Sunday, November 30, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Shopping

'Tis the season to go shopping - even if, like me, you only do it in front of a computer screen.

I remember a time when money was scarce and shopping for gifts for the holiday season was such an ordeal, as it still is for so many people. It was a time when "Nearly everyone we loved was alive and we were in love...we didn't know we already had everything." Faith Shearin understands.


My husband and I stood together in the new mall
which was clean and white and full of possibility.
We were poor so we liked to walk through the stores
since this was like walking through our dreams.
In one we admired coffee makers, blue pottery
bowls, toaster ovens as big as televisions. In another,

we eased into a leather couch and imagined
cocktails in a room overlooking the sea. When we
sniffed scented candles we saw our future faces,
softly lit, over a dinner of pasta and wine. When
we touched thick bathrobes we saw midnight

swims and bathtubs so vast they might be
mistaken for lakes. My husband's glasses hurt
his face and his shoes were full of holes.
There was a space in our living room where
a couch should have been. We longed for

fancy shower curtains, flannel sheets,
shiny silverware, expensive winter coats.
Sometimes, at night, we sat up and made lists.
We pressed our heads together and wrote
our wants all over torn notebook pages.
Nearly everyone we loved was alive and we

were in love but we liked wanting. Nothing
was ever as nice when we brought it home.
The objects in stores looked best in stores.
The stores were possible futures and, young
and poor, we went shopping. It was nice
then: we didn't know we already had everything.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

American Kestrel in November

I am taking an extra day to give thanks and so there is no "This week in birds" post today. The regular post will return next week.

Meantime, here is a picture of one of my favorites to hold you until then. 

The little American Kestrel, smallest and surely the prettiest of all our falcons, visits this area in large numbers during late fall and winter.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A history lesson

Got a minute? Well, actually, about fourteen minutes. If so, here is a crash course in the founding of the United States of America and the origins of Thanksgiving. Spoiler alert: It's not the version that Texas school children will be reading about in their new social studies textbooks. Moses doesn't bring the Constitution down, fully written, from Mt. Sinai. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving thoughts

I hope your Thanksgiving is everything you want it to be. While you are celebrating, spare a thought for the roots of this, my favorite, holiday. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us. (Hat tip to Being Liberal.)

Photo: (M) Native Americans were clearly more compassionate than conservatives.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Muscadines

One of the disadvantages of living in subtropical Southeast Texas is that we don't get that much autumn leaf color here. There are a few trees, some of them non-native like the Chinese tallow, that do present good color but they are the exceptions. I have a Shumard red oak in my front yard and in some years it has blazing colors, but it's a bit unpredictable. One plant I can depend on showing some fall color is the native grape, muscadine. 

My two muscadine vines, a 'Cowart' and a 'Fry' cultivar, beginning to "color up" in late November.

I grow muscadines in my garden more as an homage to my childhood than for any actual use. Muscadines grew rampantly in the area where I grew up and I used to look forward to picking them in the fall and eating them right off the vine. I also looked forward to the muscadine jelly that my mother made.

In truth, muscadines are not really that great for eating because they have very tough skins and are quite seedy, but I was not a connoisseur as a child and I loved them. They are probably best used for making jellies and jams, and, supposedly, they can make a quite decent wine, although I can't say that I've tried that. 

Here are a few of the fruits of my two vines, muscadine grapes.

Since I only have the two vines, I don't have that many grapes to work with, even in years of heavy production like this one has been. Also, the grapes don't all ripen at once - they ripen in stages, so there are never very many of them ripe at once. Thus, I've never attempted to make jelly or jam or to use the fruits other than very occasionally picking one or two to eat. But the grapes are utilized by the other denizens of my garden. Birds and other wildlife readily eat them and since mine is a habitat garden, that is sort of the point.

In addition to providing food for the animals, the vines also provide shelter and a hiding place for the birds. They are located quite near my backyard feeder system and I cannot begin to count the times I've seen the birds at the feeder suddenly dive into those vines to escape an attack from a Cooper's or a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

As for me, I just enjoy looking at the vines, watching as the leaves turn yellow and the grapes turn purple. They add a lot of fall color to my garden.

A cluster of muscadine leaves in late November is a bouquet of gold.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


My backyard has been an exceptionally quiet and boring place in recent weeks. The garden that for most months of the year is filled with birdsong and bird activity has been mostly deserted by the birds. All of the permanent resident birds of the area, except for the Carolina Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and (sigh) House Sparrows seem to have totally disappeared. Even the usually ever-present Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves and the raucous Blue Jays have been absent.

This Great Abandonment is an event that happens every year in early fall. I have theorized in the past that it coincides with an abundance of wild food being available so that the birds do not feel the need to visit my feeders. I don't know that to be the case, but it seems reasonable. This year, however, the GA has lasted longer and has been even more complete than in other years, and I am really at a loss to know why.

Watching the feeders on Sunday afternoon, all I saw were the House Sparrows and an occasional chickadee and woodpecker. I could hear the wrens in the shrubbery but they never visited the feeders while I watched. I could also hear in the shrubs a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the first of our winter visitors to arrive, and the resident Eastern Bluebirds calling as they flew overhead. But the yard was mostly still and silent.

Then, suddenly, in mid-afternoon, things started to look up. The goldfinches had arrived!

The first American Goldfinches to arrive in my yard in the fall usually do not visit the feeders right away. Instead, they will typically visit the wild food that is available, in this case the seeds of the crape myrtle, a particular favorite of the birds.

It's always exciting to see the first goldfinch of the fall. This year even they seem a little later in arriving than usual, but, in truth, they could have been here for the past week and I might not have seen them since I hadn't spent much time in the yard during that period. Nevertheless, I rejoiced to hear that familiar song once again.

So far, their presence is just a trickle, but if they are true to form, that will soon swell to a flood and, by the end of December, the yard will be overrun with these little finches and maybe even a few Pine Siskins. I can only hope.

And just to be sure that I am ready for the expected deluge, I went out today and bought a fresh supply of the goldfinches' favorite nyger seed!

One other postscript to my Sunday backyard bird watching: I had thought that all of our hummingbirds had left, but as I watched yesterday, there was one Rufous visiting one of my nectar feeders, so perhaps we will have a winter hummingbird after all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones: A review

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made EnglandThe Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England by Dan Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"The prince was drunk." It's one of those memorable first sentences that draws you right in and makes you want to know more. Who is this prince and why was he drunk? Why was his being drunk important? What were the consequences of that drunkenness?

It is from such minor, sometimes seemingly insignificant threads that the entire fabric of history is woven, and Dan Jones has an eye for those threads. He teases them out and shows them to us with style and wit and in great detail throughout this popular history of one of the foundational dynasties of England. From that drunken prince, William the Aetheling, who, along with his drunken crew, was about to die in an 1120 shipwreck, to the beginning of the reign of Henry IV in 1399 - which marked the end of the Plantagenets and the beginning of the Lancasters' dynasty - Jones keeps his reader engaged in the events of this medieval world. And in so doing, he shows us that their world was not so different from our contemporary one.

That drunken, now dead, prince, William, had been the only legitimate son of Henry I, who was the son of William the Conquerer. With the death of his son and his inability to father another legitimate son, Henry took the unprecedented step of appointing his daughter Matilda as his heir. Her right to the throne was not universally accepted, however, and she and her supporters engaged in a long struggle with her cousin Stephen ("The Cousins' War) for control of the realm.

Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou who was known for wearing a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom in his hair. The Latin name of the plant was Planta genista. From that plant, a dynasty received its name - Plantagenet.

From these beginnings, the son of Matilda and Geoffrey sprang - Henry II, the first true Plantagenet king. His queen was the redoubtable Eleanor of Aquitaine.

I well remember the first time I ever heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine. It was in my freshman history class in college. The class was just after lunch and I was sitting there dozing when my professor started talking about this amazing woman. The excitement and passion in her voice as she spoke of Eleanor woke me up for good. I decided that maybe this history thing wasn't so boring after all.

After Henry and Eleanor came their son, Richard I, the Lionheart, but, unfortunately, his reign only lasted ten years and then came his brother, John I of Robin Hood and Magna Carta fame.

Then came the period from 1216 to 1399 when it seemed that incompetence alternated with competence, and sometimes brilliance. Thus, we have the hapless Henry III, son of John I, followed by the successful Edward I who was followed by the incompetent and cruel Edward II.

Then England got lucky with the most brilliant of the Plantagenets, Edward III, who ruled from 1327 to 1377. But he was followed by perhaps the worst of the lot, Richard II, who was deposed in 1399.

This is only the barest of outlines, but Dan Jones fleshes out that sketch brilliantly with psychological portraits that are dotted with small but enlightening details of character that make these people come alive for us as fully-fleshed human beings. It is a tour de force of storytelling which once again confirms for me my conclusion in that long ago classroom. This history thing isn't so boring after all. It is Game of Thrones but for real.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Poetry Sunday: The Pumpkin

For Thanksgiving week, here's a classic American poem by John Greenleaf Whittier about an iconic ingredient of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, "the rich Pumpkin pie." It was written in 1850.

The Pumpkin

by John Greenleaf Whittier 
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Oh, greenly and fair in the lands of the sun,
The vines of the gourd and the rich melon run,
And the rock and the tree and the cottage enfold,
With broad leaves all greenness and blossoms all gold,
Like that which o’er Nineveh’s prophet once grew,
While he waited to know that his warning was true,
And longed for the storm-cloud, and listened in vain
For the rush of the whirlwind and red fire-rain.

On the banks of the Xenil the dark Spanish maiden
Comes up with the fruit of the tangled vine laden;
And the Creole of Cuba laughs out to behold
Through orange-leaves shining the broad spheres of gold;
Yet with dearer delight from his home in the North,
On the fields of his harvest the Yankee looks forth,
Where crook-necks are coiling and yellow fruit shines,
And the sun of September melts down on his vines.

Ah! on Thanksgiving day, when from East and from West,
From North and from South comes the pilgrim and guest;
When the gray-haired New Englander sees round his board
The old broken links of affection restored;
When the care-wearied man seeks his mother once more,
And the worn matron smiles where the girl smiled before;
What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye,
What calls back the past, like the rich Pumpkin pie?

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling,
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling!
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin,
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within!
When we laughed round the corn-heap, with hearts all in tune,
Our chair a broad pumpkin, — our lantern the moon,
Telling tales of the fairy who travelled like steam
In a pumpkin-shell coach, with two rats for her team!

Then thanks for thy present! none sweeter or better
E’er smoked from an oven or circled a platter!
Fairer hands never wrought at a pastry more fine,
Brighter eyes never watched o’er its baking, than thine!
And the prayer, which my mouth is too full to express,
Swells my heart that thy shadow may never be less,
That the days of thy lot may be lengthened below,
And the fame of thy worth like a pumpkin-vine grow,
And thy life be as sweet, and its last sunset sky
Golden-tinted and fair as thy own Pumpkin pie!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

This week in birds - #135

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

The Whooping Cranes of the last natural-occurring wild flock of the birds are returning to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas Coast from their summer home in Wood Buffalo Park in Canada. They will be with us until around April next year when they will head north once more. Meanwhile, conservationists continue efforts to increase the numbers of a flock they have been working to establish that migrates from Wisconsin to Florida and back each year, as well as a non-migratory flock in Louisiana. The hope is to have healthy flocks in different areas so that the species is somewhat protected from a catastrophic event at any one site.

A hazard faced by any migrating bird, especially large birds like the cranes or like the Trumpeter Swan, is that some people like to blaze away at them with their guns. The Trumpeter Swan is not as endangered as the the Whooping Crane, but it is still pretty rare. Even so, every year a number of them get shot in migration, either accidentally or on purpose.


Despite protests from environmentalists and opposition from the governor of Virginia, the federal government has decided to allow fracking in the largest national forest on the east coast, the George Washington National Forest. I do not think the forest's namesake would be pleased.


Here's a weird one for you. On Marion Island, a sub-Antarctic island that is home to fur seals and King Penguins, scientists have observed some fur seals attempting to copulate with penguins and in some cases apparently succeeding. They speculate that the sexual harassment may be the behavior of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced seal. Or it could be an aggressive, predatory act or a playful one that turned sexual. The truth is they don't know. It should be noted that the fur seals also sometimes eat the penguins. 


Wars have an impact far beyond the lives which they destroy. There is also the damage that they do to the environment. The deadliest war in our country's history, the Civil War, took place on our territory and has had detrimental and long term effects on our ecosystem. This is true of all wars. The countries where they occurred still deal with the environmental consequences of World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, and so on and so on and so on. 


New Yorkers buried under five or six feet of snow right now might find it a little difficult to look on the bright side. Nevertheless, there is a bright side to winter. It is a great pest control system. Last winter's polar vortex weather did serious damage to many invasive species of insect pests.


Environmentalists have long lobbied to have the Gunnison Sage Grouse given protection as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. Well, this week they got half a loaf. The bird was given partial protection as "threatened" but not the full protection of endangered. Meanwhile a decision is still to be made on the status of the Greater Sage Grouse.


The hardest working bees of North America may well be our many species of native bees. The Mother Earth Network has some extraordinary facts about these bees


Scientists have been looking at the genetic recipe for making feathers and they have found that it is not just birds who have these genes. In fact, human beings have most of them as well!


Starfish on the west coast of North America are wasting away. They literally seem to melt. The condition is called starfish wasting syndrome and scientists now believe that it is caused by a virus. It is a virus which may find a friendlier environment in the warming waters of an ocean affected by global climate change. 


Exotic species have often been introduced to the continent through New York City. This has been true of the European Starling and the House Sparrow, to name two birds that have been extraordinarily destructive to native species. But it is also true of such things as the fungus that killed practically all the American chestnut trees and an invasive grass called cheatgrass. And too many others to list.


Some bats in Africa have been implicated in harboring the virus that causes ebola, but that doesn't mean that all bats or even most bats are vectors for the virus.


People who try to help the declining Monarch butterfly by planting milkweed should really try to plant native milkweeds rather than the tropical variety. Apparently, using the tropical milkweed may throw off the Monarch's inner calendar which helps it to migrate. Who knew? This is a real problem for gardeners because all I see in the nurseries around here is the tropical milkweed plants. I suspect that is true in many areas of the country.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Washed Up

Poor Simon's Cat. All he wants is a nap, but the world conspires against him. I know just how he feels.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Who won the Civil War?"

These are college students in Texas, USA. This is just sad.

I'm speechless. Really...just speechless.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Home truths about quackery

We live in an age of false equivalencies - the assumption that all opinions are equally valid. We see the most egregious examples of this with the media and its "he said, she said" coverage of events.

They even do it with things like climate change, where deniers are routinely given the same weight as the overwhelming mass of scientific opinion.

They do it with vaccination policy when they give time and space to the anti-vaxxers who make the discredited claim that vaccinations are responsible for autism.

They do it in covering the obstructionism that is rampant in Washington when they pretend that both political parties are equally to blame.

The equating of science-based critical thinking with quackery is surely one of the most disheartening signs of the times in which we live. But at least it gives the comics plenty of material.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe by Alexander McCall Smith: A review

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (15) (A Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Book for Young Readers)The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (15) by Knopf Canada
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Precious Ramotswe's ruminations while driving her tiny white van around Gaborone and seeing a cow and calf standing under a tree:

We could stand under trees too, and look about us, and think about things. Not only could we do that, she thought, but we should. It was called meditation - she knew that - but she did not consider that we needed a special word for standing under a tree and thinking. People had been doing that well before meditation was invented. There were many things, she reflected, which we had been doing as long as anybody could remember and which had suddenly been taken up by fashionable enthusiasts and given an unnecessary new name. Mma Ramotswe had been invited to a Pilates class in a local church hall; it would be of great benefit to her, she had been told. But when she had gone to the class and seen what Pilates was, she had realised that she did not need to pay fifty pula a session to do the things that she had been doing for years anyway; lifting and pushing and stretching your muscles was nothing new; she did all of those things when she worked in her garden...  - from the chapter "Pilates With Cake." 

Of course, we don't read No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency stories for their "mysteries." We read them for the indefatigable good humor and faith in human nature (especially Botswanan human nature) expressed in the philosophizing of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the agency's founder. Philosophizing which often occurs as she is traveling the roads of Gaborone in her faithful little van.

The mysteries investigated by this unique agency are always the everyday mysteries of human life in Gaborone, Botswana. This time a kindhearted brother and sister request Mma Ramotswe's assistance in helping a woman, who is supposedly suffering from amnesia, to find out who she is. They claim that she turned up at their home without any identification and that she could remember nothing about herself. But when Mma Ramotswe and her new co-director Grace Makutsi visit the home, Precious notices a clue which leads her to think that the story may be a bit more complicated.

Meanwhile, Grace Makutsi seems to have been energized by her new role of motherhood and by being "promoted" to co-director of the detective agency. She is ready to take on new challenges. She wants to become an entrepreneur and in the pursuit of that goal, she decides to open a restaurant with the help of her husband Phuti's financial backing. In inimitable Makutsi fashion, she names her restaurant "The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe" because she believes that will attract Gaborone's most fashionable diners. She has much to learn about running a restaurant, hiring and managing a staff, and ensuring good service to her customers. Disaster threatens but friends come to her rescue.  

Next door to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors is also facing some hard decisions. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni must finally acknowledge that he is only able to pay one apprentice mechanic. Thus, one of the young men who has worked for him for many years and is like part of the family must be let go. And that young man does not take his dismissal well. Consequently, Precious makes a decision of her own - she will take on an "apprentice detective"!

This fifteenth entry in the series has all the elements that we fans have come to treasure over the years. Primarily, it has the sympathetic, loving character of the traditionally built proud woman of Botswana Precious Ramotswe. Spending time with her once again as she ponders over why a woman would pretend to have lost her memory, how to tactfully help a proud friend who perhaps does not realize what trouble she is in, and how to offer a way forward to a feckless but good-hearted young man who seems to have run out of options is like being warmly embraced once again by a dear friend after a long separation.

Alexander McCall Smith's writing in these books seems absolutely effortless. The stories seem to flow organically. I suspect that that illusion of effortlessness is just that - an illusion - and that he works quite hard at getting the atmosphere and the iconic speech patterns of the characters just right. As a devoted reader, I am glad that he chooses to make that effort.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Poetry Sunday: A Child's Calendar

"November always seemed to me the Norway of the year."-   Emily Dickinson

Leave it to the Belle of Amherst to put things very succinctly.

John Updike had a gift for putting things succinctly and simply as well. He did this very notably in his book, A Child's Calendar. Let's see what he had to say about this time of year.

from A Child's Calendar

by John Updike

The stripped and shapely
Maple grieves
The ghosts of her
Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,
As hard as stone.
The year is old,
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
In its distress,
Displays a certain


The trees in my yard are not quite stripped of all their leaves yet, but they are disrobing fast. Even so, each season, each month of the year has its "certain loveliness" and that is true of November as well. As we wait for that first killing frost, we enjoy the gray morning mists and the last colorful blooms of the autumn and anticipate the starker shapes of December.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - November 2014

November Bloom Day already? Ah, October, we hardly knew ye. As the old song says, the days do get shorter when you reach September.

But October went by in such a hurry that nothing much has changed with the blooms in my garden. Basically, all the blooms I showed you last month are still there and I don't want to commit the sin of repeating myself. So, I looked around to see if I could find something - anything! - that I hadn't shown you before. In some cases, many times before.

It's well nigh impossible really, because most of my plants have been around for a long time and their blooms will be very familiar to you if you follow my posts here from month to month. Still, I was able to come up with a few which perhaps I have not overused.    

The white mistflower with its companion marigold. The white mist came into bloom this month and has been a real feast for all the butterflies that visit my garden.

Well, yes, I know I've shown you the 'Graham Thomas' rose before, here with its little green beetle on the left.Though I have featured it many times before, it really is at its best at this time of year so I have to include it. 

And this is 'Litchfield Angel,' a David Austin rose like the 'Graham.' It has been putting on quite a show lately. Those blossoms are so heavy I had to hold one up in order to photograph it.

The jatropha got a late start this year but it is still going strong.

For weeks, I've been waiting for this Copper Canyon daisy to come into bloom and finally it is! 

The shrimp plant, too, has pouted throughout the year after suffering from the cold last winter. I wondered if it would ever bloom. Well, I have my answer.

And, finally, we go from the shrimp to the toad. The toad lilies (Tricyrtis), too, are plants I have been watching for weeks and wondering, "Will they, or won't they?" And now a few of them are. I love these delicate little blossoms.  They remind me somehow of African violets.

So, there you have a sampling of what's in bloom in my Southeast Texas garden this November. To see what else is in bloom, you can always refer back to my October Bloom Day post!

Thank you for visiting my garden today and thank you as always to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting this meme each month.

Happy Bloom Day!

Friday, November 14, 2014

This week in birds - #134

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

A Dark-eyed Junco of the Oregon subspecies searches for food on a parking lot bounded by an 18-inch snow in Estes Park, Colorado. The picture wasn't taken this week. It was actually taken a couple of years ago, but it's a scene that could occur in much of the country this week as cold weather has descended.

The big news for the environment of the entire planet this week was the announcement of the agreement between our country and China to begin working on controlling and reducing greenhouse gases. It doesn't really get us to where we need to be, but it is a start and one that is extremely important. Any significant steps to correct human-caused global warming must involve both the United States and China, the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters. No doubt the global warming deniers in Congress will do everything they can to gum up the works of the agreement, but, fortunately, it is not in the form of a treaty and does not require congressional approval.


The most exciting other worldly environment news this week was the announcement by European Space Agency that they had landed a spacecraft on a comet hurtling through space, truly a most remarkable achievement.


It turns out that junk food isn't even good for gulls! The birds that have it as a large part of their diet do not always get the nutrition they need to be healthy.


The Swainson's Warbler, a secretive and rarely seen songbird of the southeastern United States, may become a bit more accessible in the future. It has found a new type of habitat that it likes and appears to be expanding into and breeding in that habitat. What is the habitat? Pine plantations - a human created environment.


Overfishing and habitat degradation have threatened a river Goliath in Brazil - the pirarucu, a fish that can grow as long as seven feet and weigh as much as 400 pounds. Local fishermen, riverbank dwellers and biologists are working together to try to save the species and they are seeing good results from their efforts.


The online citizen science bird tracking system eBird has created a new tool called "eBird Targets" which is designed to help birders locate the birds they are eager to see. It gives a prioritized list of birds that can be expected to be found in a particular area.


Jumping spiders search out prey, stalk it, and then pounce - not unlike a cat. They are able to accomplish all this with a brain the size of a poppy seed and a complex vision system that is comprised of two large eyes and six smaller ones.


Another heretofore unrecognized consequence of a warming planet is the likelihood of an increase in lightning strikes.


A new study suggests that the flightless Moa of New Zealand was wiped out while the population of humans on that island was still of very low density, perhaps no more than 2500 individuals.


A study of ants in New York City has found an amazing diversity of species, including a number of non-native, exotic species.


A previously unknown highly camouflaged nocturnal gecko (Paroedura hordiesi) has been discovered in Madagascar. Madagascar is home to many species of gecko, but this one is in an area where the habitat is being destroyed. Those who wrote the paper announcing its discovery state that the creature should be considered critically endangered.


The giant Condors of the Andes, like their California counterparts, have been decimated in recent years, but Colombia is pursuing a program of repopulating the birds in its area. The program is now getting a technology upgrade with a cell phone-based system that utilizes implanted beeper chips that transmit GPS data.


Around the backyard:

We got our first really cold spell of the season this week and it seems to have swept my yard clean of hummingbirds. I haven't seen hummers of any kind around the yard for a few days now. I had expected that we would again have Rufous Hummingbirds staying for the winter as they have in recent years, but they seem to have absconded right along with their Ruby-throated cousins.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Call Me Princess by Sara Blaedel: A review

Call Me Princess (Louise Rick / Camilla Lind #2)Call Me Princess by Sara Blaedel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Much as I liked the character Harry Hole, I finally had to give up on Jo Nesbo's series. The sadism of the later books just got to be too much for me. I enjoy crime thrillers, but I don't enjoy reading about the crimes themselves, told in intricate and loving detail. I want to read about the solving of the crime and the personalities and interrelationships of the solvers of the mysteries.

So, I had been looking around for a replacement among Scandinavian mystery writers and recently there was a long article in The New York Times Sunday Book Review which discussed some of the most popular authors currently on the Scandinavian scene. After reading the article, I noted several of their names and decided to start my search for a Nesbo replacement among them.

After some consideration, I decided to give Sara Blaedel a try. She's a Danish author who writes about a woman detective (a plus for me) in the Copenhagen police department. From what I read of her in the article, she sounded promising.

One of the drawbacks of reading a Danish author, of course, is that I have to find translations of her work. Whenever one reads a translation, the reader should be a bit reticent about making judgments about the quality of the writing. If there are problems with the story, is it the author's fault or is it an infelicitous translation? And the truth is that I really don't know. I have no way of judging.

What I can say is that the language of this novel, as read in this translation, seemed really stilted, pedantic, and amateurish. It did not flow as one would expect from a best-selling author.

A case in point was the inappropriate overuse of the good old-fashioned Anglo-Saxonisms "fuck" and "fucking." Mostly used as adjectives, those words were just tossed into the dialog, often for no apparent reason, seemingly just to make the characters appear more like hip, street-wise cops. But having just spent my summer watching HBO's "The Wire" in which those words are organic elements of the speech patterns of the characters, the characters in Call Me Princess just seemed like children trying to sound like grownups.

And if I had hoped to escape descriptions of sadistic crimes, my hopes were immediately dashed.

The book begins with several pages of description of a brutal rape. A young woman is bound and gagged, then raped repeatedly and left in her apartment where she remains for hours before her mother finds her the next day. Detective Inspector Louise Rick is assigned to the case and learns that the victim met the rapist on a popular online dating site. It seems likely that the rapist is using this site to target specific women and that there may have been other such attacks.

Before the perpetrator can be tracked and stopped, he strikes again, but this time the victim dies and the police search becomes even more urgent.

Mixed in with this tale of heinous crimes, we get side stories of Louise's rather boring personal life and her problems with boyfriends - none of which are really very engaging.

My first experience with Sara Blaedel, then, was disappointing. I may eventually give her another chance and read some of the later books - after all, writers do tend to improve with experience - but the search for a Nesbo replacement goes on. I'll give some of the other guys a shot at the position.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Thursday Tidbits

Have you heard about this letter to the editor from a Canadian citizen in British Columbia? It's been making a bit of a stir on the internet this week.

It might be a bit difficult to read in that format, so here is the text:

"Many of us Canadians are confused by the U.S. midterm elections. Consider, right now in America, corporate profits are at record highs, the country's adding 200,000 jobs per month, unemployment is below 6%, U.S. gross national product growth is the best of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The dollar is at its strongest levels in years, the stock market is near record highs, gasoline prices are falling, there's no inflation, interest rates are the lowest in 30 years, U.S. oil imports are declining, U.S. oil production is rapidly increasing, the deficit is rapidly declining, and the wealthy are still making astonishing amounts of money.

"America is leading the world once again and respected internationally — in sharp contrast to the Bush years. Obama brought soldiers home from Iraq and killed Osama bin Laden.

"So, Americans vote for the party that got you into the mess that Obama just dug you out of? This defies reason.

"When you are done with Obama, could you send him our way?

"Richard Brunt

"Victoria, British Columbia"

Sometimes it is our closest neighbors who see us most clearly.  And what an image we present to them!


Ebola has essentially disappeared from the national headlines now that the election is over and it has served its purpose of scaring the bejeezus out of cranky old white voters.

(Of course, we shouldn't stereotype "cranky old white voters." After all, I am one myself, but I was never terrified by Ebola or ISIS or desperate brown children or any of the other bogeymen conjured up by fear mongering right wingers during the election season. There are still a few of us...)

Last night, Chris Hayes of MSNBC did a segment on Ebola in which he "congratulated" cable news on its even-handed and low-key coverage. It's pretty good.


So now that they no longer have Ebola to freak out about, what's the latest "outrage" they are screaming about? President Obama in China, of course!

"OMG! HE'S WEARING A PURPLE SUIT!" (An outfit provided by his hosts to all their guests to wear.)




There is literally no end to their store of outrage when it comes to President Obama and, frankly, it could all be summed up in just three little words: "OMG! HE'S BLACK!"

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Migrating Monarchs

I have noted here at various times throughout this year that Monarch butterflies have been very scarce in my garden for this entire period. Unlike previous years when they were often plentiful, they've been a rare sight indeed in 2014.

I was particularly delighted, then, earlier this week to find THREE of the beauties visiting my backyard at the same time.

Their presence might have something to do with this plant, Eupatorim wrightii, the white mistflower. It is a favorite with butterflies of all kinds and it is in full bloom right now. The Monarchs seemed to particularly like it.
These two were in shadow so it's a bit hard to see them, but they were hanging onto those white fuzzy blossoms.

A nearby marigold also came in for its share of visits.
Three is absolutely the high water mark for number of Monarchs in the garden at one time for this year, so this was definitely a banner day. As the migration continues, I'll be interested to see if that number can be topped, but, in the meantime, I'm just happy I was there to experience these very special visitors.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Con Man by Ed McBain: A review

The Con ManThe Con Man by Ed McBain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These early Ed McBain novels from the 1950s are now old enough to qualify almost as historical mysteries and the language and attitudes often seem staid, stilted, and outdated.

Did policemen really used to talk like that? I remember watching reruns of "Dragnet" years after the series first ran and I seem to recall that Sgt. Joe Friday and his partner did, in fact, employ some of this terminology and exhibit some of those attitudes, so, yeah, I guess maybe they really did talk like that.

In spite of the fact that the books feel dated, the writing is so crisp that it draws us in and holds our attention. We feel like time travelers visiting another planet and observing the interaction of the inhabitants there. The books never fail to spark our interest and this, the fourth in the 87th Precinct series, is the best one yet, I think. Each entry has been an improvement upon the last one, which bodes well for my future reading of the series.

This story begins with a con man cheating people out of their money, some small amounts and some more substantial. The cop assigned to this case takes that personally and pursues his quarry with a vengeance.

Meanwhile, a con man of another and much more sinister sort plies his trade through personal ads in magazines. His goal is to reach lonely women and, after bilking them out of whatever money they may have and convincing them to get a tattoo which he tells them will mark them as his, he poisons them with arsenic and dumps their bodies in the river.

But bodies dumped in the river, even when they are weighted down, don't always stay there. And so, the Isola police and Precinct 87 are the unfortunate recipients of a "floater," a badly decomposed body that comes to the surface after being in the water for at least three months. Detective Steve Carella and his partner Bert Kling are assigned to the case and start trying to establish the identity of the dead woman, whose only clothing consisted of a bra and who had no identification, and to work out how she came to be in the water.

Before they can solve the first murder, yet another "floater" turns up. The cause of death turns out to be the same - arsenic poisoning - and the woman has a similar tattoo. It looks as though Isola may have a serial killer on its hands.

The tattoos turn out to be the definitive clue which helps to break the case, along with the help of a conscientious citizen tattoo artist named Charlie Chen.

The Con Man lets us get to know Steve Carella a little better. We also see his wife, Teddy, playing an important role in finally tracking down this con man/murderer. Apparently, they will continue to be at the center of future mysteries in the series.

By this time, McBain had really perfected his technique of writing a scintillating beginning to his tales, one that hooks you from the first sentence and keeps you turning pages. It's easy to see why other writers of mysteries, particularly of police procedurals, acknowledge him as the master.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

A Long Shadow by Charles Todd: A review

A Long Shadow (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #8)A Long Shadow by Charles Todd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading the previous book in this series, A Cold Treachery, I was interested to see where Inspector Ian Rutledge's cases would take him next and I decided to jump right in and read the next book in the series. After all, it was already on my Kindle waiting for me, just a click away.

We first encounter the inspector here on New Year's Eve, 1919, only a short while after the end of his last case. He accompanies his sister, Frances, to the house of mutual friends for a dinner party. At the party, one of the guests is alleged to have some psychic powers and she is asked to hold a seance, an activity that is very popular in the London of the day. This makes Inspector Rutledge, who has an intimate knowledge of and relationship with the dead from the recent war, very uncomfortable, and he is relieved to receive a phone call from Scotland Yard which gives him an excuse to leave.

As he is leaving, he finds a brass cartridge casing on the steps outside. He picks it up and sees that there is an engraving on it. He puts it in his pocket and goes on his way, but soon he's finding other such engraved casings. Someone seems to be following him around and leaving the casings for him to find. For a man already on the knife's edge of mental collapse because of PTSD, this seems a deliberate attempt to unsettle and threaten him.

Mercifully, he is called away from London to a small Northamptonshire village where the local constable has been shot and seriously wounded by a bow and arrow, while in woods that the locals consider to be haunted. Trying to find out what has happened proves difficult for Rutledge because the local folk are extremely taciturn and close-mouthed.

Rutledge learns that there are other mysteries which the villagers seem intent on hiding for some reason. For example, a teenage girl disappeared from the village some three years earlier and has never been found. Her grandmother, with whom she lived, says she must have gone to London to look for her missing mother. But did she? And was the constable looking for her grave in the woods when he was shot?

It soon becomes apparent to Rutledge that there is a connection between the missing girl and the wounded constable, but just what that connection is is not at all clear.

Meanwhile, distressingly, Rutledge continues to find engraved cartridge casings in odd places and then while he is out in his motorcar one day, a bullet smashes his windscreen, barely missing his head. Who is this unknown adversary who appears to be stalking him?

To complicate the situation further, the psychic from the New Year's Eve party shows up in the village and expresses concern about Rutledge, but is her concern genuine or is she somehow connected to the stalker?

In order to solve the mysteries, Rutledge must find a way to break the silence of this unfriendly and secretive village and he must find the motive behind the disappearance of the teenager and the wounding of the constable and discover the connection between the two.

This is another eloquent story of suspense told in absorbing prose with an emotional depth that gives the reader a sense of Ian Rutledge as a very real and sympathetic, if flawed, character. He is a character that we can care about, one about which we can look forward to reading more.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014

Poetry Sunday: In Flanders Fields

On Tuesday, we celebrate our Veterans Day. It falls on November 11 each year. Once known as Armistice Day, it commemorates the time when the guns on the Western Front of World War I, the "War to end all wars," finally fell silent in 1918.

In the midst of that war, in 1915, a Canadian doctor/soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was moved to write a poem to honor the dead of that terrible conflict. It is a poem that could speak for the dead in all wars and it speaks to us still today.

In Flanders Fields

John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow 
In Flanders fields. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

This week in birds - #133

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

Chickadees and pine trees go together no matter what kind they are or where they occur. In my neighborhood, it is the Carolina Chickadee, but in Rocky Mountain National Park where I took these pictures, the Mountain Chickadee is the predominant member of its family. It loves the pines and the pine seeds there just as much as "my" chickadees love the ones on my neighborhood.


The biggest loser in last Tuesday's election appears to be science and the environment in general and climate science in particular. The next Congress will be even more hostile to the idea of doing anything about climate change than the current one. A recent Pew poll showed that 83% of Republicans either do not believe that global climate change exists or that it is a problem.


The distribution of birds in the United States is likely to change drastically over the next 60 years because of climate change and land use. A new U.S. Geological Survey study predicts where 50 common species will feed and breed in 2075 based on predicted changes in climate and the way the land is used.


In case you were wondering, at last count 1,659,420 species of animals have been described by scientists. Nearly 80% of those are arthropods, or insects and their crunchy relatives. There has long been a question as to how and when exactly these creatures evolved. A new study published in Science throws some light on the subject.


New 3-D scans of Dodo skeletons have revealed more about the structure of the giant extinct member of the pigeon family and about how it might have moved.


With the help of his colleagues, "Bug Eric" has identified the 40th species of grasshopper that he has found in the Colorado Springs area. It is a critter called the large-headed grasshopper and he has a picture of one on his blog.


When we think of milkweed butterflies, we automatically think of Monarchs, but in fact there are three species of butterflies in the United States that make use of the milkweed. There is, of course, the Queen, similar to the Monarch, that in some years is fairly common in my garden. (Not this year though.) But there is also a butterfly called the Soldier, with which I was unfamiliar. The Soldier can sometimes be found in southern Arizona and other subtropical areas of the country. With the changing climate, it may be moving into other areas. More reason to grow milkweed.


The emerald ash borer, an invasive insect from Asia, is expected to kill all the ash trees in the East unless they are treated with expensive chemicals, but now it has been documented to be branching out to a new species - the white fringe tree. Not good news for forests if this deadly insect makes the leap to other species.


In 2011, Australia's Labor Party government enacted a carbon tax and carbon emissions in the country started declining, rather drastically in some cases. But in 2014, a new more conservative government was elected and in July they repealed the carbon tax. Now those deadly emissions are rising again.


City lights at night can be deadly to migrating songbirds - most of which migrate at night. The lights confuse them and cause them to fly into high rise buildings, killing millions every year. Some cities have responded with a "lights out" program which seeks to reduce the confusing lights and give the birds a chance to survive.


The predicted rise in carbon dioxide and ozone over the next 100 years because of global warming is expected to increase the production of grass pollen which, in turn, will have an negative impact on human health for those suffering from allergens. In other words, people are going to be sicker.


In a new study in PLOS ONE, entitled "Predicting Vulnerabilities of North American Shorebirds to Climate Change," a team of scientists explored whether currently stable species might become "at risk."


In the last century, a blight killed virtually all the once dominant American chestnut trees of the United States. Now, a team of scientists in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at SUNY (State University of New York) have produced American chestnut trees that are blight resistant, offering hope that these magnificent trees might again populate American forests.


Yellow-rumped Warblers are even now winging their way back to us. Indeed, some may already be here. They are among our favorite winter visitors. But these little birds are quite tough and are capable of surviving very cold temperatures because they are able to make use of wax-covered berries like bayberries. Like most warblers, they prefer insects but when those aren't available, they are opportunistic enough to make use of what is available.


Around the backyard:

Today is the opening of Project FeederWatch. So far, I haven't had a chance to get out and observe the birds in my yard, but I know it is going to be a very quiet beginning to this season's citizen science project. As I reported last week, many of my common birds have deserted my garden at least temporarily and even the House Sparrows have become wary under repeated attacks by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Things should begin to pick up in a few weeks though as more of the winter birds arrive and my "regulars" begin to return. Fingers crossed.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Post-election analysis

All the political pundits are busily explaining to us exactly what last Tuesday's election means. All the right-wingers are vociferously gloating about the "permanent" majority they have achieved in the Senate and the House. President Obama's policies are thoroughly repudiated by the American people, they say.

Well, maybe.

Just about one-third of registered voters turned out to vote in this election and, of that number, just over half - something like 17% of the nation's voters - gave the Republicans their victory. That is the tsunami, the earthquake, the tidal wave that they are crowing about. 

Seventeen percent somehow does not seem like that big a mandate to me, but then what do I know? I'm not a pundit and I don't live inside the Beltway, so I can't claim any secret pipeline to the brains of American voters that allows me to interpret just what their votes mean.

I did see one bit of analysis of American elections that seemed to make sense to me. Not from a Beltway pundit but a blogger - Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos. He wrote:
In 2004, Republicans won big, and Democrats were left trying to figure out what went wrong.

Then in 2006, Democrats won big, and they decided everything was fine. Republicans merely shrugged it off as the 6-year-itch that bedevils parties that hold the White House in a president's last midterm.

2008, Democrats won big again, and Republicans were left fumbling for excuses, but mainly decided it was Bush's fault and an artifact of Barack Obama's historic campaign.

In 2010, Republicans won big, so they were validated. All was fine! Democrats were left fumbling.

In 2012, Democrats won big, so they decided everything was fine. Demographics and data to the rescue! Republicans decided to rebrand, until they decided fuck that, no rebranding was needed.

And now in 2014, Republicans are validated again in the Democrats' own 6-year-itch election. Democrats are scrambling for answers.

And I'll tell you what the future looks like:

In 2016, Democrats will win big on the strength of presidential-year turnout. Republicans will realize they really have a shit time winning presidential elections, and maybe they should do something about that!

In 2018, Republicans will win on the strength of off-year Democratic base apathy, and they'll decide everything is okay after all. And it's going to be brutal, because those are the governorships we need for 2020 redistricting. Republicans will then lock up the House for another decade.

Then in 2020, Democrats will win on presidential year turnout, and ... you get the point.
Yeah, that sounds about right to me. We seem to be doomed to a never-ending cycle of boom and bust and we are just too stupid to do anything about it.  

So, all those gloaters should enjoy things while they can. The clock is already ticking on 2016 and there's only one letter difference between gloat and...goat.