Berlin, and who is filthy rich. He offers to pay Bruno's way and to pay for the medical care he needs once he gets to Berkeley. Soon enough, he is back in California, undergoing major surgery that involves rebuilding his face after removing the tumor.  

He emerges with a face that he cannot recognize and he takes to wearing a surgical mask after his bandages come off. No one on Telegraph Avenue where he lives seems very surprised or put off by the man wearing the mask. In fact, he fits right in there.

Jonathan Lethem is an extraordinarily inventive writer who turns out exuberant prose that is steeped in a sardonic wit. In Alexander Bruno, he has created what should be a riveting character and yet he just seemed flat to me. I couldn't really care that much about him. He gives the impression of floating through life, on the kindness of strangers, without any real passion of his own. True, he is obsessive about backgammon and rather smug about his mastery of it, but he doesn't appear to see much beyond that. He didn't really engage my interest as a reader.

When I sat down to write this review, I had the oddest sensation. I realized that even though I had just finished the book the night before, I couldn't really remember how it ended. I reread the last chapter and, quite honestly, I still don't know how it ended. Perhaps that tells you everything you need to know about my reading experience with it.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars