Pluto might be a planet again. Or not.

Pluto disappeared from our local Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope visitor centre some years ago, when it was decategorized from being a planet. It no longer seemed to exist, which seemed a bit unnecessary. Also, as one interested in astrology, Pluto is a planet of great significance here, and has certainly not disappeared from use.

So I was very interested to see this great post by Matthew Wright. He’s also questioning our tendency to classify everything into categories that may then obscure things of real significance, such as the astrological significance of Pluto!

Matthew Wright

Remember Pluto the planet? And then Pluto the not a planet? Well, it’s back. Possibly. Apparently an informal forum held the other week came down in favour of reinstating the ‘planet’ classification. Of course these things carry little weight with the International Astronomical Union.

Pluto in true colour, as seen by New Horizons. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

What interests me is the way that the debate over whether Pluto is, or is not a planet also sums up the biggest flaw in modern human analytical philosophy; our need to categorise everything and fit it into patterns and slots as a part of being ‘scientific’.

In a way this is not surprising. We appear to be hard-wired to see patterns everywhere. Sometimes they even exist. The ‘evolutionary psychological’ explanation is that it conferred an advantage during our very, very long hunter-gatherer period. Humans who were better at identifying patterns were…

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Snowy Egret

At first I thought this was a great egret in Houston’s Hermann Park in March. Eventually I realised that it is actually a snowy egret, which is somewhat smaller.

 

The way the wind has whipped up the neck and tail feathers makes for an interesting effect (click to enlarge).

According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, snowy egrets have a black bill and yellow feet, whereas great egrets have a yellow bill and black feet. Hopefully I’ll remember that for next time!

Mother Earth – A Message from Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall has long been a source of inspiration on our need to re-establish our connection with nature. This video is well worth 6 minutes of your time. She says it all really, and it matters.

Magical Elements Nature Photography

I’ve watched and followed Jane Goodall most of my life. In my eyes, she is the icon of conservation, environmental sustainability and love for our Mother Earth.

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Blue Jay

Almost everywhere we go in Houston, particularly when near Buffalo Bayou, we can hear the raucus cry of the blue jay. Occasionally you get to see these beautiful birds and that brilliant flash of blue. But they do seem to be camera shy. What a nice surprise when this one posed on a car park near the bayou.

 

Being not far from the sea, this is probably the ‘coastal’ variant mentioned by Wikipedia, as opposed to the ‘interior’ or ‘northern’ variants.

Mainstream Environment?

I’d guess it was the 1980s when I really became aware of environmental issues, including fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, including pollution of the air in cities, including degrading of farmland by intensive farming, including the effects of pesticides on the natural world. For so long, those 40 years since, the mainstream media have largely ignored these issues, or reported them as the concern of ‘environmentalists’, neatly compartmentalized away from the mainstream.

So I’ve had a strange sense of cognitive dissonance this past week or so as these issues are being discussed on the mainstream bulletins of the BBC, that bastion of UK establishment thinking. Of course, this is a reaction to the success of Extinction Rebellion in highlighting just how urgent now is the situation on global warming/ climate change and species loss (as well as to the success of Netflix in pinching David Attenborough and allowing him his full environmental voice). It really is a planetary emergency with little time left to effectively act.

The worry is that this is just to fill in the air time left by a government and parliament doing nothing but obsess about Brexit. There is no other legislation, no ‘queen’s speech’. The broadcasters must be sick of reiterating the minutiae of customs union, the withdrawal agreement, the splits in the two main parties and on and on.

But we have to be optimistic and suppose that
(a) something will eventually be sorted on Brexit and then
(b) this time legislators are accepting of the urgency and will eventually set out a programme that will at least partially address the climate/fossil fuel issue, encouraging people and business in the right direction. That is their job.
Difficult for a Conservative government that has spent 4 years rolling back the little environmental progress they allowed the Liberal Democrats to make in the coalition government of 2010.

The big question at the moment: Is Environment Secretary Michael Gove up to the job? He appears to understand the issues, but can he persuade the government to act and explain to the public what they are doing and why, and anyway will he still be there when prime minister Theresa May goes (ie soon)?

My optimism is somewhat subdued!

 

American Sparrow

Still sorting through my photographs from Houston, I was trying to identify these birds that were feeding on the grass at Paul D Rushing Nature Reserve. Of course, they kept such a distance that a decent photograph was difficult, although you can see the key features from these.

To European eyes it looked like some sort of bunting or sparrow. Consulting Wikipedia, it seems that American Sparrows are not quite what I had thought.

Although they share the name sparrow, American sparrows are more closely related to Old World buntings than they are to the Old World sparrows (family Passeridae).[1][2] American sparrows are also similar in both appearance and habit to finches, with which they sometimes used to be classified.

So it’s some sort of American Sparrow, of which there is a huge proliferation, according to Wiki. A song sparrow is a likely possibility, as these certainly over-winter in Texas (it was March).

Song Thrush

We often see a song thrush in the back garden, but never with camera handy. Of course, they don’t stay long enough for me to go and get it, wisely with cats around.

This one appeared high on a hedge on a sunny afternoon walk in the Wirral, just asking to be photographed.

songthrush

I only managed 3 shots at maximum zoom before he flew off. Only this one was in reasonable focus. The lesson is maybe to leave burst mode set, but then of course you finish up with so many frames to sort out!

Orange Tip

There seem to have been quite a lot of orange tip butterflies around the last few weeks, some looking really fresh like this one. Unusually, it paused awhile in the sun with wings open, allowing a few quick shots before normal fluttering was resumed.

orange tip

According to Wikipedia, orange tips are appearing earlier in the spring, and this must be a male, as “the more reclusive female… lacks the orange and is often mistaken for other species of butterfly”.

Strangely, the usually infallible autofocus on my Panasonic TZ200 does not appear to have got anything completely sharp, and that’s the same on several shots, so is probably not due to hand movement. Maybe there was just too much detail at different distances and differing illuminations in the strong sunlight (featured image shows how much was in shot).

Here today…

The story of life. The glory of the flowering cherry petals in Knutsford every April. They used to come around May Day for the annual May Day Parade, but now they start more like mid April – the season is getting earlier. Perhaps they are out for a week…

 

Then, a good burst of rain and wind, just what our dry gardens need, but the end for the cherry petals, now a beautiful pink snow on the pavements, clogging shoes as we unavoidably walk through them. (Featured image.)

Dee Estuary Sunset 2

A white dog runs out into the Dee estuary from the beach at Thursaston in the Wirral. The owner calls it back, and there emerges a white dog with brown legs. The estuary is actually very muddy, beyond the thin strip of sandy beach at the edge. Viewed from the low cliffs, mud, sand, river and tides combine together in wondrous picturesque swirls and patterns. Add to that the Sun descending slowly in the western sky. This combination never fails to lift the spirit.

 

dee estuary sunset 3dee estuary sunset 2

The Water Will Come

Anyone who follows the regular NASA ‘vital signs’ reports on sea level will be aware that the trend in global sea level is for an average rise of 3mm per year (see graph). This correlates with the increasing trend of CO2 concentration of around 2ppm per year (currently 410ppm). There is no significant debate about this. These are the figures accepted by most scientists.

Now, 3mm doesn’t sound much, but multiply by 100 to get us to 2119, that would be 300mm, which is 0.3 metre or about 1 foot – and that’s within the potential lifetime of babies being born today. Yes, you may say, but 1 foot is not much either.

But now consider that

  1. the rate of sea level rise is increasing as CO2 levels increase,
  2. the effect is not evenly spread around the globe, for example the East coast of North America is sinking, so the rate is much greater
  3. the increased weather variability caused by CO2 levels means greater tides, and more flooding
  4. Scientists are very worried about so-called positive feedback effects whereby CO2 and ice melting would be rapidly accelerated.

Add all this together. What does that mean for the beaches of England that I grew up with. Higher embankments? Loss of sand? Regular inundation? What of other even more vulnerable places?

I was inspired to write this by Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come, which describes how some of the affected communities are today preparing for rises in sea levels – such as southern Florida, Venice, New York, Tokyo, Marshall Islands, Maldives. All are attempting to mitigate the effects, but how can they possibly cope in the long term? Consider that when CO2 concentration was last at this level, sea levels were 20 METRES higher – which it is fairly logical to assume is where we are headed in the long run.

We clearly have a global emergency that is currently being inadequately addressed. If humanity was behaving rationally, a major global programme would be in place to attempt to address and mitigate the effects of this emerging cataclysm. If only. The poorly supported Paris agreement is but a shadow of what is needed.

So all power to those young people, and to campaigning groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who are trying to wake up those in power to their responsibilities.

Northern Cardinal

The northern cardinal is very common in Houston and other parts of Texas we’ve visited. You can often hear it singing, see a flash of red go by, or see it perched on a high telephone wire (too far away for a good picture). It may be closer, on tree branch, but get the camera out, and it immediately hides behind the nearest twigs. They KNOW.

So it was a pleasant surprise to see this one at the magnificent Brazos Bend State Park, singing away in a tree and not rushing off. It had clearly seen us, but carried on regardless.

See also an earlier post from a couple of years ago.

Greater Yellowlegs

The larger of these two waders, seen recently at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy, clearly has yellow legs, which does suggest the identification. I tend to think it’s a Greater Yellowlegs, as opposed to a Lesser Yellowlegs, due to the length of the beak – around 1.5 times the head width (see how to tell them apart). The smaller bird is probably a female or juvenile?

yellowlegs

Yellowlegs are part of the Tringa genus of waders that includes sandpipers, redshanks and willets. These are shore birds and their breeding grounds are in Canada and Alaska, so this pair would have been either still overwintering or in the process of migrating north.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

I suddenly noticed an unfamiliar bird in one of the few bushes at Paul D Rushing Park in Katy. It turned out to be a scissor-tailed flycatcher, unmistakable with that long tail, patch of rust at the shoulder, grey head, and light front with salmony plumage on the flanks. When it eventually flew off, the tail separated to clearly exhibit the scissor-characteristic.

scissortailed flycatcher

According to Wikipedia, the habitat was just right: “open shrubby country with scattered trees in the south-central states”. This bird is also appropriately known as the “Texas Bird of Paradise”, although it is actually the state bird of Oklahoma.

Paul D Rushing Park

Leave Interstate I10 at Katy and go up the long straight Katy Hockley Road for nearly 10 miles, past lines of new housing developments mixed with the usual (for Houston) random industrial and commercial units, and eventually you arrive at Paul D Rushing Park. Amazingly, you are still in Katy (yes, the greater Houston area is just that big). We’d ‘discovered’ this park from the website of Houston Audubon, giving suitable places for birders.

Suspicions arose when there were zero cars in the car park. At first sight this looked like a sports facility with ball courts. But there must be birds somewhere! Past the ball courts and toilets there were several lakes, apparently surrounded by little vegetation other than grass. A few odd ducks were immediately apparent, but the area looked otherwise barren.

paul d rushing park

Well, we’d come to walk, so walk we did. There were lots of viewing platforms, blinds and walkways over the lake, but not a lot to view. Soon we saw a coypu in the water, then an amazing scissortailed flycatcher rested in one of the few bushes, then egrets on the boardwalk hand rails (featured image), chicks in the water, a black stilt in the distance, a little brown job – some sort of sparrow, then a yellowlegs wader, turtles,… So actually there was quite a lot going on in a park that at first looked so unpromising. But it still looked strangely lacking in vegetation to European eyes!

Carolina Wren

This little wren was hopping about among the branches of a bush by the visitor centre at the Edith L. Moore Houston Audubon sanctuary. Typically wrens are very wary, so not usually so accommodating to being photographed.

carolina wren

A passing ranger identified this as a Carolina Wren, which is the state bird of South Carolina. The bird was probably on its annual migration northwards.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Well I think this is a Louisiana Waterthrush due to the pinkish legs, but it could be a Northern Waterthrush, which is very similar. These migratory birds spend the winter in Central America or West Indies, so we were lucky to catch this one on on his way through Houston at the Edith L. Moore sanctuary (Houston Audubon). Also lucky that this rather elusive bird was pointed out by a regular birder.

northern waterthrush

Although its breast looks very much like that of a thrush, this is not actually a thrush, but a warbler.

This was taken at a fair distance from the opposite side of the creek, so the result is not bad at maximum stretch on my travel zoom Panasonix TZ200.

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

This clouded yellow butterfly kindly stopped by for a photograph as we were exploring an old film set at Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. These are of the genus colias, of which there are many variants. They are apparently called ‘sulphurs’ in North America.

clouded yellow 3

clouded yellow wikiYou can see the apparent shading on the wings, where the strong dark outer colouring on the top of the wings shows through. A web search shows that these butterflies are not often caught with their wings open to reveal the upper side. Here’s an example male (upper) and female from Wikipedia. We can infer that mine is a male.

 

 

Monarch butterfly

There seem to be a fair number of Monarch butterflies in Houston, probably on their way elsewhere in their annual migration. These are large butterflies with a wonderfully graceful flight.

The featured image shows one settled amid Texan blue bonnet flowers. The other below is settled on the ground, a somewhat faded specimen compared to the vibrancy of some, suggesting one that has survived the winter.

monarch

Llano, Texas

Llano is a good place to stop on the way to somewhere else in Texas. This small town was founded as a frontier trading centre on the Llano River in 1856. The river and the ‘old’ town provide the main focus of interest, plus one of the best BBQ restaurants around (delicious).

The bridge is rather functional and not particularly attractive, so I was quite surprised that my Panasonic ZX200 made it look quite attractive after nightfall (featured image).

More spectacular was the view of the evening sky from the bridge, over the weir.

llano sunset