Saturday, February 28, 2015

This week in birds - #147

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

The bird of the Week as designated by the American Bird Conservancy is the beautiful Evening Grosbeak. This bird wanders widely in winter. One of the most memorable winters of my life was that of 1977-78 when a massive irruption of the birds occurred and they descended by the hundreds into our yard in the little East Texas town where we lived at the time, covering our trees and shrubs and emptying our bird feeder. They arrived just before Christmas and stayed until spring. It was truly one of the most amazing events I've ever witnessed in birding. Sadly, the Evening Grosbeak has declined throughout its range over the last twenty years and was listed on the State of the Birds Watch List in 2014 for the first time. It would be sad beyond words to lose such a wonderful bird.


One of the most hopeful environmental stories I've read this week is this one about two boys who grew up on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain in Europe and both of whom loved birds and other wildlife. They later teamed up to help make the former path of the Iron Curtain a green belt.


It has long been known that there are natural oscillations in climate cycles and scientists say that these can either enhance or ameliorate the effects of human-caused changes in the climate. There are indications that these oscillations may intensify warming of the climate in coming years.


In other climate news, it was revealed this week that a prominent climate change denier, Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, received $1.2 million from fossil fuel companies for writing scientific papers questioning climate change.


The American Bird Conservancy is requesting that wind projects be required to obtain permits under the provisions of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to ensure that such projects are made as safe for birds as they can be.


"Bug Eric" gives us a nice portrait of green-eyed wasps, a very interesting insect.


I had completely missed the fact that this was National Invasive Species Awareness Week, but you can read all about it at their website.


The chickadee family, in general, includes some amazingly adept little birds, but researchers have found that Mountain Chickadees from higher elevations are faster problem solvers than those from lower elevations. Perhaps it is a survival requirement.


I find that, in my garden, several pepper plants are favorites of birds. "10,000 Birds" writes about Brazilian peppers in Florida and the birds that love them.


Birds are dinosaurs. That has been pretty definitively established. But when did dinosaurs become birds? To put it more succinctly, when did dinosaurs learn to fly?


The Snowy Owl echo irruption, following the big invasion that occurred last winter, continues in the East.  


Downtown Sacramento is hosting a massive roost of crows this winter.


Another critically endangered plant with brilliant purple flowers has been discovered in Hawaii. It is sad that so many of the species of plants and animals endemic to the islands are already on the brink of extinction when they are discovered.


Southeast Brazil, including Sao Paulo, is enduring a crippling drought. Lack of water is a crisis that is being faced in many parts of the world and is expected to become even more widespread in coming years.


Around the backyard:

The Carolina Chickadees are busy building their nest in this bluebird box outside my kitchen window. If the chickadees are at it, other birds won't be far behind. Spring is coming.

I hope the birds in your yard are providing entertainment on these often gray wintry days and that you are taking the time to enjoy them. Happy birding! 

And, most importantly, live long and prosper.

Friday, February 27, 2015

I Am the Only Running Footman by Martha Grimes: A review

I Am the Only Running FootmanI Am the Only Running Footman by Martha Grimes
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Having just finished Middlemarch, I felt the need for a short, light, quick read to give myself a change of pace. Well, Martha Grimes' Richard Jury mysteries usually fill that bill and I've been slowly reading my way through them, so I decided to pick up the next one in the series, I Am the Only Running Footman. It was indeed a quick read, but that's just about the only praise I can give it.

What was the woman thinking? Her writing is usually pretty crisp and flows smoothly, but this book, published in 1986, was confused and disjointed in its plotting. I had a hard time maintaining interest and it was a struggle  just to finish it. If it hadn't been so short, perhaps I wouldn't have. Really, the book had the feeling of having been cobbled together with leftover ideas from other plots and they didn't hang together very well at all.

This book again features Macalvie, the obsessive but brilliant policeman who was introduced in the last book. He's an attractive character, but I don't know why Grimes stuck him in this story because she barely used him.

The same might be said of Melrose Plant, Superintendent Richard Jury's friend from the provinces who frequently assists the police with their inquiries. He's present but hardly heard from.

We do hear quite a lot from Sgt. Wiggins who, in spite of his annoying hypochondria, is presented as an invaluable assistant to Jury and an empathetic interviewer for crime victims and their families.

The mystery here involves the murder of two women. The first one was killed on Macalvie's patch and he was unable to solve the crime which rankles him. Almost a year later, another young woman is killed in a similar manner in Mayfair and Jury is assigned to that case. Soon the two cases are melded and Jury starts looking for connections between the two victims.

He eventually finds a possible link to a very close-knit family, a member of whom had been involved romantically with the Mayfair victim. That person has an alibi, though it seems a bit flimsy. But what could be the motive? The key to the mystery lies in the family's tragic past, but will Jury ever be able to make the connections?

On the list of things that annoyed me about this book, number one is the abrupt ending. Jury finally has one of his patented epiphanies and supposedly figures the whole thing out, but I read the ending twice and I'm still not sure what happened or which of two characters was the perpetrator. Moreover, I did not see any real clues sprinkled throughout the narrative and that's just not playing fair. Oh, for the days, when Hercule Poirot gathered everyone together in the library and laid it all out for us, step by step, leaving no confusion.

I won't give up on this series. Yet. I do like the characters of Jury and Wiggins, and especially Cyril the cat who inhabits the offices of Jury's superior, to his enormous irritation. But I'm going to take a break from it for awhile and I certainly hope Grimes picks up her game with the next entry.     

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Know Nothings redux

In the mid-19th century, the United States was home to something called the Know Nothing movement. It was a political movement that was anti-intellectual, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant. Its aim was to "purify" American politics. Its adherents ignored history and inconvenient facts which did not support their beliefs.

It seems that now, in the early 21st century, we are seeing a revival of that movement. Science and education are under attack in our society by the followers of this philosophy. From climate science and evolution theory through acceptance of hard-won medical technology or even basic hygiene like having your waiter wash his hands before he serves your food, know-nothingness is on the march and it apparently will not be satisfied with anything less than returning us to the Dark Ages.

It's not just science that is under attack; it is the whole concept of the scientific method of testing hypotheses with experimentation and unbiased observation. The Know Nothings know what they know because it feels right to them and they don't need any of the stinking facts developed by your scientific method. Any facts that do not support their intuitively felt conclusions are jettisoned.

Tom the Dancing Bug reminds us that the Know Nothings have a lineage. Galileo and Copernicus had to contend with them, just as Michael Mann and Neil deGrasse Tyson do today. He shows us the effect of the modern Know Nothings in nine frames.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Wildflower Wednesday - February 2015

Today I am linking up with Gail Eichelberger's "Clay and Limestone" which is celebrating its fifth anniversary of the regular feature, Wildflower Wednesday. Congratulations to Gail.


I'm featuring a wildflower that is a pernicious weed in my garden, pushing its way into just about every one of my beds sooner or later. While I pull many of them out, I do continue to tolerate the weed because at this time of year, it features one of the few points of color in my garden.

Oxalis violacea, or violet wood sorrel, is such a delicate looking plant, you'd never suspect it of thuggish behavior, but any gardener who has ever tried to completely eradicate has learned that it is indomitable!
This member of the wood sorrel family is a low, delicate, somewhat succulent, smooth perennial. The plants spread from underground runners and will form small colonies quick as a blink of the eye. The flowers form in clusters at the tip of long, leafless stalks that rise above the leaves. They close up at night and often during cloudy days as well.

The plants will bloom twice a year, first in early spring and again in fall. This year they are blooming in February, possibly because we have had such a mild winter here. After the plants bloom in spring, they become very inconspicuous, another reason why it is possible to tolerate them.

Violet wood sorrel was historically used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. A mild tea brewed correctly from the leaves is said to be beneficial to the blood and a cold leaf tea can be used to control vomiting. The leaves of the plant have an agreeable sour taste when chewed but care must be taken because large amounts of the leaves can cause violent convulsions due to the presence of poisonous oxalic acid.

There are also cultivated varieties of this plant, particularly a pretty purple-leafed one, Oxalis triangularis, which I grow extensively in my garden. On purpose.   

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot: A review

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial LifeMiddlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot has been proclaimed by more than one writer as the greatest novel in the English language. Virginia Woolf, in her assessment, called it "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Who am I to disagree?

The book marked another glaring gap in my literary education and so I resolved to fill that gap in 2015. There were times during its reading that I thought it might take me the entire year to fulfill my resolution. At more than 800 very wordy pages, it requires a commitment of time and attention.

I had somehow expected the novel to be difficult to get into, as 19th century literature sometimes is, but I was surprised to find that the narrative captured me almost from the first sentence and I was eager to learn just how the story would reveal itself.

Middlemarch is most definitely not a quick and easy read though. Written for a 19th century audience that expected very detailed descriptions and explanations of backgrounds for the characters and plots of the novels they read, George Eliot, I am sure, fully met those expectations with this epic tale.

The action of the novel takes place during 1830-32 in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch in England. It was written more than thirty years after that time and so the author was able to write it as one looking back upon events with the perspective of history. 

There is an almost bewildering number of characters. The reader sometimes feels that she is making the acquaintance of every single soul in the town, but, in fact, the action focuses on three main characters and it is through them that everything else is revealed.

The central character is Dorothea Brooke, a well-to-do young woman who has been brought up, with her sister Celia, by their uncle Mr. Brooke, who is himself a bit of a comical character. Dorothea is intelligent and highly idealistic and she longs to lead a life of the mind. Her uncle expects her to marry their wealthy, well-respected neighbor, Sir James Chettam, but Dorothea chooses instead an intellectual, a dry pedantic scholar named Edward Casaubon who is several decades older than she. He is not in robust health and the thoroughly predictable happens. He dies some eighteen months after the marriage, leaving Dorothea even more wealthy. But before he dies, he writes a codicil to his will, that states that if Dorothea should marry his young cousin, Will Ladislaw, she will forfeit the estate.

Dorothea had first met Ladislaw on her honeymoon in Italy and there was an instant connection between them, as they talked and found they had many interests in common. Casaubon, a very jealous man, was determined to stop that relationship from developing any further.

Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, who was an idealistic young doctor who had modern ideas about reform of the medical profession, had arrived in Middlemarch and was trying to set up a practice and make his way there. Lydgate gets to know the town's financier, Mr. Bulstrode, whom, we slowly learn, has a checkered and secret past. 

Bulstrode had married into the Vincy family and had a niece, Rosamund Vincy, who was the daughter of the mayor and was considered the town's great beauty. Lydgate was captivated by her appearance, giving scarcely a thought to her character (which was hopelessly shallow and self-centered) and he determined to marry her.

Rosamund had a brother, Fred, who is the third major character through whose eyes we see the "provincial life" revealed. He is university-educated, restless, and irresponsible, supposedly destined for the church (by his family) and thoroughly unhappy about that prospect. He has long - since childhood, in fact - been in love with Mary Garth, daughter of an estate manager and considered by his family to be far beneath him socially and not a suitable wife. Mary returns his feelings but tells him that she will never accept him if he goes into the church - because she knows that he would be miserable in that profession.

As we get to know these characters and all their associations with others in the town, we also get a sense of the issues of the day. We learn something, for example, of the Great Reform Bill that was hotly debated at the time and of the construction of a new mode of transportation, the railways. We also see, through Lydgate and his associations, something of the state of medical science at that time. As the community faces many changes related to these issues, we encounter the deeply reactionary mindset of the settled community, a mindset that is the living definition of "provincial."

It is remarkable that for almost 150 years, Middlemarch has been able to retain its status as one of the masterpieces of English fiction. This is true in spite of some of the quibbles expressed by some reviewers and readers about the ultimate destiny of some of the characters, especially Dorothea, whom the reader comes to identify with so thoroughly and to have such high hopes for. In the end, she subordinates her life and desires to those of the man she loves, Ladislaw. But even though she did not, perhaps, make her own distinctive mark in the world, George Eliot speaks in her final paragraph of her hidden influence:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Many of us would be happy with such an epitaph.             

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Stop the press! Cats love boxes!

It's a cold, drizzly, gray Monday in February and we need something to lighten our mood. What better than a cat video? Specifically a cat video showing two kittens confirming the well-known feline relationship with empty boxes. That's all it takes to entertain them. And us. Happy Monday!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Detroit, Tomorrow

Philip Levine, a much-honored American poet, died last week at age 87. Mr. Levine had won just about every award it is possible for a poet to win in his long career and he had capped all that with a stint as our Poet Laureate in 2011-12.

Much has been written since his death about how he made poetry of the everyday event's of ordinary people's lives. He wrote about the work that they did, often hard and dirty labor. In their obituary for him, The New York Times wrote that his poetry "was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor."

Levine knew first-hand about that work. He had held many of those jobs himself in his early years. He was born in Detroit and the lives of the laboring masses who made Detroit a great city were often the theme of his writing. Here is one of those poems.

Detroit, Tomorrow

Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,   
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,   
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.

She stands by the window up there on floor   
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm   
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.

Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,   
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged

into the next by the force of her will   
until she thought this simply cannot be.   
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,   
the two black windows staring back at her,

wondering how she’ll go back to work today.   
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,   
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;   
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces   
moving her head from side to side, like this,   
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,   
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what   
you say because all the words are useless:   
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words   
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon   
you and I will see her just before four   
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make   
her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,   
the one with the front windows newspapered,   
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday   
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

This week in birds - # 146

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

One of my resident Red-shouldered Hawks. This bird and its partner nested just southwest of my backyard and almost within sight of my yard last year and they seem to be ready to nest in the same area again this year. Both of them are very active, vocal, and visible over my yard every day.


It seems that all we hear about in regard to the weather these days is how cold it is in the East and how Boston is buried in several feet of snow. They are enduring a miserable winter, but the truth is that there have been more records for high temperatures than for low temperatures set in the U.S. in the first two months of 2015. Moreover, it has been a bad winter for snow in the west (meaning too little, not too much) and the snowpack in the Olympia Mountains is at a record low. Authorities are worried that this may lead to water shortages in the area's future.


Three new national monuments were designated by the president this week. They include a World War II internment camp in Hawaii, an industrial district in Chicago that is steeped in labor history, and a popular canyon in Colorado. All three will be protected as important historical and/or recreational sites.


Solar energy generating sites continue to be problematic for birds. Testing a new such project in Nevada, the 110 megawatt Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, resulted in death and injury to scores of birds. The project's managers say that the problem has now been corrected.

Meanwhile, a wind energy project, also in Nevada, caused the death of a second Golden Eagle. While these projects offer hope for controlling and decreasing pollution from greenhouse gases, it is important that they be built in a way that is not hazardous to the wildlife with which they share space.


Eotourism has been a boost to the economy of many places, including Texas. One of the latest areas to experience such a boost has been Lake County, Illinois, where birders are flocking to view wintering gulls, including some rare ones.


Australian birds are definitely feeling the heat from global climate change and scientists there are attempting to track and study how well the birds are adapting.


Image of Luna Moth courtesy of National Geographic.

The Luna Moth is certainly one of the most beautiful and recognizable in the moth family, but what's up with that long, long tail? Scientists have studied and speculated about it. Perhaps the most plausible theory is that it is a defense mechanism. A predator can make a grab at the moth and possibly tear off a bit of those long appendages and the moth can still live to fly another day. 


American Avocets are among the loveliest of our shorebirds. I photographed these at Rockport, Texas last March.

The avocet is one of the most iconic birds of the Intermountain West and it is very dependent upon the wetlands of that whole area for its survival. It is thought that more than half of the continent's population of avocets breeds there.


European Robins that live in urban areas sing at night. This is not true of others of the species. Of course, scientists wonder why, and scientists at Glasgow University have designed a study to try to figure it out.


In sheer numbers, the tiny six-legged, shrimp-like springtails dominate the planet. There are some 10,000 per square meter of soil, typically, but this number can rise as high as 200,000. There are 6,000 species of these arthropods and they inhabit virtually every habitat on Earth.


Cooper's Hawks prey on songbirds and this makes them very unpopular with some people. My attitude toward them is more laissez faire, although I didn't always feel that way. I've come to acknowledge that Cooper's and their cousin, Sharp-shinned Hawks, are backyard birds, too, and they have to hunt to survive.

"My" backyard Cooper's Hawk.


A bacterium that flourishes on hydrilla, an invasive aquatic plant, is killing Bald Eagles and American Coots and other birds that live in or around the waters of Chesapeake Bay.


If it is winter, it is time for many raptors to begin their breeding season. Among them are the Great Horned Owls for whom February is the prime month for nesting and raising their young.


The relatively mild winter in the West has led to the grizzly bears in Yellowstone leaving their winter dens early. The first confirmed report of grizzly bear activity occurred on February 9 when one was observed scavenging a bison carcass in the park.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rudy Giuliani is an idiot and he doesn't love America

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country.”   - Rudy Giuliani speaking at a political fund-raiser this week.

Rudy "Noun/Verb 9/11" Giuliani is off his leash again and making the same kind of stupid remarks that we've come to expect from him. 

So here he is again making the point of all dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers that Barack Obama is "different" from "us." He wasn't brought up the same way we were. Giuliani later doubled down on these remarks and defended them to The New York Times, saying that they couldn't possibly be racist because, after all, Obama was raised by white people. 

His mother was white. His maternal grandparents, who were responsible for much of his raising, were white. They were Kansans from the heart of America, the "real America" in conservative theology. His grandfather served in the U.S. Army, joining after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was deployed to Europe during World War II where he rose to the rank of sergeant. So, obviously, these were radical and unpatriotic people who would have raised their son and grandson to hate America - very different from my parents and yours.

(Incidentally, if you care to, you can read about Giuliani's family history here, where you will see that his father spent time as an inmate in Sing Sing Prison on a robbery conviction and that the father and his five brothers found ways to avoid military service in World War II.)

I would agree with Rudy Giuliani on one point. Barack Obama was evidently not brought up as Rudy was if we are to judge his raising by the twisted, narrow-minded, egotistical person he has become. Obama was brought up to have a more balanced and open-minded view of the world and of people. He is not given to knee-jerk reactions. He measures his words and his actions carefully before sending them into the world.

Paul Krugman addresses this latest Giuliani-engendered kerfuffle in his blog today, where he writes about what he calls Obama's "chastened exceptionalism," and he makes the point that it isn't, as Jamelle Bouie had written in Slate, a "black thing." He writes that "there are many Americans who love their country in pretty much the way the president does - seeing it as special, often an enormous force for good in the world, but also fallible and with some stains on its record. I'm one of them. So you don't have to be black to see things that way." To which I can only add, "Amen!"

Krugman also quotes one of his heroes, Ulysses S. Grant, about one particular American war, the Mexican-American War. Grant called it "the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation." No doubt chickenhawk Rudy Giuliani would say that Grant didn't love America and was not brought up through love of country as you and I were.

You have to wonder when our media will stop giving space to Rudy Giuliani. He's long past his sell-by date. Another of his brilliant statements this week was that President Obama "didn't live through 9/11, I did." Of course, you knew that he would find a way to bring 9/11 into it sooner or later. Apparently he's under the impression that unless you were in New York on 9/11/01, you didn't live through it; you didn't experience it. There are millions of us who know better.

One can only hope that there will come a time when the false belligerency of the "9/11 patriots" will take its place in the dustbin of history and this country can move on without these periodic screeds. Krugman thinks it may be happening. He sees a change in the attitude of the country:

Maybe it’s just that we are becoming, despite everything, a more sophisticated country, a place where many people do understand that you can be a patriot without always shouting “USA! USA!” — maybe even a country where people are starting to realize that the shouters are often less patriotic than the people they’re trying to shout down.
All of this doesn’t change the fact that we really are an exceptional country — a country that has played a special role in the world, that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity’s highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism — which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image. 

Make it so - the sooner the better. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

How to kill a legend

Both of my daughters worked at bookstores after high school and before they got on with the rest of their lives. Both used to love telling stories about confused patrons who mixed up the titles of the books they were trying to purchase. The classic, of course, is the student who was looking for How to Kill a Mockingbird. Probably everyone who has ever worked in a bookstore can tell similar stories.

To Kill a Mockingbird is such a beloved book and is so much a part of our national identity, how we see ourselves - we all strive to be Atticus - that it is no wonder that the recent announcement that a sequel would be published later this year caused such a stir. Perhaps it could have even been predicted that the initial excitement would give way to second thoughts and questioning.

After all, for more than fifty years, Harper Lee had declined to publish another book. There had been rumors that there was such a book that was written around the same time as Mockingbird but there was never any indication that she wished to have it published. Quite the opposite in fact. 

But last year, Fate took a hand in events. Ms. Lee's older sister died and apparently in the process of handling her estate, the lawyer for both the sisters discovered the manuscript of a book called Go Set a Watchman. It featured familiar characters from To Kill a Mockingbird but was set several years in the future when Scout Finch was grown up. And after half a century, Harper Lee was persuaded to publish once again.

Soon after the big announcement, all the naysayers began to weigh in. They speculated that Ms. Lee had been pressured into agreeing to be published, that at age 88 she was perhaps not capable of making such a decision. In an attempt to quash the speculation, she released a statement that she was happy and excited about publication, but, of course, that just caused the conspiracy theorists to say that she was probably being pressured to make that statement! 

Those on Ms. Lee's team - her agent and lawyer and others - are learning, if they didn't already know, that there's no way to win in such a controversy. There will always be those like "Tom the Dancing Bug" who will question their motives.

I don't know the truth, of course. I can only hope, as I'm sure all Harper Lee's fans do, that this book is good and is a worthy successor to To Kill a Mockingbird. And I hope that Ms. Lee is fully aware and involved in plans for its publication and that she is looking forward to that event with delight. After all the pleasure she has given so many readers, she deserves to have the pleasure of seeing this book embraced by those readers and becoming another humongous literary phenomenon. It would be a shame indeed if it cast a shadow on a legend.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Red-eared slider turtles

Well, no, I don't actually have red-eared slider turtles in my backyard, but they are one of the most common semiaquatic turtles in this area. They are also popular as pets because of their ease of care, and they are reportedly the most commonly traded species of turtle in the world.

When we visited Brazos Bend State Park last Saturday, red-eared sliders were everywhere in and around the lake where we walked a trail. The sun was shining brilliantly and the turtles of all sizes, from tiny babies to old grandfathers, were taking full advantage of it.

Turtles are reptiles, after all, and the sun helps to warm them and help them to get active. 

This one had decided to go for a swim. You can see why he's called "red-eared."

These turtles are excellent swimmers. This one gives us a good look at the interesting pattern on his carapace and head. The carapace can actually vary in color and in pattern according to the age of the turtle.

Red-eared sliders are native to this area and well into northern Mexico but have become established in many other places in the world because of that aforementioned pet trade and the fact that people sometimes release them into the wild when they tire of them. In fact, in some places they are considered invasive species and they are included on the list of the world's 100 most invasive species that is published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an ignominious distinction for an animal that is totally inoffensive in its native habitat.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The decline of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey was fun and entertaining for the first couple of years of its existence. Even season three had it moments. But it is now in its fifth year and these last two years have been pretty uniformly awful.

The characters, who were once fairly interesting, have descended into caricature. The plots, such as they are, seem to have been devised by not very bright fifth graders. The writing and the dialogue - well, other than the occasional bon mot by the Dowager Countess, the less said the better. It is all just too staid and predictable.

This season, we have seen Mary, the golden daughter whom everyone loves  and whom every man that she meets wants to get into the pants of, become even more of a self-centered bitch than she ever was in the previous seasons. I know we are supposed to think she's wonderful and hang on her every word, but when she went riding in that steeplechase last week, I was really hoping she would fall off her horse and break her swan-like neck. Maybe then the damn Crawleys might finally pay some attention to their only surviving daughter, Edith.

Poor Edith. Julian Fellowes has obviously had it in for her from the beginning and is determined that she will never be happy, but she's really the only one of the Crawleys who seems like a decent human being with some potential to actually accomplish something in the world. Maybe that's why Mary dislikes her so much and is so cruel to her at every opportunity. The self-absorbed, narcissistic Mary cannot bear to have the spotlight on anyone else.

This is a soap opera, of course, which really means that nothing is ever resolved sensibly. Characters always choose the most convoluted and outlandish and thoroughly dishonest solution to every problem that presents itself. And it means that characters can never behave decently and civilly toward each other. There must always be Drama with a capital D. There certain is plenty of that - or at least histrionics - on the show this season. The problem is that none of it is believable and I don't give a fig about how any of it is resolved.

I haven't mentioned the below-stairs family, but the same criticisms apply there, most especially in regard to the Bates and Anna storyline. Really, I am so bored with these people! I say send them both to prison and throw away the key!

So, if I dislike the show so much, why do I keep watching it? AAARGH!!!!  The truth is, I don't know. Maybe I'm just a glutton for punishment. Maybe I keep hoping it will finally get good again. After all, I've got all this time invested in watching it, I hate to see it dwindle into complete irrelevance. Or maybe I'm just filling that hour on Sunday night and waiting for the return of Game of Thrones.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Great Backyard Bird Count Wrap-up

A disappointing 2015 Great Backyard Bird Count has come to an end for me. While the first three days of the count featured fair to excellent weather and birding conditions, this last day was a bit of a wash - literally. It was wet and cold which resulted in my being able to spend only about thirty minutes actually looking at birds. I doubt if it would have mattered much if I'd been able to spend more time. There just weren't that many birds to see.

My weekend of birding in my yard ended with a total of 28 species. I also spent an hour or so on Saturday at Brazos Bend State Park and found 21 species. Even at the park, which is usually a very birdy place, there were not a lot of birds to be seen.

As of 6:00 P.M. this afternoon, my yard ranked 187th overall among the sites that had reported, but counts are still being entered and tabulated so that is almost sure to change. Birders will still be sending in their reports until the end of the month when data collection is closed.

Of the 28 species which I reported, all were common residents. I did not see any unusual or unexpected birds this year. I did have one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a bird that is in the area during winter but one that I don't always see on my yard count. But other than that it was pretty ho-hum.

As usual, the most numerous bird that I was able to report was the American Goldfinch. I had flocks of 30 - 40 birds at the feeders at times.

The Chipping Sparrows were a close second. I've actually had more of these wonderful little birds this winter than I have in most winters. Flocks of 15 - 20 are common.

The White-winged Doves have been one of the surprises of the winter, in that there have not been the big flocks that I normally see in winter. It's rare to see as many as ten at the feeders at once, whereas in previous years they would have covered the feeders. More disappointingly, the White-wingeds were the only doves that I saw during this count. I did not have a single Eurasian Collared-dove, Inca Dove, or even a Mourning Dove to report.

A couple of times I had moderately-sized flocks of Brown-headed Cowbirds in the yard, but they were the only member of the blackbird family. I had no Common Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds as I do in most years. 

Even the Cooper's Hawk that is present in the backyard on most days did not show up to be counted. At least the Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawk pairs were more cooperative.

The highlight of the count for me was the presence of a Red-headed Woodpecker this year. When we moved here in 1988, there were still plenty of woods in the area and plenty of Red-headed Woodpeckers present. Over the years, the woods have been cut down to provide house sites and the Red-heads have moved on. These days, it is rare to have one in or around my yard and so this one was very welcome indeed.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - February 2015

(Note to my regular readers: Poetry Sunday will return next week.)

Trying to find blooms in my February garden was a real scavenger hunt, but I did manage to come up with a few prizes. And some surprises.

If it's February, it's time for the leucojum to send out their dainty little bell-shaped blossoms. No surprise there. 

And in beds all over the garden, the weed oxalis is sending up its shamrock leaves and providing a bit of winter color with its delicate pink blossoms. Even though it's a weed, it disappears when the weather heats up, so for the most part, I tolerate it. 

In a pot near the front door, the more cultivated form of the plant, the purple oxalis, is also beginning to bloom as it nestles in its companion ivy. 

Also near the front door, the pansies still bloom in their pot with the ornamental cabbage.

A few of the cyclamen hang on as well.

This white yarrow just seems confused. It is a bit early for it to be blooming, but I think it has been fooled by the fact that we've hardly had any winter weather - only one night when the temperature actually got below freezing. I know my friends in New England and the Midwest may find that hard to comprehend.

The Turk's Cap 'Big Momma' was bitten back by the night of below freezing temperatures, but the part of the plant closest to the brick wall survived and continues to bloom.

As do a few of the bright orange blossoms of the Cape honeysuckle. It has been in continuous bloom since early fall.

The Carolina Jessamine has a few blooms. In another week, it should be covered in them.

I've added a few primroses in pots around the garden. These brighten the patio table.

Elsewhere on the patio, the violas continue their winter-long bloom. The plant in the center is mullein.

Purple trailing lantana is another of my continuous bloomers. Unless it gets really, really cold, it almost never shuts down, so it's doing quite nicely in this mild winter.

The fringy fuchsia flowers of the loropetalum are in their glory now.

I would be negligent if I didn't also mention my Valentine's Day orchid from my Sweetie. Thank you, Sweetie!
I hope your Valentine's Day was filled with love and that your Bloom Day is filled with blooms. Hold on - spring is coming!

Thanks to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for eight years of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day. Here's hoping number nine is the bloomingest one yet!