Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Southern African Epiphytic Orchids, by John S. Ball

At one point I obsessed over collecting rare or unusual orchid books, aided and abetted by several friends who also delighted in used bookstore finds or eagerly and impatiently awaited new publications. Magpie, you know. I was so eager to expand my knowledge of ALL types of orchid I'd read pretty much anything. I honestly don't remember how this wonderful old book ended up in my collection, it might have been a gift or a lucky purchase.

Epiphytic Orchids of Southern Africa is a treasure. The paintings by Patricia van de Ruit are exceptional, made life-size for the oversize pages. The book was published in 1976 after Ball's death, from his detailed notes, and edited by his sister, Jane Browning, with the assistance of Peter Ashton.

The plants depicted include a number of species even now only rarely seen in cultivation in the US. Thanks to people like Fred Hillerman back in the 60s, 70s and 80s whole tribes of Angraecums, Aerangises and related genera were introduced to our collections, and my friends in New York in the 80s included several fanatics who had to have all the plants and all the books. Nowadays many of the species are somewhat easier to come by, and many are raised from seed. This book is still a great place to learn more about them.

I'd love to get his other posthumously published book Terrestrial African Orchids. To quote the blurb on, "The 128 orchids illustrated in this work were collected from the wild in many localities by the late John S. Ball, mainly during the early 1950s when he worked as a forester in the Melsetter area close to the Chimanimani Mountains in Zimbabwe. Many of the species from this area are recorded to the North in the Flora of Tropical East Africa floristic region and to the South in the Republic of South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. In 1978 John Ball's work on epiphytic orchids from this region was published in the book Southern African Epiphytic Orchids. The present work is edited by Jane Browning (John Ball’s sister) assisted by Esmé Hennessy."

Ball was one of those obscure but vital people in science, Born in 1926 in Rhodesia, he was also a Rhodes scholar, and then returned to Africa to work in forestry. He died in a car accident in 1976. It's a pity he never got to see his books published and enjoyed.

Friday, July 7, 2017

2016: A GREAT Year for Life Birds, Part 2

Not a bird. My apologies.
In mid-February 2016 we went to Florida, with intentions of birding at Loxahatchie and Green Cay reserves near the Everglades. We visited a friend whose home is on the shore of a small lake and surrounded by a moat, and he likes to post photos of white ibis gazing into his living room windows while the indoor cats lose their minds. Well, it was all true.

Good times started with lunch at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant on Griffin Road, between Ft. Lauderdale and Boynton Beach. They have a friendly male Boat-tailed Grackle that likes to steal sugar packets from the outdoor patio tables, and enjoys snacks of fried calamari. Anhingas swim and fish in the canal alongside. I have seen both species before in previous trips to Florida, but never bothered to enter them on a life list before. Likewise the earnest Muscovy Ducks also enjoying the water, and the Cattle Egrets on every roadside greensward. Boom!

The word anhinga comes from the Brazilian Tupi language and means devil bird or snake bird.
Wikipedia says so.
Come morning, the White Ibises in the canal by the hotel, and in the parking lot, kind of put things in perspective. Big birds are just part of the suburban landscape in that part of Florida. If you look up you'll see Turkey Vultures, gulls, terns, egrets and herons drifting by. If you're lucky, you'll see a Double-crested Cormorant trying to perch on a power line like an enormous pigeon wearing swim fins. (I wish I had a picture of that.)

We only made it to Green Cay that weekend, with a couple of friends along to make the experience even more fun. One friend spends most of the winter in a nearby community and visits the place several times a week. She knew all the good places to keep one's eyes peeled, and helped spot two alligators. Another birding friend who lives in the region also kept pointing out good things. We really hit the jackpot there for new life birds. Best birdy afternoon ever!

First thing we saw gallinules, wood storks, egrets, herons and ibises. Like all at once, right near the nature center and boardwalk. Considering how much trouble we go through in New York to get good views of herons and egrets, it seemed almost unfair!

wood stork
Wood storks are clearly dinosaur throwbacks.
Purple Gallinules aren't common, like the Common Gallinule, but were among the first birds we saw there. Gray-headed Swamphens, an introduced species, were only seen further along the trek.

Purple gallinule

One is purple. One is common. One is neither.
Tricolored Herons were abundant. They seem to find the boardwalk railings a congenial place from which to watch humans pass by.

I walked right around this one. No reaction.
Little Blue Herons and Green Herons stalked about everywhere. I could only recall all the trouble I'd had seeing my first Green Heron in Central Park a few years earlier. Gah.

I had the completely mistaken impression that a Limpkin had to be an exotic and elusive creature.

It's not.
As a special treat, a normally elusive American Bittern was hanging out right alongside the boardwalk, basically right under our feet. It didn't seem to care how many camera lenses were pointed at it.
Not pretending to be reeds.
I also never expected to be thisclose to a Pied-billed Grebe. I can throw away all my long-distance shots from the Central Park Reservoir birds.

Mottled Ducks and Blue-winged Teals were the dominant waterfowl. Both were often found right around the boardwalk. Both are very nice to see up close.

Sleepy Mottled Ducks. Sleeeeeepy.
Plump, stately Teals.
White Ibis and Glossy Ibis are quite handsome birds. (I actually didn't realize Glossy Ibis also live in New York City, at Jamaica Bay, as part of their invasion force in the US.)


Roseate Spoonbills are among my favorite dino-birds. I've seen them quite close up in zoos, the better to appreciate their bony faces, but seeing them in the wild is quite another experience.

A farther-away experience, mostly.
Didn't get any good photos, but before the day was over I'd also added Caspian Tern, Royal Tern, Northern Harrier, Red-shouldered Hawk to my life list. 

There were also plenty of Coots, Lesser Scaups, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Brown-headed Cowbirds, White-winged Doves. Prairie Warblers and Palm Warblers and other species familiar from elsewhere. Also Painted Buntings in abundance at the bird feeders right at the entrance...just two months after we hunted one down in Brooklyn!

Also this Sora, more cooperative than expected. 
Green Cay is just a terrific place to BE, never mind spot birds. The boardwalks are comfortable (I could wish for a few more shaded gazebos but oh well). The nature center is well-organized and informative, and I love the tote bag I bought. The writer friend we were visiting was happy to learn of the place, as it's ten minutes from his house and gives him a great place to take exercise walks.

Green Cay is also a great place to see lots of bird butts.
We returned in January 2017. That's another post.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

2016, A GREAT Year for Life Birds, Part 1

[I'm more than a bit behind in my posting! Here's where I finally catch up on all my bird posts that should've been made in 2016 but weren't.]

As of the first week of February 2016, I already added 7 new birds to my life list -- as many as I added in all of 2015.

The last Saturday in January, I finally saw a Common Merganser on the Central Park Reservoir. It was definitely bigger than the more usual Red-breasted Mergansers,

On the last Sunday in January, we enjoyed an Audubon Society Eco-cruise of New York Harbor. It was a picture-perfect day of bright sunshine, blue skies, calm water, near 50 degrees. The 2-hour cruise took us past the shores of Brooklyn, Governor's Island, Ellis Island, Liberty Island and Bayonne, and down to Hoffman and Swinburne Islands, two small man-made islands on the eastern shore of Staten Island. There are ducks out there, ducks and loons and gulls that don't come inland to the Central Park Reservoir and only occasionally visit the East River or Hudson River for easy viewing.

Clangula hyemalis. Accept no substitutes.

Lots and lots of gulls and cormorants all over the place.
Familiar Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Greater Black-backed Gulls, Double-crested Cormorants, Mallards, Black Ducks, Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers were abundant along the shores. Spotting the unfamiliar Bonaparte's Gulls and Common Loons was the challenge!

There are seals too! Harbor seals like to sun themselves on the rocks and sandbars around Swinburne Island. They tend to hit the water when the boats come close, and stared at us from the waves.

So freaking cute.
So on one cruise I got Long-tailed Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Great Cormorant, Bonaparte's Gull, Red-throated Loon, and this Surf Scoter that was an unexpected bonus bird:

That is totally a Surf Scoter. Yay!
It hardly bothered me that my erstwhile spouse had already seen several of these birds elsewhere around New York City waters. I'm just not as eager to go chasing a critter that might have flown off by the time I got there. I figure I'll get them eventually...and often do.

In mid-February we went to Florida, with intentions of birding at Laxahatchie and Green Cay reserves near the Everglades. We visited a friend whose home is on the shore of a small lake and surrounded by a moat, and he likes to post photos of white ibis and wood storks gazing into his living room windows while the indoor cats lose their minds. Well, it was all true.

That's in the next post.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why I HATE the current crop of Republicans

Some leading Republican politicians think poor people still aren't poor enough. Hence their redoubled efforts to take yet more money away from the mass majority of Americans, and fork it over to insurance company CEOs instead. Never mind that actual human beings -- including children -- will go hungry, or suffer pain and hardship because of untreated illness, or end up sleeping in their cars because they can't pay rent. Here's a lovely list  by John Scalzi, of so many of the effects of poverty on a person. (And here is a followup post he made, too.) 
My family didn't have much money when I was a kid; we lived with my grandparents and aunt and uncle, we made do until I was in 3rd grade. When I was 5 I didn't know that my supermarket meltdown over a box of heavily advertised cereal -- that I then refused to eat -- meant we did without other things that week. I didn't know why we bought bread at the Silvercup day-old store instead of across the street at the supermarket. I didn't know fabric and thread for homemade clothes were cheaper than store-bought clothes. I thought shopping in bargain odd lot stores was fun, not just necessary. Things got much better after my dad got a new job. When he got very sick -- twice -- and needed hospitalizations, operations and lengthy recuperation, the union he belonged to made sure we had health coverage, and made sure his job was still there once he recovered.
And, I didn't know how many of those poverty habits were left over from my father living through the Depression, or my mother surviving as a teenager in a Displaced Persons camp after World War II. They never took good times for granted. Ever.
I become absolutely ENRAGED when smug Republican shitgibbons try to suggest poor people are just stupid, or unworthy, or a lower class of animal. Poverty can happen to anyone because bad shit can happen to anyone. 
Yes, I'm one of the privileged now: we don't have to choose between a smartphone bill and a grocery bill, we have health insurance, renters' insurance and we have retirement funds. But not a lot of things have to go wrong for us to upend us. And I have too many friends who truly live on the edge of disaster, through no faults of their own, to ever feel comfortable enough to not worry about growing old in a society being overrun by these hypocritical shitgibbons who lack sympathy, empathy and humanity.
There's a lot of poor-shaming going on. A lot of well-off people think poverty is somehow a "choice" or that poor people aren't being inventive or aren't "thinking positive" or praying hard enough or whatever shit they use to excuse their own lack of caring about other people. There are people who think they are Christians who go to megachurches and pray very loudly, but don't actually pay attention to anything Jesus or his disciples were quoted as saying. These "prosperity gospel" fatheads aren't Christian. They belong to a much older type of religion in which the gods were sometimes kind and sometimes cruel without reason, much like the view of god in the Book of Job. They're basically pagans with a Biblical veneer. 
I'm not a Christian either, so I can wholeheartedly say, without fear of burning in hell, that I hope those smug smiles get wiped off their faces by Fate someday. I hope they end up dumpster diving for their next meal someday. I hope they have to buy an interview outfit at Goodwill. I hope they feel desperate someday. I hope they learn humanity. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Knitting up Gradient Shawls

Knitwhits Freia Lace Ombre Yarn "Flare"

I don't know how this yarn is created, but I had to have it. I'd seen similar yarns on Etsy and Ravelry, like Kauni, and was determined to someday get some. Before I could hit the PayPal button, though, I ended up at Vogue Knitting Live 2013 in NYC, and THERE IT WAS.

Knitwhits Freia. OMG. A whole booth of amazing color. I bought lots. Well, I bought 7 skeins, at any rate. More would be overwhelming.

Shawl, I thought. Has to be a shawl. Something simple, because I would mostly be staring bewitched at the color shifts, not the lace design. So I picked a nice rhythmic pattern called Garden of Allah, free on Ravelry. The yarn was a dream to knit with: strong light lace yarn, quick to work on Addi turbos. And I made this. And I love it.

So in 2014 I went back to VK Live and bought more of this yarn. And since then I've made three more shawls from Knitwhits gradients.

Above: Light and Up Shawl, in Lichen colorway (which matches THREE outfits I own):
Below: Summer Sea Shawl, in Dusk colorway:

I really like the construction of this shawl, not just its geometry: the central spine increase of an otherwise conventional triangular top-down shawl is made with a double yarn-over, making a set of extra-large holes down the center. 

There are a few more gradients in the stash, from different sources, and a few more nice simple shawl patterns that will strike a nice balance between "simple enjoyable design" and "whoa nice colors!" So, more to come...

Vintage SF: I Have Another Tumblr

It's odd living with so many books I still haven't read. Inheriting my father-in-law's huge collection of vintage SF books was an astonishing but mostly overwhelming privilege. Years later we're still working our way through the treasure trove. Some books are easy to deal with, depending on age, condition and rarity: given to friends, given away at an SF convention or to a thrift store, or sold online. There are a terrible lot of keepers, though, books I always meant to read and now here they are, in my own house, for free, no limits! And worse, there are books I never knew I wanted to read but here they are, in my own house, instead of lying on an easy-to-ignore dealer's room table...

Anyway, I've decided to put the many many MANY books we still have into a Tumblr blog all their own. I've lately been on a decluttering kick, and so have once again begun to sort the unsorted and get rid of a bunch of these lovely old SF books. Some are not rare, just old, and are headed for either the local library bookstore, a local thrift store, or the freebie table at Readercon. Others may yet find their way to a vintage paperback dealer.

It's extremely satisfying to open up some shelf space for newer books. Much as I still love the older generations of SF and fantasy, I love a whole lot of the new stuff too.

Friday, March 11, 2016

I Have a Tumblr

Ha, even old ladies like me can eventually figure out stuff like Tumblr! IT CAN BE DONE. Laugh all you want, kids, just not on my lawn!

And so now Tales of the Magpie Prince is a Tumblr thing, and I will update it fairly frequently with musical, magical and folklore asides that add some background to the story: stuff about magpies, British blues music, seventh sons, counting rhymes, totem animals, potions, and other things I encountered in the course of my research.

I knew in elementary school that I wanted to be a writer someday. I wrote a bunch of Star Trek fiction in high school and college. That was how I discovered that RESEARCH is like the best habit to develop in school for being a writer. Good thing I was good at it.

Also, and this is important, if the research isn't engaging and absorbing and totally fun to do, then DON'T WRITE THE STORY. I discovered this when years ago trying some sci-fi world building for a (terrible) story idea I had. There are now books on how to do this, but I went about calculating planetary orbits and climates and food and animals and putting a whole world together...and didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I thought I would starting out. The parts I enjoyed most were inventing food plants, recipes and clothing styles for my aliens. Never stuck with it anyhow, but I suppose I could still salvage that story with an emphasis on cookery...