"His lacklustre attorney-general Alberto Gonzales, who was forced to resign in disgrace, was only the most visible of an army of over-promoted, ideologically vetted homunculi."

from "The Frat Boy Ships Out" The Economist 1/15/09

Sunday, October 10, 2010

This sounds about right...

 Zits for 10/10/2010

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tom Toles 8-6-10

Today is my wedding anniversary.  Nice to think that we are making progress toward allowing everyone to share that experience.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception | Video on TED.com

Interesting talk about how and why the brain is wired to see patterns when none exist. Michael Shermer is the editor of Skeptic--a magazine that spends a lot of time debunking stuff people believe, like pseudo-science. Warning: this man is a skeptic; that means he doesn't believe in God, either, and applies his model to religious belief.

Michael Shermer: The pattern behind self-deception | Video on TED.com

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Day of the Sachem


The real-world lunacy seems to have overtaken me, and caused me to abandon this Lunacy for some months, and it is with the hope of keeping a rather more regular schedule over the next year that I once again take keyboard in hand to post to my not-quite-defunct blog.

Yesterday was our annual butterfly count--Maidens #16. We were expecting a calamity, as it has been inordinately hot--hottest Spring on record, hottest June on record, and three days in five last week were record-setters. Numerous days in a row over 100. Everything is bone dry, and we hadn't seen a butterfly on the wing in weeks. Although the forecast for yesterday was pretty close to ideal (high of 85--turned out to be 88 in actuality), sunny, light breeze, we were nevertheless making dire predictions of being home for lunch in the total absence of anything--Lepidoptera or otherwise--flying.


Hah. Turned out to be one of our biggest counts ever, in terms of individual butterflies, all due to an explosion of Sachem (Atalopedes campestris, for the Latin purists among you): 563 of them. This was not merely big bug of the day, it was big bug of all time, at least so far as the Maidens count goes.

Just for the record:  previous high Sachem on our count was 351, in 2008, which was also the previous high for any butterfly on our count.  That tally was followed closely by 337 Tiger Swallowtails in 2000 (the year we had 57 species and 1292 individuals).  The next, but relatively distant, best was 276 Pearl Crescents in 2002.  Impressive as those numbers might seem, we have never approached 500 of one species before.  We have had fewer than 563 total individuals on eight counts--half of all those we have ever held.  The 563 Sachems yesterday also constituted 57% of the whole count;  the previously mentioned Sachems, Tiger Swallowtails, and Pearl Crescents constitued only 36%, 26%, and 36% of their respective counts.  (For those of you dying for the math:  563 individuals yesterday constituted a 60% increase over the previous high in terms of percentage of total count.) That should give you some idea of yesterday's experience--Sachems, Sachems everywhere, and not a prayer of being able to count them all.  (Reminded me of the year I was doing the Tarrant County, Texas, count with David, and we two counted over 1200 Dainty Sulphurs--if I remember rightly, there were numerous other counting parties, and the Tarrant County count turned in something over 3000 Dainty Sulphurs on the day.  Wild.)

Plenty of goofy stuff happened along the way to our 563 Sachems: 

We left about an hour later than usual, as the temperatures were so unseasonally low that we did not figure on seeing anything flying.  It was 68̊ when we set out--even that was probably too cool, but by the time we got going at Irwin, it was warming up, though the moon was still out!
Last year, you may remember, Irwin was in corn and we got damn-all.  This year, the fields were fallow, and there was clover and milkweed trying to grow in the cement-like ground.  This did generate a few things, and we got a respectable tally, including four Monarchs here.

At the next stop, I encountered the real big bug of the day--a critter numbering in the thousands :  waterbugs on the James River.  I took a hike down to the river at the spot where last year I infamously encountered the Butterfly Count Photo Opportunity of the Month:  a goat in a tree (click here if you need to refresh your memory), only to discover that the goats are now gone--as is the fence and any sign that there were ever goats there.  Perhaps I made them up.  Along with the goats, evidently, went every butterfly that I used to find puddling in the mud there at the edge of the river.  I did, however, encounter this quite charming little toad:




He did not appear to find me quite so charming--he expended a good deal of energy hopping away.






Having lost sight of the frog, I turned my attention to the river which, though running very low, was quite bucolic yesterday, as you can see above.  A closer look, however, reveals the true big bug of the day:  Water beetles.


Look very closely.  Those are not shadows, those are the beetles.  THOUSANDS of them.  They were swimming about in rapidly shifting swarms, and in so doing, they were changing the whole look of the river every few seconds.  Pretty cool, actually.

This is a close-up look--each beetle is maybe 1/4" long; think how many it takes to make the river swirl in flowing shadow.

A few minutes later, I added scampering fawn to the tally of wildlife.  This photo doesn't do it justice, and it's too bad I didn't have a video camera, because this little fellow vaulted across the landscape in front of me in a long series of  huge leaping bounds.  I had a skipper in the net at the time, trying to finagle it into a plastic vial for a definitive identification (Sachem, of course--every single time I netted or stalked a skipper yesterday thinking it might be something new, it turned out to be Sachem), and with one hand thus engaged, I didn't have time, or manual dexterity enough, for finesse.  I just pointed the camera and started clicking, without pausing to worry about focus or zoom.  Still, you get a little flavor of the fellow's haste.  I wonder what set him off?  Broke his mother's best dishes?



Elsewhere in the circle we also saw a female adult and a male with antlers--the whole family separated by circumstance...and a few high speed roads.

At the Westview boat landing, a friendly fellow shoving off for a day kayaking with friends, having ascertained what we were up to, advised us to pee on a rock if we wanted to attract butterflies:  "They like to take the minerals out of the urine," he suggested.  This was actually fairly reasonable advice, though we did not feel compelled to act upon it, but  it was rendered suspect when the same guy also informed me that what he learned about butterflies during a week-long float trip last week was that they know where the best campsites are.  "Just look for the places where there are lots of butterflies--those are the best places to camp."  Make of it what you will.  His remarks did, however, call to mind the time that a snake way up in the tree peed on our car.  This is a story we recount every year and we still look up every time we park the car under the trees at the boat landing, despite the fact that this must have been 15 years ago, as I believe it was my Nissan Sentra that was so annointed.  Still, the event was memorable, and perhaps most memorable for for the quantity of liquid extruded.  Who'd have thought the old reptile had so much pee in him....Perhaps, in light of my new knowledge, I might conjecture that he was trying to attract butterflies. 

No adventures with pee occurred yesterday, however, and we moved on to our next stop:  Formerly called Lyddan, now called simply Pemberton, as Chris Lyddan sold the land about five or six years ago, and we finally managed to track down the new owner, Orane Holstein, last year.  (Why we call Lyddan Pemberton now, and not Holstein, I have no idea.  The naming of things is just one of the mysteries of the universe!)  Mr. Holstein has kindly continued the tradition of letting us count on his property.  This is a particular boon, because his property, on a sandy, rocky site that used to be some sort of railroad siding, is the only place in the count circle where a particular kind of little thistle grows.  (See photo below with Cabbage White):


This thistle is extremely attractive to butterflies, and in years when it prospers, we tend to rack up the species and the numbers here.  A few years ago, the last year Lyddan had it, the whole place was razed, and it has taken some time for the thistle to return, but it was there yesterday in full flower and growing in profusion all over the lot, home to 314 of our 563 Sachems.  Totally amazing sight--take a step, a cloud of Sachems swirls around you.  Good luck with the counting!  It was easier to count the Silvery Checkerspots (12):



Following the frenzy of frenetic activity necessitated by the flurry of flourishing skippers (my apologies for the failed alliteration, there!), the Cartersville boat landing, normally a pretty productive site, was a major letdown, largely because it was positively swarming with people--many more than we have ever seen there before.  Instead of finding the 50-100 puddling Eastern Tailed Blues I was expecting (last year we got the Harvester thrown in for good luck), I instead had this conversation with one of the numerous beer-drinking, shirtless specimens who was camping on the site:

Beer-Drinking Shirtless Guy [BDSG]: "Hey, Ma'am!  Can I ask you a question?"

Me [Me]: "Sure."

BDSG:  "I heard this story about butterflies.  These orange ones.  These Monarchs.   I heard that they fly all the way to South America.  Is that true?"

Me:  "Yes, pretty much.  They migrate to Mexico to overwinter."

BDSG: "Will this oil spill be a problem for them?"

Me:  "No, I shouldn't think so.  They overwinter in the mountains--the logging of the rainforests is a much bigger problem." 
Might as well try for some ecological education if you get the chance, right?  A futile effort, I fear, as you will soon see.

BDSG:  "Them Monarchs.  They're not the big orange butterflies I see, right?  They're the little ones."

Me:  "No, Monarchs are actually quite large."

BDSG:  "Then there's those big yellow ones.  What are those?"

Me:  "Tiger Swallowtails."

BDSG:  "Yeah, those orange ones.  They're as big as those big yellow ones.  But it's not those, right?  It's those medium sized ones."

Me:  "No, the Monarch is just about as big as the Tiger Swallowtail."

BDSG:  "Does the yellow one go to Mexico?"

Me:  "No, only the Monarchs migrate to Mexico, so far as I know."

BDSG:  "What are those medium orange ones?  I see lots of those."

Me:  "Well, I would guess that those are Variegated Fritillaries."
Granted that this even more seat-of-the-pants species identification than we usually engage in on a count--we do at least generally SEE the creature we are trying to name!--but in this case, the identification seemed to cause BDSG some considerable consternation--more than would seem warranted, even by the wild guessing. 

BDSG:  "Fritillaries!!?!"
But after the initial shock, he managed to continue.
BDSG:  "Do they go to Mexico?"

Me:  "No, only the Monarchs."

BDSG:  "I see those Monarchs flying down by the river.  The orange ones.  They're headed south."

Me:  "It's a bit early for the migration, though; you will see many more in September and October.  They do come through the Richmond Area."

BDSG:  "Those are the little orange ones, right, not the big ones."

There was a lot more in this vein, but you get the picture.  He was very polite though, and told me thank you when we were finished.  I'm pretty sure, though, that after our conversation he thinks that Tiger Swallowtails migrate to Mexico, that Monarchs are "those little orange ones," and that Variegated Fritillaries pose some sort of danger to the further existence of mankind. 
It was our year for close encounters with the strictly local fauna.  Upon arrival at Powhatan Wildlife Management area, my adventures in counting were postponed by a very friendly, but heat-stricken hound dog who came trotting up to me begging to be petted. 




There wasn't another soul in sight--and no cars anywhere, and, as there was a large collar with a huge, easy-to-read ID tag on it, I pulled out my handy-dandy cell phone, which was, contrary to Murphy's Law, actually getting a signal, called the number, and embarked on another rather bizarre conversation, this one consisting primarily of my trying to explain to this man where I was with his dog.  It began with a woman answering the phone, and when I asked whether they were missing a dog, she didn't waste any more time with me, but hollared down the hall:  "Billy!  It's one of your dogs!"  I wondered, fleetingly, whether Billy the Dog Owner thought that the dog had actually managed to find a phone....  At any rate, Billy the Dog Owner knows the Wildlife Management Area a great deal better than I do, and he kept offering me reference points like "the Three-Lakes area" or "across from the campground" or "way out there in the back?"  As I could see only one lake, and as I never knew there WAS a campground there, and as I thought I was right near the front of the park, we were making no progress at all.  Finally I resorted to telling the man how I got there--"If you're headed east on 60...."  When I finished my recitation, Billy said that he knew exactly where I was, and would be there in 10 minutes.  I was skeptical, but in fact he was there in five--just long enough for the dog to drink about half the water from one of the jugs in the car. 

Good deed for the day over, I proceeded to find the only Question Mark and the only Common Checkered Skipper of the day.  Tim got a Red Admiral, thus ensuring that we avoided the dreaded Vanessa shutout, so it was a good stop all around.

We decided to go on to Powhatan Lakes, although we were getting tired, and, once again, we were not disappointed:  we picked up Great Spangled Fritillary, the first (and only) specimen of the day.  We have never had a count without Great Spangled Fritillary:  it was #2 Big Bug on our first two counts, and so has a special spot in Maidens count history.
This is, indeed, one of the amazing things about butterfly counting, at least in our circle:  it almost never fails that everywhere we go we get at least one butterfly we didn't get anywhere else, and that fact justifies our trudging around in that 9th hour where we are hot and tired and could easily rationalize heading home.  Yesterday, we made the heroic effort to hit Hidden Rock Park, regardless of the fact that we were hot and tired and the park would be full to overflowing with people ignoring the signs not to take their vehicles down to the picnic area and blasting loud music all over everywhere.  We figured we'd just get another 150 or so Sachems (102, in actual fact), but that was not all:  at Hidden Rock Park, at 6:15 in the evening, 9 hours after we set out, we spotted Gray Hairstreak, foiling the hairstreak shutout, and ending the count with a bang.
As it happened, then, our dire predictions for the day were dramatically, stunningly wrong.  We only got 29 species (bottom third for us), but the 984 individuals is the third highest count ever--only 3 behind #2.  Better not ask us to tell your fortune.  We are extraordinarily bad at telling the future!

Next year, maybe fewer humanoids and more lepidopteran species.
Note:  All the photographs are mine, taken 7/3/2010 on the Maidens Butterfly Count.


1. Footote:  we have to disqualify the ticks that get on Tim, otherwise we'd be counting for months.  He must be tick elixir.  He attracts so many ticks that some of them end up on me.)



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