Saturday, February 28, 2009

Because They Don't Know the Words

Feeling like I haven't posted anything about birds lately I dug into my photos from last month's trip and found this pretty little thing. It's a Speckled Hummingbird (Adelomyia melanogenys)I had the privilege of watching at a cloud forest lodge in Ecuador. Where I live, we only have one hummingbird that you can count on seeing with any frequency, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris.) It's a gorgeous bird but suffers from the same indiginity as the Speckled Hummingbird--a relatively plain name. Many of their South American cousins have been granted beautiful and evocative names like Sylph, Woodstar, Sun Angel, Emerald and Brilliant. Watching these flying jewels it's easy to understand how even the most dedicated ornithologist could be swept up in their beauty and stray into the realm of poetry when naming them.

To see some great Ecuadoran hummingbirds LIVE! visit this webcam. The more visitors they get the sooner they can upgrade to full screen view with sound!

(In case you don't know it, the title of this post is the punchline to a classic joke "Why do hummingbirds hum?")

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Environmentally Grown?

Yesterday was the kind of snowy day when it's just nice to stay in. So I sent my co-conspirator off to the store for supplies. One of the items he brought home was a bag of potatoes. Usually we try to buy organic produce, especially potatoes. These were displayed under sign that said "Environmentally Grown" and were at least semi-local coming from the northern part of the state. That was enough to gain his interest so into the cart they went.

It turns out the Environmentally Grown label comes from Food Alliance, a non-profit that provides a certification program for farmers, ranchers and food handlers. It is not an organic certification. Their scope of interest is different from that covered by the current government definition of organic agriculture. Over the last several years organic agriculture has evolved. Originally the avoidance of chemical fertilizers and pesticides was not only a means of producing healthier food, but it also had the side benefits of protecting adjacent ecosystems, reducing farmers' production costs and preserving cropland. As consumers became more interested in their own health than the environment's it became easy for "organic" to become the marketing buzzword it is today. Entry of the largest agribusiness interests in the United States and abroad into the organic market has provided us with year-round access to flavorless tomatoes that might have been grown without pesticides! The benefits are dubious when such a narrow definition of environmental (and social? individual?) health is the basis for standards. Social and ecological good as a byproduct of organic practices can't be counted on anymore.

Food Alliance's certification goes beyond federal organic certification. It encompasses worker rights and safety, the humane treatment of animals, protection of wildlife and other practices that add up to a more holistic model of sustainability. Do I trust the not-entirely-organic certification program of a non-profit more than the not-entirely-organic program of the U.S. government? Sure. Why not? Even with literacy restored to the Oval Office this year, I'm doubtful of Washington's ability to get something this important right. One need only look at the last couple of versions of the USDA's food pyramid to see how agricultural lobbyists are able to trump good nutritional science. I'm pleased to have the Environmentally Grown label for assessing the food I might buy. I see the Food Alliance certification as sitting between the national organic standard and my practice of buying locally from farmers I can know in terms of trust. In any case, the potatoes tasted pretty good.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Goan Shrimp Curry

My co-conspirator suggested we try a recipe posted on this x-lent blog. It was more than tasty. We tried a dried pasilla for the pepper portion of the program but it, of course, didn't provide any heat. We made up for it by tossing in some crushed hot red pepper flakes. Delicious!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I Told You So

I predicted in this post that my Paphiopedilum malipoense might be in bloom on Valentine's Day. It's been open for several days now. I gave up on it flattening out any more and snapped this image. The petals on this particular one seem short this time.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Equatorial Pilgrimage

On New Year's Day I set out on a little trip that was part vacation, part pilgrimage. My co-conspirator and I enlisted various modes of transportation that eventually got us to a remote archipelago in the Pacific, the Galápagos Islands. The thought in the back of my mind at the time was that on returning I could blog about each day of the trip as a post-dated travelogue. I've since revised my plans.

The pilgrimage part of the trip was to honor the memory of one of my personal heroes, Charles Darwin. For several years I've read multiple works by and about him and have come to recognize and respect him as one of the greatest scientific minds in the field of biology. In addition, I came to know him as a warm, thoughtful and humble man who cultivated lasting friendships, even with some of those who disagreed with his views, and who loved his family deeply.

While he actually spent more time on the mainland of South America where he began the investigations that eventually led to his ground-breaking theory, the Galápagos are more often associated with Darwin in the popular imagination. So it was that I was persuaded to get out of town for a change and found myself kayaking into the bay at Cerro Tejeritas on Isla San Cristóbal which was called Chatham Island at the time. Here is where The Beagle first landed in the Galápagos. I felt both excited and moved to be there. He wrote in "The Voyage of the Beagle":

"Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves, and crossed by great fissures, is everywhere covered by stunted, sun-burnt brushwood, which shows little signs of life."
But life he did find including the mockingbirds that played such a role in his discovery of natural selection and the multiple species of endemic finches that now bear his name. I've now undertaken the project of trying to put names on the ones we photographed. It isn't easy. But I get much pleasure from sorting through the hundreds of images, reliving the moments, admiring the wildlife that was so abundant and unafraid. I've got to go back, and this time with a better field guide. Just for fun I've listed all the bird species I saw in the islands and the mainland cloud forest below. The Darwin Finch identifications are tentative.

  • Magnificent Frigatebird
  • Cactus Ground Finch
  • Blue-footed Boobie
  • Brown Pelican
  • Elliot's Storm Petrel
  • Medium Ground Finch
  • Whimbrel
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Lava Gull
  • Chatham Mockingbird
  • Masked Boobie
  • Red-billed Tropicbird
  • Gálpagos Shearwater
  • Smooth-billed Ani
  • Gálapagos Flycatcher
  • Black-necked Stilt
  • White-cheeked Pintail Duck
  • Mangrove Finch
  • Semipalmated Plover
  • Greater Flamingo
  • Purple Gallinule
  • Common Moorhen
  • Cattle Egret
  • Gálapagos Hawk
  • Gálapagos Martin
  • Vermillion Flycatcher
  • Brown Noddy
  • Warbler Finch
  • Gálapagos Penguin
  • Gálapagos Mockingbird
  • Striated Heron
  • Large Tree Finch
  • Booted Rackettail
  • Slate-throated Whitestart
  • Blue-winged Mountain Tanager
  • Yellow-bellied Chat Tyrant
  • Collared Inca
  • Turquoise Jay
  • White-tailled Tyrannulet
  • Blackburnian Warbler
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow
  • Grey-breasted Wood-Wren
  • Black-and-white Becard
  • Russet-crowned Warbler
  • Violet-tailed Sylph
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • Brown-capped Vireo
  • Masked Trogon
  • Southern Yellow or Golden-bellied Grosbeak
  • Azara's Spinetail
  • Green-and-black Fruiteater
  • Plain-tailed Wren
  • Sickle-winged Guan
  • Buff-tailed Coronet
  • Toucan Barbet
  • Plate-billed Mountain Toucan
  • Beryl-spangled Tanager
  • Speckled Hummingbird
  • Fawn-breasted Brilliant
  • Masked Flower-piercer
  • Tyrannine Woodcreeper
  • Cinnamon Flycatcher
  • Grass-green Tanager
  • Gorgeted Sun Angel
  • Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch
  • White-tipped Dove
  • Giant Cowbird
  • White-throated Quail-Dove
  • Montane Woodcreeper
  • Common Potoo
  • Streaked Tuftedcheek
  • Dusky Bush-Tanager
  • Golden Tanager
  • Capped Conebill
  • Glossy Black Thrush
  • Rufous-tailed Hummingbird
  • Andean Emerald
  • Green-crowned Wood Nymph
  • Green-crowned Brilliant
  • Brown Violetear
  • White-whiskered Hermit
  • White-necked Jacobin
  • Purple-throated Woodstar
  • Thick-billed Euphonia
  • Lemon-rumped or Flame-rumped Tanager