Saturday, January 31, 2015

This week in birds - #143

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

Image courtesy of American Bird Conservancy.

The ethereally beautiful Cerulean Warbler is the American Bird Conservancy's Bird of the Week this week. Although brightly colored, the bird is difficult to spot because it frequents the high canopy of the forest where it can often only be detected by the sound of its buzzy song. This warbler's population has declined by about 70% over the last forty years, making it one of the most seriously threatened of North America's migrant songbirds. It breeds in the eastern and central parts of North America and winters in the forests of the Andes.


In a recent study published in Global Change Biology, scientists revealed their findings from a long-term analysis of the movements of 38 common species of North American birds, including Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Blue Jays, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. They found that the birds had moved their ranges northward approximately 7 kilometers a year or 155 kilometers (about 96 miles) from 1990 to 2011. These years include some of the warmest on record and it appears that the birds are responding to the warming climate by moving farther north. It is possible that this helps to explain, at least in part, the paucity of birds in my yard this winter until quite recently. My usual backyard birds are moving north.


President Obama this week proposed additional protections for Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that would halt oil exploration for now in the refuge's sensitive coastal plain area. The response from Alaskan politicians and from Republicans in general was predictably apoplectic.


Did you see this?

In one of the most exciting discoveries of the week, a motion-activated wildlife camera in Yosemite Park recorded the image of a Sierra Nevada red fox. It was the first sighting of this extremely rare subspecies of fox in the park in almost 100 years. The last sighting there had been in 1916. There are only 50 of the animals known to be alive in the wild, making this one of the rarest mammals in North America.


The official bird list of Myanmar now totals 1,114 species, following an extensive survey of the birds in the country from 2010 to 2014. The survey discovered 20 species that had been previously unknown to exist in Myanmar.

One of the species found in Myanmar is the seriously threatened Spoon-billed Sandpiper. A recent survey of that bird found about 155 of them in the bay area of the country, which was actually good news as the species had been predicted to be declining more precipitously.


Scientists have found a connection between the earthquakes occurring in Oklahoma and the fracking that is going on there. Whether anything will be done to address the issue is problematic at best, considering the political climate in the state. 


Atlantic Brant Geese have been in a moderate decline for several years. The main reason for the decline is believed to be centered on problems in their Arctic breeding area and are related to the changing climate there.


The second coyote captured in Manhattan this month was found in Stuyvesant Town. Both of the animals have been female. This latest one was released in the Bronx.  


Small birds face many challenges to their ability to survive in winter - finding food, shelter, maintaining body heat in the cold. But they have many tools in their survival kit and are actually well-equipped  to deal with the weather.


Conservationists and volunteers around the Yellowstone River are dealing with another massive oil pipeline spill into the river. Clean-up is made more problematic because of the extremely cold winter weather.


A rare European duck called the Smew is making a bit of a comeback, especially in areas that have been specially protected for its benefit. 


The first large-scale wind turbine to be built in New York City will help to power a recycling plant at the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal. It will provide about 4% of the power needed by the plant. 


A new paper out this month gives the most comprehensive explanation yet for the diversification of American birds such as sparrows, wood warblers, tanagers, blackbirds, cardinals, and their kin, some 800 species in total. 


Totten Glacier in Antarctica has been found to be melting from below because of the warming of the ocean around it. The gigantic glacier holds enough water to raise worldwide sea levels by six meters. It has been thinning over the last 15 years.


Around the backyard:

A huge flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds has been present in the neighborhood for the past several days. The entire flock has not descended on my yard, but several of them - perhaps 25 - visited my backyard feeders this afternoon, the harbinger of things to come perhaps. 

Much more welcome visitors have been the American Robins that are present in large numbers just now. In the late afternoon, sitting on my patio, I hear their melodious songs all around me. A very pleasant ending to my day.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Ten things I love about my man

Bethany aDandelion Pie has a blog post up about ten things that she loves about her spouse and she invited other bloggers to chime in and link up. 

Well, this seems like the kind of sappy thing that a young person newly in love might do, but what about older woman who has been with a man for forty years? Can she still find ten things she loves - or even likes - about him? That is my challenge, and,  just for the heck of it, I decided to give it a try.

Here we go - ten things that still turn me on about the hunk that I married.

  1. He makes me laugh. Mostly intentionally, sometimes unintentionally. When you've been living with someone for forty years, this may be be most important quality of all.
  2. He does my laundry. Of course, I still have to put it away - he's not perfect.
  3. He gets stuff down from the top shelf for me. I'm not as vertically challenged as some women in my family, but I'm not exactly tall either. It's nice to have a man in the house who is able to reach those top shelves and does so without complaint.
  4. He gets me wonderful gifts - often things I didn't even know I wanted. I, on the other hand, am an inept gift giver and usually wind up getting him things that he didn't know he wanted - because he didn't!
  5. He washes the dishes. That's one of the household duties that he took over after he retired and it is much appreciated. So appreciated that I got him a new dishwasher for Christmas, one of my more successful gift choices, as it happens.
  6. When I yell at him for clicking his pen or making other annoying, repetitive noises, he stops. Usually.
  7. He likes my cooking or at least pretends to, which is really the same thing, you know.
  8. He does the grocery shopping, another of those onerous household duties that he performs without grousing. Well, without much grousing.
  9. He's learned to love cats. He was not a cat person when I met him, but slowly, over the years, the steady stream of cats that have been part of our household have won him over, until, now, he is the favorite human and the preferred lap of our cat, Bella, who adores him.
  10. He's given me the two most wonderful daughters in the world and he had more to do than me, I think, with making them the outstanding human beings that they are. Really, they are both "Daddy's Girls."
Well, actually, that wasn't too hard. In fact, I'll give you one more as a bonus: He puts up with me and he makes me a better person just by being him.

Maybe it wasn't such a sappy thing to do after all. 

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Killer's Payoff by Ed McBain: A review

Killer's Payoff (An 87th Precinct Novel)Killer's Payoff by Ed McBain
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Continuing with my reading of Ed McBain's iconic 87th Precinct series, I've reached number 6 which was first published in 1958. It was the second book that featured the character of Cotton Hawes.

Hawes was introduced in the previous book because, as McBain explained in a foreword to the later edition which I read, his editor warned him that a married cop - such as Steve Carella was - could not be the hero. He needed someone who was unmarried and available to the ladies. Thus, Cotton Hawes was born.

In Killer's Payoff, McBain is obviously still working on the development of the Hawes character. He's presented as a man who falls in love - or at least in lust - with every pretty girl he meets and, immediately after falling, he's generally in bed with them. It seems to make little difference whether they are someone who is involved in a case he's investigating as a possible murder suspect or just some random waitress he meets on the road. The result is the same - a one-night stand and the next day moving on without a backward glance. So this, I guess, is what passed as "heroic" activity in the eyes of book editors in the 1950s.  A reader can only hope that in future books, Cotton Hawes might show a little more depth to his personality.

In fact, I found this book quite dated for several reasons. Many of its references would be characterized as racist and misogynistic by today's standards. Even bearing in mind the era in which they were written, reading them was not a pleasant experience. This is probably my least favorite of the books I have read so far in the series.

This time the detectives are investigating the murder of a known blackmailer named Sy Kramer. Kramer was shot with a hunting rifle on a street in Isola. The obvious suspects would seem to be the people whom Kramer was blackmailing. The problem is that he was a lone operator and nobody knows who those people were. A search of his apartment turns up no clues about their identity. His bank accounts give the detectives their first leads and Carella and Hawes pursue those leads doggedly hoping to get a break in the case.

The trail eventually leads them to a private hunting lodge in the Adirondacks and it is there that Cotton Hawes is able to develop the information that finally helps them to solve the case.

The saving grace of the book is that it, like all the others so far, was short, so it didn't involve a big investment of time, but I just couldn't get terribly interested in the plot or any of the characters involved. I really had the feeling that the author was struggling with trying to get Cotton Hawes' personality fixed, and that seemed to consume his efforts. This book did not have the sharp writing or descriptions of settings and individuals that I had come to expect from him. It was a workmanlike tale and not terrible, but just not one of McBain's best.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dear Kitten, It's stupid human time

Okay, I know it's a commercial, but it's soooo cute. And so true to cat-life. Enjoy!

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins: A review

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shades of Gone Girl and Gaslight, this is one nifty page-turner of a thriller. Paula Hawkins has used the device of the unreliable narrative and lying narrator made famous by Gillian Flynn in her fantastically successful Gone Girl and used it with great ingenuity to tight and suspenseful effect. It was a very entertaining read.

This is the story of three women - Rachel, Megan, and Anna. Each of the three shares in the narration of the story and so we see it from three different perspectives, but as we near the denouement, we begin to comprehend that none of the narratives has been entirely true. Certainly, none of the three is complete in itself.

The woman who we first meet is that "girl on the train." She is Rachel. She takes the same commuter train to London every morning, allegedly to go to her job at a public relations firm. Only slowly is it revealed that she has actually lost her job because of her drinking three months before. She continues taking her daily trip to fool her flatmate whom she doesn't want to know about the job loss.

As Rachel takes her daily trip to and from London, she rolls by a stretch of cozy suburban homes, one of which she used to live in with her husband, Tom. She was blissfully happy there until alcohol took over her life and Tom strayed into the arms of another woman, Anna. Now, he and Anna live in the house that he and Rachel once occupied and as she goes by each day, Rachel looks down on the house and remembers.

She also observes a nearby house where a young couple, whom she has named Jason and Jess but who are actually Scott and Anna, live. Rachel sees them as happy and in love, the perfect young marrieds. The truth is very much more complicated than that, as we learn when we meet Megan through her narrative.

One day as she is passing by, Rachel sees Jess (Megan) on her patio kissing another man who is not Jason (Scott) and she is shocked. Could she have been wrong about their lives?

She is even more shocked when she reads in the newspaper that the woman who lived at that address has disappeared without a trace - the day after she saw her kissing a man not her husband. Is there a connection?

While these events are happening, Rachel's life and her tentative hold on reality are unraveling completely. Her flatmate is fed up with her drinking and there is a black hole in her memory of the day that Megan disappeared. Rachel wakes the day after to find herself with unexplained injuries and unable to remember what happened, but she has a vague memory of being in the area where the woman disappeared.

Then the woman's body is found near the railroad tracks and Rachel is even more desperate to remember what happened during her blackout. She fears that she may be somehow involved in Megan's death.

Meanwhile, Anna is becoming fed up with Rachel and what she sees as her meddling in the lives of Anna, Tom, and their young daughter. She sees her as a stalker and a danger to her child.

Rachel, in an alcoholic haze, is torn about what she observed of Megan from the train and what she thinks she knows about her life and that of Scott and the unknown man on the patio. When she finally works up her courage to tell the police, they at first accept and investigate her statement but then reach the conclusion that her observations are not to be trusted because she is a drunk. She is humiliated once again.

This book has a lot of moving parts, but as we get near the end they all come together and take on the speed and force of a runaway locomotive. Paula Hawkins keeps all of the disparate lines of her complicated tale from becoming inextricably tangled and all the lies, innuendos, and threats eventually are revealed for what they are in a most satisfactory conclusion. It is a very impressive accomplishment.

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Tom Tomorrow nails it again

The attitude of the rightwingnuts, which includes much of the Republican Party, toward science and scientists is almost as disrespectful as their attitude toward our first black president and for much the same reason: THOSE PEOPLE  are just not members of the club.

Tom Tomorrow sums up their attitude toward science quite succinctly. (Hat tip to Daily Kos.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Poetry Sunday: To a Louse

It is Robert Burns' 255th birthday today so, obviously, he must be our featured poet for Poetry Sunday. 

But which of his poems will it be? There are so many from which to choose - "A Red, Red Rose," "Tam o' Shanter," "A Fond Kiss," "A Man's a Man for A' That," "To a Mouse," "Auld Lang Syne" - the list seems endless.

I must confess though that when I think of Burns' verse, the first poem that springs to mind is "To A Louse." What other poet could take such a lowly creature and derive so much meaning from its existence and drive home a philosophical lesson for us all? Namely, if only we had the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, it would free us from many a blunder and foolish notion and we would not give ourselves such airs or think so highly of ourselves. Yes, indeed, Robbie Burns was a philosopher as well as a poet.

To a Louse

On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church

by Robert Burns

Ha! whare ye gaun' ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly;
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace,
Tho faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunn'd by saunt an sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her---
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
On some poor body.

Swith! in some beggar's hauffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle;
Wi' ither kindred, jumping cattle;
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn nor bane ne'er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud you there! ye're out o' sight,
Below the fatt'rils, snug an tight,
Na, faith ye yet! ye'll no be right,
Till ye've got on it---
The vera tapmost, tow'rin height
O' Miss's bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I'd gie you sic a hearty dose o't,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surpris'd to spy
You on an auld wife's flainen toy
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On's wyliecoat;
But Miss's fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do't?

O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
An set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin!
Thae winks an finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
An ev'n devotion! 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

This week in birds - #142

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

As songbirds have returned to my feeders, the birds that prey on them have returned also. Like this Cooper's Hawk.

Actually, the Cooper's is a permanent resident so he's around all the year, but he hasn't been much in evidence recently until the past couple of weeks.

This fellow, photographed in my backyard today, kept lifting his right foot up which led me to think it might be injured, but I couldn't see any clear evidence of it.

While I was watching the bird, he made a couple of strikes, including this one when he tried to grab a House Sparrow. As far as I could see, neither of his strikes were successful. 

He continued watching from his perch in the tree for some time but finally gave up and moved on. I hope he had better luck in someone else's yard.


In other news of raptors, Peregrine Falcons, once on the road to extinction, have made a strong comeback since DDT was outlawed in this country. For example, in 2014, the 27 known breeding pairs of the birds in Virginia produced 44 chicks. Moreover, research on Peregrines' breeding success reveals that age is a determining factor in predicting that success.


The first comprehensive assessment of native vs. non-native plant distribution in the continental U.S., finds non-native plant species are much more widespread than natives, a finding the authors call very surprising. Even species with only a handful of occurrences were distributed widely.


New research presented this week investigates just how flies are able to perform their amazing acrobatics. In other words, it helps to explain how flies fly.


Bald Eagles are another raptor that continues to make a remarkable recovery from near extinction. Their range is expanding throughout the continent and last year, 200 chicks hatched in the state of New Jersey alone. 


There have been three big pipeline breaks and spills of oil into the Yellowstone River recently. Drinking water has had to be trucked in to some areas as their source of water has been polluted by dangerous chemicals.


It turns out that evolution is not necessarily a one-way street. Sometimes features that are lost in the process of evolution can reappear if they become useful once again. Such is the case in the wrists of birds that evolved from meat-eating dinosaurs.


The oceans are warming so fast that scientists' temperature charts are becoming obsolete and are having to be rescaled, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


The Pyrenees are home to continental Europe's only wild population of Bearded Vultures, a species classified as endangered in Spain. A study compiled by Spanish researchers reveals -- in a level of detail until now unseen -- the size of the home range of this bird species using satellite tracking technologies.


Count the stingless bees of Australia among the species that wage war to take over the hard-earned homes of others. They evict the resident bees and redecorate the hives to meet their own specifications.


The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland is welcoming the conviction and imprisonment of a gamekeeper for the persecution of raptors. It is the first instance there of imprisonment on such a charge.


Which is more important - tackling climate change or protecting the environment? Can we do both? How do we choose, when and if they conflict?


The mystery continues surrounding the substance that has been coating the feathers of seabirds along the California coast. Many birds have been rescued and cleaned, although not all have survived. Many others that were unable to be rescued have died. 


Venus flytraps are so popular as houseplants that they risk becoming extinct in the wild because of poachers removing them from their habitats.


Around the backyard:

The number of birds at the feeders continued to increase this week. The flocks of American Goldfinches increased exponentially. Also, the first Brown-headed Cowbirds and White-winged Doves started showing up - so not all good news.

Friday, January 23, 2015

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley: A review

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Flavia de Luce, #7)As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Prodigy chemist, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce has been banished from her beloved Buckshaw in the village of Bishop's Lacey in the English countryside and sent, for her sins, to the wilds of Canada. Toronto, to be exact.

It was thought to be time to send her to boarding school and so, most reluctantly, off she goes, across a dark and stormy North Atlantic, to become a student at Miss Bodycote's Female Academy. It is the alma mater of her late, sainted mother, Harriet, who is still revered at the school. She is to receive training in some unique subjects while a student there and perhaps to learn about a secret society called Nide.

Torn from the company of all those that she loves and forced to leave her treasured bicycle, Gladys, behind, Flavia faces the bleak prospect of making her way in a place where she knows no one and no one knows her. And though she tries to keep the proverbial stiff upper lip, she finds herself at the most inopportune times overcome by homesickness. She even misses her hated/loved sisters, Daffy and Feely.

Fortunately, there is soon plenty to distract her and occupy her mystery-loving mind. On her first night at the academy, she is awakened by another student rushing into her dorm room and accosting her. When the headmistress comes to investigate the commotion, the trespassing student climbs up inside the chimney to hide. As the headmistress and Flavia converse, suddenly, the student tumbles out of the chimney, followed by a very dead body with detached head that rolls across the floor. A dead body! Flavia could not be more excited.

Flavia soon learns that her new school, a former nunnery, is full of mysteries. There are stories of ghosts, There are three students who have disappeared without a trace in recent years. There is the chemistry teacher, famous for having been acquitted of the murder of her husband. And what really happened to the first wife of the chairman of the board?

Flavia's incorrigible curiosity leads her to try to solve all of these mysteries and to find out if they are somehow interrelated. But school rules forbid her from asking questions of other students regarding their classmates or indeed about themselves. How will Flavia ever be able to dig up the information that she needs to piece it all together? One must never underestimate the determination, ingenuity, and indefatigable spirit of Flavia de Luce!

With this seventh in the Flavia series, Alan Bradley obviously broadened her horizons and took her into new situations where she did not have the comfort of knowing that her family and friends were nearby to support her if she got into trouble. It wasn't necessarily a bad strategy, and yet, much of what I love about the series is the setting of Bishop's Lacey and the quirky characters that we've come to know there. None of those characters appeared in this book and I found that I missed them.

Unfortunately, none of the new characters that we met here were really developed beyond the cardboard cutout stage. We didn't get to know much about them or to care much about them. Moreover, there still seemed to be a lot of loose ends in the mysteries, even after Flavia's denouement speech, and I found the ending somewhat unsatisfying.

Nevertheless, in spite of those quibbles, Flavia remains a charming character and reading about her is always a pleasure - even if I found this somewhat less pleasurable than some of the earlier books.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Jar City by Arnaldur Indrioason: A review

Jar CityJar City by Arnaldur IndriĆ°ason
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Continuing with my survey of Scandinavian mystery writers, I have now encountered Arnaldur Indrioason. He writes a series set in Reykjavik, Iceland, featuring a detective of the Reykjavik police named Erlendur. Some have compared his writing and his main character to the style of Henning Mankell and his Inspector Kurt Wallander. Certainly, they are both morose characters and share some similar family history.

Erlendur has a failed marriage and two, now grown, children. He and his wife separated when the children were young and, from then on, he seems to have been mostly absent from their lives. Now his son, who has had problems, is off somewhere doing his own thing and perhaps getting his life together. His daughter, who is the younger of the two, seems to have a totally messed up life - problems with drugs, harassed by drug dealers to whom she owes money, and now pregnant. She turns up on Erlendur's doorstep and is present off and on throughout the book. Erlendur in turn worries about her and explodes in anger at her.

In fact, this seems to be a feature of his personality. He's often seen exploding in anger, usually for no good reason that I can discern. He doesn't seem very professional in his relationships with co-workers or in dealing with those whom he interviews during the investigation. Is this an Icelandic thing?

Iceland, indeed, presents a unique setting for this mystery because it is evidently a very homogenous society. It is an island, of course, and those who live there, generally speaking, can trace their Icelandic roots back many generations. Moreover, it is small enough that it feels almost like everybody is related or at least knows everybody else. The iconic six degrees of separation here might be more like three degrees.

That homogeneity is at the root of the mystery that Indrioason gives us in this first of the Erlendur series. The solution to the mystery turns out to be related to genetic diseases and the research on them conducted by Iceland's Genetic Research Centre. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a murder. A 69-year-old man is found dead in his Reykjavik basement flat. He was coshed with a heavy glass ashtray and apparently died instantly. A cryptic note proclaiming "I am HIM" is found next to the body, but its meaning is ambiguous to say the least. The only other possible clue found at the scene is a photograph of a young girl's grave and headstone. But of what significance is that?

Delving into the man's background, Erlendur and his team learn that, some forty years before, he had been accused of a brutal rape. The detective who took the complaint from the victim chose not to believe her, humiliated her, and, not surprisingly, nothing ever came of the investigation. Erlendur learns that as a result of the rape, the victim became pregnant and had a daughter - the child whose grave picture was found at the scene of the murder.

Erlendur is sure that the present murder is related to the victim's crimes of the past and as the investigators dig deeper, his suspicions are confirmed. But how to prove it and how to track down the murderer?

I had several problems with this tale. Mainly, it just never engaged my interest. I found the characters, including the main character, to be flat, cardboard figures. I didn't particularly like any of them, except perhaps the sister of that long ago rape victim. The society that was described seemed very insular, with little interest in or connection to the outside world. And I found the translation stilted and somewhat awkward to read. The story concept was an interesting one, but I just didn't feel its execution lived up to its promise.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's S.A.D.!

Yes, it is S.A.D., but that doesn't mean what you think it means. 

No, what it is is Squirrel Appreciation Day!  That's right - the bushy-tailed ones now have a day all of their own on which we can pay tribute and give them all the glory that is due them.

Now, how did I ever fail to notice such an important event?

Lucky me, I have two species of squirrels in my yard to appreciate.

There's the fox squirrel with its reddish brown fur. It is the largest of the native tree squirrels in North America and is resident throughout most of the eastern United States and ranges as far west as Colorado.

Then there is the smaller and somewhat cuter gray squirrel. with its eponymous gray fur and a white or very light gray belly. Both types are squirrels are very agile, but the gray squirrel is almost unbelievably so. I have seen them perform leaps and contortions that I would scarcely have thought possible. They are the ones that give fits to people who feed birds in their yards because of their ability to defeat "squirrel-proof" feeders. It is possible to exclude them with baffles though. I've done so with my feeders and the squirrels content themselves with feeding on the ground or visiting their own designated feeder.

Yes, I know some people consider them pests and when introduced into areas of the world where they are not native, they can become invasive species and create difficulties for native wildlife. But in my yard, they are in their native element and they fit in with the other wildlife residing here. Moreover, they provide endless entertainment for wildlife watchers like myself. I do appreciate squirrels - today and every day. 

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Overwintering Rufous Hummingbird

For the past few years, we've been fortunate enough to have Rufous Hummingbirds spending the winter in our garden. They're here again this winter. There are three of them that spend time in and around our yard. One of them was patient enough to pose for pictures.

Wonderful little birds! I'm so glad they choose to spend their winters with us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The freedom of speech conundrum

Freedom of speech is an idea that is bred in my bones. It is one of my most, if not my most, firmly held beliefs.

I even believe in the right of idiots like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Bill Maher, and Sean Hannity, to name just five, to spew their uninformed, bigoted hate speech into the world - and, most importantly, I believe in my right to call them idiots and to describe their discourse as uninformed and bigoted.

But are there limits to the right to free speech? It's something that thoughtful people struggle with. Even the pope has weighed in on it following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

What if your "free speech" is such that it incites others to violence or is an affront to public safety like yelling "fire" in a crowded theater? And what about free speech that is deliberately intended to insult and provoke others? When people are hurt or killed by those who have been provoked by the free speech, what is the responsibility of the "free speaker"?

These are not easy questions. Governments and individuals must answer them in their own way, of course, but I was especially struck by the irony of the protest march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings - you know, the one that was "led" by politicians from around the world.

So, we have the representative from Saudi Arabia marching arm in arm with other leaders - Saudi Arabia, where in that same week, they were publicly flogging a blogger because of what he had written and they will continue to flog him weekly until he has received 1000 lashes.

And, of course, there was Egypt which continues to hold journalists in prison because they have dared to report the truth from that country.

And in France itself, in the week after the terrorism incident, fifty-four people were arrested for exercising their right to free speech by defending the terrorists or practicing what France describes as "hate speech." And yet, what Charlie Hebdo practices is not considered "hate speech"? Is is perhaps the case that it is only "hate speech" if you disagree with it?

All of this just makes my head hurt to think of it. I don't have a quick and easy answer for it. I know my standards and the limits that I put on myself, and I have opinions as to when others cross the line, and I really wish they wouldn't. Still, I would not wish to restrain them.

In this, as in so many things, I find myself "in the minority" and I appreciate Jen Sorensen's wonderful cartoon that sums up my sentiments quite nicely. (Hat tip to Daily Kos.)

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: A review

I don't get it. I was looking at a site on Facebook called Reading Addicts and there was a poll that showed a list of writers that had been great influences on the members. Number one on the list was J.K. Rowling. Okay, she's not the writer that I would rate number one as my influence but she's a great writer, so I'll give them that. But number two on the list was Paulo Coehlo and the book that he wrote that had so greatly influenced these people? The Alchemist! 

Now, for years I have been hearing about what a great book this is and the universal truths that it proclaims, so in 2011, I decided to read it and see what all the shouting was about. I read it, and I'm still wondering. In my estimation, the book was nothing but dreck. What am I missing? Did you read and love this book? What was it that you loved about it? Please explain it to me.

I wrote a review of the book for Goodreads when I read it in May 2011. Here is that review.


The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Just a few pages into this book, I thought, "Aha!  The Celestine Prophecy all over again!"  In other words, a bunch of pretentious claptrap masquerading as a path to spiritual enlightenment.  My second thought was, "Why am I reading this?"

Well, it was curiosity really.  I kept seeing references to the book, many of them reverential, and I wanted to see what all the clamor was about. Now that I have slogged my way through the book (at least it was short) I understand its popularity even less.

Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd, has a Dream which he interprets as a Vision of his Personal Legend in which he will contact the Soul of the World.  (One of the most annoying things about the book is its capricious capitalization of words.)  Anyway, this "boy" as he is referred to throughout the book sells his sheep and heads out on a quest to find a treasure buried near the pyramids in Egypt. In his travels, he meets several enigmatic characters who seem to know what he is about and who help him on his way.  The last one that he meets is the alchemist who accompanies him on the last leg of his trip as he approaches the pyramids.

I realize that I read the book in translation and perhaps one should be careful of judging a book too harshly when that is the case, but this book is written in an extraordinarily simplistic "See Dick.  See Jane.  See Spot." style.  Short sentences.  Short words.  Parables right out of the Bible.  Truly, if I want to read those parables, why would I not go to the source?

I am afraid my Spirit remains Unenlightened.   

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Sunday, January 18, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Winter Trees

Winter Trees

by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.


I love the image of the "wise trees that stand sleeping in the cold" after "having prepared their buds against a sure winter." The deciduous trees in my garden stand bare now, but very soon they will be attiring themselves again, for spring is coming!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

This week in birds - #141

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


For the last two days, I have begun seeing birds in my yard once again and even at my feeders. 

Well, the Carolina Chickadees never really left. They have been my most faithful visitors throughout the Great Absence.

But now they are joined by Tufted Titmice. ( He wouldn't turn around to give me a shot of his face.)

Downy Woodpeckers. The Red-bellied Woodpeckers, like the chickadees, never really left, but the downies haven't really been around lately.

The Boss of the Backyard, the Northern Mockingbird.

Pine Warblers. Their cousin, the Orange-crowned Warbler, has been a faithful visitor all along, and the Yellow-rumped Warblers are everywhere in the trees and shrubbery but they haven't started coming to the feeders yet.

The American Goldfinches have been feeding on the crape myrtle seeds - a very good reason not to be hasty about pruning your crapes.

But now the goldfinches are visiting the feeders as well.

Even my beloved Chipping Sparrows are back. A small flock of 10-15 birds can be seen foraging in the garden.

And now chippies are visiting the feeders, too.

And most hearteningly, a pair of Northern Cardinals have been visiting the shrubbery around the garden. I haven't seen them at the feeders yet, but I'm just glad they are around.

The female cardinal keeps an eye on things from a tangle of vines. Is it my imagination or are these cardinals particularly bright in color? Maybe I've just missed them so much that they now appear brighter to me!

The big news from the environment this week was the announcement that 2014 was the hottest year on Earth since humans have been keeping records. Although the eastern part of the United States had a somewhat cooler than usual year, the rest of the world, including the western United States and especially Alaska, was baking for the entire year. Records were set throughout large areas of every inhabited continent and the ocean's surface was unusually warm everywhere except around Antarctica. None of these facts will make any impact on the thinking of Sen. James Inhofe and others of his ilk, of course. 


Mexican wolves, the smallest and rarest of North American wolves will finally receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week.


Bar-headed Geese are famous as the birds that migrate over the highest mountains on Earth, the Himalayas, where the oxygen is very thin. A new study shows how they are able to perform that amazing feat.


Plants are responding to the warmer temperatures on the planet by blooming earlier and earlier. A survey in England and Ireland in early January showed that an unprecedented 15 percent of wild plants were already in bloom.


Coastal developments in northeast Asia are threatening the survival of migratory shorebirds that fly between Asia and Australia. A new study reveals that some species are experiencing declines of up to 75 percent over the last two decades.


One can see some pretty outrageous stories about gigantic squid in the oceans of the world, but how big are the biggest squid, really? 


Le Conte's Sparrows and Rustic Buntings, two rare (for the area) members of the sparrow family are making birders in the Bay Area of California happy with their visits this winter.


Another part of the "Sizing Ocean Giants Project" that is putting a virtual measuring tape to giant squid is the effort to find the biggest snail in the world. You can read all about it at Deep Sea News.


We are learning that, in order to help the Monarch and other native milkweed butterflies, we need to be planting native milkweeds rather than the tropical varieties. Finding sources of the plants can be a problem, but here is information about milkweeds native to California


Brown Creepers are fascinating little birds, but they are easy to overlook in the wild. I've only ever seen one in my yard, even though I know they are in the area.


Another interesting species is the Hoopoe, which has the unique practice of painting its eggs with a secretion from its body. The secretion contains bacteria that apparently protect the eggs and increase the chance that they will hatch successfully. Clever little Hoopoe!


The emerald ash borer, a invasive pest from Asia that has destroyed millions of ash trees in the U.S. and Canada, has moved on from the ash and is now attacking white fringetrees


Coyotes are survivors of the Ice Age. The extinction of such larger carnivores as dire wolves and saber-toothed cats left the field more open to them. They adapted and survived. They are still adapting. Ask any city-dweller in the U.S. 


Around the backyard:

I leave you with this picture, taken this morning in my backyard. It gladdens my heart!

American Goldfinches and Chipping Sparrows feeding peacefully together.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson: A review

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pete Snow is a walking contradiction. As a social worker for the Department of Family Services in Montana, he spends his working hours trying to rescue troubled and often neglected or abused children. He is preternaturally kind, patient, helpful, and non-judgmental. But off the job, we see that Pete is no stronger than the people he is charged with helping. Perhaps he has such empathy for them because he is just like them. He is an alcoholic, a failed husband and father. He is estranged from his own father and brother. He is, in short, a mess. Anguish seems to be his natural default emotion.

We meet Pete in a family scene where a young girl is nearly drowned by her drunk father. It turns out that the father is Pete. His unfortunate daughter, Rachel, lives in a household with two dysfunctional, alcoholic parents. She really needs a social worker to save her. But she is not so fortunate. Eventually, the parents separate and she lives with her mother. Pete becomes just an occasional visitor to her life. It should really be a surprise to no one when, as a young teenager, she runs away from home and begins a life on the streets.

Much of the book, in fact, deals with Pete's desperate efforts to find and retrieve his runaway daughter. While most of the narrative is told through Pete's perspective, interspersed throughout are sections told in Q. and A. conversation format with Rachel. We see her doing whatever she needs to do to survive on her own.

All of this, though, is just a subplot that helps us to better understand the wounded psyche of Pete Snow. The main action of the book deals with Pete on the job as he struggles against seemingly insurmountable odds to save three children: a sullen teenager named Cecil, his sweet little sister Katie, and Benjamin Pearl, the son of a backwoods conspiracy theorist, paranoid survivalist named Jeremiah Pearl.

In trying to help the kids, Pete makes mistake after mistake and often despairs that he will ever be able to get them out of the awful, soul-wrenching situations in which they live. Eventually, he does have some success with Katie, the little girl with whom he has bonded and in whom he sees perhaps a reflection of his own lost daughter. Her brother, Cecil, is a much harder nut to crack.

Cecil sabotages every move Pete makes to try to help him until he, too, runs away and winds up on the street, where, remarkably enough, he does find a true friend. Soon enough though, he runs afoul of the law and winds up in a nightmare juvenile facility from which Pete works to extract him.

Meanwhile, a dirty, scruffy, almost feral boy wanders into town and into the school. Pete is called to deal with the boy. This is his introduction to Benjamin Pearl, the case that will consume his time throughout the remainder of the book. Through Benjamin, he meets Jeremiah, who is immersed in end-times ideology. He has a hoard of gold that he will exchange for buffalo-head nickels so that he can deface them with anti-government and anti-Semitic imagery. These mutilated nickels have become very popular in the anarchistic backwoods of Montana where they are collector's items.

Curiously, and against all odds, a bond develops between Jeremiah and Pete. Perhaps Pete sees a bit of himself in the man, since he, too, feels that he has ruined everything in his life.

It seems incredible that this is Smith Henderson's first novel. It is packed with eloquent, evocative prose that describes in exquisite detail the grim, hardscrabble lives of its characters. Those characters themselves are unforgettable. They are beset with every form of human frailty and yet they have a dignity that is hard to deny. At some point in the book there is a line about how "all of life can be understood as casework." As someone who spent all of her working life in the field of social work, I found myself nodding at that sentiment.

Finally, Henderson's writing reminded me of the work of another writer. I pondered about who it was and finally it came to me - Richard Ford. He has the same kind of eloquence with a rather spare style. I was particularly reminded of Ford's Canada. That's pretty good company, I think, and this gripping story stands up well in comparison.        

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - January 2015

Happy January to all my Bloom Day visitors. Do you have color and blooms where you are? Here in my zone 9a garden in Southeast Texas things are looking pretty bleak these days.

Just over a week ago, on January 7, I showed you some of my blooms that were still going. That night we did finally have our first experience this season of below freezing temperatures with frost and that put an end to most of those blooms. It has continued to be chilly and rather dreary since then, although the temperatures haven't dipped quite that low again.

Still, even now, I do have a few blooms to show you.

The violas, planted for their winter color and just because I love them so, continue to bloom, of course.

As do the cyclamen.

The ornamental cabbage "blooms" in a pot with heuchera, foxtail fern and pansies.

Somewhat surprisingly, some of the Copper Canyon daisy blossoms survived the frost.

As did some of the nearby 'Mystic Spires' salvia. 

Even more surprisingly, even though much of the Cape honeysuckle was bitten by the frost, several of its blossoms also survive and our overwintering Rufous Hummingbirds are very grateful.

The prairie coneflowers also were not daunted by the frost.

And this poinsettia, most definitely a tropical plant, was on my little entry patio during the coldest weather and did not have any protection, other than the fact that it was positioned against the bricks of the house which probably provided some warmth, and it's still blooming!

The Fatsia japonica (Japanese aralia) which first put up its unassuming and quite inconspicuous bloom in early December is still flowering.

Elsewhere, buds on the Carolina jessamine...

...and on the camellias give the promise that there will soon be more blossoms in the garden. (This camellia lives under a magnolia tree where songbirds roost at night among its leathery leaves. Their droppings sometimes "speckle" the camellia leaves below.)

Of course, my bottle tree is always in bloom!
Thank you for stopping by this month and thank you Carol of May Dreams Gardens for again being the hostess of this monthly party.