Friday, March 23, 2018

This week in birds - #296

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

This was a life bird for me - the Phainopepla, photographed here at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute and Nature Center near Fort Davis in West Texas. In previous visits to the area, I had always managed to miss seeing this bird, even though it is not particularly uncommon, but this time I got good views of it on several occasions and finally was able to take its picture at this water feature in the Nature Center. Beautiful bird! Those glossy black feathers are almost iridescent and I love the brilliant red eyes.


The impact of the effects of global climate change on various bird species is still unknown, but it seems very likely that national parks will be hosts to even more of them in the future and that they will be increasingly important in the efforts to protect the birds. And that is a very good reason to protect the parks themselves from exploitation and development.


The Tongass in Alaska is the world's largest intact temperate rainforest. It has trees that are more than 1,000 years old, but there are those who would cut them all in the name of "progress." Many politicians, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, are pushing for more old-growth loggingIf their efforts are successful, the country stands at risk of losing some of its last remaining coniferous old growth in order to sustain south-east Alaska’s last industrial-scale sawmill.


Eagle cams that give us a view of the activities at eagle nests around the country are very popular internet viewing sites. On St. Patrick's Day, the camera trained on the nest above the Metropolitan Police Department Training Academy in Washington, D.C., recorded the hatching of the first Bald Eagle chick at that nest. 


A group of present and former Environmental Protection Agency employees is organizing to try to save and protect the agency from the efforts at its destruction at the hands of Scott Pruitt, the present administrator of EPA.


Dozens of species of birds of the French countryside have seen their numbers decline, in some cases by as much as two-thirds, as a result of the use of pesticides which destroy the insects which they would normally feed upon. 


Seventy-nine thousand tons of plastic debris, in the form of 1.8 trillion pieces, now occupy an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, a scientific team reported on Thursday. The amount of plastic found in this area, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is “increasing exponentially,” according to the surveyors, who used two planes and 18 boats to assess the ocean pollution.


Scientists in Australia have enlisted the help of the public in finding and tracking the movements of Australian birds. Banding has been less than successful and so the scientists are asking citizens to pick up feathers which they find in their area and mail them in for identification and tabulation. So far, the response has been heartening and the data base is growing.


The National Park Service announced plans this week to move forward with its proposal to put 20 to 30 wolves on Isle Royale in Lake Superior over the next three years in order to bolster the nearly extinct wolf population on the island and control the growing herd of moose.


Sadly, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the wild died this week. That leaves only two females, his daughter and granddaughter, and thus the species is, for all intents and purposes, extinct. However, conservationists have some small hope of keeping the species alive with the use of in vitro fertilization.


More than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand, and polluted supplies, according to a UN report on the state of the world’s water. The comprehensive annual study warns of conflict and civilizational threats unless actions are taken to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs.


In Iceland's Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, Arctic foxes are thriving and offering hope that the species will be able to adapt to a warming climate. They are also giving scientists a chance to observe first hand how the species evolves or modifies behavior in order to adjust to the changing climate.


Wyoming is proposing to allow the hunting of grizzly bears. It would be the first such hunt allowed in the 48 contiguous states since the bear was put on the endangered species list in 1975. The current administration in Washington has removed that protection, opening the way for the possible hunt. The proposal is now open for public comment before it can be implemented. A final decision is expected by May.


Aerial surveys of the wintering Red Knot population in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America revealed a new low total of 9,840 birds. As recently as the year 2000, 50,000 Red Knots were counted in the winter survey there.


According to new research, the quality of the insect diet of birds has declined dramatically over the past century. This conclusion was reached through the study of museum specimens from that earlier period.


Mia McPherson's On the Wing Photography has a series of pictures of Greater Sage-Grouse displaying on their leks.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker: A review

St. Denis is a small town set smack in the middle of the Perigord region of France, an area known for its gourmet foods and fine wines and for its caves. The region is dotted with them. Many served as shelter as far back as the Neanderthals and some have the magnificent paintings on their walls that bespeak the artistry and culture of long-dead peoples. 

Those caves also played an important role in the Resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. The caves were hiding places for people, supplies, and arms. That particular bit of history still looms large in St. Denis where there are people alive who still remember it. 

One of the caves that played such a role is the so-called Devil's Cave of this book's title. It is also integral to the mystery which Bruno Courrèges, Chief of Police of St. Denis, must try to solve.

The case begins on a fine spring day as the local church choir is practicing for its Easter concert. Bruno is observing and enjoying the practice when he receives a call that tells him that a body has been found.

In fact, the body is that of a naked woman that has been laid out on a punt floating down the river. The body has a pentagram painted on her abdomen, black candles around her, and a decapitated black cockerel beside her. The scene gives all the appearances of the trappings of a Black Mass. 

There is no identification on the body or in the boat and no one recognizes her, but Bruno is finally able to identify her as the daughter of a famous woman who was part of the Resistance and who, it turns out, is still alive and living in St. Denis but has supposedly been lost to Alzheimer's Disease.

The death of the woman at first appears to be suicide, but when the autopsy is performed, it becomes apparent that it is really a case of murder. As Bruno investigates, he finds that the death may somehow be related to a scheme to build a resort village in St. Denis, something that is touted as bringing jobs, money, and prosperity to this quiet region. Digging deeper, he begins to suspect that those involved in the planning and construction are actually perpetrating a fraud on his beloved St. Denis, something they have already done in another nearby town.

In the midst of this complicated investigation, another death occurs. This time it is a local drunk and wife beater whom Bruno had recently interacted with and the death looks like a traffic accident. But once again, the autopsy gives the lie to that supposition. Bruno, in fact, has two murders on his hands, but are they related?

I'm beginning to warm up to Bruno. In previous books, I've sometimes found him smug to the point of obnoxiousness, but he came across as quite a likable human being in this book, one who really enjoys cooking for his friends and sharing his wine with them. I find reading about his food preparation as one of the more endearing aspects of these stories. 

One of the "gourmet" dishes he cooked in this book was "beer can chicken" which he learned about from a Texan with whom he was stationed in Sarajevo. That's one of the few dishes he's cooked that I'm actually familiar with!

His love of animals is also endearing. His beloved basset hound was killed in the previous book, but now here comes his friend/lover from Paris, Isabelle, with a replacement, a basset hound puppy named Balzac. I feel sure we will get to know Balzac much better in coming books. 

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Below Zero by C.J. Box: A review

Six years before the events of this book, Joe and Marybeth Pickett's foster daughter, April, had apparently died in a fiery explosion when the FBI raided the camp of a group of militia-types who were squatting on public lands near Saddlestring, Wyoming. April's birth mother had taken her to the camp. After the fire, the bodies of a woman and a young girl were found in the trailer where Joe had seen April. It was assumed that the body was hers. The Picketts buried the child and grieved for her.

But was the body really April's? That is thrown into question because now, out of the blue, the Picketts' older daughter, Sheridan, is receiving text messages from someone who claims to be April. Is it possible? Where is she, this child who would now be fourteen years old?

Joe Pickett is in disgrace in his job after the events of the last book, in which he abetted the escape from custody of that noted criminal, and Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski. It is only his relationship with the governor that has saved him from being summarily dismissed, but, as punishment, he has been assigned a post far from his home and family. When he learns of the text messages that his daughter is receiving, he asks the governor to release him from duty so that he can investigate.

He checks the text messages and finds that there is information there that would have been known by April. Can she really be alive?

He gets help from a contact in the FBI in tracking the cell phone that the messages are being sent from and notices a troubling fact: The points from which messages are sent seem to be aligning with reported murders. He learns that the teenage girl - whoever she is - may be traveling with a Chicago mobster and his son who is an environmental warrior. What can possibly be the meaning of all this?

One of the strengths of this series is the well-developed characters of the Pickett family - Joe, Marybeth, Sheridan, and Lucy. But in this book, I felt that the family members' characters were being distorted and that they were cardboard figures, not fully developed people. Moreover, the plot seemed contrived and fell a bit flat for me. I just really had a hard time believing in it or caring much about where it was taking me.

There were some interesting parts of the story, including the efforts of the environmental warrior and his gangster father to reduce the father's carbon footprint on the planet to "below zero" so that the mortally ill father can die in peace. Of course, the ways in which they attempt to reduce the carbon footprint involve creating a very large moral stain, so perhaps not the best choices.

At one point in the book, Box puts the argument between believers in and deniers of human abetted climate change in the voice of Nate Romanowski. Nate reckons that he hasn't really decided what to believe because there are credible arguments on both sides of the issue. No, Nate (and Box), there really aren't, and I think it was just about at this point that I began to lose patience with the book.

Overall, it was in some ways an interesting read but certainly not my favorite of the series.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon: A review

I read a lot of mysteries on our recent vacation. This was one of them.

This was the second in Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series.  Although two is not a large sample, I am very much enjoying these stories so far. Brunetti is a very likable chap and I especially enjoy his relationship with his family and the fact that the family is shown as an integral part of his life. It's not something one always finds in one's favorite fictional detectives and it gives an added resonance to the tales. 

The death referred to in the title is the death of an American soldier stationed at a nearby base at Vicenza. His body is found floating in a Venetian canal. He had been stabbed and it appears that his death may have been the result of a mugging gone wrong. But Brunetti finds reasons to be skeptical of that explanation.

Sgt. Michael Foster was a public health inspector at the army base and Guido suspects that his death may somehow be related to his job. Perhaps he had uncovered problems related to public health that those in authority did not want brought to the attention of the media and the public.

Brunetti travels to Vicenza, talks to Foster's commander, who it turns out was also his lover, and his sense of uneasiness that something is very wrong with the whole situation grows. Returning to Venice, he learns from his blustering boss, Vice-Quetore Patta, that the case is to be closed and it will go into the books as a mugging gone wrong because that's what those in power want. 

Brunetti is incensed by the miscarriage of justice, even more so when he continues to follow clues and learns what it may be that Foster had uncovered: a conspiracy among the U.S. and Italian governments and the Mafia to cover up illegal dumping of toxic waste. 

Then Foster's commanding officer/lover also turns up dead from an overdose. Was it suicide? Did she take her own life because she was despondent over Foster's death? Or was she killed to keep her quiet and her death made to look like suicide? Brunetti, of course, suspects the latter.

In order to get to the bottom of these events and resolve his investigation, Brunetti needs help. He calls upon his father-in-law, a wealthy and powerful man who has connections both in government and apparently in the Mafia. The father-in-law readily assists the husband of his only child. Once again the family connections in these books loom large in what seems like an accurate depiction of Italian society.

Donna Leon is especially skilled at describing the Venetian landscape - or should that be seascape? - and the Machiavellian nature of its society. She truly makes the reader see and understand how the culture has evolved and how it operates. It may not be transparent and straightforward, but it does seem to work and even though the end result may not be justice as we (or Guido Brunetti) would recognize it, a kind of equity is achieved.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars    

Monday, March 19, 2018

Home again!

Home again, just in time to greet spring. 

As we traveled east on our way home from the mountains of West Texas, the landscape around us got greener and greener. The wildflowers along the roadway verges were in full bloom, a riot of colors - bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and many others. (Thank you, Lady Bird!) And as we arrived in our own backyard, we found that spring had already got there before us. 

The old azalea was in full bloom.

The redbud that had just begun to bloom when we left ten days ago had already passed its peak and dropped some of its blossoms but there were still plenty left.

The Indian hawthorn was in full bloom.

And so was the coral honeysuckle.

The autumn sages are beginning to bloom. Here's the raspberry.

And here's the red. 

'Belinda's Dream' rose has fat buds that are just about ready to open.

While 'Old Blush,' the antique rose, has been blooming for a while now.

And 'Peggy Martin' has many of these little nosegays covering the plant that sprawls on the side of the garden shed.

A few poppies are still in bloom.

I was delighted to find the Satsuma mandarin orange tree in full flower. With any luck, we'll get a good crop of these little oranges this year.

And the crossvine is starting to bloom, just in time for the Easter season.

Has spring arrived where you are? I know some parts of the country are still enduring winter storms, but hold on! Spring is on its way to you, too.

Friday, March 9, 2018

On the road again

I'll be absent from this space and mostly absent from the internet for the next 9-10 days, because we are headed out on a road trip! We'll be traveling around West Texas from Big Bend National Park up to the Davis Mountains/Marfa area. It is a beautiful and varied landscape encompassing mountains, desert, and, of course, that river that gives Big Bend its name. I'll be reporting back with pictures (I hope) but probably not until I'm home again. So, watch this space! 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin: A review

I had problems with this book. Mostly confusion. This is the third book in the trilogy and by now I guess I should be used to Jemisin's method of jumping around between time periods and characters, without warning and without explaining who is what, as well as introducing new characters or concepts with no background or preparation. But this one really threw me for a loop and I spent maybe the first quarter to third of the book floundering and trying to find my feet.

In the end though, I was so bowled over by the creativity of her imagination and the uniqueness of the world that she has built for us in these books that I sort of gave her a pass on her confusing method of presenting the story. Her descriptive writing is clear enough that one can see - or "sess" - the overall picture that she is presenting even when individual parts remain baffling.

So, Syl Anagist? What's up with that? Has it been mentioned in the other books? Not that I remember. Apparently, it was the great founding civilization on the planet and they created the stone eaters as a kind of bridge - "tuners" - between ordinary humans and the powers of orogeny which the Syl Anagistans sought to control. They created the stone eaters in the image of the Niess, a tribe of people who were proficient at using magic. The Niess were destroyed and dissected by the Syl Anagistans in order to try to understand the source of their magic. (I guess the idea of just observing or asking them never occurred to the "great civilization.")

So, we get all this background on Syl Anagist, as far as I can tell, through the voice of the stone eater Hoa, who was Essun's companion and protector in the previous book. Stone eaters, it seems, live forever. Or at least for a very, very long time. And they have unique powers. For one thing, they are able to travel through the center of the Earth to get from one hemisphere to another or one side of the world to the other. Not only that but they are able to transport humans with them and that is an important factor in the development of the plot.

And the plot here is that Essun is still searching for her daughter, Nassun. Nassun, now ten years old, still has Schaffa, the Guardian, as her companion and protector. Essun continues to travel with the people from the comm Castrima as they look for a new place to live after their last community was destroyed.

Father Earth is a sentient entity and he is still furious with humans and essentially trying to wipe them off the planet in revenge for their many sins against the planet, but especially because they caused the Moon to be flung out of its orbit long ago. Earth has been wreaking vengeance against humans for the loss of his child ever since.

This, then, is the story of the separation of parent and child and of trying to get the two back together again. Essun has a plan. She will harness the power of the obelisks to bring Moon back to its orbit and make Father Earth happy again and make him end the destructive "Fifth Seasons." Meanwhile, Nassun also has a plan for harnessing the power of the obelisks. Like mother, like daughter. And Hoa will transport Essun and some members of her comm through the center of Father Earth to the place where Nassun is. The stage is set for an explosion of powerful forces.

Well, this is fantasy after all. The laws of physics do not apply. Anything goes. One just has to suspend disbelief and hang on tight for the ride. And enjoy the fantastical artistic vision and exquisite writing.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars