Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader John sends us oodles of photos from The Gambia, and I’ve stuck a lizard (my own photo) in at the bottom:

Having recently returned from NYC, the reported US cases of Ebola has prompted me to try and highlight the indirect impact of the virus on the West Africa country of The Gambia via your Readers’ Photo slot.

Gambia is the smallest country in Africa and despite being surrounded by countries affected by the ravages of the virus, it has remained free from the disease. However, it is now suffering adverse economic impacts because many who normally travel there during its relatively short tourist season, are staying away. This very poor country will find it very difficult with one of its main economic drivers so badly affected. I am in regular contact with friends in Gambia who are confirming their plight.

The Gambia has a terrible history associated with slavery – your older readers will remember Arthur Haley’s Roots story which begins in 1767 when his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, is kidnapped from the banks of the River Gambia at Juffura – and I have met some African Americans visiting to retrace their own ‘roots’.

On a brighter note, it is also known for its fabulous birdlife which makes it a popular destination for many European ‘twitchers’ because of the varied mix of resident African and Euro-Asian migratory species.

The most spectacularly colourful are the iridescent, and aptly named, beautiful sunbirds (Cinnyris pulchella) which appear to occupy the same nectar-eating niche as hummingbirds. The first three photos are of the brighter male with one of the drab female.

1 Beautiful Sunbird

2 Beautiful Sunbird

3 Beautiful Sunbird

4 Beautiful Sunbird

Sticking with colourful species, the yellow-crowned gonolek (Laniarius barbarous), red billed fire finch ((Lagonosticta senegala)) and two species of flycatcher, African paradise (Terpsiphone viridis) and black-headed paradise (Terpsiphone rufiventer), lurk in the rainforests adding bight flashes when they appear.

5 Yellow Crowned Golonec

6 Red Billed Firefinch

7 African Redbellied Flycather

8 Paradise Flycatcher

I have included two owls, Firstly the diminutive (only 6 inches) pearl- spotted owlet (Glaucidium perlatum) and the catlike African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis)

9 Pearl Owlet

10 African Scops Owl

There are many species of Roller; I have picked the ubiquitous Abyssinian Roller (Coracias abyssinica) and this one hunted the beach outside our hotel.

11 Abysynian roller

And of the many Kingfisher species, I include the spectacular Giant (Megaceryle maxima) and the agile hovering Pied (Ceryle rudis)

13 Pied kingfisher

12 Giant Kingfisher

 The last bird is a wader, the Senegal thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis)

14 Senegal Thick Knee

And Professor Ceiling Cat snapped this lizard yesterday at the castle at Vileka Tarnovo, Bulgaria. I have no idea what it is, but ten to one someone will tell me soon.



Monday: Hili dialogue

And so begins another week, and in one more week I’ll be home. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili snoozes away the day.

Cyrus: Are you asleep?
Hili: Why do you ask?
Cyrus: I would like to go for a walk.
Hili: I’m asleep.

P1010802 In Polish:

Cyrus: Śpisz?
Hili: Dlaczego pytasz?
Cyrus: Poszedłbym na spacer.
Hili: Śpię.

Proof of Flying Spaghetti Monster

This image of his Noodliness was found last night by reader Matt on an artichoke leaf. He says the photo was “not altered in any way”:



An experiment: an open thread

My absence in Bulgaria, and inability to post so often, has prompted this experiment: a readers’ thread.  Feel free to post links or even videos that you think might start a conversation, and see if you can keep it going. Feel free to change the subject if you’re talked one dry.


The Big Nom in Sofia

The night before last, several people connected with the “Ratio” science event repaired to one of the two most famous “local cuisine” (i.e. Bulgarian) restaurants in Sofia: a place called “Under the Linden Tree,” which of course is nearly the name of a famous street in Berlin. Below you can see the restaurant from the outside after it became dark. Built to resemble a traditional Bulgarian home, it’s is on several levels, and entirely paneled in wood on the inside.


To begin, a traditional Bulgarian beer: this is a Stolichno white beer, and though it is made of wheat, it’s darker than American wheat beers. Accompanying it is the traditional Bulgarian hard liquor, rakia. It comes in several flavors (peach, apple, grape, and so on), but this is the traditional one distilled from grapes. It was surprisingly tasty and smooth.

I suppose this is the Bulgarian equivalent of a beer and a shot.


To begin, two heaping platters (for the eight of us) of the most famous Bulgaraian salad, shopska.  It’s made with Bulgarian feta cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other stuff; you can find the recipe here. Delicious!


With the shopska came a heaping plate of various spreads for bread, which you can also eat on their own. They included cucumber/cheese spread, pepper spread, eggplant spread, and another I couldn’t identify. They were all scrumptious:


You can also dunk the bread (delicious, served warm, and made in house) into a dry mixture of various spices, which is supposedly secret. There is salt and cumin, but I couldn’t identify the other flavors. Here’s Vassi showing me how to do it:


There was also shish kebab for the table: chicken and grilled vegetables. The roasted onions were to die for:


Vassi also recommended (at the waiter’s suggestion) a special stewed pork dish with wild mushrooms and potatoes. It was great, but I could barely finish it after chowing down on the bread, spreads, shashleek (shish kebab) and salad:


The dinner was accompanied at intervals by traditional Bulgarian music: a man playing a Bulgarian bagpipe made from goatskin, and accompanied by a wonderful folk singer with an eerie, nasal voice. (I took a film of this and will put it up when I return.

And there were three desserts. First, a cake made with yogurt and fresh peaches:


A Bulgarian equivalent of baklava: crunchy, syrup-covered pastry filled, I was told, with loukom (Turkish delight):


Finally, what is called “dried yogurt with fruit,” which was a very concentrated yogurt (probably left in cheesecloth to let the water drip out) covered with local berries and served in a clay pot (I’ve scraped the berries aside so you can see it). The yogurt was very thick and concentrated, much richer and heavier than the Greek yogurt one buys in the U.S.


Needless to say, the only utterance I could make after this feed was, “Oy, am I full!”

What a dinner!



A tame hummingbird

This is a touching YouTube video showing a man and his semi-tame hummingbird. The YouTube notes give this information:

João Silvestrini lives in barretos, Brazil. Has two hummingbird mother and child visiting your home. This video is 01/10/2014. João on message reports that this is the puppy, and makes one months that Mom hummingbird presented the child to Mr. João

Although we can’t see the bird very well, perhaps one of our readers with tropical experience can identify it.

A translation of what João says from the YouTube comments:

Hey, hey.
Come here.
Let’s film you here.
Here here.
Let’s talk here real close, look.
You seeing (it)?
There, look.
And, eh, come here, here now.
Come drink a little bit, eh?
Like that, look here, come here.
Come here, there (closer to ‘like that’), there. Look.
Let’s go to the camera again?
There, look!
Look there!
It’s filming, it’s filming.
Like that, sit on my finger, there there. You see? Like that.
Look there, without embarrassment he stays here the whole day calling me. He goes and (not sure about ‘rodea’, means turns but might be slang I’m not familiar with), it’s already been half an hour that I let him call me.
This is the little son. His mom introduced me to him here, and left him here in my window, on the porch (not really a porch, just kinda a small landing outside), and he’s accustomed to this. All the time he comes to call me here. All the time.
Eh? Yeah, like that. There, sit on my finger.
Come here! Come a little bit more, come here, sit here. Come, come.
There, a little bit more. Take advantage of the video here. See?
There. Like that. Drink there, very close to the camera there.
Don’t want any more, don’t want it? I’m gonna put it away. There, it’s put away. I leave it closed here, and he keeps (‘me rodeando’ again, literally translates to ‘turning me’) and calling and calling, so I get him/it (could be either here, no actual pronoun so vague), come here, and attend to him.

h/t: Michael~

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have two sets of photos of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) from reader Stephen Barnard, and one photo of a moose and a d*g. His comments are indented:

Two siblings and one with breakfast.



It spooked, circled around, flew by, looked directly at me, and blinked with its nictitating membrane:





Stephen also sent a photo of his d*g with a large mammal and this comment:

He tried to herd a young bull moose yesterday and it didn’t buy his act.



Sunday: Hili dialogue

I believe Hili is talking here about her bête noire Fitness, as Cyrus the d*g and Fitness encountered each other last week without rancor. Andrzej dreams of getting a picture of the black Fitness together amiably with the black Cyrus.
Hili, of course, cannot abide Fitness, who lives upstairs with the lodger.
Cyrus: See? There would be room for another cat.
Hili: What? Has he tried to muscle in already?
In Polish:
Cyrus: Widzisz, tu by się jeszcze jeden kot zmieścił.
Hili: A co, już próbował się tu wepchną

Guest post: The relationship between Islam and female genital mutilation

Dr. Oliver Scott Curry works on the evolution of morality at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. Just to check out Reza Aslan’s claim that female genital mutilation (FGM) was an African rather than an Islamic problem, Curry did a preliminary statistical analysis. As you’ll see below, his results (and he emphasizes again that they’re tentative and need deeper analysis) don’t support the “African Hypothesis”. Note that “rs” is the nonparametric Spearman rank correlation coefficient between two variables, a measure of their association. It ranges from -1 (perfect negative correlation) through 0 (no correlation) to 1 (perfect positive correlation). The statistically significant positive relationship between Islam and FGM is given in his title.


Question: What’s the relationship between Islam and Female Genital Mutilation? Answer: rs=.54

by Oliver Scott Curry

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the debate between Bill Maher and Reza Aslan about Islam and female genital mutilation (FGM). Maher has argued that FGM is an Islamic problem, pointing out that: “91 percent of Egyptian women have had their clitorises forcibly removed. 98 percent of Somalian women have.” Aslan countered that it is “empirically, factually, incorrect” to say that FGM is an Islamic problem, rather it is an African problem: “Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

Who’s right? You can’t tell on the basis of these cherry-picked examples, as you have to look at all of the data. This is not my area… but the data is not difficult to find. We have WHO data on FGM, and Pew data on the prevalence of Islam (and from Wikipedia, Christianity), in 28 African countries (and Yemen as well).

These data [JAC: presented as a plot below] clearly show that there is a large significant positive correlation between the percentage of women subject to FGM, and the prevalence of Islam. Both variables are non-normal, so technically we should report a Spearman’s correlation: rs=0.54, p=.003. The correlation between FGM and Christianity is negative (rs=-0.48, p=.01).

So Aslan is wrong. There is a “factual, empirical” relationship between Islam and FGM. Maher’s examples illustrate this relationship, whereas Aslan’s examples are conspicuous outliers.

Aslan is also wrong to say that “Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue”. It would be more accurate to say that we just don’t know whether the relationship between Islam and FGM holds elsewhere because (as far as I can tell) there is no reliable data on FGM outside of Africa. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Of course, correlation does not prove causation. Why there is this relationship between Islam and FGM is a separate question. And certainly the outliers—Senegal, Yemen and especially Niger—suggest that there is no necessary connection between Islam and FGM. So what other factors may be at work? Poverty? Healthcare? Education? Here are some UN development data for the same 28 countries: Gross National Income / capita, life expectancy, years of schooling, and a composite Human Development Index (HDI). Of these, Islam remains the single best predictor. And surprisingly, there is no relationship between FGM and income, life expectancy or development. But there is a negative relationship between education and FGM (-.44) (And schooling is strongly negatively correlated with Islam [-.55]). So who knows, perhaps education is key.

Like I said, this is not my area. I don’t know how this problem might be solved. (Perhaps a reader of this blog with expert knowledge of FGM can help illuminate the issue, or point to additional data.) But I do know that it won’t be solved by misrepresenting the evidence.




Noms in Bulgaria: Thursday dinner and Friday lunch

Dinner Thursday and lunch on Friday (during the tour that Vassi gave me) was a warmup for the Big Traditional Bulgarian Feed on Friday night; pictures of that will follow.

Can you read Cyrillic? If so, you’ll recognize this ubquitous food item:

Big Mac

Dinner Thurday, after I arrived: a white beer and gnocci with spinach, goat cheese, cream, and pine nuts. Delicious. In the background is Lubo’s dinner, a fantastic prosciutto pizza (I had a slice):


Lunch at a local cafe yesterday started with a drink much like Indian lassi: Bulgarian yogurt mixed with water. It’s served with salt and pepper (they don’t make an equivalent of sweet lassi here:

Yogurt drink


More yogurt (I can’t get enough): the first course of the set menu was Bulgarian cucumber and yogurt soup with mint (cold, of course). It was also delicious and filling.

Yogurt soup


Finally, the main course: lamb and cumin meatballs on a bed of potatoes, served with diced green and red peppers, carrot curls, and lettuce sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. After all this, I didn’t know how I could do justice to the dinner in store, but somehow I managed to.

Lamb meatballs

Stay tuned for The Big Feed! ~


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