Monday, November 30, 2015

The garden at the end of November

Can it really be the end of November? Where did the month go? For that matter, where has the year gone?

Tomorrow we head into December. Our average first frost date is December 10, so it is likely that many of the blooms in the garden today are on borrowed time. Already, we have had a few chilly nights, once dropping down to 35 degrees F., but the garden positively loves this weather. The fact that we've had a very wet couple of weeks has made the plants even happier.

As we get ready to welcome December, here are some of the blooms - and other things - that are still bringing color to the late fall garden.

I love violas and I tend to tuck them into every bare spot around the garden in late fall.

I like them in all colors.

Purple trailing lantana is at its best in the late fall and the butterflies are grateful.

The Cape honeysuckle is in full bloom, but I haven't seen any hummingbirds sipping from it lately.

Yellow cestrum blooms persist right up until the first frost.

Muscadine leaves and fruits are turning color. The fruits of these vines ripen in stages right through the fall, so there are always ripe grapes and green grapes present. Mockingbirds love them and watch for the purple fruits. They don't last long once the birds spy them.

Bronze esperanza is still blooming, but my yellow variety hasn't done too well this year. Unfortunately, one of my garden helpers pruned it at just the wrong time. 

Yellow milkweed is still going strong.

This sprawling plant is Copper Canyon daisy. It will be knocked back by the first frost but for now it is in glorious bloom.

Pansies are another of my favorites for winter color and, like the violas, I tuck them into various spots around the yard.

African blue basil is still full of blooms and most days it is full of bees, as well.

The Mandarin oranges are ready to be picked.


There are Meyers lemons on this tree in all stages of development. These are just beginning to turn color.

Nearby on the same tree are buds just about to burst into bloom and begin another crop of lemons.

Crossvine blooms gloriously in the spring, but it continues to put out a few blooms throughout the year.

The little yellow marigolds just don't know when to quit.

Nearby in the herb bed, the pineapple sage is in full bloom.

And so is the shrimp plant.

'Molineux' rose is putting on some late blooms.

Red kalanchoe blooming on the patio table.

Almond verbena. Its lovely scent lends its fragrance to the backyard garden.

The 'Graham Thomas' rose is happiest in the fall. Half of this blossom's petals got knocked to the ground in the weekend's rains, but the three fat buds promise more soon.

It's a joyful time in the garden. Not much for the gardener to do and the plants are very happy. Jack Frost will put an end to it but that's tomorrow's concern. I'm happy just to enjoy today.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Poetry Sunday: To Autumn

For this week's featured poem, here is a classic - John Keats' ode to the season. The beautiful pastoral imagery of the poem evokes a time long past, but even so they are images that seem somehow familiar and recognizable. Perhaps they are in our blood.

                                 TO AUTUMN

                      by John Keats (1795-1821) 

    SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
        Steady thy laden head across a brook;
        Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they? Think not of them, thou hast thy music too -" Don't be envious of Spring, the poet seems to be saying, for you have your own unique beauty and music, Autumn. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a glorious autumn day would certainly agree.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: A review

The Japanese LoverThe Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've long been a fan of Isabel Allende's inspiring fiction. Her soul-baring stories most often feature female protagonists and are told through multigenerational family sagas. She continues that tradition with The Japanese Lover.

Allende's method is to tell her story through the voice of the all-knowing third person narrator, but, although the narrator may know all, it is revealed to us very slowly, as one after another of the narrative's layers is peeled away. Her style of writing is deceptively simple and unadorned. At least, that is the feeling that I get reading the books in translation. One has to acknowledge that this may be at least in part attributable to the art of the translator, in this case two translators, Mike Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.

In The Japanese Lover, all the major characters are guarding secrets that are considered shameful at the time. In the course of the novel, all of those secrets are uncovered and proven to be not so shameful after all. The ability of the holders of the secrets to share them with others who love them eventually offers a lifting of their burdens and redemption for their spirits.

As always in an Allende novel, spirits are important in the telling of the story - both the spirits of the living and those of the dead that are always present with those who loved them in life. Magical realisim rules and it is a benevolent monarch.

The main characters here are Alma Belasco and Irina Bazili. Alma Mendel had begun life in Poland with her Jewish family just before the beginning of World War II. As her parents saw the shadows of the coming war lengthening, they determined to get Alma out of Poland and into a safe haven. They sent her to San Francisco to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle there, the Belascos. It was there that eight-year-old Alma met the two people who would be her best friends and more for life, her cousin Nathaniel and the son of the family's gardener, Ichimei Fukuda. They were her solace in those first bleak years. Then the unthinkable happened.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment was rampant in the country and a political decision was made to send citizens who had been born in Japan or were of Japanese descent and born in this country to internment camps. The Fukuda family was swept up and sent with thousands of others to one of those camps, Topaz in Utah. Alma and Ichimei attempted to stay in touch through letters, but Ichi's were heavily censored. He was a gifted artist and he started sending drawings instead.

Allende describes the internment camps and the struggle of the people imprisoned there to keep up their morale and to prove to their captors that they were loyal Americans. This part of the story has some sad parallels to the plight of refugees and immigrants to this country in 2015 and the way they are portrayed by certain politicians seeking to curry favor with their racist base. It is chilling to realize that this is exactly the way that the Japanese were portrayed in order to justify their internment.

We learn Alma's story through her much older self, a woman in her eighties living in Lark House, an eccentric assisted living facility, as she nears the end of her long and eventful life. We learn that Alma and Ichimei have carried on a love affair for more than fifty years, reuniting again and again throughout their lives, in spite of their own separate marriages and the families they created.

It is at Lark House that Alma meets the second woman whose haunted life rounds out this tale.

Irina Bazili is a Moldavan refugee who is a care worker at the assisted living center. She has her own troubled past and secrets that she is hiding. She is assigned to help Alma and the two forge a friendship. Moreover, Alma's grandson, Seth, meets and falls in love with Irina. He steadfastly pursues her even though she does not give him the slightest encouragement.

Both Seth and Irina love Alma and they are intrigued by mysterious gifts and letters that she receives. They do some investigating and come to believe that the gifts and letters are coming from Ichi and that he and Alma are continuing their passionate affair into their ninth decade.

The narrative shifts from past to present and back again from the 1940s through 2013, and through it all, the notion of a spirit world hovers. That notion is finally made real in the novel's poignant denouement, and, as is Allende's trademark, she leaves us with these progressive and hopeful spirits.

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The more things change, the more some people deny change

"This Week in Birds" is taking a Thanksgiving vacation and will return next week. Instead, this week on the eve of the big conference on climate change in Paris, I am rerunning a post that I did in April 2012. It concerned a New York Times poll that found that a majority of Americans believed that global climate change was affecting the weather. However, the comments from Times readers about the story told a very different tale of climate change denialism. Three-and-a-half years later, has anything changed? Is there any more acceptance of the truth of human-caused climate change and the urgency of taking action to stop it? Well, certainly not in Washington where denialism still prevails in Congress. 


April 18, 2012

Climate change affecting the weather? Ya think?

Headline in The New York Times today: In Poll, Many Link Weather Extremes to Climate Change. The story under the headline relates how a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

Can this really be true? After years of being in denial despite climate scientists' best efforts to make the case that human-caused climate warming is happening and that we need to try to slow or reverse it, is the public finally ready to accept the truth of climate change?

“Most people in the country are looking at everything that’s happened; it just seems to be one disaster after another after another,” said Anthony A. Leiserowitz of Yale University, one of the researchers who commissioned the new poll. “People are starting to connect the dots.”
Maybe. But after reading the story in the Times, if you follow up by reading the reader comments on the story, you may be excused for wondering if that is really true. There are too many people out there who still believe, in all seriousness, that the whole thing about climate change is just one big conspiracy of those damned scientists and the liberal media.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Addams Family Values - Wednesday Addams explains Thanksgiving

For my Thanksgiving post in 2011, I featured this "Addams Family Values" video. Let's repeat it for this Thanksgiving, and, as we sit down with our families for this holiday meal, perhaps it will give us something else to be thankful for!


Addams Family Values - Wednesday Addams explains Thanksgiving


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Blue Last by Martha Grimes: A review

The Blue Last (Richard Jury Mysteries, #17)The Blue Last by Martha Grimes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

All the usual Martha Grimes ingredients are here: precocious and charming children; clever cats and dogs; quirky villages and villagers; memories of World War II; quaintly named pubs, of course; in London, Richard Jury, Wiggins, Cyril the Cat, Carole-Ann, and Mrs. Wasserman, and in Long Piddleton, Melrose Plant, Marshall Trueblood, Aunt Agatha, and all the other villagers we've come to know and expect. And, naturally, there is the typical convoluted Grimes plot that bobs and weaves and circles back on itself. In Grimes books, it is always the journey itself that is most satisfying; often, the conclusion is less so. That is the case with this book.

A friend of Jury's in the City of London police asks his assistance in solving a mystery. Some bones have recently been uncovered on the site of a pub, "The Blue Last," that was destroyed in the blitz during World War II. They are the bones of a woman and child. Ostensibly, they are the bones of the daughter of a wealthy family and a child who was the daughter of that family's nanny. Jury's friend, however, believes that the child was actually the daughter of the woman who died there. The nanny, who survived, he believes, substituted her own baby for the baby of the wealthy woman who died. That baby, now grown up, stands to inherit millions upon the death of the family patriarch.

An additional mystery is added to the plot when a man who is close to the family, and who is researching a book about the period in which the pub was destroyed, is murdered. Jury's policeman friend was also a friend of this family and he often visited the man who was murdered. Jury suspects that his murder was somehow related to the book that he was planning to write, but his manuscript and all his notes as well as his laptop were all taken at the time that he was killed. No one seems to know just what was in the book.

Adding even more confusion, the nine-year-old girl who is a ward of the family patriarch believes that someone is trying to kill her, and, indeed, there was a shot fired into the greenhouse while she was there. It's all a real muddle and there don't seem to be any obvious suspects.

Once again, Jury calls upon his friend Melrose Plant to go undercover to help with the investigation. This time he is to pose as the undergardener on the family's estate and gather information as to what's really going on with these people. As usual, Melrose has several scenes with the precocious child on the estate, as well as her friend and his dog, and, as usual, these scenes are a delight.

We also have a subplot with Marshall Trueblood, the Long Piddleton antiques dealer, who believes he may have an authentic Renaissance masterpiece, and persuades Melrose Plant to accompany him to Italy to consult experts who may be able to confirm the artwork's authenticity. Their trip is a lark worthy of Grimes.

One reads Grimes' novels for their settings and their characters and her use of language in describing them. The intricate plots are sometimes difficult to follow, and, as in The Blue Last, the endings are not always satisfying. But her characters have such winning personalities that one keeps coming back for the pleasure of interacting with them once again.

Overall, this was a fun read. I debated about whether I should award it three stars or four stars. In the end, I decided to be generous, even though the cliff-hanging ending truly left me hanging and unsatisfied. I guess I'll just have to read the next book in the series to find out what happened.

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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
                                                                   - Sinclair Lewis
I thought of that famous Sinclair Lewis quote this week as we watched and listened in disbelief as people who think they are qualified to be the next president vied with each other to see which one could out-fascist the rest in their response to last week's bombing in Paris and the plight of Syrian refugees trying to escape the horror of ISIL/ISIS/Daesh - whatever you want to call that terrorist organization. It has been a thoroughly disgusting display of fearmongering and politicizing a tragedy and I suspect we'll be in for more of the same and probably worse in the months to come.
As we consider the plight of the unfortunate refugees, perhaps we need to remind ourselves of just who we are and how our country was founded and grew to be what it is today. We are first and foremost a nation of exiles. When we choose to deny sanctuary to those fleeing war and tyranny, we dishonor our history and we besmirch the names and lives of those immigrants who made us what we are.
There's really only one poem that seems appropriate for this Poetry Sunday.

The New Colossus

 by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.

From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

"Mother of Exiles"

Saturday, November 21, 2015

This week in birds - #183

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

Image courtesy of

I saw my first Orange-crowned Warbler of the season in my backyard on Wednesday. That makes two of our three winter warblers accounted for - the Orange-crowned and the Yellow-rumped. Still waiting for the Pine Warbler to show up.


Congress is set to vote on a bill that has bipartisan support. That deserves a headline! Furthermore, the bill is an important one for the environment. It would phase out the use of microbeads in cleaning and hygiene products. Those minuscule pieces of plastic wind up in our waterways and do untold damage to the environment. Their banning would be very good news.


Animals - and plants - survive by being adaptable. The biggest thing they have had to adapt to since the beginning of the Industrial Age has been human beings and their building of cities on formerly pristine lands. Perhaps it is not so surprising that many animals, including many birds, have learned to adapt to and make their livings in those cities.


Hawk moths are fairly common in our area and their larvae typically feed on members of the nightshade family, including tomatoes, as many gardeners learn to their chagrin. The Bird Ecology Study Group has a feature on the pupa development of these interesting critters.


Egrets and herons of many species are common sights throughout the South. A study has found that natural wetlands are much better for these birds than human-made areas like flooded rice fields.


Here's a shocker for you: The senators who vote against EPA rules are well funded by companies in the coal industry. Honestly, who would ever have thought such a thing would happen?


The Snowy Owl projection for this winter is that the irruption south of the Canadian border will be slower than it has been in recent years. The projection is based on the findings that there was a low density of Snowy nests in the Arctic this spring and summer.


The Prairie Ecologist has an appreciation of the much-maligned coyote, a predator that plays an important role in keeping the ecology in balance. 


A fossil of a previously unknown diving bird from North America in the Cretaceous Period has been identified.


There have been five known great extinctions in the history of our planet. The sixth is coming and many scientists believe it is already well under way. What is it like to be present and an observer of that extinction? What, if anything, can we do to prevent or ameliorate it?


Here's how the tiny Anna's Hummingbird uses its raw muscle power rather than physique to outmaneuver its rivals.


It isn't just the heat of global climate change that birds have to worry about. In South Africa, in particular, scientists find that the changing rainfall and fire patterns are contributing more to the decline of its birds.


In the Great Plains, the threatened Piping Plover is losing breeding areas due to the draining of wetlands. But in New Jersey, the population of the little shorebird has rebounded from its historic low.


The groundwater that supplies aquifers and which millions of people around the world rely on for their water supply takes more than the average human lifetime to be renewed, making it, essentially, a non-renewable resource - at least for the current population.


The Birds and Windows Project compares different data collection methods to try to better understand those often fatal collisions between birds and windows. The hope is to find more effective ways of preventing them. 


What is the most overrated bird by birders? Well, in California, "Seagull Steve" thinks its the Pine Siskin. Sorry, Steve, I love Pine Siskins, too, and I only hope we get some this winter.  


The U.S. and Cuba have signed an agreement to cooperate in doing marine research and conservation. It's nice to have that bit of good news with which to end this roundup.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: A review

Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Earlier this year, I read Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot and enjoyed it tremendously. Reading that book about the protagonist's obsession with the great 19th century French writer made me want to re-read his masterpiece, Madame Bovary.

I first read the book long ago in my youth, in what I now think of as my "romantic period." Quite honestly, although I remembered the broad outlines of the plot, I had long since forgotten many of the details. Thus, reading it this week has been much like reading it for the first time.

The book was published in 1856 and was subjected to attacks for obscenity by the public prosecutors. The resulting trial, which cleared Flaubert of the charge, was held in early 1857 and had the predictable result of making the book a sensation and a best-seller. Reading the book today, one is amazed that it could ever have been thought to be obscene. It seems so mild by present-day standards. Thus has the world changed.

The plot is so well-known, even by those who have never read the book, that summarizing it seems almost unnecessary. The story takes place in provincial northern France near the town of Rouen. We first meet Charles Bovary and follow him as he grows up in the care of his doting parents. Their ambition is for him to become a doctor. He follows his parents' wishes in all things, including marrying a wealthy widow who will be able to help him carry the financial burden of middle-class provincial life.

In his position as doctor, Charles goes to set the leg of a farmer and there he meets the farmer's daughter, Emma. He is immediately attracted to her and returns often to the farm, ostensibly to check on his patient. He is still married, of course, and not free to pursue his interest in the daughter. Fate soon takes care of that, though, when his wife dies unexpectedly.

His patient, the farmer, brings him a turkey and offers his condolences. He also invites him back to the farm. Charles starts visiting there once again, and asks for Emma's hand in marriage once his period of mourning is over.

Emma, for her part, is amenable and imagines a romantic life with this respected country doctor. But once the ceremony is over, she is soon disabused of her fanciful notions. Married life settles into a dull routine and all of Emma's efforts to bring a bit of spark into the relationship are ignored by her placid husband. He is perfectly happy and so he imagines that his wife is also.

The dissatisfied Madame Bovary becomes easy prey for local womanizers. The first to seduce her is Rodolphe and they carry on their affair until Rodolphe begins to tire of her and eventually leaves town in order to get away from her. Later, she succumbs once again - this time to the attractive young clerk Leon, whom she imagines that she truly loves.

Their affair runs its thoroughly predictable course, and, during all of this, her docile husband never suspects a thing. Neither does he suspect the financial shenanigans that she engages in in order to subsidize their life. He is so dull and so trusting that one has to pity him.

But one can pity Emma, too. Life just never turns out to be the romantic adventure that she wants. She is disappointed in all things. And, read in today's environment, one sees that she is a victim of a paternalistic society that does not value women except as sex objects and for producing children. She had wanted so much more for her life.

It's easy to blame Emma and to say that she frittered away her existence, always waiting for something exciting to happen. She never learned to appreciate what she had - a husband who adored her, a respected position in the community, a healthy child, plenty to eat, more and better clothes than any of her neighbors, a warm and comfortable house. But, no, it wasn't enough. She wanted a romantic love that would make her heart race and leave her breathless. Charles just wasn't up to that and the result was tragedy for them both.

So, what can we learn from Emma Bovary? Perhaps that we should accept our circumstances and as the old aphorism says, "Bloom where we are planted." Imagining that things would be so much better if only X would happen is a prescription for dissatisfaction and disappointment. Better to take what we've got and try to make the best of things.

If Emma could have done that, she might have enjoyed a long and honored life and been able to raise her daughter to womanhood and teach her to appreciate the simple life. But then we wouldn't have Madame Bovary as a cautionary tale to encourage us to keep our feet on the straight and narrow path.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday: Lafayette, we remember!

I am a Francophile. I admire the French culture and the way of living that is pursued by the people of France. It's a sentiment that is shared by many - I think most - Americans, and it has strong historical roots.

After all, France was our first foreign ally. Without their aid, that 1770s war to secure independence from Britain might have turned out quite differently.

One of the qualities of a true friendship is that that friend will tell you when you are doing something stupid. So it was when our former president, George W. Bush, determined to invade Iraq after the attacks of 09/11/01. France did not support that invasion and argued against it. 

For standing up against a bully, France's reward was jingoistic members of Congress engaging in the silliness of trying to rename French fries as "freedom fries" and calling the French all sorts of insulting and bellicose names. 

These are some of the same politicians who are today inveighing against Syrian refugees and demanding that they be turned away from our borders. The Syrian refugees have become this year's freakout crisis for them in the same way Ebola or the unaccompanied children who flooded to our southern border seeking refuge were in recent years. These people are always terrified of something and trying to scare the rest of us into joining them in their bigotry. We must not let them succeed. We must stand strong and celebrate our culture - like the French.

In 2012, I marked my Francophilism with this post on July 14, the French National Day. The week after the attacks in Paris seems like a good time to repeat it.

Lafayette, we still remember.   


Lafayette, we remember!

Today is the French National Day. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789 during the French revolution. We commonly think of it as Bastille Day. In France, it is celebrated with parades, patriotic speeches, and fireworks, not unlike our own Independence Day.

France and the United States have historic ties going back to our country's Revolutionary War when the Marquis de Lafayette, a French patriot, fought on the side of our fledgling country. It has sometimes been a prickly relationship but blood ties are strong. When the United States entered World War I on the side of France, a group of military officers with Gen. John Pershing visited the tomb of Lafayette where one of the officers - some reports say Pershing, some say one of his aides - uttered the phrase, "Lafayette, we are here!" implying that they had come to repay a debt of honor.

On this French National Day, we remember again that debt and we wish our French friends and their new government well during this difficult time as they work to reverse the economic troubles of the European Union. Vive la France!

Lafayette, we remember.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Monarchs of the glen...and the garden...and the byways

For the last few years, the news about the Monarch butterfly has been unrelentingly bad. A disastrous series of bad winters in the mountains where the migrants spend that season in Mexico, coupled with habitat loss across North America and the profligate use of pesticides in farming operations in the heartland of America, had reduced the butterfly's numbers to dangerously low levels. Some wondered if the charismatic insect would ever be able to recover, or would it follow the path of the Passenger Pigeon to extinction? 

A massive effort was undertaken to educate the public and especially farmers and gardeners about the needs of the fragile fliers. All across the continent, people who had never heard of milkweed started planting it in their gardens. The aim was to create a "butterfly highway" right across the continent, to provide the insect with the plants that are absolutely essential to its survival. Finally this year, we are seeing the positive effects of all those efforts.  

Just a few days ago, Mexican environmental officials announced that they anticipate a quadrupling of the iconic butterfly's population this year as a result of the joint efforts of Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. If we can sustain those conservation efforts, keeping up environmental regulations of logging and pesticides and continuing to plant milkweed, there seems a good chance that the growth in the population will continue.

My own anecdotal observations support the optimism of the officials. Over the last two to three years, Monarch visitors to my garden have been few and far between. Beginning in early spring this year, I began to notice an increase in traffic and I would often see eggs like this one on my milkweed plants.

I would monitor as the tiny embryos developed in those eggs.

And the eggs hatched into caterpillars like these.

And eventually those caterpillars developed the chrysalis where they would turn themselves into a beautiful butterfly.

Female Monarch on milkweed.

The fall migration of these butterflies is continuing. Not a day goes by that I don't see at least two or three of them passing through my garden. It is a heartening display of the resilience of Nature and the tenacity of life - even of such a fragile creature. If there is hope for the Monarch, perhaps there is hope for us all.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A banner weekend of FeederWatching

This past weekend marked the beginning of the season for one of my favorite citizen science projects. Project FeederWatch runs from early November until early April, the period in which birds are most likely to visit backyard feeders. Its participants survey the birds in a specific area throughout that season. The birds that are counted can be those that come to feeders or that feed on the vegetation or the wildlife in the area that is being surveyed. In my case, I survey my one-half acre yard plus my northside neighbor's backyard that contains ten large pine trees that are a magnet for bird life.

I did not have high hopes for my first weekend of FeederWatching. The yard has been very quiet recently, very little bird activity going on. Except, that is, for the ubiquitous House Sparrows, bane of my existence as a backyard birder.

I can count 20 or 30 of these guys in my yard at almost any hour of the day.

My low expectations were quickly exceeded. Even though things still seemed pretty quiet, close attention to sounds and movement in the yard revealed that even if the birds were quiet, they were there.

I was able to tick off the usual suspects on my list in very little time, and then I started noticing other birds that are in the area, but that I don't see in my yard every day. Somewhat surprisingly, Pileated Woodpeckers (a pair), Brown-headed Nuthatch, House Finch, and American Robin all showed up for the count. But most surprisingly of all, my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the season also presented itself for counting. The sapsucker, Pileated Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatch were all in my neighbor's pine trees, so you can understand why I include those in my survey area. The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter resident here; all the others are year-round residents but they are not always present in my yard.

Despite my predictions as to what the weekend might reveal regarding the birds in my yard, it actually turned out to be one of my best first weekend counts in the twelve years that I've been doing this. My final species total for the weekend was 20! Here's a list:

Red-shouldered Hawk
White-winged Dove
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
House Sparrow

If you pay close attention to that list and have been reading my blog lately, you might notice one glaring omission. Yes, the American Goldfinches that I had been seeing in my yard over the past several days never showed up while I was counting. Perverse little critters!


Monday, November 16, 2015

Brush Back by Sara Paretsky: A review

Brush Back (V.I. Warshawski Novels)Brush Back by Sara Paretsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sure way to get V.I. Warshawski's attention is to cast aspersions on the character of her beloved family, especially her adored mother and father and her favorite cousin, Boom-Boom the hockey player. In Brush Back, all three of these now long-dead loved ones are attacked by a harridan of a former neighbor named Stella Guzzo and that sends V.I. into action.

Stella is the mother of Frank Guzzo, a high school sweetheart of V.I. The mother always hated and was jealous of V.I.'s family who she accused of thinking they were better than anybody else in their South Chicago neighborhood. The fact that they probably were just lent fuel to the flame of her hatred.

Stella was a violent mother who beat her children and she was convicted of beating her daughter, Annie, to death. She spent 25 years in prison for the young woman's murder and, as we enter this story, she's out and causing trouble again, even though she's almost eighty.

Her son, Frank, visits V.I. and asks her to help with his mother's claim for exoneration. Yes, she now claims she didn't kill her daughter. V.I. is very reluctant but feels sorry for her old friend and finally agrees. However, when she goes to interview Stella, things go completely awry. The old woman attacks her physically and afterwards she contacts the media to claim that she has a diary of her daughter's that implicates Boom-Boom in her murder. That, of course, is a challenge that V.I. can't ignore and she is egged on by her goddaughter, Bernie, who is staying with her.

Investigating Stella's claims opens a very unsavory can of worms with the biggest worms being the movers and shakers of Chicago's and Illinois' corrupt politics. Furthermore, those corrupt politicians have links with the Uzbeki Mob which is very active in Chicago and which is utterly ruthless. The chances of V.I. uncovering the truth and getting out alive seem very slim indeed.

The plot of this one is almost too complicated to follow, featuring multi-generational family trees, as well as incestuous connections between politicians and the Mob and Chicago street gangs, all of whom are eager to beat up V.I. There's also a connection to the Cubs and the eventual answer to the mystery is (or was) hidden in the bowels of Wrigley Field.

As a baseball fan, I was delighted with the connections to the game and the fact that most of the chapter titles as well as the title of the book featured baseball terms. A brush back pitch in baseball is designed to get the batter off the plate, make him nervous, and maybe redirect his attention. It's a good metaphor for what V.I.'s enemies try to do to her.

V.I. is getting a bit long in the tooth and maybe slowing down a bit at 50, but she's still the high-energy, sarcastic, smack-talking, working class P.I. that readers have come to know over the years. She takes guff from no one and doesn't hesitate to bend the rules if they get in her way. At the same time, she is loyal to her adoptive family of Mr. Contreras, the two golden retrievers, and her lover, Jake, and maintains her contacts with friends in the media and the police department and a few old friends from the neighborhood.

V.I. is utterly tenacious in her search for the truth, even if she suspects she's not going to be paid to find it. If I were in trouble and needed the help of an investigator, she's the P.I. I would want on my case.

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

Poetry Sunday/Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day - November 2015

Recently, my blogger friend Jayne Wilson of Green and Serene had a blog post featuring quotes about the autumn garden. One of those quotes was a short poem called "Indian Summer." It seemed perfect for this time of year and especially for November's Bloom Day. Let's make it our featured poem for Poetry Sunday.   

Indian Summer

  by Emeline B. Smith

Just after the death of the flowers,
And before they are buried in snow,
There comes a festival season,
When nature is all aglow—
Aglow with a mystical splendour
That rivals the brightness of spring,
Aglow with a beauty more tender
Than aught which fair summer could bring….


Well, the death of flowers may have already come in some regions, but here in zone 9a, we still have quite a few, and we are nowhere near being buried in snow. Our first frost is still weeks away, and, since we don't get the brilliant fall colors that others enjoy at this time of year, at least we can take pleasure in what are surely some of the last blossoms of the season.

The milk and wine lilies are still putting forth occasional blooms.


The Encore azalea is putting out a few blossoms even though it is almost smothered in this rampantly growing 'Marguerite' potato vine.

'Hot lips' salvia.

Salvia greggii - autumn sage.

Salvia coccinea - 'Coral nymph.'

Salvia guaranitica - 'Black and Blue.'

Yellow lantana.

Purple trailing lantana, a butterfly favorite. 

Red kalanchoe blooming among foxtail fern, amaryllis, and ivies.

Yellow 'Tecoma stans,' common name yellowbells.

Bronze Tecoma stans.

Yellow milkweed with seedpods that soon will be opening and scattering their seeds.

Gerbera daisy.

Copper Canyon daisy just beginning to bloom.

Many of the blooms on the coral vine got knocked to the ground in a recent heavy rain and wind, but some of them hung on.

'Blue Daze' - Evolvulus glomeratus.

Ageratina havanensis - white mistflower, or shrubby boneset, if you prefer.

Plumbago auriculata - Cape plumbago, or blue plumbago.

'Darcy Bussell' rose.

Orange cosmos.

Yellow cestrum.

Hamelia patens, commonly known as hummingbird bush or Mexican firebush.

Anisacanthus wrightii, another hummingbird and butterfly favorite.

Aloysia virgata - almond verbena, an unassuming blossom with a large and lovely scent.

Wedelia texana, a native groundcover of vigorous growth habit and many daisy-like yellow flowers. 

Tecoma capensis - Cape honeysuckle.

Shrimp plant - Justicia brandegeeana.

Firespike, Odontonema strictum.

The little yellow mums are still blooming in the backyard...

...while this big pot of bronze-colored chrysanthemums blooms by the front door.
And so as we enter the last half of November, we still have blooms to show, but I wonder if any of them will hang on until December Bloom Day?

Thank you for visiting my garden this month and thank you to Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting us once again. Happy Bloom Day to all.