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!

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.

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).

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

Osprey and Catfish

The osprey is quite rare in the UK, so it was great to see one of these great birds of prey  at Archbishop Fiorenza Park, just by a tollway and major road junction within half an hour of Houston centre. Signs by the lake implied that it contains quite large catfish, which was confirmed as the osprey flew overhead with a huge catfish in its talons. Even better, it then settled on a nearby telegraph pole to take a few bites. The only problem for photographs was that he was between the sun and us, so detail in the images is not great. But the silhouettes are impressive and really show the size of the fish taken by this huge bird.

 

Too Much Reality?

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

― T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Bush and Cheney: How They Ruined America and the World

I’ve had this book by Professor David Ray Griffin for some time, but hesitated to put it on top of the reading list. Having taken an interest in world affairs over the years, I sort of knew what it says. It’s still quite disturbing to see it all laid out in one place.

The neoconservative ideology, of which Dick Cheney was a major leader, had been around since the Reagan years, culminating in the articulation of the Project for the New American Century, aimed at maintaining American ‘full spectrum’ domination of world affairs. It seems that those ‘hanging chads’ in Florida in November 2000, and the resulting ‘stolen’ presidential election that brought George W Bush and Cheney to power allowed these ideas to have full effect. This had a profound impact on future decades, leading to the multiple crises we see today. Consider the contents of part I of this tome.

  • The failure to prevent 9/11
  • The nonsensical ‘war on terror’ and the Afghanistan war
  • The increase in military spending and policy of pre-emptive war and regime change (carried forward from the Reagan years)
  • The corruptly-justified Iraq war and incompetent dissolution of the Iraqi army that led to the formation of ISIS
  • The extreme Islamaphobia
  • The global chaos caused by America’s ‘war for the greater middle east’ – American supported insurrections in Libya, Syria, Yemen. (The policies were basically carried forward by Obama/Clinton/Kerry). The uncritical support of Israel’s unjust stasis. All this of course leading to Europe’s current refugee crisis.
  • The flouting of US and international law in drone killings and targeted assassinations, even of US citizens. A counter-productive policy that continues to this day.
  • Changing the US constitution that limited the ability of the Executive to make war, many violations of the first, fourth and fifth amendments, including warrantless searches, use of torture, capturing huge amounts of data as revealed by Edward Snowden.
  • Confrontation with Russia by moving Nato and weapons nearer to the Russian border, with the probable aim of regime change in Russia. Regime change in Ukraine that appears to have involved dirty tricks, as has the subsequent confrontation with Russia. Griffin suggests that similar confrontation with China led to the construction of the disputed islands in the China Sea. All this greatly increases the risk of nuclear holocaust.
  • Finally, the persistent denial and refusal to act on climate change and global warming has already closed the window on when the major problems could be averted. Continued refusal to act pushes us ever nearer climate breakdown (‘ecological holocaust’).

This first part of the book is profoundly depressing, and recalled the many occasions when I have personally recoiled at the grossness and lack of intelligence in the US’s policies.

You could just see this all as a grand conspiracy theory, but it seems that the cap fits. US exceptionalism and the thinking of Empire really is perhaps the greatest danger to today’s world.

But we do need to sometimes face the reality of the world as it is, in order to move towards a better world tomorrow. It should be clear to most thinking people that the US has been for two decades travelling up a long blind and self-defeating alley. Donald Trump just makes it all a bit more unpredictable.

Do they really want to be the Emperors of a dead world?

I thought this second Eliot quote might be appropriate, but I’m not so sure about the good intentions.

“Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.”

― T.S. Eliot

Maybe I’ll get to read part 2 of the book, on 9/11, when I’ve recovered.

Featured image of Bush and Cheney at 2003 State of the Union, from Wikimedia Commons

If Only They Didn’t Speak English

of onlyMy post on Competition and Co-operation touched on cultural differences between The UK and the US, so I was attracted to read Jon Sopel’s recent book ‘If Only They Didn’t Speak English’, which explores the differences Jon has found during his long stint as the BBC’s North America correspondent.

Jon’s book confirms that the US is a very different country, quite alien in many ways to a European perspective – resulting of course from a very different history and geography. A list of the subjects covered by chapter gives an idea of its scope:

  • the anger felt by many Americans, the ‘losers’ in the globalising project
  • the pervasive influence of race and discrimination
  • the evident patriotism
  • the system of government, and the current neglect of public infrastructure
  • the continued major influence of religion and God
  • the issue of guns and the right to bear arms
  • the easily aroused anxiety felt by many Americans
  • the ‘special’ role that Americans feel they have with the world, and the supposed ‘special’ relationship with UK
  • the increasing loss of contact with truth in the political arena
  • the descent into chaos with the Trump administration.

There is much insight here, although interestingly he does not focus on issues of competition vs co-operation. The book provides a stimulating read. And Jon warns that we should not expect major change or realignment; these are real differences. We really are confused by a common language, to suppose that the differences are not as great as they appear – they are.

At the end of the day, although Britain aspires to provide a bridge between Europe and America, our culture is much more European than American. Attempts to move us in an American direction must be seen in this light. Americans think we’re socialists, and most Brits don’t really want to change the current settlement and, for example, lose our NHS. Brexit puts this all in jeopardy, engineered as it was on a misleading and false prospectus of supporting the NHS.

 

Competition and Co-operation

Having watched Rich Hall’s recent excellent BBC4 programme, ‘Working for the American Dream’ on the development of the USA, and coming across the United Nations focus on sustainable development, led me to this reflection.

The USA was built on conquering supposed virgin lands, and people making loads of money by exploiting those lands, their resources, indigenous peoples, and the people who actually did the work. The system was essentially competitive, and at the top the US system still is. It appears to be still dominated by those with money and power, and there is an apparent aversion to co-operative ideals – hence the bizarre denigration of ‘socialism’ as in some way bad, and the refusal to countenance universal health care.

Due to the size of the USA and its economy, this system has to some degree been exported across the world, but significantly resisted by more co-operative or collaborative approaches, notably in Europe, where provision of social and health care are regarded as important. US disdain of this has become clear, in the shape of the Trump administration, which even appears to seek to undermine the great collaboration of the EU.

Meanwhile, the UN wrestles with the issue of sustainability in a world of incredible challenges on climate, biodiversity, resource depletions and all their consequences. What is clear is that there are now no virgin lands to be colonised, and indeed we must create some to give nature adequate sanctuaries. It is also clear that the world’s problems can only be resolved by co-operative approaches.

Of course, in psychological terms the adolescent stage of development of ego is characterised by differentiation and competition. As we develop and grow psychologically we naturally open up more to love, empathy and co-operation. A similar process operates at a ‘nation state’ level.

The world cannot wait for the USA to ‘grow up’, but if only it would.

Featured image shows tug of war at 1904 Olympic Games, St. Louis,
by Charles Lucas via Wikimedia Commons

 

Saving Capitalism

Readers of liberal media know the story. Inequality is getting worse, banks, corporations and rich individuals distort ‘the system’ to their own advantage. Communities are being gradually destroyed, as is the ability of the mass of people to support public services. In short, modern capitalism has become unfair and unsustainable. And then on top of that, increasing automation is destroying ever more jobs, just as education is creating ever more people capable of doing them.

saving capitalismRobert Reich is a professor on public policy at Berkeley and well known author. His book ‘Saving Capitalism’ explains it all, particularly in the context of the US. His subtitle ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ expresses well where he is coming from.

Reich points out that typical public debate between right and left between ‘free markets’ and ‘more government’ actually obscures the real issue. Governments are responsible for designing, organising and enforcing markets, and this is where the focus should be. Particularly in the US, moneyed interests have successfully subverted the process in their own favour. The resulting increased inequality is there for all to see.

As Reich explains, this direction has been supported by both Republican and Democratic establishments from the era of Reagan, through Clinton, Bush, Obama. The countervailing powers to the extremes of capitalism have been gradually eroded, organised labour largely destroyed, ever-reduced and ineffective regulation, lack of control on monopolies, lax bankruptcy laws for big companies, shareholders given preference over other stakeholders, legislation influenced ever more by big money, revolving doors between corporations and government, obscene rewards to chief executives… All of course came to a head with the financial crash of 2008, after which banks were deemed ‘too big to fail’, were bailed out and the American people paid the price.

As Reich points out, this sort of thing has all happened in the US before, and the system has eventually righted itself, notably when ‘big oil’ was dismantled, when Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’ came along, when AT&T was dismantled and so on.

The challenge today is to restore suitable countervailing power to the political-economic system, so that the system can again flourish, and democracy itself be renewed. And this in a climate where technology increasingly means that the old ways of mass employment will no longer work.

The ‘rules of the market’ need to be designed anew, and the corporation ‘reinvented’. Reich is confident that this can be done. But to do it people need to begin to care and maybe re-establish some of the grassroots movements that provide necessary countervailing power. The Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn movements begin to show that the impetus is there among younger people, in both UK and US. Indeed on the other side of the spectrum the Tea Party showed similar characteristics.

The populism currently sweeping the world is not the answer, rule by over-blown egos is ultimately non-democratic. Reich highlights the problem and the needed direction with a clarity that is commendable. We all need to be listening and using what influence we might have.

Muscovy Duck

Muscovy ducks are quite large, rather ugly, and somewhat ungainly ducks. They are native to Mexico, Central and South America, but have established themselves also in parts of the US, notably Texas where we they are quite common.

This one in Hermann Park, Houston shows an attractive iridescence in the feathers.

muscovy duck hermann park

The most remarkable feature of these ducks is the blackish or red knob seen at the bill base, with the bare skin of the face a similar colour.

muscovy duck head

Why these are called Muscovy Ducks seems to be a bit of a mystery, as they have no clear historical relationship with Russia.

Touring Trumpland

In March we took a road trip through some of the Deep South US States. A few images stick in my mind.

Exploring the Louisiana flatlands down towards the Gulf, south of Lake Charles – Lafayette. This is clearly hurricane alley. There is evident poverty. Many plots of land have an aged RV next to the shack, ready for quick getaway. Some just comprise an RV in a shelter.

In Birmingham, Alabama the great industrial centre built by blacks for white money is no more, just a few museums, like the Sloss steel mill.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the famous choo choo runs no more and its very fine station is closed.

FT._PAYNE_OPERA_HOUSE
Fort Payne Opera house

Fort Payne in Alabama was built in the 1830s to intern and relocate Cherokee Indians. In the 1880s, due to the railroad, it was a booming iron and steel town until the minerals ran out. The opera house is still there. In the early 1900s a hosiery industry started and by the 1990s Fort Payne was ‘sock capital of the world’. Globalisation put an end to that, and the place now feels like it is struggling.

winona station
Winona station

Winona in Mississippi is another a town which owes its existence to the railroad. It now seems more dead than alive, with many shuttered buildings.

Vicksburg, Mississippi was the site of a major battle of the Civil War in 1863, and grew on the back of the trading boats plying the River Mississippi. Vicksburg has a history of suppression of first Indians and then blacks.

vicksburg mansion
Vicksburg mansion

It is now a tourist town, with an apparently prosperous posh residential area. But Main Street looks faded, with many closed shops. Drunks or druggies patrol the edges of the civilised area.

I see all these as symptoms that the great American Dream is not working. Struggling towns and communities, due to jobs destroyed or moved elsewhere, particularly due to globalisation. Donald Trump offered change from this failed system, which has been engineered by both Republicans and Democrats. It is not surprising that people voted for him despite reservations on his character.

There is no evidence yet that politicians other than the Bernie Sanders left wing Democrats offer any solutions.

Featured image is the now-static Chattanooga Choochoo.
Picture of Fort Payne Opera House courtesy Jerry & Roy Klotz, via Wikimedia Commons.

Whistling Duck on Green

Sometimes you ‘see’ an image that is just a perfect colour combination. These black bellied whistling ducks were serenely progressing through the green covering on a lake in Terry Hershey Park, Houston, and almost immediately disappeared beneath the overhanging vegetation. I just managed to grab a couple of shots that weren’t too bad.

I particularly like this one, cropped, that I’ve included at higher resolution.

whistling duck on green