Monday, March 31, 2014

Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert: A review

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate ChangeField Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
― Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked
That famous quote from Upton Sinclair seems highly appropriate to any discussion of climate change in this country. Entrenched, very powerful economic interests control our political system and, to a great extent, our media, and those interests are determined that business as usual shall prevail in the production and distribution of energy. In other words, petrochemical companies should be allowed to operate unchecked and unregulated. That this is a recipe for worldwide catastrophe is made quite clear in this slim book by science writer Elizabeth Kolbert.  

Kolbert organizes her narrative as a series of travelogues to various parts of the world where the effects of global warming are made most evident. And so we visit the Alaskan interior, Iceland, and the Greenland ice sheet, as well as the mountains and meadows of Britain and Europe and the jungles of Costa Rica. We also get to meet the researchers in all these places who are working hard to understand the effects of a warming climate.

Kolbert also takes us back to the beginning of the study of climate and climate change in the 19th century where we meet Irish physicist John Tyndall who studied the absorptive properties of various gases and came up with the first accurate account of how the atmosphere functions.

We also meet Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who picked up where Tyndall left off and who later would win the Nobel Prize for his work on electrolytic dissociation. Arrhenius became curious about the effects of carbon dioxide on global temperatures. He was apparently interested in whether falling levels of carbon dioxide might have caused the ice ages. He calculated how the earth's temperature would be affected by changing carbon dioxide levels. He was able to declare that rising levels of carbon dioxide would allow future generations "to live under a warmer sky."

Kolbert reviews some of the cultures that have suffered from or been destroyed by climate change in the past - for example, the classical Mayan civilization of the Yucatan and, even earlier, that of Akkad between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

This is all fascinating stuff for those of us who are interested in this issue, an audience which should include the entire human race. The information is presented in a comprehensive and succinct manner and in highly readable form. Kolbert has a knack for making complicated topics understandable.

The book was first published in 2006 in the middle of the George W. Bush presidency and one of the saddest chapters of the book is entitled "The Day After Kyoto" which begins with a conversation with Bush's Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Paula Dobriansky. Dobriansky attempts to explain and defend the adminstration's policy on climate change. What she actually does is repeat the same talking point over and over again.

Indeed, the history of the United States' handling of the problem of global warming has been mostly downhill since President George H.W. Bush acknowledged the problem and signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It has mostly been a history of denial of basic science and a refusal to act or to lead, as perhaps best exemplified by climate change denialist Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.

In an afterword written in January 2009, Kolbert makes clear that business as usual continues and without U.S. leadership the problem of climate change cannot be solved. It seems unlikely that that will happen in the foreseeable future. The warnings of scientists like James Hansen continue to go unheeded and Earth continues to heat up. I finished this book feeling very depressed about the future prospects for survival of the human race.      

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Casey at the Bat

Baseball, that grand old game that some of us still love, is just about to start its major league season once again. The grass is young and hope is green.

Baseball has been the inspiration for many works of art since its beginnings back in the 19th century. Literature, plays, movies, music all have paid homage to the game. But perhaps the very best known bit of literature about baseball is the poem that was written about it in its infancy, in June, 1888. It's a poem that most of us knew - and perhaps loved - as a child. It still catches the spirit of the game today, because the game is still essentially the same.

Casey at the Bat

  by Ernest Lawrence Thayer 

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day; 
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game. 

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, "If only Casey could but get a whack at that--
We'd put up even money now, with Casey at the bat." 

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third. 

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat. 

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile lit Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat. 

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip. 

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped--
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one!" the umpire said. 

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted some one on the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand. 

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two!" 

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again. 

The sneer has fled from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go.
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow. 

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville--great Casey has struck out.

Go Astros! I believe this is the year you will climb out of the cellar and into respectability once again!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

This week in birds - #102

A roundup of the weeks news of birds and the environment:

The little Brown-headed Nuthatches have mostly been absent from my feeders during the recent winter, but now they have returned to enjoy the black oil sunflower seeds and suet cakes. They are always fun to watch and to hear. Their calls remind me of the sound of a dog's squeaky toy!


One of the big stories of the environment this week was the big oil spill in Galveston Bay that blocked the Houston Ship Channel for a time. It was estimated that some 168,000 gallons of heavy oil had leaked and were spreading to threaten local wildlife refuges. These areas along the Texas coast are full of birds at all times, but we are now in the middle of the spring migration season when millions of birds are making their way north from South America and many of them stop to rest along the coast, so an oil spill now holds the potential of a major wildlife catastrophe. However, at the end of the week, it seems that the spill has been mostly contained and that damage to birds and other wildlife will not be as extensive as was first feared. Ironically, this spill came 25 years after the massive Exxon oil spill in Valdez, Alaska, which devastated wildlife there and is still affecting the area all these years later.


The ABA Blog this week offered some tips on how to identify birds.


The ice sheets of West Antarctica are melting faster than was anticipated. According to recent research, the six massive glaciers are moving faster than they did forty years ago, causing more ice to discharge into the ocean and global sea levels to rise.


An environmental group has filed suit to try to stop a residential development in the town of Dublin, California, that they claim would disrupt or destroy a Burrowing Owl habitat.


Bluebird twins! Two chicks hatched from the same egg. That's what a Project NestWatch volunteer recently discovered. The nest had contained four eggs including one extra large one. When it was checked later, there were five chicks.

Meantime, in my own bluebird nest watch, the chicks have either hatched or are near hatching. Mom isn't leaving the nest and Pop is working hard delivering food throughout the day.

And, in still more Eastern Bluebird news, another nest is currently under construction in a second bluebird box in my backyard. It is shaping up as a bumper year for bluebirds.


The academic study of natural history appears to be declining in popularity. This is a troubling development for science and for society as a whole.


The record-breaking irruption of Snowy Owls last winter gave scientists a prime opportunity to study the beautiful, charismatic birds. What they found is that we actually know very little about Snowies.


When caged birds like parakeets are released into the wild, either accidentally or on purpose, they often do not survive very long, but sometimes they do. When they do survive and thrive, they have the potential for becoming an invasive species and a nuisance. A study in Britain has found that feral parakeets there can keep native birds away from feeding stations.


A new study has found that salamanders living in the Appalachians are getting smaller as their habitat gets warmer. This appears to be an evolutionary adaptation to the environment, meaning that they need to expend less energy in order to find food and survive.


New Caledonian Crows are considered the Einsteins of the bird family. An experiment shows that they understand the displacement of water at the level of a 5- to 7-year-old child.


Aerial surveys of nests in the Chesapeake Bay area confirm that Bald Eagles are doing very well indeed there. In fact, their population is soaring.


The blog "Charismatic Minifauna" offers some information about gardening for bees, a very important topic in this era of so many challenges to the continued existence of bees and other pollinators.


Around the backyard:

Winter visitors still hanging around this week include the occasional pair of American Goldfinches, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Rufous Hummingbirds, Cedar Waxwings (of course), and two sparrows - the Chipping and the White Throated.

 The Chipping Sparrow is truly one of my favorite winter visitors.

I will miss the White-throated Sparrow's sweet song when it is gone.

Time marches on and so do the migrating birds. The first Chimney Swifts showed up over my yard yesterday, a sight that always gladdens my heart.


Addendum: I actually forgot to mention one of the most exciting things happening in my backyard right now. Namely, I have three species of hummingbirds currently in residence!

The Rufous female who spent the winter with me is still here and shows no sign of moving on just yet. She continues to defend "her" feeders against all comers.

This week a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird arrived and she, too, seems inclined to hang around. I don't know, of course, if she is the same bird who has nested here in recent years, but she's making herself right at home.  

The third bird was a bit of a surprise when I spotted him at a feeder today. I don't often have Black-chinned Hummingbirds in residence. The ones that I've had in the past have all been juveniles or females and I was never 100% sure that they were Black-chinned and not Ruby-throated, but my current visitor is an adult male, beautifully marked, and there is no doubt about his identity.

I don't know how long my trifecta of hummers will last, but I am enjoying them immensely.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky: A review

Critical Mass (The V.I. Warshawski Series)Critical Mass by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I've long been an admirer of the writing of Sara Paretsky. As such, I have faithfully followed her V.I. Warshawski series over the years. Having now finished with Critical Mass, I can say that I have read them all.

They are all workmanlike and suspenseful mysteries and some are downright enthralling page-turners, but I have to admit that I was less than enthralled with this latest one. While I really like V.I. and I'll always care about her, I found it hard to care very much about the other characters in this book.

The story here is that V.I.'s friend Lotty hires her to look for a drug-addicted patient of hers who had called her in a panic to ask for help and then disappeared. The detective tracks her to a derelict drug house in a rural town outside of Chicago. She finds the place in shambles and the body of one dead dog with another injured and extremely dehydrated. She follows a trail into a cornfield where she discovers the corpse of a man that had been picked over and mutilated by crows. But the woman whom she is seeking is no longer there, if she ever was.  

Trying to discover more about the woman and get an idea of where she might be brings V.I., quite unexpectedly, into the history of physics and invention, dating to before World War II. The woman's family history is linked to Dr. Lotty Herschel's all the way back to the Vienna of seventy years ago. Both families were touched by the Holocaust, indeed they were decimated by it. Lotty and the mother of the missing woman had been children together at the time and were sent to England to escape the war.

The grandmother of the missing woman was a physicist with a connection to a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who escaped from Vienna with his family and ended up in the United States. The grandmother, Martina, was caught in the war and was sent to be a slave laborer for the Nazis. She later disappeared from all records and was presumed dead.

Martina had been a gifted physicist and inventor and she held the American patent for a machine that was later instrumental in developing modern computer systems. This, it turns out, is significant in the disappearance of her drug-addicted granddaughter in Chicago, as well as the granddaughter's twenty-something son who, it seems, has inherited his great-grandmother's love of and abilities with math and physics.

But what made these two disappear? Who are they hiding from, if indeed they are hiding? And what does it all have to do with the Holocaust and with Vienna of the 1930s and 1940s?

I had a hard time keeping track of all these people and their relations, as the action switched back and forth in time. Perhaps that was because there just didn't seem to be a strong central figure here. I think that role might have been meant for Martina and/or her great-grandson and namesake, Martin, but their plights just didn't engage me, at least not in any meaningful way.

Obviously, we are supposed to be moved by the Holocaust connection, but perhaps I am jaded (although I do fervently hope not) by the repetition of this particular theme in several of these books. V.I.'s friends, Lotty and Max, are both connected to the Holocaust and they work to succor Holocaust survivors and their descendants. But the continual repetition of the theme has only served to immunize me a bit from its effect.

In the end, of course, all the loose ends are tied up, V.I. gets her man, solves the case, and justice is served. But the whole thing just left me curiously unsatisfied.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Allium candense with Funereal Duskywing

Three springs ago, I was sitting in my favorite seat under my red oak tree one day when I looked down at my feet and saw a pretty little wildflower growing there. It was an allium, a wild onion, but where most of the wild onions in my neighborhood have white flowers, this one had pink flowers. I thought it was quite pretty so I dug it up and put it in a pot and later transferred it to a bed in my garden, where it has flourished and bloomed for the two springs since then.

Referring to my guidebook, Wildflowers of Texas by Geyata Ajilvsgi, I determined that the wildling was most likely Allium canadense. Bloom period for the plant is March - May, and just now the plants are full of these pretty, delicate little blossoms.

While I was admiring the plant on Tuesday, I got a bonus treat. A small, dark butterfly landed on the blooms and began to feed. It was a butterfly that I didn't remember ever seeing before, so I ran for my camera to try to get its picture.

I wasn't particularly successful in getting a good picture of the critter. This is the ventral view of it. I tried to get a dorsal view which would have been more definitive for identification purposes, but the butterfly was not cooperative. It flew away every time I tried to get behind it. Ultimately though, in viewing my pictures later and comparing them to the pictures in Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas by John and Gloria Tveten, my go-to reference book for butterflies in my garden, I decided that it was a member of the skipper family called the Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis). The dark wings with the white hindwing fringes were diagnostic of that species. This butterfly is in our area from February through December and produces several broods during that time, so it is really rather remarkable that I hadn't encountered it before.

Learning about the wild inhabitants, both plant and animal, that share my backyard is a fascinating and never-ending study, one that encourages me to always keep my eyes open to see what is there.


I'm linking this post to Gail's "Wildflower Wednesday" at Clay and Limestone. Check out her blog for a list of other participants in this fun monthly meme.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Know Nothings

“It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”    
- Carl Sagan

In the mid-19th century in the United States, there was a political party that was called the Know Nothings. It was a movement that was based on nativism and xenophobia. Its adherents strove to curb immigration and naturalization, specifically of Irish and German Catholics. Its sentiment was virulently anti-Catholic. Membership was limited to white Protestant males. The movement was never particularly powerful and ultimately it fragmented over the issue of slavery.

The Know Nothing movement fragmented but it never really died in the United States. It has always existed as an undercurrent in American political life and, finally, in the 21st century, it seems to be coalescing and rearing its ugly head once again, but now the Know Nothingness has expanded into other areas of life than simply religious prejudice and fear and suspicion of foreigners. Now it seems to encompass a philosophy of knee-jerk rejection of science and learning that is utterly appalling.

Thus, we have a significant percentage of Americans in this Know Nothing political movement who absolutely reject the overwhelming evidence presented by science that the planet is heating up very quickly, that the heating is caused by human activity, and that if this activity is not modified, the planet may soon reach a point of no return for the continuance of the human race here. They rely upon the Bible as their science book and argue that the Earth is God's creation and that humans cannot affect it.

Essentially that same percentage of Americans rejects the whole idea of evolution as a factor in the development of the species that exist upon this planet today. Their philosophy allows no history or science that is not absolutely consistent with what they read in their Bibles - the planet and heavens were all created in six days by God and on the seventh day he rested when he saw that it was all good. All the creatures and plants in existence upon Earth were created by God in those six days, exactly as they appear today. Natural selection had nothing to do with it.

It probably should not surprise us then that there is a certain segment of the population that believes that modern medicine is a fraud and, specifically, that vaccinations are the cause of a whole panoply of problems, particularly autism in children. The anti-vaccination movement is strong in some areas of this country, fueled by the rantings of certain celebrities who did their research by Googling and decided that their findings have more weight than those of doctors and researchers who have spent fourteen years and more of their lives in study of how the body works and how to fight disease.

The influence of the anti-vaxxers is pernicious and potentially catastrophic for those who allow themselves to be misled. This is how we get the outbreak of diseases like measles that are easily prevented just about 100% by proper vaccination. These are not diseases to be disregarded. People can die from them or they can suffer long-term effects that will be with them for the rest of their lives. The anti-vaxxers have a lot to answer for.

But all the anti-science people have a lot to answer for. Through their refusal to accept the findings of science and to make its teaching in our schools of paramount importance, they have damaged our children's ability to think, contribute, and compete both today and in tomorrow's world. Our standing in the world as far as the teaching of science is really that of a Third World country. A survey last year ranked American students as 36th overall among the group of countries that participated. Certainly, there are many factors that contribute to that ranking, but the denigration of science among a significant part of our population does not help.

The anti-science crowd is currently obsessing over Neil deGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's long-ago classic series about the universe, Cosmos. Three episodes have aired so far and each one has been a winner. Concepts of how the universe works - physics, in other words - are addressed and explained in language that even I can understand. Tyson is a phenomenal communicator and a worthy successor to Sagan whose Cosmos series I watched and loved all those years ago. Anti-sciencers are freaking out and demanding equal time for their creationism concepts.

But this is not a debate and it is pointless to give "equal time" to concepts which have no basis in evidence or fact. It simply elevates such beliefs to the status of theories and concepts that have been tested and retested by thousands of scientists over literally hundreds of years. It gives them an importance which they do not deserve.

And speaking of undeserved importance, James Inhofe, the anti-science, non-believer in global warming senator from Oklahoma, has bragged that, after the mid-term elections this year which he expects the Republicans to win, he will be the chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee. Thus he believes he will be able to control the EPA and allow his oil and gas buddies to rape the Earth to extract their products, with no hindrance from government.  That is certainly one of the best arguments I know for doing everything possible to make sure that the Republicans do not win the mid-term elections.

Meantime, physics doesn't care about all this. It is what it is and its systems will continue to operate according to immutable principles whether or not James Inhofe and his ilk choose to believe in them. Know Nothings may screw up our political landscape and ultimately the physical landscape, but Earth and the cosmos will protect themselves. They will survive us. As George Carlin used to be fond of saying, "The Earth will shake us off like a bad case of fleas." And it will continue to turn.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Khaleesi Says

Are you a Game of Thrones fan? I admit I am. I've read all five of George R.R. Martin's books in The Song of Ice and Fire saga and I've watched all three seasons of the HBO series based on it.

The fourth season of the series starts in a couple of weeks and, just for grins, at my house we have been re-watching the first three seasons in order to get ready for it. So, when I came across this poem in my search for a poem to feature this week, it seemed like a little more than just a coincidence. Of course, I had to use it.

Khaleesi Says

Game of Thrones
In this story, she is fire-born:
knee-deep in the shuddering world.

In this story, she knows no fear,
for what is fractured is a near-bitten star,
a false-bearing tree,
or a dishonest wind.

In this story, fear is a house gone dry.
Fear is not being a woman.

I’m no ordinary woman, she says.
My dreams come true.

And she says and she is
and I say, yes, give me that.

"Fear is not being a woman" - I do like that line. And the Khaleesi says, "I'm no ordinary woman. My dreams come true."

But will her dreams come true for real? Only George R.R. Martin knows for sure.

Friday, March 21, 2014

This week in birds - #101

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

The Red-bellied Woodpecker shows you how he got his name.


Paleontologists have discovered another feathered dinosaur from the group known as Oviraptorosauria, but unlike most of the others of this type that have been found in Central and Eastern Asia, this one was discovered in North America, the first one of its kind to be found here.


Why did the chicken cross the Pacific Ocean? Because a human carried him in a boat, and that fact has given scientists another way of tracking human migration. They do it by tracking the evolution of chicken DNA on the islands.


The Kakapo is a critically endangered flightless parrot from New Zealand. Those trying to stave off its extinction had reason for rejoicing this week when the first baby Kakapo in three years was hatched.


As the Arctic tundra continues to warm up, it is releasing more carbon dioxide than can be absorbed by plants, thus increasing the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which contributes to the greenhouse effect which contributes to more global warming which causes the Arctic tundra to warm up more...


Passenger Pigeons were once one of the most abundant birds on Earth, but a human misunderstanding of the ecology of the birds helped contribute to its extinction one hundred years ago.


It has been a rough winter for fish-eating ducks like Red-breasted Mergansers on the Great Lakes. Frozen lakes have made it difficult for the ducks to obtain enough food to survive.


New DNA studies indicate that humans hunted the Moa into extinction.


We tend to think of the earthworm as being an unambiguously good and helpful species, but that is not true in all cases. In fact, it is an invasive species that can actually do harm to other parts of the ecosystem in some situations.


Ratites like Ostriches, Emus, and Kiwis are very different from your average backyard bird. For one thing, they are flightless, and they tend to be gigantic with long necks and ridiculously small wings in proportion to their bodies. They are likely the closest living relatives to the feathered dinosaurs on the bird family tree.


The long-term survival of the Magellanic Penguin on Chile's Magdalena Island is being threatened by the effects of global warming.


Another potential victim of a warming climate is the archeological sites along the Alaska Coast, and, in fact, archeological sites along coasts everywhere. The National Park Service is working to protect those most endangered on the Alaskan Coast.


Around the backyard:

This was the week when the spring migration of birds really became apparent in my backyard. The American Goldfinches all but disappeared. I've only seen one pair this week. Pine Warblers are suddenly absent from my yard, too, and, in their place, some new faces are being seen.

On Monday, the first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird showed up. On Wednesday, I was doing some observations for Project FeederWatch when who should pop into view but a Black-and-white Warbler! I thought it was a bit early for them, but then I read my email and saw a message from Journey North, the website that tracks migrations, which informed me that the little warblers are being seen routinely in South Texas these days, so it turned out my sighting was not that unusual.

Later on Wednesday, I saw my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year. I think they've actually been around for a while, but that was the first one I had seen in my yard.

With the new birds in town added to my permanent residents and the winter visitors that remain, I had my best total this season for Project FeederWatch - 32 species.

One of the winter residents still here is this little Orange-crowned Warbler who loves the suet cakes that I provide. He's been a reliable daily visitor all winter.

My little female Rufous Hummingbird remains, now doing daily battle with Ruby-throats.

And, of course, the Cedar Waxwings are still around and probably will be for several weeks more.

Among the permanent residents, the main thing on their minds now is sex.

 The White-winged Doves tend to show up in pairs instead of groups now.

 The Northern Cardinals, of which there are many in my yard, spend much of their day chasing each other around, trying to establish their territories. The males in their courting clothes are simply dazzling.

The House Finches, of course, show up in pairs or family groups throughout the year. This male, too, is sporting brighter colors these days.

On his mate, you can see just bit of a rosy wash on the head.

And in the bluebird box, things are off to a roaring start. There is a perfectly crafted pine straw nest which holds five beautiful blue eggs. Incubation has just started. Here, Mama Eastern Bluebird takes a break from sitting on the nest to poke her head out the door to see what's going on around her. In less than two weeks, if things proceed normally, we will have the next bluebird generation. Indeed, spring is here!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring at last!

Spring arrived here right on schedule today at 11:57 A.M., Central Daylight Time, and it could hardly have been a more perfect first day of spring. Bright blue sky filled with golden sunshine, temperatures in the 70s F., a gentle breeze blowing - this was the day we have looked toward for the last three months.

And on this beautiful day, I saw my very first Giant Swallowtail butterfly of the year. This wasn't it - the picture was taken last summer - but it looked just like this.

I spent much of my day out weeding in the garden and I kept encountering these little guys.

Green anoles - one of my favorite garden critters. They were out basking in the sun today.

Just like the anoles, my plants, too, are waking up.

The old azalea in my backyard is just about to be full of blooms, but this is the first.

Nearby, the redbud will soon be full of these lovely blossoms.

And, in a bed next to the patio, this pretty little allium has joined the pink bloom parade. It voluntarily seeded itself in my garden a couple of years ago. When I happened to notice it, I liked it so much that I dug it and put it in a bed, where it has flourished, just one more of Nature's many gifts to me.

It isn't only plants, butterflies, and green anoles that are feeling the pull of spring. Migrating birds have been passing through my yard this week. Yesterday, I saw my first Black-and-white Warbler and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year, and as I reported earlier, the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the year arrived this week. Some of our winter residents are still here, too, but they are moving out day by day now.

We may still have some cool days and nights, but they won't linger. Spring is on the march and it will vanquish winter. At last!

The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Fire Engine That Disappeared  (Martin Beck #5)The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man commits suicide in a Stockholm apartment. He leaves behind a cryptic note with just two words: "Martin Beck."

Later, on the night of that same day another apartment building in Stockholm explodes in flames while the police are watching the building because of a low-level criminal who lives there. Eleven people live in the building and had it not been for the policeman who was watching at the moment of the explosion, Gunvald Larsson, they would likely all have died. Through his heroic efforts, eight of the people escaped, although one later died.

One resident, a teenage girl, was trapped and burned in the attic apartment and the man in the apartment where the fire started also died. It turned out that that man was the criminal whom the police had been watching and that an incendiary device had been placed in the man's mattress. However, complicating matters, it seems that the man was dead before the fire.

Martin Beck and his squad at first assume that the fire was an accident due to a gas leak, but once the incendiary device is discovered, they reluctantly accept the inevitable and commence the investigation.

The investigation proceeds at a snail's pace. The police search for weeks for their main suspect, an associate of the criminal who died in the fire, but no one has seen him since before the fire. It is suspected that he has gone abroad, but there are no clues to where or why.

Finally, a connection is found between the man who committed suicide and left his strange note and the criminal who died in the fire. But no one, including Martin Beck, can quite figure out what it all means.

Then another body is found by two boys who are fishing. They see an old car under the surface of the water. When the car is brought up, there is a long-dead body in it. Is this death somehow related to the others which the police are investigating?

This is the fifth book in the Martin Beck series - the halfway point of the ten book series. After I recently finished the fourth book in the series, The Laughing Policeman, I realized that I wasn't quite ready to give up the company of this group of characters and so I plunged ahead to read The Fire Engine That Disappeared. I'm glad I did, because I got to know several of the characters considerably better.

Martin Beck, now Chief Inspector, continues to be as much of a sad-sack as ever. His home life is abominable. In this book, his teenage daughter is making plans to move out of the home and one night she asks her father, "Why don't you move out, too?" Foreshadowing, perhaps?

Beck's best friend, if that he can be called, is Lennart Kollberg. He is a sensualist. His main joys in life are sex and food. He has a happy home life with his wife and child. He is sarcastic and rude to his colleagues, frequently expressing the opinion that they are all idiots.

One of the main targets of Kollberg's vitriol is Gunvald Larsson, who gets to be a hero in this book. He is the black sheep of a very rich family. He, like Kollberg, is lacking in interpersonal skills, but even though he can be boorish and tactless, he is actually a competent detective.

Larsson's only real friend on the squad is Einar Ronn, a calm and peaceful individual, who is also a hard-working and efficient detective. Even though Larsson is just as rude to him on the job as he is to everyone else, they are actually good friends.

Fredrik Melander is a detective with a flawless memory and a knack for always being in the restroom whenever anyone is looking for him. He seems to have no temper at all, always maintaining an even keel.

In this book, also, we get introduced to Benny Skacke, a young detective, with all the flaws of the young and inexperienced.

There's one other detective of note here: Per Mansson is not from Stockholm. He's actually from Malmo, but he turns up repeatedly in Martin Beck's cases, and this time he provides the clue which eventually helps to break the case.

This is an interesting group of men, none of whom have very attractive personalities, with the possible exception of Mansson and Ronn. They are a prickly lot who don't really like each other very much, and yet they are capable of working together efficiently when circumstances demand it. One thing they all seem to have in common is dogged determination. Even when there seem to be no clues, they keep following their procedures, working the case, and somehow always reaching a conclusion. And we lucky readers get to follow them step by step.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Need some inspiration today?

I've mentioned here before that I am a sucker for lists. I find it hard not to read them, even the inane and sometimes offensive ones that appear on websites like The Huffington Post. They are "click bait" because Huffington knows that there are a lot of people just like me who can't resist clicking on them to see what's there.

But occasionally one does come across a list that is actually worthwhile and useful. Such a list is this one: Lessons for Life by Regina Brett, columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (Hat tip to Elizabeth of Silver's Reviews for pointing me in her direction.)

Brett sat down and wrote this list, originally, several years ago just after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has since revised and added to it. It's a nice affirmation and reminder for us, especially on those days that aren't going exactly the way we had hoped.

1. Life isn't fair, but it's still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5. Pay off your credit cards every month.

6. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It's more healing than crying alone.

8. It's OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won't screw up the present.

12. It's OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don't compare your life to others'. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn't be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don't worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19. It's never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don't take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don't save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don't wait for old age to wear purple.

24. The most important sex organ is the brain.

25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: "In five years, will this matter?"

27. Always choose life.

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32. Your job won't take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn't do.

35. Whatever doesn't kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative - dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else's, we'd grab ours back.

41. Don't audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful.

43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48. If you don't ask, you don't get.

49. Yield.

50. Life isn't tied with a bow, but it's still a gift..

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


The first of the migrant male Ruby-throated Hummingbirds has arrived in my backyard. And that means that, for the moment, I have two species of hummingbirds in my yard.

The female Rufous that wintered in the yard is still here today, but probably will be leaving soon.

If the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have arrived, can the Chimney Swifts be far behind?

Birds of the Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast of Texas is among the birdiest places one can find on this continent. On any given day, there are around 200 different species there. At times during spring migration, the number is closer to 300.

During our trip along that coast last week, I didn't get anywhere near the 200 figure. The weather was rather miserable, gray and drizzly every day, and the conditions for birding were not optimal. Still, I did manage to see a goodly number of the feathered residents.

I've already shown you the most spectacular feathered creatures we saw - the Whooping Cranes of Aransas. Here are a few others that we encountered along the way.

The Whooping Cranes were not even the only cranes that we saw on the trip. In a meadow near the entrance to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a small group of Sandhill Cranes were making a rest stop on their way north.

 A total of six of the birds were looking for snacks in the marshy field.

 And cranes weren't the only big birds around. We also encountered a small flock of Wild Turkeys.

 There were Inca Doves resting in the trees near a dried up pond.

 And nearby, in another tree, an American Kestrel was feeding on a bird it had caught. You can see one of the victim's legs hanging down from the limb. Another Inca Dove, perhaps?

The Laughing Gulls are everywhere along the coast and their raucous "laughter" is the background music of life here.

 A Long-billed Curlew pokes around, looking for a tasty morsel in a field.

Brown Pelicans are very colorful at this time of year when they are getting ready to nest.

Their cousins, the White Pelicans, were surprisingly numerous. In several places, they outnumbered the Browns.

A Willet stands in its characteristic resting pose with one leg tucked up into its feathers.

 I think the American Avocet is really one of the prettiest of the shorebirds.

 Redhead Ducks were one of the most numerous duck species that we saw, along with Ring-necked Ducks, Northern Shovelers, Lesser Scaup, and Ruddy Ducks. It was hard to get a clear picture of any of them because of the weather conditions. Here, a pair of the Redheads preen in the shallows of a lake.

 Of course, there were plenty of Great Blue Herons. This one was seen from our boat on the day we went on the Whooping Crane tour.

Black Skimmers are great fun to watch, whether they are skimming the surface of the water for their food or resting between snacks.

 A close-up of one of the Skimmers. What a bill!

 A Greater Yellowlegs probing for something good to eat.

I saw this grebe at Indian Point Park at Corpus Christi. It was far out in the water on a gray and misty day and I struggled to get a usable picture of it. This was about the best of the lot. I wavered on the identification. Was it a Horned Grebe or an Eared Grebe? They can be difficult to tell apart at this time of year, but finally, based on its shape and its actions, I decided it was a Horned Grebe. I just wish I could have gotten a better picture.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Laughing Policeman (Martin Beck #4)The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1971 and it is easy to see why. It is a mesmerizing tale right from the first sentence, maybe the best in this series that I have read so far.

As with the three earlier books, this one is deceptively simple in construction. It is told in laconic "this happened, then this happened" fashion, and it is hard for an amateur such as myself to deconstruct just why it is so good. But if the object of a writer is to entertain and hold the interest of the reader, this book - and this series - succeeds admirably.

Once again we have the ever-morose and ever-dyspeptic Swedish policeman Martin Beck, now risen to the rank of superintendent, along with his cohorts in the Stockholm police department, trying to solve an unprecedented crime where clues are few. A city bus has been found abandoned on the streets with everyone on board, including the driver, dead. They have all been shot with a submachine gun.

One of those killed, it turns out, was one of Martin Beck's men, the youngest detective in his squad, Ake Stenstrom. There had been no murders in Stockholm recently and all the detectives were working on old cases, but no one knew exactly which one Ake was working on. The question, of course, is whether he was the unfortunate victim of a random mass murder - a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time - or was his re-investigation of the old case somehow tied to his death? Was the murder of all those other people simply window dressing, a red herring to misdirect the police's interest?

From this point, the investigation proceeds in classic police procedural fashion. Martin Beck and his compatriots are convinced that their colleague's presence on the bus was no coincidence and that his was the death which the murderer sought. Trying to discover what might have been stirred up by his investigation, they retrace his steps and look again at old clues to a crime that has been long thought to be unsolvable.

The reader can be forgiven for wondering whether Sjowall/Wahloo had any affection at all for poor Martin Beck. They certainly don't give him any especially sympathetic characteristics or any redeeming qualities. Except maybe one. We get a hint here of his care and concern for his two children, especially for his teenage daughter with whom he seems to enjoy a certain rapport. Perhaps more will be developed in later books regarding his family relationships in order to give his moroseness and dyspepsia more context. Certainly what we know of his wife indicates that he may have good reason to be morose.

As ever, Martin Beck is not the hero or even the main focus of The Laughing Policeman. Indeed there is little reason for any of the policemen in this tale to crack a smile even, but we get to know and understand each member of the squad just a little better through their participation in this investigation. Each of them doggedly plays his part in pursuing the killer even when they can really see no reason for the line of inquiry they are following. In the end, each of them will have contributed a piece of the puzzle. No one is a standout. It is, in every sense of the word, a team effort.

One of the reasons that I like this series so much is the sly humor which is so much a part of the narrative. It's hard to give a specific example of this; it is a situation where "you had to be there." But, trust me, there is humor here, as there are clear-eyed observations of Swedish society in the 1960s. Indeed, in many ways, this isn't so much a police procedural as a sociological study.

And, yes, finally, Martin Beck does laugh, for the first time that I remember in this series. It comes on the very last page, the last paragraph. It's worth reading that far to see it.        

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Swifts

In just a few days now, we will see the official beginning of spring. We have looked for the unofficial beginning over the last several weeks and at times we thought that we saw it peeking through the bare limbs of the trees or shining through the feathers of the goldfinches as they took their leave of us and headed north. But we were fooled. Winter maintained its grip. It's only in recent days that we have again begun to hope that the dreary gray season has almost reached its end.

There's one way that we'll know for sure that winter is over and spring is here to stay. It's when the Chimney Swifts return. Typically, in my yard, that is in the first week of April, but warm weather is returning earlier in these years of global warming and perhaps the swifts will adjust their timetable accordingly.

I love Chimney Swifts. They are among my favorite summer visitors. Perpetually in motion, they live life on the wing and they never fail to cheer me with their with their amazing flights of "Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields...Earth is forbidden to them, water's forbidden to them." They are creatures of the air with their scimitar wings and streamlined cigar shapes. 

The poet Anne Stevenson appreciates the little birds, too, and she showed it with this poem - a poem which catches the spirit of the swifts and the joy with which we greet their arrival and the return of spring.


Spring comes little, a little. All April it rains.
The new leaves stick in their fists; new ferns still fiddleheads.
But one day the swifts are back. Face to the sun like a child
You shout, 'The swifts are back!'

Sure enough, bolt nocks bow to carry one sky-scyther
Two hundred miles an hour across fullblown windfields.
Swereee swereee. Another. And another.
It's the cut air falling in shrieks on our chimneys and roofs.

The next day, a fleet of high crosses cruises in ether.
These are the air pilgrims, pilots of air rivers.
But a shift of wing, and they're earth-skimmers, daggers
Skilful in guiding the throw of themselves away from themselves.

Quick flutter, a scimitar upsweep, out of danger of touch, for
Earth is forbidden to them, water's forbidden to them,
All air and fire, little owlish ascetics, they outfly storms,
They rush to the pillars of altitude, the thermal fountains.

Here is a legend of swifts, a parable —
When the Great Raven bent over earth to create the birds,
The swifts were ungrateful. They were small muddy things
Like shoes, with long legs and short wings,

So they took themselves off to the mountains to sulk.
And they stayed there. 'Well,' said the Raven, after years of this,
'I will give you the sky. You can have the whole sky
On condition that you give up rest.'

'Yes, yes,' screamed the swifts, 'We abhor rest.
We detest the filth of growth, the sweat of sleep,
Soft nests in the wet fields, slimehold of worms.
Let us be free, be air!'

So the Raven took their legs and bound them into their bodies.
He bent their wings like boomerangs, honed them like knives.
He streamlined their feathers and stripped them of velvet.
Then he released them, Never to Return

Inscribed on their feet and wings. And so
We have swifts, though in reality, not parables but
Bolts in the world's need: swift
Swifts, not in punishment, not in ecstasy, simply

Sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world's breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur,
And watch the miracle.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - March 2014

Thanks for dropping in on my Bloom Day post from the new address of my garden blog. No, I haven't moved my garden. It is still located in zone 9a just north of Houston, but regular readers will know that I recently combined my blogs and, although I'm no longer posting on the Gardening With Nature blog, I will have regular posts about my garden here. If you followed me on the other blog, I hope you will now follow me here - or even if you didn't follow me on the other blog!

Unfortunately, I still don't have much to show you in the way of blooms from my own garden. Spring continues to creep slowly into my garden, like Chicago's fog, "on little cat's feet." In the middle of February, I thought spring had arrived for good, and so did many of my plants.

The shrubs, like this yellow cestrum, started putting out new tender leaves.

Perennials were putting up new growth.

Everything seemed benevolent for new life. Then, in early March, we had another spell of extremely cold weather and all that new growth got bitten back. Suddenly, spring seemed far away.

The plants have not yet recovered from the freezing weather, but now we are less than a week away from the official beginning of spring and all seems pleasant once again. Do we dare hope there will be no more cold spells until next January? We do dare hope. As gardeners, we are eternal optimists.

Since I don't have blooms of my own to show you, I thought I would share with you some blooms I enjoyed on a recent trip to the South Texas Botanical Garden at Corpus Christi. They didn't have an abundance of blooms either, but while there, we visited the orchid house and there we found plenty of blooming beauties. Though the plants were not labeled with their variety names, that doesn't detract from their lush loveliness.

Away from the botanical garden, along the beaches, we found the beginnings of the spring wildflower season.

 I'm not sure of the name of these delicate little flowers but they seemed to thrive in the sand of the beaches.

Even the blanket flowers were beginning to put on a show - soon to be followed by bluebonnets, poppies, Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and so many others. Spring wildflower season along the roads and byways of Texas is truly a glorious thing.

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for once again hosting this monthly meme. I look forward to visiting the other participating blogs.

Happy Bloom Day to all!