Saturday, August 19, 2017

This week in birds - #268

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

Rock Wren, photographed at Big Bend National Park.


Here's a somewhat unexpected story: It seems that birding is becoming more popular among millennials! That is a hopeful sign for the future.


In a less hopeful vein, The Guardian has a story about how college-educated young conservationists are having a hard time finding paying jobs and many are giving up and turning to other professions.


The average temperature of the contiguous 48 United States in July was the 10th warmest in 123 years of record-keeping. In addition, the year-to-date (January - July) is the second warmest on record. In July, there were significant climate events in some parts of the country, with much above average temperatures in parts of the West, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast and above average precipitation in the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast.


The Eurasian Curlew, native to Ireland, has been declining for decades in that country due to the loss of habitat in the uplands. The steady deterioration in population means that this species, storied in Irish literature, could be extirpated in Ireland. It is an avoidable tragedy and Irish conservationists are trying to make sure it does not happen.


The original purpose of that bizarre presidential news conference this week was to boast about the fact that the president was signing another executive order repealing an action by President Obama to protect the environment. This one required that bridges, schools, fire stations, roads, and other public infrastructures be built to standards that would take into account rising flood risks. Contractors will no longer have to build structures to withstand the rising waters caused by climate change.


In related news, a series of emails shows that staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been told to avoid the use of the term "climate change". Instead, they are supposed to refer to "weather extremes". Problem solved!


A coalition of business leaders from western states is lobbying the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to keep his hands off the boundaries of national monuments. These federal lands are a significant tourist draw that pump millions of dollars into the area each year. Shrinking them or rescinding protections for the lands, which Zinke and his boss are eager to do, could cost local governments and businesses much-needed cash.


A study of the effect on grassland birds of developing wind energy facilities on the prairies indicates that such facilities have little effect on the birds and are less detrimental to them than the construction of roads and the grazing of cattle on their nesting grounds.


Cities along our coasts, even where governments deny that climate change is happening, are already having to deal with rising tides and the damage they can cause. The traditional solution has been to build a seawall, but such walls can be breached and they are very disruptive to native habitats. Environmental engineers offer more natural, greener alternatives that can use the qualities of the landscape to provide protection.


A new study shows that bird populations flourish in stable environments. Thus, environments with less variability in their climates - i.e., tropics - are more likely to have a larger diversity of species.


Birders and others who are concerned about the environment continue to be appalled by the possibility that a wall will be built through Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas-Mexico border. The 10,000 Birds blog discusses the options for stopping the project and determines that, sadly, environmental laws will probably not save the refuge since those laws can be so easily ignored or rescinded by a hostile government. The key to saving the refuge - if it can be done - will be political. 


The population of the Monarch butterfly of North America has plummeted from a billion to 33 million in two decades. Now, a plan to help the butterfly proposes using the interstate highway system, namely I-35. This highway cuts through the heart of the country and the eastern Monarch's migratory path. Restoring habitat along the highway, planting it with milkweed for caterpillar nurseries and other plants for nectar could go a long way toward aiding a comeback for the butterfly.


The increasing heat in the desert Southwest presents a significant challenge to the continued survival of songbirds there. They must struggle to find enough moisture to stave off dehydration in an increasingly hostile environment.


The wonderfully-named Pepper Trail is an ornithologist, essayist, and poet living in Oregon. He makes the case for the importance of learning the proper names of plants and animals. It is only by knowing their true names that we can begin to know them and to appreciate the habitat of which they are a part.


The Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of Scott Pruitt, is scrapping a measure instituted by the Obama Administration that limited the water pollution that could be released by coal-fired power plants. Now, those plants will be able to pollute away, content in the knowledge that the agency that is supposed to protect the environment is protecting them instead.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The English Assassin by Daniel Silva: A review

Summer seems the perfect time for reading mysteries and thrillers. As the summer doldrums set in - as they definitely have in my neck of the woods - we need something to stir the blood a bit and make the heart race. Thriller/mysteries seem just the ticket for that.

With that thought in mind, I turned to the second book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. I had read the first book in that series, The Kill Artistlast summer, just over a year ago. I was impressed enough to put the series on my reading list and so here I sit, The English Assassin in hand.

Gabriel Allon, for those who may be unaware, is an Israeli art restorer who lives in Cornwall, England. Restoring art is his day job but he also has a second and secret life as an agent of the Israeli government. As such, he is, from time to time, called into service on special assignments.

His secret life has cost him much. Most notably, it cost him the life of his baby son whose body was blown to bits by a car bomb set by a Palestinian agent in Venice several years ago. In that same attack, his beloved wife was horribly injured. She lived but is terribly scarred both physically and emotionally and does not communicate with Gabriel. She lives in a nursing home in England.

Gabriel Allon is a very reluctant agent. He maintains a respect/hate relationship with his handler but it seems he is incapable of refusing an assignment, so when he is asked to go to Zurich to visit a private banker who has information to share, potentially about art or treasure stolen by the Nazis during World War II, he is soon on his way.

His cover for the trip is that he is being asked to restore a Raphael owned by the banker. He arrives at the banker's villa and enters using the codes he has been given. He goes to the room where the Raphael hangs and finds himself standing in blood - the blood of the dead Swiss banker whose body is on the floor.

Realizing his vulnerability and that he may be framed for murder, he leaves but is soon stopped by the Zurich police and arrested. He is soon released but is warned never to return to Zurich.

The thriller unfolds from this event. It turns out that the dead banker has a beautiful blonde daughter who is a famous violinist and Gabriel is assigned to work with her to try to discover what it was that her father wanted to share with the Israelis. Since father and daughter were estranged and she had not been in communication with him, that might prove difficult.

The plot revolves around the art treasures that were stolen from Jews during the Holocaust and the effort to track them down, recover them, and return them to their rightful owners. It's a complicated effort made more difficult by the fact that so many of them are held in private "banks" in Switzerland which seem to be untouched by the rule of international law.

I was fascinated by this exposition of the insular culture of Switzerland and the secretive world of banking there. As one of the characters expostulates at one point, "the whole country is a bank!" I'm not sure that is entirely fair and accurate, but, making allowances for hyperbole, it does seem to go to the heart of explaining how the Swiss see themselves.

Though there was a fair amount of intellectual exposition in the book, there were enough shootings, stabbings, kidnappings, beatings, and torture to keep the most bloodthirsty thriller fan happy. On the whole, it was a good mix and made for a compelling read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty: A review

So Michael Forsythe is an Irish bad boy in the time of "The Troubles". He joined the British army essentially to get out of Northern Ireland but he couldn't stay within the lines prescribed by that estimable organization and kept getting into trouble until finally the army kicked him to the curb.  

Back home in Belfast, he continues his bad boy ways and is constantly getting into more trouble until finally he's used up all his chances. With no further prospects in sight, he takes what's on offer - a ticket to America and work with the Irish mafia there. New York here he comes.

Michael assures us that he didn't want to go to America and he didn't want to work for Darkey White, the memorably named mafia chieftain, but he had not yet seen his twentieth birthday and what other choices did he have? He had entered the country illegally and so his job options were limited.

He settles into his routine with the Darkey White crew. He's a kind of enforcer and it is sometimes violent work. Unfortunately for Michael, even here he finds it difficult to toe the line, especially when it comes to women. He has a wandering eye for the female sex and when his eye settles onto Darkey White's mistress, the reader knows that this is not going to end well. 

Michael Forsythe is the sole narrator of this very noir story, told with a strong Irish lilt in the voice. He gives us a strictly straightforward narration; first this happened, then this. But we are also privy to his dreams and his memories, all of which occasionally makes for some dark reading. 

It seems that people tended to underestimate Michael's toughness and resilience. Certainly Darkey White did, much to his dismay. The retribution he planned for his employee as payback for his having seduced his mistress does not quite work out as intended. Michael is a survivor. After all, this is the first book in a trilogy, so how could it be otherwise?

I had never read any of Adrian McKinty's work, but he certainly has a flair for storytelling. The plot rolls along relentlessly, only stalling a bit during an interlude in Mexico. And his main character is an interesting chap of the "bad boy with a heart of gold" genre. Moreover, during his travels, Michael relies very heavily on the kindness of strangers. Fortuitously, there always seems to be another stranger willing to help him out. 

What does the future hold for young Michael? Two more volumes hold the answers.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Friday, August 11, 2017

Taking a breather

I'm taking a brief respite from blogging in honor of my birthday which happened on Wednesday of this week. This Week in Birds and Poetry Sunday will return next weekend and all my other usual stuff will be back here in a few days.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler: A review

The Peculiar Crimes Unit of London's Metropolitan Police handles some very peculiar crimes indeed. For example, in The Water Room, we have the case of an elderly woman who drowns in river water in her basement, but there is no water in the room and no evidence that the body had been moved. How did the woman's dead body, dressed to go out shopping and seated on a chair in her basement,  end up with filthy river water in her throat? That's just the kind of question for which Arthur Bryant and John May thrive on finding answers.

Bryant and May are the two cranky, quirky detectives who have been partners for fifty years and who are the very heart and soul of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. It seems only fair since they are very peculiar detectives.

In this instance, Bryant intuits that Ruth Singh, the dead woman in the basement, did not die a natural death, and so he and May and other members of their unit set out to prove that a murder has occurred, even though there is no apparent motive, no forensics, and no clues. They interview neighbors, investigate the history of the neighborhood, and search for the thread that will lead them to the solution to what they are convinced is a crime.

In the midst of their investigation, another death occurs in the neighborhood. A workman is buried in mud and suffocates, in what seems like an obvious accident, but once again Bryant and May are convinced that there is more here than meets the eye and that the cave-in of mud that was the instrument of death actually was caused by human intervention. But how to ever prove it?

Then a third death occurs on the street and this time there is no question that it is murder. The victim dies in his bed with clingfilm wrapped several times around his head. Three suffocations, each by different methods. Surely they are somehow related. 

All the while, the rain keeps pouring down and the street where the deaths occurred is threatened with inundation as London's secret underground and forgotten rivers fill up and overflow.

Bryant, who is the instinctual member of the team, consults with witches and psychics, and equally unconventional sources to come up with a theory of what has happened. His investigative method is eccentric, but even though he is rude to everyone with whom he interacts, he does accumulate information and does begin to understand what might have happened.

May, on the other hand, follows a somewhat more conventional path but still wanders into weird territory as he seeks a solution to the crimes. 

London, itself, seems a character in this story. There is abundant information about the topography and history of the city and particularly about the underground rivers that play such a central part in the mystery of the deaths and in their solution. Bryant and May follow the winding course of the subterranean tributaries that lead them eventually to the answers they seek. Answers that will allow the Peculiar Crimes Unit, always one major mistake away from being dissolved, to exist for another day. 

This was an enjoyable read. Christopher Fowler seems really fond of his two ancient detectives and writes of them with empathy and humor. He also writes lovingly of London, its culture, and its people. I found myself invested in the characters and wanting to see them succeed. In that, Fowler did not disappoint.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

I've featured it here before, but this poem has been in the news over the past week, the controversy over its meaning exposing a particularly nasty and hate-filled attitude toward immigrants that is red meat to a certain segment of right-wing America. 

Emma Lazarus wrote her poem as a contribution to the fund-raising effort for construction of a base for the Statue of Liberty. She wrote the poem on November 2, 1883. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886 and Lazarus' poem was later engraved on its base. For generations of Americans since, the two have been symbolic of the country's status as a nation of immigrants and of a welcoming attitude toward those immigrants. This is not a popular concept with our current president and his administration and his avid followers.

Just to remind us about what all the fuss is about, here is the simple sonnet that causes such apoplexy among some of our fellow citizens. 

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!"