Monday, February 29, 2016

Holly Blues by Susan Wittig Albert: A review

Holly Blues (China Bayles, #18)Holly Blues by Susan Wittig Albert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been reading Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series for several years, and, of course, since I'm an OCD reader, I read the books in the order that they were published. But in looking at a list of the books in the series recently, I realized that I had somehow managed to skip one. Horrors!

Naturally, I had to circle back and pick it up immediately. That's how I came to be reading Holly Blues, the eighteenth in a series that will soon number twenty-four.

Visiting with China is like being with an old friend, not only because she is well-known to me but also because the setting of the stories is quite familiar.

China was once a high-powered lawyer in Houston, but several years ago, she gave that life up to move to the little Hill Country town of Pecan Springs near Austin. All of this is home territory for one who has lived here for thirty years.

In Pecan Springs, China reinvented herself as an herbalist and opened an herb shop. Her friend, Ruby, opened a New Age shop next door, and over the years, both shops have prospered and the two friends have expanded their operations to other related enterprises. In the process, China has acquired a husband and a stepson and a step-dog and, now, an adoptive daughter, and Ruby has acquired a second daughter and a granddaughter.

The two have been known to dabble in the investigation of crimes, and there does seem to be an inordinate amount of crime to investigate for a sleepy little Texas town.

Holly Blues finds Sally, the ex-wife of China's husband, McQuaid, and mother of her beloved stepson, Brian, in town and in trouble. It is just before Christmas and Sally tells her sad story and appeals to China for help and a place to stay for the holidays. Generous-hearted China agrees without consulting McQuaid.

She soon has reason to regret that decision when she finds that Sally is being stalked by a shady and possibly criminal character. She regrets it even more when the dead bodies start turning up.

But is Sally involved in the murders? Was her stalker the murderer? Are the murders, one in Kansas and one in Texas, even related? McQuaid, the private investigator, is out of town, so China and Ruby decide to investigate on their own.

I do enjoy the regular cast of characters in these books, but one has to admit that the plot had a few holes. Such as the fact that evidently the police had not even visited the home of Sally's sister who had supposedly been killed in a hit and run. Had they done so, they would have found her house in a shambles and clues that the woman had been abducted. But no - they had to wait for Ruby and China to discover that for them!

Moreover, it seemed unlikely that the shady stalker could be in Pecan Springs for several days without being noticed. I mean the town is full of busybodies!

But never mind. I can forgive all that. After all, reading fiction does require a certain suspension of disbelief and a willingness to enter into the spirit of the thing. The spirit of these books is warm and loving, a paean to friendship and small-town values. Reading one is like going home again.

View all my reviews

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Poetry Sunday: As I Grew Older and Dreams

This week I give you two for the price of one - two poems by American poet Langston Hughes. 

Both of the poems are about dreams, the importance of dreams and especially the importance of hanging on to them, never losing sight of them, even when life builds walls between you and your dreams. 

"Hold fast to dreams..." 

As I Grew Older

by Langston Hughes

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun—
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky—
The wall.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands! 
My dark hands! 
Break through the wall! 
Find my dream! 
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun! 

              ~ ~ ~


by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

This week in birds - #195

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

Spotted Sandpiper searches for a meal on a mudflat at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.


Good news about Monarch butterflies: The population of the colorful insects wintering in Mexico has increased significantly this season. They covered more than three and a half times the acreage that they covered last year. This increase comes after several years of setbacks. 


Bad news about sperm whales: Mass deaths of the gigantic mammals along the coasts of Europe have scientists stumped. As many as thirty of the animals have been found dead, beached on the shores of several countries. Necropsies are being performed to try to determine the cause, or causes, of the deaths.


And yet more bad news, this time about Bald Eagles. Thirteen of the birds have been found dead in Maryland. The cause of the deaths is yet to be determined but scientists suspect secondary poisoning. The birds may have dined on meat that was poisoned.


Animals around the world are facing challenges because of climate change. Perhaps none are more urgent than that of the bats of Brazil that could lose up to 98% of their habitat because of the changing climate.


The iconic "corpse flower," native of Sumatra, is three feet wide, weights 15 pounds, and reeks of rotting flesh. It is the biggest known flower in the world. Recently, a cousin of that plant has been found in the Philippines. It is the smallest species in that family of giant flowers and, instead of rotting flesh, it smells like coconut!

Picture by Edwino Fernando courtesy of The New York Times.
Rafflesia consueloae,
the newly discovered flower that smells like coconut.

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is abandoning its program of using an ultralight to guide young Whooping Cranes from their hatchery in Wisconsin to a winter home in Florida. They will still be hand-raising chicks to try to increase the population, but now those chicks will be placed with adult Whooping Crane foster parents to make the trip to Florida.

Meanwhile, the wild Whoopers that winter in Texas will soon be thinking about taking off for Canada once again.

We know that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 has had still-to-be-determined long-term effects on the ecology of the Gulf region. Research has revealed that one of those effects has been to significantly alter the microbial communities that live around shipwrecks in the Gulf.


Many species of wild bees, butterflies and other critters that pollinate plants are shrinking toward extinction, and the world needs to do something about it before our food supply suffers, a new United Nations scientific mega-report warns.


Another species sliding toward extinction has been the Spoon-billed Sandpiper, but there is good news on that front. A survey in China has found new wintering grounds for the birds that contained as many as 45 individuals. That actually counts as a significant increase in the population.


The FBI finally finished its evidence gathering at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and the USFWS has resumed its guardianship of the lands. The FBI even assisted the Fish and Wildlife Service folks with their annual raptor survey.


The National Audubon Society has some new rules for birders.


A new study suggests that birds that migrate longer distances may be smarter. They have more new neurons in the regions of the brain responsible for navigation and spatial orientation, suggests a new paper published in Scientific Reports.


Droughts worsened by climate change are not only a problem in the West; they threaten forests right across the continent.


A CT scan of a Dodo's skull suggests that the extinct birds might have been quite intelligent. The size of the bird's brain relative to its body would have been on a par with its closest living relatives, pigeons, and those birds tend to be pretty smart. 


The natural gas leak in California was the worst man-made greenhouse gas disaster in the United States in history. But even the normal production of natural gas notoriously leaks an enormous amount of methane into the atmosphere. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

Random Friday thoughts

My husband and I went to perform our civic duty yesterday by voting early in our state's primary. As I was presenting my identification to the registrar on duty, I had a thought. 

The state of Texas, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that all persons coming to vote must present a picture ID to thwart the rampant voter fraud which they have convinced themselves has been occurring here. They've convinced themselves because it gives them the opportunity to do what they want to do anyway. Which is, frankly, to discourage "those people" from voting. 

Anyway, it occurred to me as I presented my voter's registration card and my Texas driver's license that the voter's registration card is now superfluous. The state refuses to accept it as proof of anything and yet they continue to print and mail them to us. 

How many millions of dollars could the state save by simply stopping that practice? I mean, if the cards are worthless as proof, why spend millions of our tax dollars on them? 


Another day, another mass shooting in America. This time in Kansas. It hardly even makes the headlines anymore. 

Never mind. Tomorrow there'll be another one and this one will be forgotten just like all the others. 


Here's a hint: If you feel compelled to start your sentence with "I'm not a racist, but...," "I'm not a sexist, but...," "I'm not a misogynist, but...," then you most likely are that thing that you claim not to be. 


The death of Antonin Scalia has shone a light on some of his practices as a 30-year member of the nation's Supreme Court; things that were not generally discussed while the man was alive. 

For example, there's a story in The New York Times today that details Scalia's practice of accepting privately funded expense-paid trips to exotic locations around the world. He was on such a trip when he died in West Texas. 

Moreover, this Texas trip and many of the others were paid for by individuals and companies that had business before the Supreme Court. Do we seriously imagine that there was no quid pro quo involved in these transactions? That these trips were paid for simply out of the open-handed generosity of the benefactors?

It seems that even with the highest court in our land, we are at the mercy of the billionaires who are able to buy the favor of the justices.


You've met my three cats whose pictures appear in the right-hand margin of my blog. But in the past year my neighborhood has had a problem with feral cats. Some years ago, a neighbor moved away and apparently left a cat or cats behind to fend for themselves. These cats have now multiplied. Some were trapped and sent to the humane shelter by another one of my neighbors, but the problem has grown.

Bertie, my kitten, to whom I've introduced you previously, was probably the progeny of one of those cats when she turned up as a four- or five-week-old kitten in our driveway, but late last summer, I began noticing another problem. 

Birds were being killed at my backyard feeders and birdbaths. A little investigation revealed a mother cat with three growing kittens that she was trying to feed. Long story short, I started feeding them on my back porch, hoping to tame them enough that they might be someone's pets. The killing stopped but they remained quite wild.

Over the months, they've become a bit more trusting, but we are now at the point where they could soon start multiplying and I could end up on the evening news as the old lady with a hundred cats in her yard. So, we've started live-trapping them and taking them to our vet to get them fixed. Not an inexpensive proposition, but there is no such thing as a free cat. An outlay of money now is preferable to a bigger outlay and more problems (and kittens) in the future.

M.C. (Mama Cat). I guess she recognized me as a soft touch.

Charlene, named for our deceased cat, Charlie, whom she resembles. She's one of M.C.'s kittens and she's now been spayed and given her basic shots, treated for parasites, etc.

Rudy. He's not one of the original kittens. He came to our backyard looking for food in December and found it on my back porch. He's now been neutered and given basic shots and health care. 

Max, another of M.C.'s kittens. He's at the vet's as I type this waiting to get snipped.

Bootsie, the third of M.C.'s kittens - still to be captured and spayed.

None of these cats is pet material yet, but I still have hopes for them. They are much tamer than when I first met them. When I'm working in my garden, they are always there to "help" and when I sit on the patio, they come and join me there.

I tell this story to say this: If you have cats, PLEASE, PLEASE get them spayed or neutered and keep them indoors where they are safe. There are far too many unwanted cats in the world and most of them suffer short lives and often terrible deaths. While they live, they create havoc and do untold damage to wildlife as they try to find enough food to survive. 

And if you have stray cats or feral cats in your neighborhood, work with your local humane shelter or other animal protection groups to take care of them and prevent more unwanted animals being born into the world. It's important for the ecology as well as for our basic humanity, which can be judged by the way that we deal with animals.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The King Must Die by Mary Renault: A review

The King Must Die (Theseus, #1)The King Must Die by Mary Renault
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Theseus is well-known to us from Greek myth as the slayer of the child-devouring Minotaur of Crete and the betrayer of Ariadne. In The King Must Die, Mary Renault imagined what might have been the reality behind that myth.

Renault, an English writer of historical novels, almost reached the status of myth in her own life. She was perhaps best known for her excellent trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great: Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games. I read those books many years ago in my Alexander period, a time when I was fascinated with the life of the Macedonian general who conquered much of the known world. They were beautifully written and I've always intended to read more of Renault's work.

I have to admit I was a little disappointed with The King Must Die. It didn't quite live up to the standard that I remembered from the three Alexander books. Perhaps my memory is faulty or perhaps I just wasn't in the right frame of mind for Theseus at this time.

The story of Theseus is told by the man himself. The stage of his life covered here is his late teenage years, from about age sixteen. In ancient Greece, that was quite old enough for a boy to consider himself a man and to take on the responsibilities of adulthood in that society, but the voice of the narrator here is that of a rather callow youth with a fulsome estimation of his own abilities and standing in the world. (Lately, I seem to be stuck in the mode of reading books with such narrators. It's getting a bit tiresome and I need a break. I think perhaps I was unable to give this book its just due simply because of that recent experience.)

Anyway, I was interested to read in the biographical sketch of the author at the end of this book that her fascination with Greek philosophy led her to St. Hugh's College at Oxford where one of her tutors was J.R.R. Tolkien!

Another interesting bit about her life is that she is considered to be the first British novelist to have included an unconcealed homosexual love in one of her books, The Charioteer. Renault herself was a lesbian, and there are numerous references in The King Must Die to homosexual lovers. This was accepted as a perfectly normal part of life in ancient Greece.

But back to Theseus.

In Renault's telling, Theseus is the son of an unknown father and the daughter of the king of a tiny Hellenic kingdom. He has grown up believing himself to be the son of the god Poseidon. It seems that everyone in Greek mythology either was or believed him/herself to be the son/daughter of some god. In their belief system, the gods were very much a part of everyday life and often interacted carnally with human beings.

At length, it is revealed that Theseus is, in fact, the son of the king of Athens, and he leaves his home on a quest to reach that city and reveal himself to his father, who has no idea that he exists. On his way, he has many adventures - which generally means battles - and he reaches the city of Eleusis which worships the Great Mother and has an ancient tradition that their year-king marries the goddess (or the high priestess who represents the goddess) and at the end of his year, he is sacrificed to the Earth Mother in order to ensure the bounty of the year's harvest and the safety of the people. Theseus kills the current king and marries the widow/high priestess, thus becoming a year-king himself.

But he isn't sacrificed at the end of his year. Instead, he leads a revolution that frees the people from the tyranny of this tradition and continues on to Athens.

In Athens, of course, a different kind of fate awaits him. Athens must provide a yearly tribute of its youths to the kingdom of Minos in Crete to be a sacrifice to the minotaur. (One can see perhaps where Suzanne Collins got her idea for The Hunger Games. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun!) Although he is the son of the king and could be exempted from this fate, Theseus insists upon becoming part of the tribute and he sails for Crete with the other victims.

In Crete, he trains with the other tributes at the labyrinthine court of Minos to be a bull-dancer. As such, he is a slave who is destined to die on the horns and hooves of the god's creature, the bull, but as long as he can manage to stay alive, he is considered a sacred and popular athlete who lives a pampered life.

Then he meets Ariadne, the daughter of the king, and he falls in love. She helps him, providing him with a thread to guide him through the labyrinth built by Daidalos and helping him with the rebellion which allows him and his friends to escape from Crete. He takes Ariadne with him but then abandons her on the island of Naxos. So much for true love!

The end of this part of the Theseus myth is that, as he sailed back to Athens, he forgot to change the sail from black to white to signal his father that he was alive and well. His father, thinking him dead, committed suicide by throwing himself from a parapet. Of course, none of this was Theseus' fault. At least in Theseus' telling.

Renault did a really good job of including all the elements of the myth in an understandable human story of supposedly real events. Hers was a unique talent for interpreting myth and making it plausible for modern readers.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Backyard Nature Wednesday: Carolina jessamine

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a native evergreen vine. It is a part of the natural ecosystem from Texas east to Florida and as far north as Virginia. It is a robust grower that has no serious diseases or pests and yet it is relatively easy to control with pruning and pulling up "volunteers." 

The vine is sometimes mistakenly referred to as Carolina "jasmine," but jasmines actually belong to a completely different genus, Jasminum.

Carolina jessamine puts on a truly spectacular display at this time of year. The vines are covered in masses of fragrant yellow trumpet-shaped flowers.

This vine is on a trellis next to my patio, so when I sit outside these days, I'm able to enjoy its wonderful fragrance. 

From every angle, the vine is covered in its wonderful blossoms.

My vine is in full sun and that's where jessamine is happiest, but it will also grow in partial shade or even full shade. And though mine grows on a trellis, it can also be allowed to sprawl and used as a ground cover.

Carolina jessamine is a drought-tolerant plant. In this area, it almost never needs extra water, but in the drier areas west of here, it could benefit from occasional supplemental watering.

This vine can grow as high as 10 to 20 feet and as much as 4 to 8 feet wide. It will thrive as far north as zone 6 and will easily adapt to a wide variety of soils.

The blossoms are fairly long-lasting, but when they finally fall, you get a carpet of yellow.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Great Backyard Bird Count wrapup

This year's four-day Great Backyard Bird Count wrapped up on President's Day, February 15, but if you haven't reported your count yet, you can still do it until March 1. 

I mentioned here in an earlier post about a bird walk at Brazos Bend State Park that I took on Saturday of the count. I counted 18 species of birds during that jaunt. But I also spent time on the other days observing the birds in my own yard.

My designated observation area includes my one-half acre yard plus my next door neighbors' backyard. Their backyard has several large pine trees that attract many woodland birds, such as woodpeckers, so I like to include it in my observations in order to increase my number of species.

I ended my weekend count with a total of thirty-two species. This includes birds that were present in my designated area or were flying over the area.

There was no lack of Northern Cardinals in my count. They are regular visitors to my feeders.

The female cardinal, with her softer colors, is just as pretty as her gaudier mate.

Many of my American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins have already left. Our very mild winter has no doubt convinced them that it is time to head north and start nesting. There were still a few hanging around for the GBBC.

There haven't been as many Cedar Waxwings as usual in my neighborhood this winter. Instead of flocks numbering in the hundreds, smaller groups of 30 to 50 have been more common.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers dropped in on a regular basis during my count.

Some of our winter warblers, too, have already headed north, but there are still plenty of Pine Warblers around.
Here is the complete list of species that allowed me to include them in my count:

Black-bellied Whistling Duck (flying over)
Black Vulture (flying over)
Turkey Vulture (flying over)
Cooper's Hawk
Red-shouldered Hawk (flying over)
White-winged Dove
Rufous Hummingbird
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Downy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Blue Jay
American Crow (flying over)
Carolina Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Brown-headed Nuthatch
Carolina Wren
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird 
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
Cedar Waxwing
Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Chipping Sparrow
Northern Cardinal 
Red-winged Blackbird
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow 

It wasn't the biggest total I've ever had in all the years I have participated in the GBBC, but, considering the amount of time I was able to devote to it this year, I was pretty happy with my results. It's good to know that a variety of birds make themselves at home in my yard.

A musical interlude

It's Monday and maybe some of us need a little pick-me-up, so here's a musical interlude for you. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Caged Bird

When our kids were little, we had a succession of parakeets. They lived in cages, because we also had cats. 

At some point, I found it intolerable to have birds in cages. Birds should fly free. When our last parakeet died, the cage went into the attic and we never got another pet bird.

I know why the caged bird sings. It is dreaming of freedom.

Caged Bird

by Maya Angelou

The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill 
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

This week in birds - #194

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

This Red-tailed Hawk, caught in a sudden shower, got a refreshing bath! Not that he seems too happy about it.

Death Valley is the hottest place on Earth and we do not think of it as being covered in wildflowers, but El NiƱo has the power to change all that. The big weather system from the Pacific created unusually wet conditions and that has resulted in a remarkable wildflower bloom in the normally unforgiving landscape.


Wild Turkeys were extirpated in New Jersey in the 1800s, but, after being reintroduced to the state in the 1970s, they have made a remarkable comeback. So much of a comeback that they have become a hazard in some parts of suburbia where the large territorial birds have been known to threaten and attack humans. I don't know - Wild Turkeys run amok somehow seems a bit of poetic justice. 

These Wild Turkeys are not running amok. They have hundreds of acres to roam, without conflicts with humans,  in a national wildlife refuge.

Large palm oil plantations are anathema to biodiversity, but the smaller plantations are much more friendly to the ecosystem.


The National Park Service is engaged in a large cull of the bison that are the iconic animal of Yellowstone National Park. The herd has grown so large that the park lands may not be able to support it and there are always fears from local ranchers about the spread of disease although there is no evidence of that, so the cull seems to be partly based on sound ecological grounds and part public relations.


A newly discovered black tarantula that is found in the area near Folsom Prison has been named for the singer who made the prison famous - Johnny Cash. The tarantula's proper name is Aphonopelma johnnycashi and it is among 14 new species discovered by scientists who studied more than 3,000 of the hairy critters. 


The shortest possible migratory route for birds is not necessarily the best or safest to travel. So nocturnally migrating songbirds drift with the prevailing winds when possible and then compensate as needed to correct their path. This may partially account for why some migrating birds occasionally wind up in unexpected places.


Earth is covered by a huge variety of ecosystems and the sensitivity of each of them to climate change varies greatly. A new study has delineated the degree of sensitivity in each region and these degrees are made visual by an accompanying map.  


Giant flightless birds are extinct in most of the world today, but at one time, they roamed through many areas of the planet - even in the Arctic. About 53 million years ago, the Arctic was a swamp and it was home to a giant bird with a head the size of a horse's. The bird was identified from a single toe bone that was recently found. 


The U.S. will have trouble meeting its climate goals with the rules that are presently in effect. More is needed, but the problem is how to achieve the needed cuts in the present political climate when one party denies that any action is needed.


News reports have declared that 150,000 Adelie Penguins have perished after an iceberg the size of Rome grounded near their colony, cutting them off from their source of food. However, it is possible that a number of those thought lost have found a way to the sea that will allow them to feed and survive.


Did humans kill off the last dinosaur, a seven-foot-tall bird known as Genyornis newtoni that lived in Australia? Scientists speculate that may be the case. The animal became extinct about 40,000 years ago.


A new study identifies parrots as the most threatened bird group in the world. At least 28% of extant species are classified as threatened.


Researchers are using a trained Bald Eagle named Spirit to help them design wind turbines that will be less deadly to the birds that fly where the turbines are located.


The family of birds known as honeyguides is famous for leading humans and other animals to the places where the bees are making honey. A recent study indicates that the relationship between the birds and those that follow them to the honey may be a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface.


The warming Arctic has become a friendlier place for algae and its related toxins. A new study has found algae-related toxins in Arctic sea mammals for the first time.


Around the backyard:

The four-day weekend of the Great Backyard Bird Count ended on Monday. I did manage to get some observations in over the weekend and ended with a total of 32 species seen in or flying over my yard. I'll give you a full report on that later. If you made observations for the count and have not entered them yet, you can still do it. Data entry for the project is open until March 1.