Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Recent Birds

We have had a lot of fun birds in our backyard over the past few weeks, this Baltimore Oriole being one of the most beautiful. I’ve glimpsed an Oriole in our backyard once before, but only fleetingly in one of our trees and at that time didn’t get a good enough look to be positive about its identification. This fine bird obligingly landed on bird feeder central and stayed long enough for me to grab a few quick shots with a digital camera. Unfortunately, it didn't stay long enough for Elly, who was upstairs at the time, to see it for herself.

We’ve also had groups of white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumpled warblers, chipping sparrows, and Lincoln’s sparrows. A previous post on Lincoln’s sparrows includes a picture I took of one. Lincoln’s sparrows are quite shy and fly off immediately if another bird approaches.

I have decided one of the main reasons we are getting so many more visitors now is that last fall I started spreading birdseed liberally on our driveway. Doing so has attracted many more birds because it avoids competition at a small feeding station, which, essentially becomes a bottleneck. In addition, while some birds go to extreme lengths to discourage species generally viewed as pests — house sparrows and starlings, for example — we have decided not to worry about attracting them. As a result, we are actually seeing more of the rarer birds one often looks for because the common birds act as decoys, luring them in.

Within the last week the idea occurred to me to start spreading seed in inconspicuous locations, like near shrubbery, which has had the welcome effect of encouraging even more visits from shy birds that feel nervous in exposed locations. It seems simple enough in retrospect, but I wonder how many backyard feeder enthusiasts follow the practice? At any rate, the results are encouraging. I’m looking into increasing the number of native plants and shrubs in our yard as further encouragement for bird (and butterfly) visits.

Mark McKellar at the Backyard Bird Center told me that since we live in an older neighborhood with many mature trees, we might be able to entice orioles to become regular visitors with an oriole feeder (which makes orange halves, nectar, and grape jelly available for these birds). Accordingly, I have set one up in a hackberry tree and we are patiently watching for return visits. Here is one more picture of our recent visitor from Baltimore...

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On Book Buying and Self-Restraint

I was pleased this morning when I checked my book buying log (a spreadsheet I started to track book expenditures in an attempt to work on self-restraint) to see that I had not purchased a single book in the month of April. Unfortunately, some backsliding occurred today. I had a bag of books to trade at Half-Price, and this fatal lure resulted in the purchase of 5 more books. I rationalized that the trade credit covered half the expenditure. And one of the books was a Martha Grimes novel Elly wanted. Then I saw Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People by Dave Tylka at Backyard Bird. I couldn’t pass that up! Then I noticed a new ALexander McCall Smith at Costco, Miracle at Speedy Motors. That was another book for Elly. I also placed an Amazon order today. One of those was for Elly too.

I dutifully added them all into my Book Buying log this evening: 12 books! It puts me at about 1 book every other day. Well, maybe not quite that much because the Amazon order won’t come for a week or two. I guess I’m going to add a Bibliomania category for book buying confession posts. Anyway, here is the list of 12.

Martha Grimes, The Winds of Change. (Elly!)

Edward Hirsch, How to Read A Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. (I’ve had this checked out of the library twice. Figured it might as well have a permanent place in our home.)

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. (I obviously need no help freeing the "book buyer" within.)

Anne Lamott, bird by bird. (I blame this one on Eloise by the Book Piles.)

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale File. (Lovely Everyman’s Library edition for $7.98 at Half-Price.)

Alexander McCall Smith, The Miracle at Speedy Motors. (Elly!)

Dave Tylka, Native Landscaping for Wildlife and People.

Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion. (Another book I have checked out from the library multiple times. I needed it for my next Richard Dawkins rant...)

Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual. (Irresistible. Are you reading this Eloise? One to add to your TBR pile.)

Stephen Fry, The Ode Less Traveled. (Eloise’s fault again. BUT, this is available as a bargain book from Amazon now for $5.99.)

Bill Bryson, Shakespeare: The World as Stage. (Had to return this to the library today and Elly said we might as well order it. Shakespeare books generally come with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card from Elly.)

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis. (One of the most interesting books I have read this year. With, I should say, an extensive, and equally fascinating bibliography, which doesn’t bode well for future book buying restraint...)

The picture of Samba and me was taken this morning. For those of you who are aware that Samba has bone cancer, I am happy to report he is doing excellently ten months after his diagnosis. Life expectancy after a diagnosis of canine bone cancer is usually 2-6 months. Samba is getting a combination of radiation treatments and intravenous pamidronate. He is the first dog our vet has had on this course of treatment. The result has been so good she is now treating two more dogs with the same combination.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Warbler Redux

The yellow-rumped warblers I first saw Wednesday evening were back for more fun and frolic in our hackberry trees last night, Thursday evening, and again this morning. I counted 4-6 of them last night and at least four again this morning. They move around quickly so it is hard to get an exact count. They seem to rove about in a little band of mostly males. One or two seem drab compared with the others so maybe they are females. They don't come down to the feeders at all, but stay up in the hackberry trees pecking insects off the budding branches.

Last night I had the idea of taking my binoculars up to our day room and opening the door so I could have a clear view of them from a higher vantage point. It was raining, but the roof overhangs the doorway so I was able to stand in it and look more or less directly at the birds. Two of them stayed in the hackberry for 15 to 20 minutes. They have yellow patches on their sides just by the front of their wings, yellow crowns, and yellow rumps (of course) which I couldn't actually see from the ground looking up but could see from the day room. They also have pronounced white eye rings that are more prominent than what is shown in Sibley. They weren't bothered by the rain at all.

They are strong fliers and acrobatic when foraging for insects, hanging upside down, twisting every which way, and frequently hovering to peck up insects they couldn't reach from a perch. When one takes off, the rest seem to follow. I hope they hang around for a few more days so Elly can see them when she gets home. They have been the most enjoyable group of feathered visitors we have had in our backyard.

I read in Birds in Missouri by Brad Jacobs (which is a wonderful book for Missouri birders that I purchased at the Backyard Bird Center a few weeks ago) that Lincoln's sparrows, while secretive and rarely seen, will show up on occasion if you scatter birdseed on the ground, which we started doing last fall. I guess that is why we were favored with a visit. It was probably attracted by all the birds which frequent our yard. The house sparrows, mourning doves, and other common urban birds are decoys for the less frequent visitors, who hang about in trees on the margins until things slow down a bit and then fly in for quick foraging raids or just stay in the trees if their preference is for insects.

I wonder if the warblers would have been attracted to our hackberries if all the other birds hadn't been present? I know some people go to considerable lengths to avoid feeding more common birds like starlings, house sparrows, etc. It may be possible that by doing so they are limiting their chances to see rare visitors they are eager to view. That would be ironic.

I saw several dark-eyed juncos last night and a few again this morning. We've gone a few days without having any, and I was starting to wonder if we had seen the last of them until fall. They usually head north for their breeding grounds around the middle of April, not returning until the middle of October. I also saw a white-throated sparrow this morning. They stay year-round, but visit our yard less frequently in warmer months when insects, grubs, and other food is plentiful.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Yellow-Rumped Warbler

I decided not to make any stops on the way home from work so I would have time to mow our front yard this evening. It was the first mowing of the year, and, to be truthful, was a bit over-due, as our front yard has a southern exposure. I had to make frequent stops to empty the grass catcher.

When I finished mowing, I fed Samba and decided to sit out in the backyard for a while to enjoy the evening air and give Samba the opportunity to enjoy it too. Or, more accurately, to eat grass. Why do dogs do that? Before Elly and I became wise to the ways of dogs, we imagined they ate grass because they felt sick and throwing up made them feel better. We have since realized that they make themselves sick by eating the grass, which they like for some unaccountable reason. Anyway, it takes a lot of grass to make Samba sick (he is big!), and he wasn't going after it in earnest so I didn't worry much about the matter.

Instead I sat in my La Fuma lawn chair, sipping a glass of white wine, reading a bit from American Mania by Peter Whybrow, and congratulating myself on not being caught up in the rat race. Elly is in Florida for the week, and Samba and I have been doing the best we can without her. (Not that well, really.)

Still, it was a fine evening and glancing over at our neighbor's mullberry tree, which hasn't leafed out yet, I saw a bird hopping about and new immediately it was a warbler. I can't say just how I knew this, only, after watching lots of birds for a few years, one becomes surprisingly adept at sorting them out. Of course, there are about a zillion different warblers, and warblers are tiny birds, so I couldn't identify it naked eye. I popped inside for binoculars and the bird obliged me by hanging about until I came back. It was a yellow-rumped warbler. These come in two varieties, apparently, and this one was a Myrtle male. (The other variety is know as Audobon's.) These used to be classified as separate species, but the discovery that they inter-breed has resulted in a reclassification. Apparently, the two types were separated by glaciation during the last ice-age, which has caused subtle differences in their plumage. A fine article about them can be found in the Wikipedia. Lots of nice pictures are available on the web, too.

I haven't seen one of these before, though they are said to be fairly common migrants in our area. I've come to realize that if one only spends time outside, relaxing and looking about, all sorts of birds can actually be seen during migration periods. The trouble is we so rarely take the time to look. A few minutes won't do it. You actually need to sit still for half an hour or more and watch patiently. Of course, it helps to have mature trees about. Our neighborhood is about 100 years old, so we have plenty of those.

As the twilight began to deepen I noticed the waxing gibbeous moon was high in the eastern sky, and not yet covered with clouds, so I brought out my 4-inch telescope and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes refamiliarizing myself with some of its features. The forecast is for thunderstorms after midnight, and by the time I was putting the telescope away I could smell rain in the air. Still a few hours away.

I was struck by how hectic the last few nights have seemed, and how this evening has been so relaxed and rewarding by comparison. Coming straight home from work made the difference. I got home before 6:00 pm and had the front yard mowed by seven. Plus, I already had dinner prepared (left over shrimp creole from the other night).

Happiness Trap

“Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” (p. 4)

“In sum, the rider is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. The rider is Gazzaniga’s interpreter module; it is conscious, controlled thought. The elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system. The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings. But they don’t always work together well.” (p. 17)

“The elephant was shaped by natural selection to win at the game of life, and part of its strategy is to impress others, gain their admiration, and rise in relative rank. The elephant cares about prestige, not happiness, and it looks eternally to others to figure out what is prestigious. The elephant will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere. If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige, then all are stuck in a zero-sum game, an eternal arms race, a world in which rising wealth does not bring rising happiness. The pursuit of luxury goods is a happiness trap; it is a dead end that people race toward in the mistaken belief that it will make them happy.” (p. 101)

— from The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wallace Stevens Contemplating

from Wallace Steven's journal, Sunday, August 10, 1902 [New York]
Letters of Wallace Stevens: Selected and Edited by Holly Stevens

In the early part of the day I saw some very respectable country which, as usual, set me contemplating. I love to walk along with a slight wind playing in the trees about me and think over a thousand and one odds and ends. Last night I spent an hour in the dark transept of St. Patrick's Cathedral where I go now and then in my more lonely moods. An old argument with me is that the true religious force in the world is not the church but the world itself: the mysterious callings of Nature and our responses. What incessant murmurs fill that ever-laboring, tireless church! But to-day in my walk I thought that after all there is no conflict of forces but rather a contrast. In the cathedral I felt one presence; on the highway I felt another. Two different deities presented themselves; and, though I have only cloudy visions of either, yet I now feel the distinction between them. The priest in me worshipped one God at one shrine; the poet another God at another shire. The priest worshiped Mercy and Love; the poet, Beauty and Might. In the shadows of the church I could hear the prayers of men and women; in the shadows of the trees nothing human mingled with Divinity. As I sat dreaming with the Congregation I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses stimulating and consoling them; and as I went tramping through the fields and woods I beheld every leaf and blade of grass revealing or rather betokening the Invisible. (pp. 58-9)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Google Notebooks

I have gotten very interested in many of the tools Google offers to users for free. For one thing, they often include mobile versions for wireless phones and other mobile devices. I recently purchased a Palm Treo 755p smart phone, which has one of the best miniature querty keyboards I have seen and features a convenient user interface. It’s great for accessing web pages, believe it or not, especially ones that offer a mobile style sheet.

Google’s Notebook tool is a terrific way to make quick notes on anything you want to keep track of. Notes can be organized into individual notebooks you create, and within notebooks into individual sections. Convenient search options are also provided. The user interface is intuitive and easy to learn. What’s more, the tool includes a nifty clip feature enabling you to clip items of interest from web pages and insert them automatically into notebooks.

The mobile version is limited to viewing notebooks and adding notes (you can’t create notebooks in the mobile view, for instance.) But just being able to add notes from your phone is a terrific feature. At least, it is if you always carry your phone. It’s easy to use while reading, no matter where you happen to be.

I’ve been trying to figure out a convenient way to search my notes from the phone (the mobile version of notebook doesn’t include the search features either). I finally realized if I published a notebook (another feature of the tool) and made it available as a web page, I could view the page on my phone’s browser and use the browser’s search text feature to locate notes. I decided to add a few of the notebooks I have published as links on my blog just for fun. My notes aren’t great reading, by any means, but they do provide an audit trail for my eclectic rambling through topics that interest me.

If you happen to be an inverterate note-taker, you owe it to yourself to check out Google’s cool (and free!) notebook tool.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Elly and I added a bird to our life list this evening, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, bringing the total to 90 (a pitiful number in the eyes of seasoned birders I’m afraid, but there it is). We noticed the elegant little visitor foraging for seeds on our gravel walkway, and I managed to get some pictures of him. Her? It was just a bit smaller than several dark-eyed juncos who were also frequenting the area.

Seeing a new bird is fun, especially so when we find it in our own backyard. We have had a run of luck in the last few weeks, seeing Great-Tailed grackles for the first time. Then seeing a ruby-crowned kinglet, which we have observed before but not in our own yard. And then this fine bird. The Lincoln’s sparrow was named by Audubon in honor of Thomas Lincoln, who was a friend of his, as well as being the father of Abraham Lincoln.

The pictures don’t do it justice, actually. Many of the American sparrows are beautiful little birds, far different from the common House sparrows, which aren’t even native to the Americas (European imports), and aren’t actually related to our own sparrows. Nevertheless, they are what most people think of as sparrows. The Lincoln’s sparrow who visited us was a treat, and stayed around for an obligingly long time to have his picture taken and be carefully studied. These sparrows are said to be secretive birds and somewhat rare migrants in Missouri.

The Pursuit of Happiness

The most widely reported conclusion, from surveys done by psychologist Ed Diener, is that within any given country, at the lowest end of the income scale money does buy happiness: People who worry every day about paying for food and shelter report significantly less well-being than those who don’t. But once you are freed from basic needs and have entered the middle class, the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes smaller. The rich are happier on average than the middle class, but only by a little, and part of this relationship is reverse correlation: Happy people grow rich faster because, as in the marriage market, they are more appealing to others (such as bosses), and also because their frequent positive emotions help them to commit to projects, to work hard, and to invest in their futures. Wealth itself has only a small direct effect on happiness because it so effectively speeds up the hedonic treadmill. For example, as the level of wealth has doubled or tripled in the last fifty years in many industrialized nations, the levels of happiness and satisfaction with life that people report have not changed, and depression has actually become more common. Vast increases in gross domestic product let to improvements in the comforts of life — a larger home, more cars, televisions, and restaurant meals, better health and longer life — but these improvements became the normal conditions of life; all were adapted to and taken for granted, so they did not make people feel any happier or more satisfied.

— Jonathan Haidt
The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 88-89

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Great-Tailed Grackle

I needed something to cheer me up today and found this huge fellow stomping around our feeding station this afternoon. Of course, it could be a female...

Anyway, it is a Great-tailed Grackle. We saw one of these for the first time a few weeks ago. Elly spotted it and commented that it was the largest grackle she had ever seen. Actually, she said it looks like a cross between a grackle and a crow. I didn’t get any pictures on that occasion. Here is one I took today with a common grackle in the same frame to show the size comparision.

The Great-Tailed grackles are really big. Diana Sudyka has a wonderful watercolor of one on her Tiny Avery blog. She and her husband Jay (both artists) were in Austin for a poster event a few weeks back, and I guess these were thick on the ground down there.

We had another birding first (for our backyard) yesterday: a ruby-crowned kinglet. I’ve actually seen these in wooded areas near our neighborhood, but never in our backyard before. Elly and I both got a good look at the little fellow: about the size of a Great-tailed grackle’s head! I actually saw the bird’s ruby crown, which I haven’t seen before.

I tried to get a picture of it flying up into the air because they fan their tails in flight, which is really impressive, but that didn’t work out. Here is one more snap of the Great-tailed. I can’t help thinking of these as the velociraptor of the grackle world.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Sailing with Captain Blood

Eloise by the Book Piles introduced me to Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood with a post on her blog. It was her first book of 2008, and her account of reading it was so enticing I bought a copy when my self-imposed book buying moratorium ended at the end of January. Of course, the novel was made into a famed pirate movie starring Errol Flynn, which I haven’t actually seen, but which lack will be remedied shortly.

Peter Blood, an Irish physician whose varied career includes military service in France, is sentenced to a life of slavery and transported to a Barbados plantation after treating a rebel fighting against King James. But the resourceful Blood escapes from captivity after capturing a Spanish privateer with a crew of ex-slaves and becomes the terror of the Spanish main. Before Blood leaves the island he falls in love with Arabella Bishop, a beautiful and spirited young woman who has the misfortune to be the niece of one of the tale’s principal villains, an inhuman slave owner who is also in charge of the island’s militia and takes command of a small fleet to pursue the elusive pirate.

Sabatini captivates his reader from the first page of the novel, which, simply put, is unadulterated fun. For me, it brings back summers I spent growing up at my grandparents’ home in the Ozarks, swimming, fishing, learning woodworking with my grandfather in his workshop, and reading adventure stories in the air-conditioned den sequestered from the heat of July and August afternoons. My grandfather loved to read, a trait he passed on to my mother and through her to his grandchildren. He was a great fan of Zane Gray and Louis Lamour. Lamour westerns were a staple of my summer reading, and share much in common with Sabatini’s pirate yarn, despite the different venue. The heroes were resourceful, gallant, and upright, while the heroines were quick-witted and steadfast. Granddad collected a whole set of Zane Gray in an inexpensive Walter J. Black edition. Dozens and dozens of books. When I came across some of these at Half-Price books, I bought a few of his favorite titles as a keepsake. These include The Riders of the Purple Sage, 30,000 on the Hoof, The Hash Knife Outfit, and The Mysterious Rider.

I don’t know if Granddad ever read Captain Blood. At least, I have no recollection of his having the book. If he had, I’m sure he would have loved the story. Here is one of my favorite pictures of my grandfather, looking more than a little piratical with his cockatiel, Mully, perched on his shoulder.

My mother, an Earth science teacher, brought Mully home along with several Zebra finches one day. Dad and Granddad, who lived with us for the last years of his life, made all sorts of fun of Mom for bringing those birds home. But, within a few weeks, Mully’s cage was mysteriously transported into my Granddad’s room, and they were close companions from then on. Granddad taught Mully to speak and often fell asleep in his chair with Mully perched on his shoulder. More than once Mully took advantage of the situation to climb down Granddad’s arm and chew all the buttons of his TV remote control. Granddad would wryly pay my father to fetch him a new one from Sears and Roebuck.

We lost Granddad and Mom within a few years of each other. Dad kept Mully for the rest of his life, and when Dad passed away, the folks at the retirement community asked if they could keep Mully in their menagerie. In addition to teaching him to speak, Granddad also taught him to make wolf whistles at the ladies. Like Granddad, Mully was quite the charmer.