Big Day for Wildlife

Yesterday (2-25-19) was a big day for wildlife viewing in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, in northern New Mexico. Shucks, it’s only a National Monument, but has populations of wildlife that rival National Parks. And this is especially so in the winter, when a variety of northern ducks and bald eagles arrive at the generally ice-free waters of the Rio Grande to winter.

In less than an hour’s time, I was able to observe and photograph the creatures that follow. This first movie is of a pair of mallards feeding on midges that have been caught up in foam.

Not over two miles upstream, I spotted a group of bighorn ewes and young, part way up the slope on the far side of the river.

After filming this group of sheep, I looked back down at the river, and saw a long cylindrical shape in the water, which was, of course, an otter. I was seated in my van, using it as a blind, and the otter was about 160′ away (measured with Google Earth), so it was not alarmed. It swam leisurely up and down along the shoreline for a few minutes, before climbing out of the river.

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Otter

A few minutes later, I filmed this group of ducks from an elevated pull-out. All but two of the ducks are goldeneyes. The two ducks closest to shore, with more pointy heads, are ring-necks. And a female mallard passes through the group.

Bald eagle on basalt boulder

Bald eagle

My last sighting was this bald eagle, which circled above me and landed on a basalt boulder. I then returned downstream to a pool where, yesterday, I caught a hefty rainbow trout that was rising to midges. But there were no risers there, and I caught nothing. Did I go home disappointed? Not a chance! Catching something would have been only the sprinkles on the icing on the cake. The Rio Grande had again provided precious moments of being with wildlife.

p.s. while the wintering birds arrive on their own, the bighorns and otters have been returned to the Rio Grande via very successful stocking efforts.

 

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Once Birdwatching, Now Birding

I still have my original Peterson’s “A Field Guide to Western Birds”, which was given to me by my first wife Karen, on my 27th birthday, in 1967. In those days, birdwatchers referred to it simply as “Peterson’s”.

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My “Peterson’s”, with thumb tabs added by myself

The guide contained a checklist, with the recommendation: “Keep a Life List”. I did use the checklist, and added notes of bird sightings in margins and elsewhere in the book. But I did this on a haphazard basis. It was not that important to me that I keep a complete record.

More recently, I became enamoured of bird photography, and started to look and post to websites like Facebook Birders. Birdwatching had become “birding” – no doubt to make it sound like a more serious undertaking, and not simply the preoccupation of old ladies in sneakers. It was on these websites that I began to see references to “lifers”. What is a “lifer”? It is one’s first sighting of a bird, and represents, therefore, a new entry on one’s life list. And it became evident that adding lifers to one’s life list is, for dedicated birders, of the highest priority. One’s lifelong passion is to checkoff the greatest number of birds possible – both in one’s country of residence and world-wide, if you have the means. This passion can extend to birders doing a “Big Year”, in which they race around the country from one birding hotspot to another, amassing a species count. The American Birding Association has promulgated these rules for a Big Year:

“ABA Area Big Year Rules

An ABA Area Big Year shall start at 12:00 AM on 1 January of that year and end at 11:59 PM, 31 December of that year, based on the local time of the location of the birder at each time threshold. Each species counted by the participant must have been encountered in accordance with the ABA Recording Rules current at the time the species was encountered. Each species counted must have been on the ABA Checklist during the Big Year …”

How many species have winners recorded? In 2016, John Weigel counted 784 bird species. And, in case you missed it, Owen Wilson starred in a riotous spoof of this competition, entitled, of course, “The Big Year”. So, like practically every other activity in the modern world, birdwatching became competitive.

As an amateur photographer of birds (amongst other wildlife and nature subjects), running around from place to place to maximize sightings is the farthest thing from my mind. I want to spend time with birds, because they are both beautiful and interesting. Nowadays, I find that being around birds is the most relaxing and fulfilling thing I can do, whether it be watching birds at the feeders at home, or traveling to see and photograph birds in new places. It is said of trout fishing that trout live in beautiful places, and the same thing can of course be said of birds. And, birding in new locales takes me to beautiful places I may not have otherwise discovered.

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Evening grosbeak, Embudo, New Mexico

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Rufous-tailed hummingbird, Mindo, Ecuador

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What Went Wrong

What Went Wrong

I

In the Spring of 1962, I boarded the S.S. Serbija, bound from New York City to Tangiers, Morocco. The purpose of the trip was to go climbing in the Alps. A secondary purpose was to visit Israel and India. As for Israel, I intended to live and work on a kibbutz for a spell, to see at first hand how socialism functioned. In India, I intended to live on an ashram, to find out about Hinduism. Underlying this urge to investigate alternatives to capitalist society was a deep-seated conviction that the modern world was headed for trouble.

I did climb in the Alps and spend a winter on a kibbutz. My time at the kibbutz was entirely satisfying, and I could easily have stayed on, but my interest in Hindu mysticism compelled me to continue to India. On the way, I spent the next summer in Iran, and arrived in India in early fall. Hoping to find opportunities to climb in the Indian Himalaya before winter, I went first to Kulu Valley. There, I did get to do some climbing, but this was cut short when I came down with hepatitis. I had contracted this blood-borne disease in Iran, from an inoculation for yellow fever that had been delivered with a non-disposable needle.

I returned to the US, and, after my recovery, spent the winter ski-bumming in the West. But, what was I going to do next? I decided that, instead of mysticism, I would give science a chance. I wanted to find out what was going on with humans and our environment. At the University of California-Berkeley, I created an individual major I called “Human Ecology”, as a means to further that interest. I continued on with this quest, becoming a graduate student in Anthropology, first at Berkeley and then at Harvard. I did get answers to my questions, but I did not, however, complete a PhD. I came to the conclusion that the academic life was not for me. Why?

In the fall of 1968, I attended a graduate seminar in Evolutionary Biology, which was taught by the then foremost authority in the world on the subject – a German émigré by the name of Ernst Mayr. The thesis topic he assigned me was to document his conviction that black Americans were outbreeding white Americans. This concerned him greatly, as he was convinced that blacks were less intelligent than whites. I did not outright refuse this assignment. But, after reading more of his thought, I chose to write on another subject. My paper was titled: “Human Ecology and Evolution – Where it’s been, where it’s at and where it’s going – fast”. In this paper, I attacked Mayr directly for elitist comments made in his 1966 book: “Animal Species and Evolution”, that echoed his beliefs about the inferiority of blacks. And, this was, of course, the beginning of the end of my graduate studies.

In the Introduction to the paper I wrote: “Since the author is convinced that man is inevitably committed to self destruction, this paper will take, in large part, the form of a post mortem before the fact.”. The paper’s title included the words: “… where it’s going – fast”. 51 years have now passed since I wrote those words, and today we find ourselves in the initial stages of the self-destruction I then predicted. But, did we get here “fast”? In those days, I would have guessed that we would arrive at this moment sooner, making the same error that George Orwell made in his book “1984”. In neither case has the dreadful event arrived as soon as predicted. But arrive it has.

Despite the nay-saying of those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the world’s population is coming to understand that we are experiencing the beginning stages of human-caused climate disruption. The scientific evidence of global heating, and why, is unassailable. The extreme weather events that this heating is causing are seen on everyone’s TV, day after day. Everyone has now become acquainted with this fundamental fact – that, due to the burning of fossil fuels, the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are responsible for the heating. What is not known is whether the heating can be reversed, with current estimates showing that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return. But I presume that we will pass that point with no (or insufficient) action taken. The inadequacy of current efforts to arrive at a international plan aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions is laughable. No remedy will be found. Welcome to Hothouse Earth.

 

II

How did we get to this point? It began about 10,000 years ago, with the transition from a foraging way of life to agriculture. What is the foraging way of life? Foragers depend (there are still a few around) on hunting and gathering. They live in small groups (or bands), are nomadic, and their social life differs from that of modern peoples in a number of notable ways. They engage in thorough going mutual aid and food sharing. They are classless and egalitarian i.e there are no rich and poor, no one possesses coercive authority and each individual has complete autonomy. They are not patriarchal and sexist. They have no formal religion. They have few possessions i.e. no wealth. They also have longevity equal to ours and are free of the infectious diseases that plague modern man. Foraging was a very successful way of life, allowing our species to spread to every livable environment on Earth, ranging from the ice-bound Arctic to the deserts of Australia to the tropical rainforests of both hemispheres. Other critical features of their societies will be mentioned below.

As the last Ice Age ended, the worldwide climate warmed, and foragers began to experiment with the planting of seeds and the taming of wild animal. Agriculture and animal husbandry were invented. What were the immediate consequences of these inventions? First, that nomadic foragers became sedentary farmers. They needed to stay close to their crops. As they became more effective farmers, their efforts yielded surpluses, for which they needed to build storage structures. This led to the establishment of villages. Then, due to the increased food supply, populations grew, with towns and cities following. Stored food had become the first property – the first wealth – and, inevitably, the more aggressive individuals in these early societies managed to secure more of that wealth for themselves. Thus began what we quaintly call “civilization” – rule of impoverished masses by elites, large-scale slavery, religions that legitimized rule by the elite, wars of conquest, empire building and so on. Has anything changed since this all began, 10,000 years ago? Nothing has changed. Here are a few examples chosen at random: at one time, it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire, and British monarchs still sit on thrones; prior to Japan’s loss in WWII, Emperor Hirohito was regarded by his people as a “divine ruler”, and Japanese pilots cherished the opportunity to become kamikazes; Islam is pitted against the West, with religious rulers calling the shots in Iran and suicide bombers killing people throughout the Middle east and beyond; China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines (named for King Philip II of Spain) and many other countries have fallen under the control of one kind of despotic regime or the other, with the US perhaps not far behind; much of the world’s wealth is spent on weapons, while the rest of it is falling increasingly under the control of fewer and fewer individuals; individual autonomy is being lost to more and more of the world’s population.

 

III

Despite the evidence of the above-cited examples, scholars of the human condition are increasingly of the opinion that humans are innately motivated to be “prosocial” (as opposed to anti-social). Humans are the most social of all animals but the so-called “eusocial” insects. Our ability to organize ourselves together to meet any and all environmental challenges that were presented throughout hundreds of thousands of years and multiple glacial periods testifies to the effectiveness of that social predisposition. One social scientist (Nicholas Christakis: “Blueprint, The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society”, 2019) has defined the “social suite” – a group of biologically based behaviors which underpin human society. They are: “the capacity to have and recognize individual identity, love for partners and offspring, friendship, social networks, cooperation, preference for one’s group, mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism) and social learning and teaching”. Christakis and others in a multiplicity of disciplines – sociology, evolutionary psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, political science, economics – have shown that this is who we are. Why, then, are we now at each other’s throats?

 

IV

What, in other words, went wrong? In order to answer this question we must first take a closer look at the “social suite”. For instance, what does Christakis mean by “mild hierarchy/relative egalitarianism”? He explains that “… we accord more prestige to some group members – typically, those who can teach us things or who have many connections – than to others”. Prestige, of course, is not the same thing as authority. The interpretation of hierarchy Christakis puts forward does not include coercive authority. Egalitarianism (even relative egalitarianism) means that there is no “boss”, and the maintenance of same brings with it the need to curtail “bossy” behavior (“bossy” is a term used by one group of foragers). No human likes to be bossed around, or to be bullied, taken advantage of or dealt with unjustly. Studies of foraging people have shown that such disruptive behavior can usually be curtailed by peer pressure (such as would occur in a group of friends). But when peer pressure doesn’t do the job, or the offense is more serious, a band may resort to banishment or murder. A few men will come together to drive away or execute someone that they have deemed to be incorrigible. Clearly, it is critically important to a mutually aiding group to deal decisively with miscreants. This self-policing mechanism preserves the very necessary harmony of the group. Additionally, although his mention of relative egalitarianism implies the human desire for social equity and self-determination, I find that Christakis fails to stress how very great this need is. It is this need, after all, that causes people to rise up and throw off their shackles.

The self-policing mechanism of peer pressure (or worse) requires that every member of the group knows and coordinates with every other member of the group. This condition is met for a foraging band of, at most, a few dozen people, but can this mechanism work in larger groups? And the answer is that this mechanism does not work in a group that surpasses a certain size. What, then, is that size? In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar proposed that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. He experimentally determined that it is, on average, 150 persons, and this is now known as “Dunbar’s number”.

Here is the answer to the question: What went wrong? Societies growing to numbers in excess of 150 persons is what went wrong. Societies of this and greater size cannot effectively curtail anti-social behavior through peer pressure/self-policing, and become vulnerable to that behavior. Before you know it, the tough guys take over, which is exactly what happened as the foraging way of life yielded to village life. And it continues to this day, with the nastiest and greediest members of society in charge – the oligarchs and their chosen leaders, such as Putin, Duterte and Trump.

 

V

An avaricious civilization expanded around the globe. Mongol hordes ravaged Eurasia. The European sea-faring nations conquered and looted most of the rest of the world, with King Leopold of Belgium killing 10 million Africans. Turkey invented genocide, with its Armenian massacres. Germany started two World Wars, and killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and others. The US fought two colonial wars in Asia. The Khmer Rouge killed a million in Cambodia. And right now, the newly installed Bolsonaro regime in Brazil is removing protections for Amazonian tribes, while accelerating the cutting of the Amazon rainforests. It is a shit show. What started innocently enough 10,000 years ago has metastasized into a planet-gobbling force. There is no stopping it, and it will be business as usual until the planet becomes too hot to do business. That is the way it will end, for both us prosocial humans and the antisocial ones that we let get out of control.

 

 

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Monsoon Season Atmospherics

Monsoon Season Atmospherics. It’s now monsoon season in northern New Mexico (July 15, 2019), with afternoon and early evening thunderstorms and rain showers becoming commonplace. The weather arrives from the west, while the sun sets to the northwest. Yesterday evening, the setting sun side-lit a veil of rain that was positioned between our place and Black Mesa, providing the following sequence of atmospheric effects.

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The volcanic Black Mesa and the dirt saddle that connects it to the mesa to the north

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Looking further to the west (left) than the above photo, the veil of rain interposes between my position and the dirt hill of Barranco Blanco (left) and the tilted lava-topped mesa of Cerro La Junta (right)

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The light turns more golden a moment later. Left to right: Barranco Blanco, Cerro La Junta and Black Mesa

 

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The Donald Chronicles, #51

It justs gets worse and worse. The man is an evil buffoon.

First, the evil. DT and his handlers (with Stephen Miller no doubt leading the charge), are imposing shockingly inhumane treatment on asylum seekers at the southern border, for the purpose of discouraging other refugees from crossing the border. This just makes my blood boil, as it is being done in my name. DT and his minions must be brought up on criminal charges for these acts of deliberate cruelty. Child abuse, crimes against humanity or somewhere in-between.

Second, the buffoonery. In his Fourth of July speech, DT stated that American revolutionary soldiers “took over the airports”.

How can Congress continue to allow this abysmally stupid and evil person to remain as President? It is, of course, the Republican Senate that allows it, and they will be judged and condemned for aiding and abetting this criminal President.

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The Donald Chronicles, #50

The Donald Chronicles, #50. It has now come to this, that DT denies having made a statement that he was recorded making. He characterized Meghan Markle as “nasty”, and now denies that he did so, even though a tape exists of him saying so.

This is not his most outrageous lie to date. What is particularly outrageous about this lie is that the proof of his lying is being played on the media. How crazy do you have to be? Or, did he learn from his reading of Mein Kampf that you must never stop lying, no matter what?

DT is moving rapidly in the direction of taking over the country. He must be stopped!

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Civics Lesson

You know who I’m talking about, when I say that he is giving us a great lesson in civics. Yes, I’m talking about the President of the United States of America. He heads the Executive Branch. Many Americans may think that that is the only branch that matters. But, for those of us who already took civics in high school – and remember it – we know that there are those two other branches, which are understood to be “co-equal” branches. Co-equal means that they possess power equal to that of the Executive Branch and each other. This is known as the “separation of powers”. It is this separation of powers that provides what is known as “checks and balances”. Those other two branches are Congress and the Judiciary.

Congress is, at the moment, attempting to check the power of the President, by issuing subpoenas to individuals and departments of the Executive Branch. A subpoena is the way in which Congress is empowered to force those that they are investigating to take some action, such as deliver the President’s tax returns, testify before Congress and so on. A committee of Congress has issued subpoenas because they have reason to believe that the President has committed crimes. The “reason to believe” was supplied by the still-incompletely delivered Mueller Report, which provides evidence of obstruction of justice by the President … and perhaps other crimes, up to and including treason. This activity is known as “oversight” – that Congress is charged with looking into the activities of the Executive Branch, to ensure the legality of its actions.

But the President has ordered that no one or department in the Executive Branch may respond to the Congressional subpoenas that have and continue to be issued, including one to his former lawyer who is no longer a government employee (!). This is an action without precedent in our history. Resolution of this stand-off now goes to that third branch of government, the Judiciary (aka the Courts). The matter(s) will be decided by a judge (or judges), who determine what the law requires and who issue a court order (s) to obtain compliance.

Yesterday, a judge found in favor of Congress, and ordered the President’s accounting firm to hand over Trump financial records. Will they do it? What if they don’t? They, the accounting firm, would then be liable to penalties. And the President’s former lawyer, Don McGahn, is also (I’m assuming) liable to penalties, since he was acting as a private citizen when, yesterday, he failed to comply with a subpoena to testify.

Federal court orders are enforced by federal law enforcement personnel i.e federal marshals. But, since such personnel are employees of the Justice Department, which is a part of the Executive Branch, the President could, conceivably, order federal marshals not to comply with orders from the Judiciary to enforce a court order. What then? Will it come to that?

I am not at all sanguine about the willingness of the President to obey court orders, now or later. His other former lawyer, Michael Cohen, ended his testimony before Congress by stating that he believed that the President would not yield office if he lost the 2020 election. I believe that the evidence shows that the President wishes to take full control of the federal government i.e. that he wishes to become a dictator in the manner of Putin or any of the other autocratic leaders he so admires.

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The Donald Chronicles, #49

The Donald Chronicles, #49

The water is deepening around us. “The Donald”, a derisive term coined to poke fun at the ludicrous figure he once was, may no longer best describe him. No one is laughing now, as his intentions become crystal-clear. He intends to assume total control of the federal government. He intends to become a dictator.

He has refused to allow anyone in his administration (or former members of his administration) and his family to respond to subpoenas from Congress. This is a tactic employed to see what he can get away with, how far he can go. If he succeeds in this effort his ascent to total power may be unstoppable.

If and when this comes to pass there will be no revolution. It will be a repeat, or near repeat, of Nazi Germany, with the masses cheering him on. He will distribute brown shirts,  insignias and automatic weapons to his most ardent supporters, who will then spread out across this country in the hunt for dissenters. That would be me.

This is unthinkable, and, at this pass, I can only hope that there are persons in our government and military that are meeting and coming up with plans to prevent Trump from seizing absolute power.

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