We used to call them gnats in Lincoln. The Spanish call them mosquitoes (diminutive for mosca – fly). It was many years before I realised these are the same thing, basically, although there are different sorts.
For us they were just pesky nuisances, but this is mankind’s ‘deadliest predator’. How come? The answer: malaria. In 2018 there were 228,000,000 new cases and 400,000 died, but few in the ‘developed world’.
For millennia people got the ague, got sick and many died. It even decided major events, such as Hannibal’s failed assault on Rome, the limits of Alexander the Great’s conquering. It was thought to be bad air that caused it (mal-aria).
Eventually mankind found the cure – draining swamps and quinine, a refined variant of which, hydroxychloroquine, has been in the news recently. Of course, a lot of the world can’t afford these solutions.
This reminded me of a trip we took a few years ago to the unspoilt Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. We stopped outside the gate of the reserve to take a quick entry photo, and by the time we got back in the car I had a number of mosquito bites on my arm. Of course, the whole of this eastern part of Texas was one big swamp before white men arrived. What a lot of mosquitoes! And what a heroic effort to carve the city of Houston out of such terrain. No wonder they use a lot of pesticide.
To know history and its causes is to understand today!
Thanks to an excellent review by Steven Shapin in the recent London Review of Books, on the book The Mosquito; A Human History of our Deadliest Predator by Timothy Winegard. Sounds like a great book!
No it’s not my arm. Featured image of Tasmanian mosquito by JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons
As coronavirus gradually reduced our horizons during our recent stay in Houston, it was surprising how many insects one came across in the garden. Surprising because continuous chemical warfare is waged against termites and cockroaches, which would both soon become very widespread without it.
The presence of lizards and birds, such as cardinal, mocking bird and blue jay, does suggest that there are insects around, and if you go in the summer there will be mosquitoes due to large amounts of standing water. Fortunately these were not significantly around during our recent visit. We did see odd cockroaches, the great survivors, but these are not my favourite photographic subjects.
Bees were around on emerging spring flowers, but my two best pictures were of a monarch butterfly and a colourful paper wasp(?).
Wander around the garden in Houston and there is usually the odd small lizard, a few inches long, scuttling out of sight or sunning itself on a wall. There seem to be two sorts.
The green anole (left) is native to the south eastern US. They have the ability to change colour to brown, hence sometimes called American chameleon, but these are not true chameleons. Their natural habitat is trees, although house walls seem to provide an alternative.
The brown anole (top right) is a native of the Caribbean, more recently introduced via pet shops and pot plants. This lizard is said to displace green anoles from their preferred habitat, so represents a threat to their long-term survival.
My third picture (bottom right) is probably a brown green anole, as it lacks the strong patterning of the brown anole.
Houston was only relatively recently wrenched from the Texas swamps (founded 1836). The city is now mainly a man-made environment where nature clings on where it can. There are some areas that are in a relatively natural state. George Bush Park is one of these, because it lies behind Barker Dam, which protects much of residential and downtown Houston from flooding after heavy rainfall events. So the park is regularly flooded in varying degrees.
We recently managed a lovely spring walk through a seemingly remote part of the park, actually just a few minutes from Interstate I10. The featured image shows one of the patches of swamp vegetation, which were probably typical of the area before Houston came along.
Much of the land is scrub interspersed with lakes. This new grass was growing just at the edge of a lake as the water receded. The grass was only a few inches high; getting the camera down to near ground level was essential here.
Highlight of the walk was the number of wildflowers in evidence. The spring sunshine had really brought them out. Bees and other insects were in evidence, not so persecuted here as in other parts of Houston. Here’s a selection.
Animal tracks in the mud showed signs of grazers and predators of varying sizes, but they keep well away from people, with good reason.
The park is named after President George HW Bush, who we saw was very popular in Houston in his later years.
The park is not virgin land; it was a ranch before being taken over for use as a reservoir.
Barker Dam leapt to worldwide attention during the dramatic events of Hurricane Harvey 2½ years ago, when the dam was tested to its limits.
These black bellied whistling ducks were hanging out as usual in a private pond near to the Terry Hershey Trail and Buffalo Bayou in Houston. Piercing whistles show that they fully deserve their name. This is a popular spot for birds. Here they were joined by cormorants and then a snowy egret.
The great blue heron is a very large bird, the biggest heron in North America. We seem to come across the odd solitary bird fairly frequently when in Houston, in typical expectant pose waiting for signs of fish. These examples were in Archbishop Joseph A Fiorenza Park and beneath the bridge taking the I10 freeway over Buffalo Bayou. Amazing that this bird happily fishes while hundreds of cars and lorries thunder overhead.
The Audubon site gives good information on the vulnerability of this and other birds to climate change. Assuming that food sources hold up, they should still be around Houston for future generations.
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
Ray Miller Park is a smallish urban park just by the busy Eldridge Parkway in Houston. In a quiet corner of the park it is a delight to come across Tagore Grove, established in memory of the Indian polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). A calming space on the midst of all that busyness.
The featured image shows a panel containing the words of Tagore’s poem, shown in full above – a call across the ages, so relevant to these times.
I’m obviously not keeping up. Fortuitously, son slipped me the ‘climate’ issue of The Economist from September 2019, which features these ‘climate stripes’. (Our children are of course there to educate us!)
Each stripe in the featured image represents the global temperature averaged over a year, from 1850 to 2018. You can see that the stripes “turn from mainly blue to mainly red in more recent years, illustrating the rise in average temperatures”.
As well as being informative, this presentation is aesthetically pleasing. What a wonderful way of communicating the reality of global temperature change. It was created by scientist: Ed Hawkins of Reading University, using data from Berkeley Earth, NOAA, UK Met Office, MeteoSwiss, DWD. The stripes have been widely used worldwide for some time, see the story.
The show your stripes website enables you to download the stripes for your own country. For example here’s England and then Texas (with slightly differing start dates).
One can speculate on how the stripe pattern in different areas might reflect their different attitudes to climate change.
Interestingly, the debate has moved on from September, in that ‘climate breakdown’ is now the commonly used terminology instead of ‘climate change’ as in the above Economist article – but that is of course a mainstream business magazine.
I always think Brazos Bend Texas State Park contains just a little bit of paradise. Apart from all the wonderful American birds you see there, the setting is magnificent – like this view from a shady bench, just the thing to cool you on a hot day, which they often are!
This crop centred on the bench has greater resolution, but which do you prefer?
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.
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). 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).
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.