Monday, July 31, 2006

Insurgents, Sectarian Violence and....Camel Spiders?

My friend and neighbor Tyler Williamson (introductory posts here and here) has been serving in Iraq for about a year. During that time he has been shelled and shot at, sunburned and sand-blinded, overworked, underpaid and much too far from home. But he's the kind of guy who can handle this sort of thing.

For my benefit (and his, I'm sure) Tyler has been sending occasional pictures of the Iraqi wildlife he encounters, from magpie-like Pied Crows, to bronzed river carp to a long-legged kind of native fox. Today he sent this, which evidently caused quite a stir at headquarters.

The troops call them "camel spiders" and give them due respect. They are in fact spider-relatives, solpugids (the Solifugae), a gruesome lot combining all the "best" features of spiders, scorpions and bedtime closet monsters.

A face only a mother could love?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good"

The headline in the Albuquerque Journal for Thursday, July 27, says: "Falcons set for Return to Wild". But the subtitle adds "Lack of Protection Angers Activists".

As many as 150 individual Aplomado falcons will be released this year in NM under a hack program not unlike the one that restored the Peregrine. But because they will be designated an experimental population (which is what they ARE) ranchers will be allowed to go on ranching and mineral exploration will continue. This upsets such "conservation" groups as the Forest Guardians and five other organizations (modern reporting-- no others are named though I'd guess one of the others is the notorious Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, far more devoted to social engineering than conservation, by even their own statements), who are-- you can't make this up-- suing to stop the reintroduction.

This is madness. Every time there is a chance at compromise in the land use wars of the West, idiots like these attempt to torpedo it. They would rather attempt to bring down the "western paradigm"-- I'm just quoting other SWCBD spokesmen here-- than allow ranchers and falcons to co-exist.

Oh and-- another note to the reporter--it is by no means clear or even likely that "pesticides" had any effect on the Aplomado. Although you beat the Arizona Star reporter, who thinks pesticides made the eggs "hatch too early".

Is there an alternative? Well, yes. Check out these people. And then give them some money if you can.

Rifles: Of Roosevelt and Russians...

Winchester recently closed its doors, an event that some slightly overwrought gunwriters have likened to the end of our civilization. I am not quite that depressed, but I am glad I own one of their more obscure products: a Model 1895 rifle in .405 Winchester:

Introduced in (of course) 1895, it was the first lever rifle designed for hot "modern" loads, and its box magazine allowed cartridges with pointed bullets to be loaded, unlike earlier models with tubular magazines that might let the point of one bullet detonate the primer of the one ahead under recoil. The '95 was soon chambered in .303 British, .30- 40 Krag, .30- 03 (the brief precursor of the .30- 06) and .30- 06 "Government".

Winchester also introduced its proprietary load, the .405 Winchester, which until the factory chambering of .375 H & H in the Model 70 in the late 30's was the most powerful American cartridge available. It accompanied American expeditions to Asia and Africa, most notably Teddy Roosevelt's great African safari. He called it his "Medicine Gun" and used it on all his lions. It is still rather popular with bear guides and handloaders.

My modern version had at some point been drilled and tapped for a complicated peep sight. I went in search of the right one and came upon it here.

Any reader of this blog will know that I am not likely to be able to come up with $225 for a mere sight; besides, the ones already on the gun work. But I did wonder "Why Ukrainian?" And I think I have come up with an answer.

Winchester made less than 133,000 guns in all for the commercial market, including all calibers mentioned above, from .30- 40 Krag to .405. But in 1925- 1916 the Imperial Russian Army ordered 293,816 rifles in musket (barrel- banded) configuration! All were chambered in 7.62 X 54 "Russian" or Mosin Nagant, still a useful caliber available in sturdy Russian surplus rifles,like the one being shot by Chas here:

I suspect many are still in use; "gun control', even in Soviet Russia, is and was a myth away from the cities. Winchesters are good enough. So why not keep making sights?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Guns in a Crisis

A little disclosure before I post this gun note: I'm a registered Democrat. I consider myself liberal (tho that's lowercase, viewing the word from the root) . More germane to this post, I know almost nothing about the two heirloom firearms I own and will admit to real discomfort around guns.

Despite all this, I am not an idiot.

I support gun ownership and shooting people when necessary to protect life and property. It follows I should believe some people pose real threats to lives and property I care about. This is true even in the best of times (mainly because for some, it is always the worst of times; and desperation abounds). But during large scale natural disasters, everyone with something to protect ought to have a gun. Or two.

This notion, repeatedly called "insane" by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (news, bio, voting record), D-N.Y, strikes Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) as just plain common sense. Jindal, an exceptionally bright, young public servant and upwardly mobile politician (he lost a close race for La. Governor in our last election) saw legally-owned firearms seized by law enforcement in the wake of hurricane Katrina---when an entire US region, including large communities across five states, descended into pre-historic anarchy.

The state of affairs in post-Katrina New Orleans infamously contained a kind of open warfare or jungle law that one normally associates with third-world tribal conflicts, only less well-organized. Police control of the violence or protection of innocents was not an option---as Jindal notes, "It was literally impossible to pick up a phone and call 911." Today the situation in New Orleans is hardly better in many neighborhoods, and we've called in the National Guard to patrol the streets... Again.

That this can happen in the world's tamest, wealthiest countries testifies to citizens' need of personal (as opposed to civil or military) protection. I count among such means of protection big dogs, booby-traps, neighborhood militia and guns in the home and on the hip.

A Jindal-sponsored bill to prevent the seizure of legally owned firearms in future disasters and times of emergency passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Toulouse- Lautrec and Falconry

Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec's father was a falconer and sportsman, and though he painted everything from ladies of the night to horses, many do not know that he also painted hawks. Here is his portrait of his father, Count Alphonse de Toulouse- Lautrec, painted by Henri in 1881 when he was just seventeen (the color seems a bit off):

From Paul Domski: this dedication to his son that Count Henri penned in his son's copy of the "Small Handbook on Falconry" (1876):

"Remember, my son, that the only healthy way to live is out in the open
air and daylight, that everything deprived of freedom loses its
identity soon and dies. This little book on falconry will teach you to
appreciate the life of the open fields; and should you one day
experience the bitterness of life, first horses, then hounds and
falcons will be precious companions and help you forget things a

And here is a Sparrowhawk he did at 16:

Motorcycle Nomads

Roseann sent this insightful piece on the use of motorcycles by nomads in Tibet. I have seen the same thing in Mongolia.

It got us to musing on some westerners' desires for "purity" in the Third World, which often translates into "stay romantic for OUR sake". Says Roseann:

"I loved that photo - over the years I've totally changed my view of other cultures' need/desire to be modern like us. So many of us only have Western eyes that only want to see "quaint" and "indigenous" and "noble" cultures - I have to think, 20,000 years ago (or whenever the horses showed up when man was schlepping around the steppes) and they were walking nomads and they saw horses and said, "Cool! Gotta get me one of those!" - were there cultures looking at them from afar saying "Oh no! You can't get HORSES you're WALKING nomads - we like you the way you are!" I picture some yoga-precious types with "Free Tibet" bumper stickers heading over there for a spiritual experience and meeting these guys who greet them: "Dude! Can I have your Ray Bans? What's your email?"

"Why do first world modern cultures cling so tightly to their romantic view of primitive life?

"Perhaps the answer - or yet another riddle - lies in the recent Sundance catalog, filled with all manner of overpriced goods to satisfy the yuppie consumer's need to go retro and "primitive." It makes sense that a Tibetan nomad would want a motorcycle. But does it make sense that a multi-degreed, six-figure-income WASP would want an $1800 pre-distressed used-looking "distillery table" with um, "matching" unmatched chairs described as, I quote, "thrift store chairs" for $595 a pair - because god forbid they wouldn't just drive down to the south end of town and buy 6 for $75 at the Salvation Army. Who's the stupider or more backwards culture?"

Latest AR Atrocities

I do believe somewhere deep down they really hate animals.

From The Lady With The Black Dogs:

"I've just learned that the City of Denver, under the direction of their city court, and their Animal Control officer, has seized and euthanized 38 Pit Bulls.

".. some of these dogs were nursing puppies when they were seized.
The owner had just moved to Denver from Texas, and was not aware that
there was a ban on PBTs in Denver. They charged him with 38 counts of
animal cruelty because he didn't have water in front of each individual
dog ... a charge which carried a year in jail on each count, plus 1K in
fines. Obviously they pressured him to surrender the dogs.

"What I want to know is, what kind of City, what kind of people- - aside
from the ones who work in the back of Ingrid Newkirks P**A van, can sit
and kill dog, after dog, after dog, until they've killed 38 of them".

Libby wrote back to her:

"Marty Chavez, the mayor of ABQ [the one resoponsible for the new so- called HEART law, the most restrictive animal bill in the nation--SB] , was on TV last night bragging about how they had lured someone into ABQ to sell his fighting chickens for $100 each, which they busted him for and killed the chickens. The only place in NM where cock fighting is illegal is ABQ".

To which I added:

"Can't add much to Libby's eloquent screed. The poor chicken guy sold TWO roosters and was entrapped-- the undercover cops apparently told him they were unable to come to the city and to PLEASE drive the birds in! Same newscast showed a gang- banger (with a prior record) being released on bond after chasing two women he didn't know through the streets of Albuquerque, shooting at them-- the judge said she was "reluctant" to set him free, and told him to stay away from the victim- witnesses, using their names. Has our society gone insane?"

One doesnt have to be a supporter of cockfighting to find this a bit deranged.


A few interesting things from here and there.

Lucky Pluvialis, having just been to the shore, is going to Central Asia. I have been warning her in the comments section about correct drinking habits.

Looks like the magnetic poles are due to flip again. Many are worried about migrating animals. I am too, I guess, but I am even more puzzled. They have survived many such flips-- how? Might they have multiple, redundant systems?

The Russian fox researchers who have shed so much light on domestication have also been working with rats. Their experiments may shed light on human evo as well. EVERYONE sent this in-- thanks!

Alan Gates at Eagle Falconer has added many galleries of photos and information on Asian hawking-- he has been to Mongolia, Kyrgizstan, and China. He also has material on longdogs, cormorants, and shrikes. Nobody else ranges so far, or has spent so much time with Asian masters in cultures where intimate conact with hunting animals is still the norm. A "must- visit".

Carel Brest Van Kempen veers from his usual musings on science and art to celebrate his neighbors' history. It's not every day you'll catch an evolutionary biologist- artist writing on Mormons!

Here is a photo gallery of thoroughly strange food. Probably not for the squeamish, if any such read this site.

At Orion, a contrarian lesson about the mites currently infesting and damaging honey bees. Let the bees evolve!

Derb finds a splendid "Doom and Gloom" from a fellow master, the late Kingsley Amis.

More shortly!


The pups are maturing swiftly and moving out slowly. Soon I may actually have the time (and the sleep) to write. Last weekend Paul, Nate, Nan, and Monica came to take or visit pups. Paul's Zoltar and Nate and Nan's Maty left. A good time was had by all-- here are a few photos.

Parents in the background.

Dad still thinks he is a lap dog. No wonder his home name is "PuppY".

And here is Maty with her "big sister", the lurcher Pearl.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Local Landscapes

Continuing our occasional series on landscape, I thought I'd share a few images from near home.

A cool front (the first in weeks) promised some relief from the heat and humid air but stalled out last night and gave us only clouds and light rain. But we could not have hoped for better. Not here. Not in July.

I picked up my friend Ida between showers and we made a quick tour of the Mississippi levee, starting near the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, where they've built a rather grand access to the levee top. We worked our way south along River Road, back and forth as the river goes, past my house and much new construction and by all appearances back in time the farther we drove from Baton Rouge. We stopped somewhere in the 1950s (St. Gabriel) and took a left back to Highway 30 and home. Here's a little of what we saw...

The new on-ramp to the levee walk

The view toward downtown

A working river

Back below the river and heading south

Classical FEMA Architecture in one of my old hawking fields

A crepe myrtle for Reid

A ruin from plantation days

A ruin from farming days

Cattle and cattle egrets

Some great faces!

Sugar cane: The region's King Crop

A new road through the cane, outlining a new housing tract

Flight of the Kite

A snippet of local birdlife: The young Mississippi Kites are on the wing now and starting to hunt for themselves over the neighborhood. The parents are provisioning some, also; so there is a lot of spectacular kite activity overhead!

Last night my twins and I witnessed a moment that would have made a great study for Carel...

A huge, near-black afternoon thunderhead loomed to our east, covering half the sky above a line of oaks behind our house. To the west, clear skies and a setting sun lit up the trees almost from beneath, making a wonderful contrast in color with bright greens and yellows against dark clouds.

A young kite (full-feathered and faintly striped) came right then over the treetops and flushed a katydid from the crown of an oak. The insect glowed green against that dark backdrop and seemed big as a Luna moth. Its solid and membrane wings were distinct in motion, even though the katydid must have been 70 feet up and climbing. The young kite gave chase, caught it once but fumbled and entered into the most improbable ringing flight you can imagine.

But with that giant neon insect pumping way out in the open, you had to guess another kite would see it, and sure enough an adult male (steely gray and glinting in the sun) stooped in at a crazy angle, top speed, and snatched the katy without slowing. It was absolute perfection, and made so much more clear and surreal by the sunset and storm.

And of course, no camera handy.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

More Dogs at the Beach

Thought I would share some pictures taken Monday night. It's been a while since I pictured Sadie and you can see how much she has grown. She was at 46 pounds at her last official weigh-in.
As I have said before, there is just so much for dogs at the beach. Surf lines to chase and run away from. Sea birds to chase. Pungent kelp and seaweed to smell. Dead birds, fish and sea animals - we saw a decomposed cormorant and a dead spiny lobster. I imagine one of the circles of Dog Heaven must be a beach.

Sadie found this yummy rotten sea lion carcass and was ready to dive right in. It took a number of very stern calls of SADIE!! to convince her it wasn't a good idea and to bring her back to Connie's side. And Matt worries about skunks.

We live in that unique stretch of the California coast that runs east-west instead of north-south. That explains the sun's position in this obligatory sunset.


One of the signs of late Spring and Summer here in Southern California are the blue blooms of jacarandas, an exotic tree that is a commonly planted ornamental.

The trees are native to southern Africa and South America and are apparently a common ornamental planting in Australia, just as they are here. The two pictures above were both taken on State Street, our main street downtown. You can tell from the sign in the second pic that the trees are in front of a women's shoe store named "Shooz." I shake my head whenever I walk by.
These two jacarandas are in Paseo Nuevo, also downtown. That's a pink bougainvillea trellised in front of a store on the right side.

Visually, I can never take jacarandas for granted, because as person raised in the Southeast, my brain seems to think that a large tree with blue blossoms is just wrong. I mean there shouldn't be any blue-flowering plant that's bigger than an iris or maybe a hydrangea, should there?

Scientists to Rebuild Neanderthal Genome

The New York Times has this interesting piece on plans to reconstruct the Neanderthal genome using DNA extracted from bones discovered in Croatia. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Germany and 454 Life Sciences in the US will collaborate on the work. The study of Neanderthal DNA has been stalled by many difficulties, but better understanding of ancient DNA and enhanced technology in the form of a new DNA sequencing machine developed by 454 Life Sciences seems to be providing the means to a breakthrough.

The author of this article, Nicholas Wade, has recently written a book on DNA research and what it can tell us about human evolution entitled Before the Dawn. I picked up a copy last week and find it fascinating. The pace of research in this area is breathtaking, and anyone interested in the subject should read this book.

As Wade points out in this article, reconstruction of Neanderthal DNA sequences could tell us many things about them and us:

"Recovery of the Neanderthal genome, in whole or in part, would be invaluable for reconstructing many events in human prehistory and evolution. It would help address such questions as whether Neanderthals and humans interbred, whether the archaic humans had an articulate form of language, how the Neanderthal brain was constructed, if they had light or dark skins, and the total size of the Neanderthal population."

RTWT to get the detail on the difficulties of extracting and processing Neanderthal DNA. Wade ends his article with this eye-popper:

"If the Neanderthal genome were fully recovered, it might in principle be possible to bring the species back from extinction by inserting the Neanderthal genome into a human egg and having volunteers bear Neanderthal infants. There would, however, be great technical and ethical barriers to any such venture."

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Sign of the Times

Garage sales are pretty common in our neighborhood. This is the first sign like this I've seen!

Terrierman and The Mammoth in the Hedge

I wanted to recommend this wonderful post by Terrierman that he put up last week while our blog was on its mysterious outage. The title alone is wonderful and it is a meditation on how humans need to take a long term view (10,000 years at least) of our species and our planet. In a serious, yet entertaining and original way he ties together mammoths, the World Series, Paul Ehrlich, the Osage Orange, sports betting, Julian Simon, the Boston Red Sox, Clovis points, The Whole Earth Catalog, the Honey Locust, Freeman Dyson, Ted Danson, Thomas Malthus, and the World Cup.

To use a phrase I first heard from Libby Bodio, I think we can safely say that Patrick Burns has a "bouncing brain." In the very best sense of the term!

Rina and The Skunk: A Budding Romance

OK, this is getting stranger but is true. From a note to Steve and other friends regarding recent chance meetings in the woods:

"Rina and I have met the skunk again two nights in a row. Last night Rina's attitude seemed to shift (from predatory interest to....what? Something more benign...?) when I made it clear this thing was not to be chased and eaten. Sure enough, tonight she seemed willing to work another angle: I saw her moving up ahead and then suddenly prance and trot around the corner with her ears up. I thought maybe it was another dog walker, or a kid, so I started trotting too---not too worried.

"I found her and the skunk literally touching noses in the grass. The skunk's tail was down and hers was up---both seeming friendly and curious. And I know what you're thinking: Yikes. I thought for sure I was about to have my week ruined. But when I called Rina, both she and the skunk looked up, rather innocently. The little stinky mink turned then, brushed itself provocatively against Rina's leg and ambled back into the bush. Rina came trotting back with a silly grin on her face."

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Giant Yellowjacket Nests

... in Alabama.

I mean, GIANT. One fills a'55 Chevy-- see photo-- and consists of possibly a hundred thousand individuals and several queens.

"Without a cold winter to kill them this year, the yellow jackets continued feeding in January and February -- and layering their nests made of paper, not wax. They typically are built in shallow underground cavities.

"Yellow jackets, often confused with bees, may visit flowers for sugar, but unlike bees, yellow jackets are carnivorous, eating insects, carrion and picnic food, according to scientists.

"They were able to find food to colony through the winter," [entomologist Charles] Ray said in a telephone interview".

Vespid wasps are interesting but scare me-- I have some sensitivity, and once nearly died of anaphylactic shock from an attack (several stings) by a relative. It is a VERY aggressive family. I hope the phenomenon does not spread, but I have a feeling it will....

Dangerous Book For Boys

This book sounds like grand fun, although some disagree.

"The sort of fun promoted has also raised eyebrows. In a society that is preoccupied with safety, The Dangerous Book promotes activities in which boys are likely to get scuffed. This is a book for tree-climbers who occasionally pause to decipher enemy code or erupt into wood-wielding pirate fights.

The story asks: "Why would the Iggulden brothers imperil children?"

And answers:

"Clearly they do not think the rough-and-tumble of boyhood constitutes a health hazard. Perhaps they agree with parents who view over-protectiveness to be a greater danger, who wish to stir the imagination and muscles of their children instead.

"But the brothers wish to achieve more than this. In a world where children are isolated behind computer screens and iPods, they wish to establish a niche for old-fashioned childhood".

And I suspect I know a few girls here and there who might enjoy it too...

Whack- A- Mole?

"Intelligent Design" is like a whack- a- mole game-- knock it down and it just pops up somewhere else. Here, John Derbyshire does his usual splendid, reasoned, and even good- humored smackdown of the IDers. Why oh why can they not see how "irreducible complexity" is a very dead and smelly horse?

Small town blues

Prairie Mary has a very good (well, aren't they all?) essay on the inevitable conflicts that happen when the (relatively) rich and restless move to small towns and begin to throw their weight around. It is happening here too and I don't have a clue about what you can do about it, save having rural residency tests as Noel Perrin suggested in (I believe) Second Person Rural.

My favorite recent example is a woman who recently moved from Houston to an architect- designed house in a "subdivision" twenty- some miles north of our remote 900- person town-- you go north on a dirt road for 25 miles, then turn up a "road" that is a seasonal dry river bed to get there.

She doesn't think the schools in Magdalena are very good-- fair enough-- so she wants to send her kid to the charter school in the county seat, Socorro-- twenty six miles in another direction from Magdalena, which the only roads go through, and 2500 feet below, on the Rio Grande.

She wants there to be a bus. Free.

She didn't know that it snows here.

She won't even be able to leave her driveway if it rains.

Sea Creatures

Courtesy of Peculiar, soon to disappear into the wilderness with his bride for a bit, an astonishing gallery of deep sea life. I was particularly taken with the piglet squid.

By the way, it has been PUPPIES who have kept me from blogging much. Three depart this weekend so things (like sleep and typing without having my feet nibbled and having the first experience of the day NOT being stepping barefoot into wet puppy poop) should improve.

And there will be pics, especially of our "keeper" Miss Larissa, named for you know who, with her kind permission.

This SHOULD be true

The Alpha Enviro recently sent me this gem, which he got from a friend:

"Ted Nugent on deer hunting.

"He was being interviewed by a British journalist. The journalist asked, "What do you think the last thought is in the head of a deer before you shoot it? Is it, `Are you my friend?` or is it `Are you the one who killed my brother?'"

"Nugent replied, "They aren't capable of that kind of thinking. All they care about is, 'What am I going to eat next, who am I going to screw next, and can I run fast enough to get away.

"They are very much like the French in that way." "

Friday, July 14, 2006

Rina and The Skunk

With Steve and Reid posting lately on puppies, I thought I'd share a recent outing with mine. Skunk lore and stink remedies appreciated in the comment section, please!

The neighborhood park where I let Rina run in the evenings abuts a city-owned campground and public stables. There's pasture for the boarding horses and a riding trail through a stand of old oaks that ends at the playground my kids know well. All together it's a moderately manicured property, surrounded by subdivisions and barking dogs, yet home to a fair host of wildlife too. Barred owls, Mississippi kites and Red-shouldered hawks nest on it. Three or four species of heron feed and roost there, plus a cormorant and a flock of semi-tame ducks. A few swamp rabbits and two species of squirrel live there. A shrike hunts over the softball field and all the normal neighborhood birds visit or nest in the shrubs.

And there are skunks (Mephitis mephitis) too. Evidently, lots of them.

A friend who stables her horse nearby says the skunks roam the stalls with impunity, pushing aside the barn cats to eat their kibble---And this in full daylight.

Rina and I see skunks regularly on our evening walks: they ramble and poke myopically at the bases of trees. Foraging with head and tail down, skunks resemble small badgers and not at all any familiar cartoon rendering. They don't look or move like cats. And they don't act like prey; despite oft-cited depredation by Great-horned Owls, skunks have more to fear from cars than from other critters. . . I am the skunk who walked by himself.

Rina is fascinated by them. I am horrified to imagine the outcome of this fascination. But my dog needs to work off lead, and there are as many skunks (mink, too) in my hawking fields as in the park: A mustelid meet-up is inevitable. In my view it's better the hawk not be involved in the first one. So I've been cautiously trying to "break" Rina of her interest in skunks; I know the skunks would be less gentle with her.

Our lessons began with Rina sniffing bushes skunks slip into. I watch her catch the scent, give her a firm "NO," and quickly move on. Recently we both spotted a big black-and-white cruising across an open space; so still on lead, I walked Rina within 25 feet, speaking to her in the tone I use to mean, "Do NOT eat Shelly's cat. Do NOT!" I waited for her ears drop and to look at me for direction, then walked her away in search of a squirrel to chase. All's well.

But two nights ago Rina found her own skunk. She was off lead and galloping ahead in the wide arcs I fancy to call "quartering." My control over the dog at full gallop is pretty good, actually; she'll at least break stride and drop into a canter at my "Whoa!" Sometimes she'll even stop. But should she spot game on the run, a switch throws somewhere between her shoulder and her skinny loin and the Hyperdrive engages. Rina was pushing Warp Three when she disappeared.

All hunters know The Bad Feeling when they feel it, and I felt it then. I found Rina fifty yards inside the wood, locked up rigid and leaning forward, nose to tail with an angry skunk. I broke my own stride into a canter then, and stopped... What to do? What to do?

The skunk knew; it was the wisest of us all. It huffed and pawed the ground, arched its back and puffed its fur to nearly twice its actual size. All the while it aimed the business end at Rina, probably well within range of a good spray.

"Rina," I croaked, "Doooooooon't do it."

She didn't. And the skunk didn't. I walked around to the back side of the stand-off and called Rina to me. I praised her sternly, if that makes sense, and heeled her away toward better things. She never looked back. I don't know what the skunk did in our absence, bless his temperate soul.

Gub'mint Crackdown?

No. Just Blogger weirdness. We've been down for a few days, leaving the three of us scratching our heads about how to fix it. All the posts were there, the template, the whole shebang. But no main page.

Complaints started pouring in shortly after we went offline. Apparently, two small Balkan dictatorships were crumbling without the opiate of their people. There were threats of violence (or was it violins?) and wild conspiracy theories: Paul Domski suggested the Gub'mint or perhaps the American Library Association might be seeking to silence all anarchists. Anne Davidson thought a seance might help. In the end, a solution came quietly on little cat feet. I found a "Status" button on the Blogger dashboard with the option to republish the blog. I did so, and here we are.

But stay alert. One never knows, does one?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Elephant Eaters of Kent

People in England have always been adventurous. Even before they were human.

Thanks to Joe Curran who sent me this BBC piece on a 400,000 year-old elephant kill site in Kent. This is pre Homo sapiens and has been attributed to H. heidelbergensis. It is the earliest elephant kill site in Britain. Nice to think of elephants roaming there, isn't it?

There is no evidence of the use of fire for cooking at this period, so the elephant was eaten raw. Hmmm.....elephant tartare.

Santa Barbara Whale

Inspired by Pluvialis' post on the finback whale skeleton exhibited at Cambridge, I took this picture of a blue whale mounted in front of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Blue whales are the largest animals ever to have lived on this planet. I have been fortunate enough to see several from boats in the Santa Barbara Channel. When they come up for a breath it seems to take forever for their great length to roll by as they head back underwater.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Overnighter Continued

Blogger limits the amount of material you can put in a post, so lately we have been breaking up some photo-heavy posts to get everything in. This will conclude a post I started last week. Sorry for the break.

I was up the next morning to fix coffee, break camp, and head down the hill. I've used a traditional percolator for camp coffee until a couple years ago, when I got this unbreakable Lexan French press that I like much better. Took a number of pictures while headed down the road.
This shows the road snaking up through the Oak Chapparal zone, with lots of yucca in bloom.

I seem to have caught the yucca at the height of their bloom and the chamisa behind these and other wildflowers in front were going strong. Bees and other insects were quite happy.
There were also some wonderful vistas of the Santa Ynez Valley to the south. You can see the morning mist just starting to burn off in this view. I took this shot specially for Matt, so he can see places besides Louisiana and Florida that have Spanish Moss. It is common here on west and south facing slopes where ocean-generated fog provides moisture.

Then it was on to the town of Santa Ynez to get breakfast at the Burger Barn. This valley has been overrun by tourists since the popular movie "Sideways", filmed on location here, was released in 2004. By the time I finished breakfast, the Burger Barn was packed.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Cute Puppy Pics

Exactly what I said-- no comment on my part necessary!


Rain in arid country is a difficult phenomenon for those in better- watered terrain to understand. We obsess over it, and always hail it despite its destructive force. Who cares if the roof leaks a little? In such climates all but the newest always will-- heat and freeze and dry and wet will see to that. And long- time inhabitants of desert places don't cross flowing flash floods in dry "river" beds and so do not lose their vehicles. They know it will go down in an hour or so anyway.

I remember seeing my first such in about 1980, during a dove hunt. As three feet of muddy water boiled over the track we had just crossed, young Philip Mansell noticed the look of astonishment on my face and said: "Doesn't the water do that in Massatooshets?"

For the last five years New Mexico has been in a serious drought-- actually the last wet year was 1987, but we had our July "monsoons" (for various technical reasons they really aren't but that is what everyone calls them) until five years ago. For about a year we have had none-- a light shower last October for a half- hour and a snowfall of the same length that did not get this "low"-- 6500 feet-- were our only precipition in about a year and a half. And we are not even true desert-- just high arid grassland under higher (almost 11,000 feet) dry forested mountains.

The hordes of coastal suburbanites who are buying up former ranchland in "ranchette" subdivisions LOVE this weather, even as wildlife, ranchers,and stock all suffer and the Forest Service (who have deliberately or accidentally set every fire in the two nearest ranges in the last three years) forbid the public use of their forests, even if we do not set fires. Something had to give, and it did.

We have had four days of intermittent to heavy rain! Thunder, lightning, flowing roads, glorious skies!

We went out in the aftermath of yesterday's storm and took pictures and toasted it, while rancher neighbors stopped by while doing the same.

Now to hope for, say, two more thunderstorms this week. Spadefoot toads need their noise and vibration and flooding added to warmth to wake them and propel them into the temporary pools in which they breed.

And if we have "frogs" we will probably have Boletus edulis. I will blog on both if they emerge.

The Albuquerque newscasters and yuppies are moaning and I heard a recent transplant complaining she didn't move here for rain. You know what? We didn't ask for you-- go back "home", or to the Mojave. We need rain more than we do you.

I'm Baaaack!

LONG week or so-- many (delightful but many) guests, puppy insomnia, and the notorious Magdalena Old Timer's (New Timer's, Alzheimer's) Fiesta with hordes of oddly- dressed tourons making the dogs bark about 20/ 7 all have conspired to make me a bit tired...

But good news: for the first time in two years we have real rain and for the first in four (five?) a chance of real monsoons-- yes, I know they technically are not but spare me. Four days of intermittent heavy rain have the dirt roads flowing in muddy torrents and the new arrivals whining, even as ranchers and naturalists and hunters dance in the streets. Now I am listening for the calls of spadefoot toads. If I hear them I'll believe we will get a harvest of boletes and that the rains are really here.

More pics later. We went out last night to take photos and ran into two couples of ranch friends doing likewise. Desert folks take rain seriously!

Meanwhile, a link- fest of stuff I have not managed to post:

Pluvialis, Chas, and Rebecca all continue the Ten Bird Meme. We (including Darren and Carel as well) are considering an e- book at very least-- stand by!

Andrew Stuttaford's excellent Mongolia article is finally available online.

Did humans give ulcers to big cats? Matt is unconvinced, but I find it fascinating.

Odious gives a link to a brilliant and spooky story that takes place in a Santa Fe restaurant, by his alter ego Bill Davis.

If you have the money, order some locally- farmed California caviar. It is apparently environmentally sound, and of course costs less than the now- banned imported stuff. Best of all, as with california wines, they have learned a lot about quality.

I'll be back later with rain and (lush, Amazonian!) garden pics. Just add water...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Matt's Ten Birds Part 3

Common Yellowthroat [Geothlpis trichas]

Photo from:

It’s sort of a Black-eyed Susan: widespread and so common they made that part of its name. But the flower and the bird are two of my favorites, in large part because they’re commonplace. Why should beauty be rare?

This early migrant is among our first, a few arriving in late August (most by mid-September) and staying through October in areas of high pasture. The bird is also one of the first I find dead beneath the big glass windows on campus. Once after picking one up, I described it as “a gaudy jewel, the sort of bird any native might be proud to wear around his neck. The bird bears two or three distinct hues from chin to vent, shades of yellow-green and maybe orange…Topside it's all olive-moss-pistachio and good enough to eat.”

A few days later my hunting journal notes, “The yellowthroats are still in town. The hay field last night was full of them. They travel in pods, lifting from seed-heavy stalks of Johnsongrass in threes and fours to fly maybe thirty yards to another patch...At the end of the line, a dozen can break out, shifting fast for other cover. Their little olive backs blur well with the ground. Blink, and you lose them."

I wondered then, as now, Where do they go when the mowers mow? “Some may fly across the levee to the marsh or else keep moving south. Those who stay play musical chairs in the shrinking prairie—odd ones out feeding Cooper's hawks and house cats.”

Gray catbird [Dumetella carolinensis]

Photo from:

Catbirds are not common in my area. A friend told me George Lowery found twelve nests here in twenty years, which I believe but can’t confirm. Lowery would have been looking long before the Age of Development, so whether suburbs are good or bad for Catbirds I don’t know. I can guess.

I do find them dead during migration. Another victim of the Big Window prompted this journal entry from October 13, 2003: “A gray catbird lay beneath the window wall this morning, shy of his destination. Steve Cardiff at the Museum of Natural Science tells me it's peak season for catbirds, most of them bound for South America via trans-Gulf crossing…This catbird is a study in what can be done with the color gray. Shades of charcoal, darkest in a streak atop his head, turn to lead and nickel, then to black again. From below, he's a somber blue-gray, the color of Gulf waters under storm. The crimson patch beneath his tail stands out like a warning flag at dusk: ‘Detour—Southbound Route Closed.’”

Loggerhead shrike [Lanius ludovicianus]

Photo from:

“Butcherbird:” a great old name for our little backyard bandit. Only half-again the size of a house sparrow, the Loggerhead shrike eats house sparrows. How cool is that? Shrikes attack and pursue active, vertebrate quarry (other birds in flight, small rodents, lizards and snakes), creating a new kind of animal: the “passerine raptor.” What they lack in a hawk’s grasping feet, they make back with a wicked, notched bill and a wonderful habit of hanging meat on a stick to eat it.

After leaving Florida for Louisiana, I still felt the rhythms of biological fieldwork: spotting birds and habitats, walking woodlots, scratching notes in code, and driving…driving! I needed a fix, but something I could do after office hours (there proved no market here for unlettered field biologists). My answer came from atop a young Live Oak near home—“BZZZzzzzzT! BZZZzzT!”— A male shrike, calling, with wife and kids below in a little round nest made of twigs and trash.

By the time my own kids arrived, three summers later, I had dozens of nests located, hundreds of hours of observation logged and thousands of probably useless points of datum coded: diet, productivity, fledging dates. Anecdotal evidence I’ll be presenting for years over pizza and beer…

But there is always value in watching. If you don’t watch, you can’t see.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


A week ago Saturday, I decided to make a quick overnight camping trip up in the Los Padres National Forest. I hadn't been out in a while (too much work) and I enjoy taking regular campouts, just car-camping. I'm fortunate in that there are some beautiful campgrounds along the Santa Ynez River about 15 - 20 minutes from my house. The downside to this is that they are the same distance from lots of other people's houses, so when the weather is nice you have to get there early to get a spot.

Sure enough, I got skunked along the river, and decided to go to the north side of the Santa Ynez Valley to a campground north of the town of Los Olivos. This site was farther in on a marginal road and I thought it would keep the crowds down. It turned out I was right. The campground at Figeroa Mountain had 36 spots and there was only me and three other parties there.

As you drive north to the campground from Los Olivos, you gain altitude as you enter the foothills of the San Rafael Mountains. You go from the Oak Savannah grasslands, through Oak Chaparral marked by brush and Digger Pines, to end in Foothill Woodlands at 3000 ft at the campground. The Foothill Woodhills are marked by beautiful stands of Manzanita and Jeffrey Pines.
This shot shows a large Manzanita with Jeffrey Pines in the background. Jeffrey Pines look much like the Ponderosa Pines I was familiar with from the Rockies. A key way to tell them apart is by smelling the bark - Jeffrey Pine bark smells like vanilla. I much admire the red smooth bark of Manzanita, set off by the deep green leaves.

This is a pretty spot and it was fun exploring a little to find it. This time of year, however, it was a little too warm and buggy for my taste. It will be a great place to return to this Fall, when the bugs have died off and it cools a little. I spent the evening in my mesh tent (didn't need the fly) reading and writing away from bugs and it was so warm I didn't use the sleeping bag, just laying on my pad.