Saturday, May 31, 2014

This week in birds - #111

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

Wild Turkeys photographed at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast.

The Ivanpah Solar facility in California continues to be a death trap for migrating birds, as well as flying mammals. April was one of the deadliest months yet with 97 birds being found dead or mortally injured around the plant between April 1 and April 29.


We tend to think of invasive species as being all bad, but sometimes these invaders become an integral part of the environmental system and are utilized by native species. This has been found to be the case with the invasive cordgrass called Spartina alterniflora in California. The endangered California Clapper Rail nests in the stuff which makes eradicating it a particularly prickly proposition.


We hear quite a lot about the problems of Monarch butterflies and honeybees, but, in fact, many native North American bees and butterflies are in trouble and most are not extensively tracked. 


Hummingbirds are known to be efficient pollinators of plants, but 47 million years ago the earliest known bird pollinator lived in Germany. Its fossilized remains have recently been found. The Pumiliornis tessellatus was about three inches long, or about the size of many of our modern hummingbirds.


A strange phenomenon has been reported regarding crickets on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. It seems they have become mute. At first it was thought they were disappearing, but researchers have found that they are in fact thriving. They just don't "sing" anymore because the organs which would make their sounds have become malformed. 


Superb Fairy-Wrens are often victimized by cuckoos, brood parasites that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds causing them to raise the cuckoos' offspring. But the Superb Fairy-wrens have developed a strategy to outwit their enemies. They name their chicks. Each chick is taught a call - essentially a "name" - to give when it wants to be fed. If a chick doesn't give the appropriate call, it doesn't get fed and it starves. The cuckoo chicks don't know the magic password, so they are out of luck.


Monarch Watch, one of the organizations attempting to save the Monarch butterfly from extinction, has large flats of milkweed (butterfly weed) for sale. They have many different varieties of milkweed that will grow and thrive in all the different states. 


A Red Knot, which is a small shorebird, was banded in 1995. It was recently spotted on a beach in New Jersey, so it is now at least 19 years old and is believed to be the longest surviving bird of its species. These shorebirds migrate from South America to the north of Canada in the spring and then do the reverse trip in the fall, flying thousands of miles every year.  

Clarion Island is a small hunk of rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico. Scientists have long thought that they had cataloged and described all the species on the island, but now a species of snake that had not been thought to exist has been found there. It is a species called Beebe's nightsnake. 


The Los Angeles River has long been concretized, supposedly for flood control. But now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a plan to restore a portion of the river to its natural state. 


It is expected that President Obama will soon announce an executive initiative to cut carbon emissions from the nation’s coal-fired power plants by up to 20 percent. This is further expected to spur the creation of cap-and-trade programs in the individual states, forcing industry to pay for the carbon pollution it creates. Since the legislative branch refuses to act, perhaps this is a viable path to actually doing something about human-caused global warming.


Around the backyard:

Sitting on my patio this morning, I was charmed by a Tufted Titmouse family. The parents with four fledglings in tow were hopping around the patio furniture, seemingly oblivious to my presence. "My" titmice are always very confiding little birds that seem totally unafraid of me, but I was a bit surprised that they would allow their babies to come in such close proximity to a big scary human.

In other backyard bird news, the Eastern Bluebirds were so successful with their first family, they've decided to do it again! The nest is built and the eggs are being laid. With a bit of luck, my backyard will be bluer still in a few weeks.   

Friday, May 30, 2014

The masseur will see you now

Who doesn't love a good massage? It's just the ticket after a hard day of gardening. Or even a hard day sitting in front of a computer. Maybe especially after a hard day in front of the computer. Those muscles really need some kneading.

And who knows kneading better than cats? In our house, we call that action that they do, rhythmically pressing on the object of their affection with their paws, "making biscuits," and we do have some prime biscuit-makers.

The cats in these videos, though, could certainly give our cats stiff competition in the biscuit making business. Their canine friends are just happy to be kneaded.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Thursday Tidbits

Random thoughts on a Thursday afternoon:

A few days ago, another privileged young male who thought that the women of the world owed him subservience and sex on demand made the decision to take out on a bunch of innocent people his frustration over the fact that the women of the world didn't agree with him. He killed six outright and grievously injured several others. Sadly, it's an oft-recurring phenomenon in our gun-happy society.

In response to this atrocity, as has become the norm when such things happen, a hashtag account was started on Twitter - #YesAllWomen. The purpose of the account was to give women a place to vent about being sexually harassed and demeaned, discriminated against, raped, and all the other everyday injustices that women in this society experience because of their gender. The response was overwhelming.

Very soon, the utterly predictable backlash from the misogynistic multitudes began. There were responses on Twitter and elsewhere deriding these women's experiences. They were vulgar and mean-spirited at best and promised retribution and violence at worst.

Misogyny is rife in America today and probably always has been. It seems to permeate everything in our lives, so much so that it comes to be seen as normal. Women have radar that detects it, but often, I think, men are completely oblivious to it. They just accept that that is the way things are and will frequently accuse any woman who speaks out against it of being overly sensitive.

So we have people like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck making fun of women for showing solidarity for schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria or sneering about women trying to teach their daughters how to be safe, how not to be raped

And then there is any famous male stand-up comedian you care to name for whom rape and/or violence against women seem to be considered appropriate subjects for their routines. Big laugh-getters from their predominantly male audiences.

What is true in the so-called entertainment field is equally true elsewhere in our society. What would a world without misogyny look like? Unfortunately, I'm afraid I will not see it in my lifetime.


What is it with Republican candidates and guns? Is there some unwritten rule - or maybe written, for all I know - that any person running for office on the Republican ticket has to be photographed with a gun in his hands? And preferably in a camouflage suit?  What are they trying to compensate for?


And speaking of guns and the mass murder in California, Richard Martinez, the father of one of the victims has called out the spineless politicians who refuse to take any action to stop the carnage because they are afraid of the NRA. His eyes are wide open. He knows he will be vilified for speaking out, but he says, "My son is dead. There is nothing you could do to me that is worse than that."

He is a brave man.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the odious "Joe the Plumber" who said, "Your dead kids don't trump my Second Amendment rights."

There are no words to describe my contempt for this man.


It seems we just can't get away from guns this week. Even when noting the passing of the great Maya Angelou.

Now, most news organizations, in reporting on Angelou's death, focused on her career as an award-winning poet and memoirist and activist. Not the right-wing National Review! Nosiree, for them the salient point of her life was that she had once said that she owned a gun. And so their headline read: "R.I.P., Maya Angelou, Proud Gun Owner and User."

Yeah, that was the most important part of her life and the part for which she will be long remembered.


Maya Angelou was supposed to be in Houston this week. She was to be a part of the activities surrounding the annual Civil Rights Game of Major League Baseball, a game that will be played by my beloved Astros and the Baltimore Orioles tomorrow night.

The Astros start their series with the Orioles tonight, having won five games in a row. They've been playing much better of late, unlike the worst team in baseball that they have been over the last couple of years. Their latest "phenom" George Springer is tearing the cover off the ball. Pitcher Dallas Keuchel just won Player of the Week honors in the American League. Jose Altuve is a league leader in hits, stolen bases, and batting average.

It's an exciting young team. Too bad most of their fans (including me) are still unable to see any of their games on television.  Sigh.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo: A review

The Abominable Man (Martin Beck #7)The Abominable Man by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've come to the conclusion that this series should not be read so much as police procedural mysteries as social studies of Sweden at a particular point in time - the 1960s. So much of the narrative is taken up with the authors' observations about and critiques of the social welfare society that was that country at that time.

The central point and organizational theory of this particular entry in the series is the consequence of police excesses. It presents a police department that has lost the respect of the populace because of the rampant corruption and brutality that has become so much a part of that essential organization.

We are introduced briefly to a police inspector who is known to be exceptionally cruel in his treatment of the policemen under his command and particularly the prisoners who are unfortunate enough to find themselves under his control. Beatings are routine. Ignoring medical needs is a common occurrence.

The result of this indifference to the condition of those locked in cells has its entirely predictable end. People suffer and die. Needlessly.

The brutal police inspector is in the hospital when we meet him. He is seriously ill, but would have recovered his doctor says. He doesn't get the chance. Someone breaks into his room and dispatches him with a bayonet, essentially disemboweling him in the process.

There is no lack of potential suspects, people who would have wished this man dead with good cause. There are citizens who were beaten by the man and his minions. There are those who were merely ill but were arrested because they were suspected of being drunk - epileptics and diabetics, for example, some of whom died in custody. Was it one of their survivors who decided to even the score?

But the dead man was hardly the only one responsible for such brutality. Are other policemen on the kill list of the murderer? Does that list include policemen who knew that the brutality was taking place but did nothing to stop it? Is Martin Beck's name on the list?

Martin Beck and his colleagues comb police records looking for potential suspects. They are overwhelmed by the volume and exhausted by the search. It is true that when a policeman is killed - even a bad policeman like this one - his colleagues spare no effort in finding the perpetrator. The authors note that there are many murders that go unsolved but none of them are murders of policemen. All such crimes end in the perpetrator being brought to justice. Or killed.

Martin Beck's famous instinct tells him that he and other policemen are in danger and, as usual, his instinct is correct. The murderer holes up on the roof of a building from which he can pick off his targets - all of them policemen - one by one, which is just what he proceeds to do. And so we have what has become an iconic event of the 21st century in America - except this is the decade after the middle of the 20th century in Sweden: A mass murderer wielding a rifle.    

In the end, it didn't take any great amount of police work to unmask the killer this time. More important in this case was the explanation of the killer's motive and what sent him over the edge and into insanity. One feels nothing but sympathy for the man.

Shocking as the ending is, it is utterly predictable and the authors lead us to that conclusion step-by-step. I find their method of telling these stories fascinating, particularly the great care they take in describing and setting the scene. One is always able to "see" just what is happening and the environment in which it is happening. Nothing is really left to the imagination. Some readers might find the copious detail somewhat annoying but, to me, it just seems a very clean and clear way of telling a story.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Two poems for Memorial Day

The black granite wall with 58,000+ names in white that is the Vietnam Memorial, monument to the men and women who gave their lives for this country in that needless war that was the defining issue for my generation.  

Memorial Day 2014. Again we pause to remember those who have fought for this country and have given their lives in its service. Including those who fought in wars that maybe shouldn't have been fought, like Vietnam or Iraq, but nevertheless answered the call when their country needed them.

Memorial Day is especially meaningful this year as we contemplate the scandal surrounding the apparent failure of our Veterans Administration to adequately serve those who survived their wars and came home to broken promises.

Poetry cannot heal the pain we feel for their loss and for ours, but perhaps it can express it more succinctly and clearly than prose.

Here are two poems for this Memorial Day.

At the Vietnam Memorial

The last time I saw Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall
above the showers in the boys’
locker room, next to the school
record for the mile. I don’t recall
his time, but the year was 1968
and I can look across the infield
of memory to see him on the track,
legs flashing, body bending slightly
beyond the pack of runners at his back.

He couldn’t spare a word for me,
two years younger, junior varsity,
and hardly worth the waste of breath.
He owned the hallways, a cool blonde
at his side, and aimed his interests
further down the line than we could guess.

Now, reading the name again,
I see us standing in the showers,
naked kids beneath his larger,
comprehensive force—the ones who trail
obscurely, in the wake of the swift,
like my shadow on this gleaming wall.


And lest we forget the survivors...

A November Trip to Washington D.C.

by Tim Patterson

Autumn. I took my tourist trip to see proud Washington
The Vietnam Memorial - Gone, but not forgotten
Ranks of fallen names silvered into darkness without end
Legions of lost youth, a count I could not comprehend
The weight of numbers crushed my soul, emotions overwhelmed
It gave no hope, no sympathy, no answers that I yearned
It simply stood accusing with its lesson white on black
Upon its polished stone, my own mortality stared back
The rain came down, I turned away and saw him huddled tight
A faded bag of unwashed clothes, his scrawling black on white
"Vietnam Veteran. Homeless. Hungry. Can you help, please?"
Flocks of umbrellas hurried past, intent on their own needs
No monument, no honour roll, for those who did survive
It seems there is no glory if you merely stay alive
The war is dead and buried, but its soldiers still fight on
True Vietnam memorials - Forgotten, but not gone. 

"...its soldiers still fight on...Forgotten, but not gone." 

On this Memorial Day, let us resolve that they will not be forgotten and that the debt we owe them will be paid with more than lip service.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

This week in birds - #110

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

The Purple Gallinule is a wonderful bird that frequently can be found in wetland areas in the late spring and summer here. It's a bird that I'm always on the lookout for at this time of year whenever I visit a park or wildlife refuge that has water features.


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is out with its prediction for the upcoming hurricane season. That season starts in just over a week, on June 1. NOAA believes this will be an average year for hurricanes, which means three to six storms, with perhaps one or two being major storms. Storms should be somewhat suppressed this year by the development of El Nino in the eastern Pacific Ocean. This regular weather phenomenon warms the Pacific which helps to stabilize things in the Atlantic. All things are connected. 


It's always exciting to learn of new species of birds which we previously didn't know existed, and there is such news out of Colombia this week. Two new species of hummingbird and a new species of flycatcher have been discovered there. You can see pictures of all three birds if you click on the link.


Glaciers around the world are melting at an alarming rate and ice sheets at both poles probably have reached the point of no return in their melt cycle. This has potentially disastrous implications for human life on this planet, and still we fail to act to reverse our contribution to the catastrophe.


The Elephant Bird, now extinct, was the largest bird known to have ever existed on Earth. If you were guessing what would be its closest living relative, you might say the Ostrich. I would. But in fact we would both be wrong. New DNA tests confirm that its closest living relative is actually the Kiwi, the New Zealand native.


There's actually more to this story about the Elephant Bird and the Kiwi. Both are/were flightless, as are other big birds like the Ostrich and Emu. The question is how did they become so widely dispersed in the world? Scientists now believe that they may have once been able to fly and they only evolved flightlessness when they settled in the areas where we now find them.


A butterfly once thought to be extinct is being reintroduced into the Willamette Valley of Oregon in the hope that it will be able to expand its habitat in the area. The butterfly is the Fender's Blue, and both adult butterflies and caterpillars will be released.


California Brown Pelicans have been found nesting along the Columbia River, on the border between Oregon and Washington. This is a dramatic expansion of their breeding range. 


Lake Powell, which sits behind a massive dam on the Colorado River and provides water and electricity to several western states, is half empty due to ongoing drought.


The owner and workers of a painting company in Philadelphia are facing federal charges because they disturbed the nest of a pair of Peregrine Falcons, resulting in the death of one of their chicks. It is illegal to disturb or  harm in any way birds protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and that includes Peregrines.


The Kakapo is a weird and endangered bird native to New Zealand. Its survival depends on certain native plants, again proving how important it is that the chain of life remain unbroken.


You might think that a fruit fly is an example of a fairly brainless bit of ectoplasm, but, once again it seems, you would be wrong! According to new research, the flies take time to gather information and to consider before making a decision. Imagine...a brainy fruit fly! 


Around the backyard:

Even more baby birds joined the parade of new life in my backyard this week. Juvenile Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and Tufted Titmice are now coming to the feeders. The baby Downy is particularly amusing. He hasn't quite got the concept yet - he just sort of flutters around, sometimes managing to land on a feeder and sometimes not and constantly calling to Dad to help him out.

With all the babies and the continuing onslaught by White-winged Doves, the birdseed in my feeders disappears very quickly. I find myself refilling at least one of the feeders just about daily now. I'm ready for those doves to move along.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Putting the grass in Neil deGrasse Tyson

Are you a fan of Cosmos, the currently running television remake of the old Carl Sagan series about the wonders of the universe? I admit that I look forward to each of the Sunday night episodes, which I actually watch on Monday because my viewing schedule on Sunday night is over-crowded.

I am very interested in the subject matter, but one of the main attractions of the series for me is its host, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who does such an excellent job of narrating and of making the complicated material understandable for an average viewer like myself.

Not everyone is a fan, of course. Tyson and his series have thoroughly freaked out the creationists whose basic approach to history and to science is that if it isn't covered in the Bible then it never happened and it can't be true. They have twisted themselves into pretzels trying to disprove the science that is covered in the series. They've even gone so far as to demand equal time to present creationist views.

The creationists are no doubt happy to know that Cosmos is winding down now. Only a few episodes remain. I will be sad to see the end of it.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the parody must be the ultimate in imitation. This show has spawned many parodies, all of which you can probably see on YouTube, but I particularly like this one. Entitled "Cosmos on Weed," it really puts the "grass" in Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly: A review

The Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller, #1)The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What can a defense lawyer do when he realizes that he has failed to recognize innocence in one of his clients? How can he sleep at night knowing that he failed that client and that he is now spending all his days and nights in San Quentin? Furthermore, what can he do when he realizes that the person really responsible for the crime for which that man was sent to prison is the person that he is currently defending on a charge of assault and battery and attempted rape? How can he begin to balance the scales of Justice?

Well, Perry Mason would have found a way. Those Erle Stanley Gardner books and the later television series were my introduction to the world of thrillers featuring legal eagles and I loved them. I devoured the Gardner books and never missed an episode of the series. There's been a bit of a void in my life since then. No one could quite fill Perry's shoes. After reading The Lincoln Lawyer, I think Mickey Haller just might.

Perhaps it helps that in the movie made from the book, Matthew McConaughey played Haller, and, though I haven't seen the movie, throughout the book I was picturing McConaughey as Haller. The suit seemed to fit perfectly.

Haller is definitely cut from the Perry Mason mold - an aggressive criminal defense attorney who pursues every legal - or near legal - angle available to him in the defense of his clients, regardless of who they are. Con artists, drug dealers, prostitutes, even rapists and murderers are all on Mickey's client list. He lives by the code that everyone is entitled to a defense and everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Mickey's "office" is the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car. He conducts business while his driver, a client working off his debt, drives him to the far-flung courthouses of Los Angeles. One of his two ex-wives is his case manager. She keeps track of everything from her home and keeps Mickey on schedule. His other - first - ex-wife, the mother of his eight year old daughter, works as a prosecutor for Los Angeles.

The case which is at the center of this story involves a Beverly Hills realtor who is arrested for attacking a woman whom he had met in a bar. The realtor is very rich and when he is approached about defending him, Mickey sees dollar signs dancing in front of his eyes. This is the "franchise case" that defense lawyers dream of, the one that will set them up and solve their money problems, of which Mickey Haller has several.

As he initially investigates the case, Mickey sees it as an easy cake walk. But then things start to get complicated.

Mickey notices similarities between his current case and one he defended two years before and he comes to believe that the reason there are similarities is that the perpetrator in both cases was the same - the man he is currently defending, his "franchise case."

Things get even more serious when one of Haller's friends and associates is murdered, seemingly because he was helping on the case. Had he gotten too close to the truth about the evil personified by this client?

Michael Connelly is a very good writer and I have previously enjoyed the several books of his that I have read in the Harry Bosch series. This book was even better, I thought. It's easy to understand why it won several awards. It was expertly plotted and paced, designed to keep the reader turning those pages. The action never lagged, but my favorite parts were the courtroom scenes where we got to see Mickey play his role to secure the outcome that he needed in order to serve the course of justice. Perry Mason couldn't have played it any better.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday Tidbits

The appalling scandal at the Veterans Administration seems to be heating up as more hospitals are accused of having a "secret wait list" for services that resulted in unconscionably long waits for some veterans, some of whom died while waiting. There are calls from several quarters for the resignation of Gen. Eric Shinseki, the head of VA, and countervailing statements from many supporters who hold that he is doing his best to clean up the mess.

On the other hand, we have several surveys over the years, including the most recent one from the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent customer service survey, that confirm a very high degree of satisfaction among veterans regarding the services that they receive from VA.

No doubt, as in most cases, the objective truth lies somewhere in between, but there can be no argument that the backlog of claims which continues to dog the VA and the long wait for services at least in some areas is entirely unacceptable. It is also probably entirely predictable considering the fact that this country has been constantly at war for at least thirteen years. We have sent thousands and thousands of women and men into harm's way and many of them have come home damaged and needing help. It is a debt that we owe and that must be paid, but it is really not surprising that the bureaucracy charged with fulfilling that debt is overwhelmed by the numbers.

How do we solve the problems of the VA?

Well, my husband, the former soldier, has a suggestion. He says they should put an Army supply sergeant in charge. Those guys know how to get what's needed and get things done!

It's a thought. Maybe what's needed is not a general but a sergeant.


A scandal of somewhat smaller proportions was the firing last week of Jill Abramson as editor of The New York Times.  At first, the Times tried to maintain silence on the story, which is irony itself for a news organization, but as the hubbub grew, the publisher felt the need to defend himself and put out a statement about Abramson's firing being a result of her "abrasive management style." It had nothing to do with the fact that she objected to being paid less that male editors had been paid in the same positions that she had held throughout her years at the Times.

So, no sexism here. Nothing to see. Move along! It's just a coincidence that the firing happened shortly after she hired a lawyer to look into the matter of the difference in wages.

For some reason, I find it just a tad convenient - and unbelievable - that the Times decided they didn't like her style, in spite of all the Pulitzers that were racked up under her "abrasive management," just when she started questioning whether they were paying her fairly.


So, Karl Rove thinks Hillary Clinton's brain may be damaged. And, furthermore, she's old! So old!

Hmmm...considering brain problems, let's cast our minds and memories back to election night 2012. Barack Obama was reelected president in a landslide and that was fairly obvious early in the evening. By the time the trend of the vote in Ohio was clear, there was no doubt left. Except perhaps in the brain of Karl Rove, who insisted repeatedly to his Fox News cohorts that Romney was going to win and he had the REAL numbers to prove it!

Now Karl proves once again that he really has a problem with numbers, when he insists that Secretary Clinton spent thirty days in the hospital after her fall. In fact, she spent three. But then Karl and his minions have never allowed themselves to be constrained by facts.

Undoubtedly, when and if Hillary Clinton runs for president, she will hear all of this and much, much worse repeated daily. But no fears. I think her "old damaged" brain can handle it. Without breaking a sweat.


Then, of course, there is the Republican fixation on the tragedy in Benghazi in September, 2012. It is a tragedy that has been investigated several times by several different entities, all of whom have found that there were mistakes made, but there was no cover-up and no scandal and no deliberate effort to mislead on the part of the Obama administration. The Republicans just can't accept that. After all, it happened just before the presidential election so there must have been an effort to hide things and make Obama look blameless. So, now they have their Select Committee to investigate further.

This is a tragedy turned into a farce by the Republicans. The only scandal is that they are using it to gin up passion in their base and to raise money for the coming campaigns.

How many more millions of taxpayers' dollars will be spent on this bogus effort? Where is the Republicans' vaunted fiscal conservatism? Apparently, it only comes into play when they are attempting to cut services for the poor and middle class.


And, finally, back to Benghazi. Dick Cheney wants Hillary Clinton "held accountable" for the four deaths in Benghazi because she was Secretary of State at the time.

I want Dick Cheney and George W. Bush held accountable for the attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001, and for the thousands who died needlessly that day. Furthermore, I want them held accountable for all the thousands of American and allied military personnel as well as the innocent Iraqis who died in a phony unnecessary war that was promulgated simply to allow these chickenhawks to strut around and prove how macho they were.

Oh, and also, while we are holding people accountable, during the Bush/Cheney administration, there were at least thirteen attacks on American embassies and diplomatic missions around the world and more than 650 people, most of them American citizens, were killed. Where is the Republican outrage regarding those deaths? Where is the Select Committee to investigate?  Where is the accountability?


Thanks for letting me get all that off my chest.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Free-Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom: A review

Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly YardFree-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard by Jessi Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout several years of the 1990s and early 2000s, we kept a flock of chickens in our suburban backyard. They were never completely free-range, although we did let them out of their pen almost every day and they lived for those hours!

Chickens are actually quite interesting creatures, unlike the stereotypes of them. They have personalities and curiosity and they can be companionable and affectionate if allowed to be. I had grown up on a farm and taking care of the chickens was my job when I was little. I learned to enjoy them early in life and I was delighted to have them back in my life during those years.

We finally gave up on keeping chickens because of the predator problem in our neighborhood. It was a constant and often losing battle to keep our charges safe. So, the first thing that anyone considering the option of keeping chickens needs to know is this: YOU MUST HAVE A PREDATOR-PROOF COOP AND/OR PEN TO KEEP THE BIRDS SAFE AT NIGHT! Otherwise your chicken project will end in heartache, because everybody likes chicken and the world is not a safe place for an unprotected hen.

This book covers all the basics of keeping chickens safe and happy. The author writes of the space requirements for chickens, the necessities for a coop that will be chicken-friendly, and some designs for those coops. But most of the book is taken up with gardening with and for chickens.

Chickens, of course, love green stuff and they can be quite destructive in the garden if not handled properly, but it is actually possible to allow chickens at least limited "free" range and still maintain a beautiful garden. Jessi Bloom tells her readers how it is done. The reward is wonderful fresh eggs, as well as the companionship of interesting pets.

Bloom gives a list of plants that work best in a chicken-friendly garden and some that should be avoided. She is a garden designer and she offers her readers some simple garden plans that have been proven to work with chickens, along with step-by-step instructions for getting the chicken garden up and running.

Keeping backyard chickens in suburban and even urban settings has become a trend and often a cause-celebre in recent years. Around the country, neighbors are frequently banding together to legalize the keeping of poultry in situations where it is presently illegal, and, with the "slow food" movement and self-sufficiency becoming a more and more popular ideal, people see that chickens can be an essential part of that movement.

Those who are eager to become a part of the movement will find an essential guide in this well-organized handbook. It is an easy and quick read and the novice keeper of chickens can certainly refer to it often for information on how to provide the necessities for his/her birds. Best of all, it tells the chicken gardener how to make those birds extremely happy by allowing them free range and still be able to have a garden that one can be proud to show off to visitors. It is a very useful addition to the gardener's bookshelf. I only wish I had had it back in the 1990s.

(A free copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review. No other compensation was provided. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own.)

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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird in my backyard.

Bluebirds seem to be omnipresent in my garden these days. A pair of the birds (male pictured above) recently fledged four youngsters from this bluebird box in my vegetable garden. These days, I often see the juvenile birds following their parents around the yard, learning the necessary skills of being a bluebird.

These gentle and beautiful birds have long been favorites of humans. These days we put up nesting boxes to help them out because so many of the dead trees that they used to nest in get removed from the landscape before they can be utilized by birds. 

In the early 1900s, though,  it was still possible for a pair of bluebirds to find a dead tree with a hole where they could build their nest and raise their family. The naturalist John Burroughs was an admirer and he wrote a poem about bluebirds that referred to their use of abandoned woodpecker holes - "the Downy's cell." It is a paean of praise to this wonderful bird.

The Bluebird
         by John Burroughs

A wistful note from out the sky,
“Pure, pure, pure,” in plaintive tone,
As if the wand’rer were alone,
And hardly knew to sing or cry.
But now a flash of eager wing,
Flitting, twinkling by the wall,
And pleading sweet and am’rous call,–
Ah, now I know his heart doth sing!
O bluebird, welcome back again,
Thy azure coat and ruddy vest
Are hues that April loveth best,–
Warm skies above the furrowed plain.
The farm boy hears thy tender voice,
And visions come of crystal days,
With sugar-camps in maple ways,
And scenes that make his heart rejoice.
The lucid smoke drifts on the breeze,
The steaming pans are mantling white,
And thy blue wing’s a joyous sight,
Among the brown and leafless trees.
Now loosened currents glance and run,
And buckets shine on sturdy boles,
The forest folk peep from their holes,
And work is play from sun to sun.
The Downy beats his sounding limb,
The nuthatch pipes his nasal call,
And robin perched on treetop tall
Heavenward lifts his evening hymn.
Now go and bring thy homesick bride,
Persuade her here is just the place
To build a home and found a race
In Downy’s cell, my lodge beside.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo: A review

The LeopardThe Leopard by Jo Nesbø
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jo Nesbo is a trickster. He delights in providing false clues and leading his readers down long winding paths and into the weeds. One can almost see him rubbing his hands together and chortling with glee when the reader realizes he/she has been fooled once again.

The landscape of a Nesbo novel is littered not so much with red herrings as with red whales and the stench of those decaying red whales becomes pervasive by the time one has read halfway through the book.

Well, this is the eighth book that I have read in the Harry Hole series and, by now, I am on to Nesbo's tricks and not so easily fooled. I know, for example, that when Harry thinks he has the murders solved by the middle of the book, and again at the two-thirds mark, it's going to turn out to be the wrong - or an incomplete - solution.

After a while, all those false clues and misdirection become seriously annoying. The reader feels as though the author is straining to find yet another way to pull the wool over his/her eyes. The effort is very noticeable and distracting. This method of writing was there in the earlier books as well but it has never been so prevalent as in The Leopard.

But that's not the only thing that I found annoying about this book.

The sadism! My god, the sadism! Again, it feels as though Nesbo is straining every cell of his brain to come up with more and more brutal and sadistic ways of killing people and he tells us all about it in great and loving detail. Such a cruel torture murder is the way this book begins and I found myself skipping over several pages in the very first chapter, because I didn't want to read about the doomed woman's terror and suffering.

Subsequently, I skipped or skimmed lightly over many pages in the book, because, once again, we are dealing with a killer of several people; not really a classic serial killer but a mass killer who loves to torture his victims first, nevertheless. Definitely not something that I can enjoy reading.

The story is the basic one we've come to expect with Harry. He's down and out in Hong Kong after capturing the Snowman and saving Rakel and Oleg from his clutches. But afterwards, Rakel took Oleg and fled and Harry found no reason to stay in Norway and continue to do his job. Now he spends his time gambling and smoking opium to ease his pain.

When bad things start happening in Oslo, his boss sends a policewoman to bring Harry home because they need his expertise to again catch what may be a serial killer. Harry refuses, but then the policewoman plays her ace - it seems that Harry's father is in the hospital, seriously ill. He reluctantly agrees to return but not to get involved in the investigation.

Once back in Norway, of course, Harry can't resist the pull of the mystery surrounding the deaths of three (so far) women. Soon, he's back in the harness again.

The catch here is that the victims appear completely unconnected to one another, but Harry's instinct tells him that they are connected and that, in order to solve the crimes, he must find that connection. Do we ever doubt that he will?

This book aims to be surprising but, in fact, it is utterly predictable. It is disgusting in the descriptions of torture of the victims but still predictable in the arc of its story and in the outcome. The only reason the book gets two stars in my rating instead of one is that I do have a residual liking for the character of Harry Hole and I enjoyed the parts where he interacts with his dying father, with his boyhood friend, and with some of his colleagues at work, but he strained my affection to its limits here. I won't be picking up another Harry Hole mystery for a while. Maybe eventually the bad taste left by this one will fade and I'll remember the good times of the earlier books and decide to give Nesbo another chance, but first I'll have to be assured that his romance with sadism has run its course. He is a talented writer. It is a shame to see him waste his talent on dreck.  

View all my reviews

Friday, May 16, 2014

This week in birds - #109

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

Green Heron - my favorite among the small herons, I think.


One of the deadliest environmental hazards for birds is glass - as in glass windows. Scientists have estimated that between 365 million and 988 million birds die annually from crashing into buildings, most often crashing into glass which they cannot see. The solution to that deadly problem would seem to be to make the glass visible to the birds and researchers are working on how to best do that.


The big news in the environment this week was that part of the gigantic West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing and it seems to have passed the point of no return. The collapse now seems unstoppable. This means rising sea levels around the world which has dire implications for coastal communities. Still, some elected representatives of those communities are unconcerned and deny that human activities have anything to do with melting ice and rising sea levels.


Plastics are another well-known environmental hazard in the world's oceans. Creatures who live in or depend on the sea often ingest this detritus discarded by humans and uncounted numbers of them die from that every year. A recent study of a small seabird, the Cory's Shearwater, off the Catalan Coast of Spain, revealed that 94% of the birds had ingested plastic.


One inventive way to fight back against invasive species is to eat them! That is what some environmentalists are advocating for both plants and animals that have been introduced either on purpose or accidentally and have become unwanted competition for native species.


And speaking of invasives, British conservationists are concerned about exotic bird species like Black Swans and Egyptian Geese that are gaining a foothold in some nature preserves in the UK and are out-competing some native species for breeding habitat and food.


The famous wolf OR-7 that has spent his time traveling back and forth across the California-Oregon border and became the first documented wolf in California in decades may be a papa. It appears that he has bred with a black wolf and may be raising a family. Unfortunately for California's claims, though, all of this activity is taking place on the Oregon side of the border.  


Cliff Swallows are one of several from that family that have adapted well to using human structures for building sites for their nests, but bridge-building practices in California have proved unfriendly to the birds with the result that they are declining in some areas. Conservation groups are monitoring and are working with the state's agency in charge of such structures to reach an accommodation that will be welcoming to the swallows.


How do octopuses keep those eight arms from getting all tangled? It turns out that is a serious question that scientists consider.


The Ruff is a migratory shorebird with distinct practices for courtship and breeding. Those practices, it seems are more a matter of the bird's genes than of any environmental factor.


Many birders are also very interested in butterflies and moths and include watching them as a part of their study of Nature. The current issue of Audubon Magazine encourages that interest, particularly as it pertains to moths. Birders can learn quite a lot from these critters and studying them can provide some of the same pleasures as watching birds, according to the author. 


Around the backyard:

My backyard is pretty much overrun with fledglings these days. Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Blue Jays, American Robins, Eastern Bluebirds all have been seen escorting their young ones around the yard. This week the Northern Cardinals added their family to the mix. 

And speaking of being overrun, my feeders are still being swarmed by White-winged Doves. I counted 31 of the birds on the feeders or on the ground under the feeders yesterday afternoon. They make my birdseed disappear as if by magic.

I've given up on having Baltimore Orioles visit this year. I've only seen one in the yard and that was at the end of April. If more were coming this way, they should have been here by now, so I'm taking down my oriole feeders. So far they've only provided sustenance for butterflies, bees, and wasps.

Last year, during the first two weeks of May, the backyard was filled with the bright colors of orioles and also Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, but just like the orioles, I've only seen one grosbeak in the yard this year and that, too, was at the end of April. Looks like it just isn't our year for visits from these charismatic birds. It's not just my yard, though. They've been very scarce throughout the area this spring. I guess they took another route this year.  

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - May 2014

Happy Bloom Day and thank you for dropping by my garden this month. Here are some of the things in bloom in my garden in the month of May.

May is the month of the magnolia. The Southern magnolias are in bloom for most of the month. That's the good news. The bad news is that it is the month that they get new leaves and drop their old ones. The thick leathery leaves make a bit of a mess in the garden, but this, too, shall pass.

This is also the month when many of the early blooming daylilies are in flower, always a happy sight.

The oakleaf hydrangea is really the only member of the hydrangea family that seems to like my garden, so , of course, it is a favorite of mine.

The time of the bluebonnets and pink bonnets would seem to be long past, but a few blossoms still linger.

In the vegetable garden, the eggplants are blooming.

As are the green beans.

And the squash plants.

The blossoms of the African blue basil are favorites with butterflies of all kinds.

Among the wildflowers, the tickseeds are in full bloom.

While the blanket flowers are just getting started.

The little marigolds in the tomato bed continue to bloom profusely.

The milkweed has been in bloom for a while. That is 'Silky gold' on the left and 'Silky red' in the middle. And on the right is one of the milkweed customers, a Monarch butterfly caterpillar which had completely denuded the plant he was on. Never mind. The leaves will grow back. 

Autumn sage is welcome at any season.

This is 'Mystic Spires' salvia, another favorite of mine.

'Hot Lips' salvia blooms almost continuously throughout the spring, summer, and fall. 

The crossvine, 'Tangerine Beauty,' has a big flush of bloom in early spring, but it continues to put out a few blooms right through the rest of the year.

By the patio, the gerbera daisies continue to brighten my days.

I like this red kalanchoe.

The fragrant old petunias continue their bloom.

The yucca, too, has a very long bloom cycle.

Gazania daisies are another day-brightener.

My favorite yellow rose, 'Graham Thomas,' has begun its bloom.

The canna 'Lucifer' certainly brings the light to its corner of the garden.

White yarrow is very attractive to many pollinators. 

Purple oxalis with its dainty pink blooms. The green plant in the middle is firespike which will bloom in late summer or autumn.

So, even though we never got our looked-for April showers, May flowers came just the same.

Thank you, Carol, for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. I look forward to visiting May Dreams Gardens to see what is blooming in other gardens around the world this month.