Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Karen Bartelt sent a big batch of photos, in three parts; I’ll put up part 1 today, featuring two lovely species of woodpeckers. Her notes are indented.

We took a trip to Big Bend National Park [Texas] this February.  The park is famous for an abundance of birds, especially during spring and fall migrations.  We were unable to book anything for April, the big month, so we settled for an earlier trip, and used the time to acquaint ourselves with the native birds.  Being from the midwest, we saw lots of birds for the first time.

Since I have so much trouble attaching multiple files to my email, I’m going to send three separate emails with a total of 19 or 20 photos.

In this first email, I’ll concentrate on the woodpeckers.  The first photo is of a female ladder-backed woodpecker, Picoides scalaris.  I got the genus name from the U of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.  I’ve seen at least two other genus names for this bird.  Downy and hairy woodpeckers are both Picoides.


The next five are a series of photos of a male golden-fronted woodpecker, Melanerpes aurifrons.  Other Melanerpes in the US includes the red-bellied and the red-headed woodpeckers.

This bird was relentless in digging out large caterpillars from cottonwood bark.  He grabbed one and then smashed it against the tree, much like one would stun a fish.  Then he sucked it dry.  In one photo, he is sticking out his tongue.


The tongue!
As lagniappe, here’s one of Stephen Barnard’s more striking photos: a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) on nest.  He added, “The ‘ears’ (they aren’t really ears) are scraggly because it was raining” and “By the way, this nest is extremely well hidden in the aspens. The only reason I know it’s there is because I spotted it before the trees leafed out. There’s only one place where you can get a clear view, and getting  there involves picking your way through a massive, tangled deadfall.”
When I asked if we’d get pictures of owlets, Stephen responded, “I hope so. Here’s a photo of some GHOwlets I took last year on May 25 at a different and more accessible location.” I don’t remember posting this one, but if I did, have a look again:

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s Saturday, April 30, and in Chicago it’ll be cool with a 99% chance of precipitation by this afternoon (how do they get that figure?). On this day in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States, On April 30, 1945, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin as Russian troops approached. Mimi Fariña, the sister of Joan Baez and a radical activist, was born on this day in 1945 (she died in 2001), on the same day as writer Annie Dillard (still with us). Édouard Manet died on this day in 1883, and, ironically, in 1966 writer Richard Faiña (Mimi’s husband) was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 29. In 1983, both Muddy Waters and George Balanchine died on April 30.
Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili performs an uncharacteristic act of charity, bringing flowers to Andrzej:
Hili: Is it your birthday today?
A: No, why do you ask?
Hili: Because I have a present for you.
In Polish:
Hili: Masz dziś urodziny?
Ja: Nie, dlaczego pytasz?
Hili: Bo mam dla ciebie prezent.

And we have a special bonus today. The cherry trees are at last in full bloom in the orchard, and at least one reader asked for a photo of Hili among the flowers. Here are two!

Isn’t she lovely?
As another treat, reader Dennis D. sends a photo of Willet Babcock, a Civil War veteran who later ran a furniture store in Paris, Texas. He’s buried in the local Evergeen Cemetery, and, before he died in 1881, Babcock ordered a local stonecutter to produce a special gravestone memorial: Jesus (or an angel) wearing cowboy boots!:
According to Atlas Obscura:

Along with some typical memorial elements – carved wreaths, a cross, an angelic figure in robes – Babcock gave his final presentation to the world a little Texas twang. The Jesus like figure is sporting cowboy boots.

There is debate about whether it really is Jesus. Some say the face is too feminine (there is no beard) and he (she?) appears to be leaning on the cross rather than carrying it. But whoever the angel in robes was intended to represent, the memorial has long since been dubbed “Jesus in Cowboy Boots”.


Yep, them’s cowboy boots!

This is a gross act of Christian cultural appropriation, for Jesus is clearly “punching down” here.

Turkey jails two journalists for republishing Charlie Hebdo cartoon

Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is becoming increasingly Islamist, increasingly oppressive, and increasingly regressive (are those all synonyms)? This once vibrant and largely secular country is now an oligarchy, and it’s forbidden to criticize both Islam and Erdogan. According to the Associated Press, there are nearly 2,000 court cases open in which people have been indicted for insulting the President. Some democracy!

The latest antic of this censorious government, however, is especially vile. Two journalists working for the opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet have each been sentence to two years in prison (actually three, but reduced to two on technical grounds) for illustrating their columns with a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Here are the courageous writers, Hikmet Cetinkaya (left) and Ceyda Karan (R):


Here’s the familiar cartoon that accompanied their columns:


Because of this cartoon, they were, as the AP reports, “acquitted of “insulting religious values” but convicted on charges of “inciting public hatred”.  Yet, as I’ve mentioned a few times before, this cartoon is by no means “Islamophobic”: it has varying interpretations—but one of them is not the demonization of Muslims.

One of the nastier aspects of this case is who brought it before the court (my emphasis):

The state-run Anatolia news agency said the case was brought by a total of 1,280 plaintiffs including Erdogan’s daughters Esra and Sumeyye, his son Bilal and his son-in-law, Energy Minister Berat Albayrak.

The Erdogan family was represented by a lawyer in court, it added.

After the verdict, members of the public who had brought the complaint and were present in court shouted “Allahu Akbar”, Cumhuriyet reported — Arabic for ‘God is greatest’.

If that’s not unseemly entanglement of the government with a supposedly free press, I don’t know what is.  Finally, the persecution of this opposition paper is continuing, with two journalists from the same venue on trial for much more serious charges:

Cumhuriyet, which staunchly opposes the Islamic-rooted government of Erdogan, has been regularly targeted by prosecutions as concerns grow over freedom of speech in Turkey.

Its editor-in-chief Can Dundar and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul are currently on trial on charges of revealing state secrets and could face multiple life sentences if found guilty.

And here they are:


ditor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet daily Can Dundar (C) and Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gul (R) arrive at the Istanbul courthouse for their trial on April 22, 2016

I am so sad about what’s happening to Turkey. I’ve been there several times and always found the people friendly, hospitable, and secular. It was an open and fairly democratic place, with the Islam kept in its place: the mosque and the home. Now the whole country is going the way of Saudi Arabia, and I fear for my Turkish friends. If journalists can be sent to jail for three years for publishing a cartoon, all bets are off.

h/t: Char Adams

Some evidence that life may have originated at least 4.1 billion years ago

For some reason I missed this paper published last November in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA by Elizabeth Bell et al. , and it doesn’t seem to have been given a lot of attention by the press. That may be because its conclusions are questionable, and based on a very small sample. But if they’re right, it’s a pretty amazing result, for the authors report the presence of what may be biogenic carbon—that is, carbon derived from living organisms—from the Jack Hills of western Australia, and that carbon was dated at 4.1 billion years old.  Since the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, and the zircons of the Jack Hills are the oldest known material of terrestrial origin on our planet (4.4 billion years is the oldest sample), the finding of biogenic life in zircons dated at 4.1 billion years means that life may have originated very, very soon after the Earth formed. But these findings are preliminary.

The oldest widely accepted evidence of life on Earth are 3.4 billion year old microfossils from the cratons of the Strelley Pool formation, also from Western Australia. (Old, stable parts of the Earth are called “cratons.”) To get older evidence than that, you have to date and do isotopic analysis of flecks of graphite that may be derived from organisms. The oldest carbon generally accepted as being of biological origin is about 3.8 billion years old.

The dating is done by radiometrically dating the minerals containing graphite (carbon) flecks (usually zircon derived from melting earlier “mud rocks” that presumably contained organismal remains), and the biogenic origin is studied by looking at the amounts of carbon 13 versus carbon 12 in the flecks. Non-organismal carbon has a relatively higher amount of carbon 13 than does biogenic carbon.(The different ratios come from the fact that organisms absorb atmospheric carbon into their bodies, which is higher in carbon-12 than inorganic carbon). The values of these isotopes are transformed into a statistic called δ13Cδ13C values  of 24 or lower are generally assumed to be signatures of carbon derived from organisms.

At any rate, Bell et al. dated zircons found in the Jack Hills. One of them contained carbon flecks (and was crack-free, so the graphite didn’t insinuate itself after the zircon was formed); and for that sample they determined the average δ13C of the flecks using spectral analysis.

Here’s the prepared zircon with the flecks inside. The bar is 30 microns long, or about a thousandth of an inch.


Fig. 1. (from paper) Transmission X-ray image of RSES 61-18.8 with graphite indicated. (Inset) Raman spectra for the top inclusion and for an epoxy “inclusion” from another investigated zircon. The broadened “D-band” at ∼1,400 cm−1 indicates disordered graphite (39); C–H stretch bands at ∼2,800–3,100 cm−1 (39) are observed in epoxy but not graphite.

And here’s the average value of  δ13C  (triangle) for the Jack Hills sample, compared with the ratios for 3.8-billion-year old graphite that is widely accepted as being organic in origin.  The average value of the Jack Hills carbon was -24, so it’s within the range of organic carbon; i.e. life might have been around by 4.1 billon years ago. That would extend the origin of life back another 300 million years beyond what we know, so that life may have originated no more than 500 million years after the Earth formed.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 9.54.26 AM

Fig. 2 (from paper) δ13C for Eoarchean–Hadean carbon samples measured via SIMS vs. host mineral age compared with inorganic and organic carbon (organic carbon values from ref. 13; inorganic from ref. 14).

Now the authors note that there are other processes that could produce low values of δ13C, including the Fischer-Tropsch chemical process, carbon derived from meteorites, isotope fractionation by diffusion, and so on, but they claim that a biogenic origin is “at least as plausible” as these (not a strong statement!).

I won’t go write further, as I only wanted to call your attention to some tantalizing evidence that life may have been around a lot earlier than we thought. Whether this becomes widely accepted will take a while—and much more work. After all, this paper is based on just a single sliver of zircon. If you want to see the entire paper, and can’t get it from the link below, just ask.

h/t: Latha Menon


Bell, E. A., P. Boehnke, T. M. Harrison, and W. L. Mao. 2015. Potentially biogenic carbon preserved in a 4.1 billion-year-old zircon. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112:14518-14521.

1958: recounting the Muslim Brotherhood’s demand that all women wears hijabs, President Nasser is greeted with laughter and incredulity

Gamal Abdel Nasser had a colorful—and controversial—history: helping depose King Farouk, modernizing Egypt, nationalizing the Suez Canal, cracking down brutally on the Muslim Brotherhood (one of whom tried to assassinate him), building the Aswan Dam, making war on Israel, giving women the right to vote, imposing strong censorship on Egypt, and finally, dying of a heart attack at 52. In other words, he did both good and bad things, but on the good side of the ledger is his defense of women’s rights.

I don’t know much about the talk from which this two-minute snippet comes, but it was apparently delivered in 1958. He’s recounting his attempts to negotiate with the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, one of whose demands was that all Egyptian women be veiled. You can see both Nasser’s and the audience’s incredulity at this demand, which at the time seemed ridiculous. (Do note, however, that Nasser implies that men are in charge of whether or not their wives and daughters are veiled.)

How different things are now! If you don’t think veiling women in Egypt, Afghanistan, or Iran is a regressive trait, remember that this speech was given 58 years ago. Enlarge it to read the English subtitles.

(A “tarha” is a scarf that covers the head.)

Nasser’s charisma, which helped make him a wildly popular president, is quite evident from this clip.

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have several contributors today, and some diverse photos.  First, reader (or erstwhile reader) Ben Goren, who’s been AWOL but sent a rodent labeled “South Mountain Sqrlz”. I don’t know the species.

Thought you’d get a kick out of this. I think she’s nursing pups.


From Stephen Barnard:

This Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) chick was an egg three weeks ago. They grow like weeds, and the adults have their talons full bringing fish and guarding them from predators. I figure it will be nine weeks from now until they fledge, then another four or five years to maturity.

Also, a Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera) drake.


A photo from a new contributor, Arthur Williams:

The pelican is a brown pelican, Pelacanus occidentalis, and seemed pensive.


Alexandra Moffat sends a harbinger of spring, as it’s snowed in New England:

I hesitate to send this, your usual photographs are so magnificent and exotic.   But maybe a glimpse of the common is acceptable. You DID ask for plants. The bright green in the drab New Hampshire early-spring woods, April 26 snow, and the happy and thriving skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) tickled me.

Alexandra Moffat

Amy: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”

This’ll be the last Amy we hear for a while, as she’s no longer alive to make music, and I’ve heard everything I can. Enjoy her singing the Carole King/Gerry Goffin song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow“?

Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s the penultimate day of April, as well as Friday.

On April 29, 1916, the Easter Rising came to an end in Ireland, with many of the leaders soon to be shot. And, on this day in 1945, the concentration camp of Dachau was liberated by Allied troops. I can only imagine how the inmates, certain that they were doomed, felt when they saw the liberators. On this day in 1899, Duke Ellington was born, and Willie Nelson in 1933. Brian Charlesworth, my friend and former chairman, turns 71 today; if you know him, send him a note. Among those who died on April 29 were Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951), Alfred Hitchcock (1980), and Albert Hofmann (2008), the first person to synthesize LSD and describe its effects. I attended a lecture he gave to Richard Schultes’s class when I was a graduate student at Harvard, and was surprised how staid and dignified the man was. (I expected a raving druggie.)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is eyeing the old wellhouse, though there are plenty of flower-laden cherry branches for her to climb:

A: Are you coming in?
Hili: No, I have higher aims.

P1040109 (1)

In Polish:
Ja: Idziesz do domu?
Hili: Mam wyższe cele.

And a bonus photo of the Princess sleeping with the d*g:


In Bristol, Bella the cat is in trouble with the Royal Mail for playing with the postie’s finger when he tries to deliver the mail, and she’s been given a restraining order. Finally, thanks to reader Barry, here’s a baby grasshopper giving a high five:


The Argument from Ponies

In a cartoon called “The Tao of Tommy: Budding Apologist Edition“, Reader Pliny the in Between presents a self-aggrandizing version of the familiar (and flawed) Ontological Argument:

Toon Source.001

I think that the kid, though, is really “Billy,” a budding William Lane Craig. However, there’s an unstated premise in the argument: “my happiness must necessarily be instantiated in this world.”


Wonderfully detailed insect photos, composed of thousands of images

From The Colossal comes a great post with amazing photos of pinned insects, and the method used to take them will surely interest the photographers in the audience.

First, a few photos, which are in much lower resolution than the original. Let me add that these pictures, taken by Levon Bliss, will be on exhibit at the Oxford Museum of Natural History from May 27 until October of this year. If you’re in Oxford, by all means see it.

First, a few photos:






This video tells you what you need to know about how they were made. Hint: they weren’t single images, but composites of thousands of them, taken by a camera that moves only a few microns between shots:

And a gif showing how they make large prints. Such images of course require that everything be in focus.



h/t: Jeremy


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