Monthly Archives: March 2013

Waiting for Eggs

Bird nest in the cherry orchard next doorPhoto: PK Read

Bird nest in the cherry orchard next door
Photo: PK Read

Grey skies, but it’s stopped raining for the moment, so I thought I’d share a few photos of bird’s nests that are waiting for eggs this morning. All of these are located within about thirty seconds of our front door. The nests look a bit worse for wear, but within a couple of weeks at least some of them should be busy with activity. The birdsong this morning is loud, varied, and all around.

Swallow nests - some supported, some not - in the neighboring barnPhoto: PK Read

Swallow nests – some supported, some not – in the neighboring barn
Photo: PK Read

A nest blending in to the trumpet vine on our house Photo: PK Read

A nest blending in to the trumpet vine on our house
Photo: PK Read

We have a few chocolate eggs to be distributed, but we don’t otherwise celebrate Easter, or Pâques as they call it here in France. Up until last year, the bells of our village’s 12th-century church would be silent from the Thursday before Good Friday until the morning of Easter to mark the death of Jesus. Children were told that the bells had all flown off to Rome to visit the Pope, and when they rang out again on Sunday morning, that the bells had returned. Hence the prevalence of chocolate Easter bells in France. The stories are still told as they are every year, but sadly, the historic church was gutted by fire last spring, and the bell tumbled to the ground. The church is now under renovation, the bell has been recovered for repairs. We’ve missed the sound of the old bell, but like the swallows and the geese I saw flying overhead yesterday, with any luck it’ll be back again next year.

Sparrow nest in a wallPhoto: PK Read

Sparrow nest in a wall
Photo: PK Read

Moon and Moss

Photo: PK Read

Photo: PK Read

It finally stopped snowing here. We had a single glorious clear afternoon and night last week, during which I took the picture of the full moon rising behind the budding plum tree in our garden. Depending on the culture (according to the Farmer’s Almanac), this is the:

Full Worm Moon – the ground begins to thaw, earthworm casts appear, heralding the return of the robins.

Full Crow Moon – when the cawing of crows signaled the end of winter

Full Crust Moon – the snow cover becomes crusted from thawing by day and freezing at night.

Full Sap Moon, marking the time of tapping maple trees, is another variation.

Lenten Moon – the last full Moon of winter.

Since then, non-stop rain. At least the moss on our trumpet vine is having a season of plenty.

Our mossy vinePhoto: PK Read

Our mossy vine
Photo: PK Read

The Long Shark Scroll


Living on the California coast back in the 1970s, fisherman would occasionally pull in shark, which would then be butchered and sold rather cheaply at the local market. We used to grill shark steaks over bay laurel wood. Once, though, the shark that got pulled in required a flatbed truck for transport. It was a great white shark, and it took up most of the truck. The Tomales Bay area is a known breeding ground for great white sharks; they were rarely brought in, but the thought of great whites kept some people from swimming in the Bay lest they be mistaken for the shark’s main food, seal. In front of the grocery store that day, we gathered around the truck to look down a great white’s fangy maw and contemplate mortality.

Then it was butchered like the other sharks and we were able to grill and eat our fear.

I’ve been talking this week about how we, as individuals, perceive the population abundance of various animals (eels, squid and butterflies) versus the actual population numbers and the importance of these animals within various ecosystems. I’ve also talked about the importance of top predators for ecosystem health. The hunting of sharks these days is primarily for their fins, used in a soup that was once intended to symbolize generosity and power (a good article on shark fin soup here). As with many of our human habits, it was born in a time of fewer people, a plentitude of desirable prey, and a much lower capacity of humans to hunt that prey.

Here’s an infographic that speaks for itself.

Just keep scrolling.

Click here for a larger image. Infographic: Joe Chernov

Click here for a larger image.
Infographic: Joe Chernov

Sharks killed per hour by humans vs humans killed per year by sharks
Source: J. Chernov

You can visit the blog of Joe Chernov, who created this graphic, at Helicopter to Work.

Moment of Monarchs

Photo: Discovery Channel

Photo: Discovery Channel

When I was a child, we lived for a time in the U.S. Midwest. One autumn, I had the great good fortune of experiencing the migration of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus). I didn’t even have to go on a field trip – the migrating flock flew right through our schoolyard in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The red brick school building, the featureless green lawns and black asphalt were, for a short time, obscured and transformed into a bright fluttering cloud of orange and black. We were led outside, class by class, to bathe in the butterflies. Of course, our science teacher couldn’t let a chance like that go unwasted, so we were also provided with capturing jars and small amounts of chloroform. Thus we became one more migratory hazard on the monarch’s annual 2000 mile (3200 km) trip from Canada to Mexico.

The monarch’s winter breeding ground in Mexico was discovered in 1976, allowing for better assessments of the overall population. Regular monitoring only began twenty years ago. And the overall trend for the past decade has been downwards.

According to this National Geographic article, the main causes are temperature extremes due to climate change, and the loss of the monarch’s main source of food as well as host plants for monarch eggs, the milkweed (Asclepias genus). The milkweed, a flowering plant with milky sap that is toxic to most animals, imbues the monarch with a natural defense – the butterflies themselves become toxic to predators. The once common milkweed has been eradicated over large stretches of the Midwest, partially due to herbicides and partially due to land conversion to farming. Monarchs are often seen around corn and soy fields where milkweed no longer exists.

What caught my eye was a comment on the National Geographic article: “Monarch butterflies and other pollinators (are) actually abundant and doing well in the herbicide tolerant GMO corn and soybean belt of the upper Midwest USA.” The commenter provides as proof a video he shot last year of hundreds of monarchs in a field. It’s hard to argue individual experience of abundance, even against evidence-based measurements taken over the course of years from various locations along the migratory route and the mothership grounds in Mexico.

When I was a kid and standing in that multitude of butterflies, it would have been virtually impossible to persuade me that the overall butterfly population might be in decline, or ever be in decline. Objectively, it felt like I lived in a bountiful universe of soft wings and color, but as it turned out, it was just a moment.

Annual migratory cycle over four generations Source: Journey North


National Geographic article – Monarch butterflies hit new low

Room to Explore

Estimated species vs described speciesVia: National Geographic

Estimated species (light blue) vs known, described species (dark blue)
Via: National Geographic


According to National Geographic, current estimates put the total number of animal species at somewhere between 3-100 million, a range that leaves a lot to the imagination. The numbers in the infographic above are compiled from a variety of sources and are considered educated guesses in the categories listed. I’ve noticed that in many popular science phylogenetic trees and species graphics, we vertebrates seem to end up on top or at the end of all currently known evolution; an obvious choice because we developed later than the other species. But somehow, I suspect that if insects and arachnids were compiling these lists, if sheer numbers, combined weight, length of time on the planet and plain old survivability counted more than evolutionary youth, brain size and number of new features, the emphasis might be quite different.

If the number of vertebrates seems small and mostly catalogued by human hand, we can take comfort in thought that only 20% of all estimated insects have been found, and there are likely still a half a million species of arachnid to be found. Plenty of stuff for scientists, explorers and the makers of scary movies.

Infographic: 5W Infographics; A. Stegmaier, NGM staff Sources: IUCN; A.D. Chapman, Australian Biodiversity Information Service

March of Tetrapods, Elver Reluctance

Image: Nathaniel DorskyVia: Notebook

Image: Nathaniel Dorsky
Via: Notebook

A couple of updates on previous topics:

March of Tetrapods

That super cool fractal tool of the Tree of Life, OneZoom, has added all tetrapods to its phylogenetic work. With 70% of all currently described four-limbed creatures crawling around on the Tree, the next additions will be plant life and fish. I’m as excited as ever to see this tool expand its open science range as well as capability of harnessing various cyberspace knowledge bases to help users access articles, images and other information (such as level of endangerment) on the species listed.

The visualization of the increasingly complex big data of modern science is a genuine challenge, and I really admire what OneZoom is doing to bring together several related areas of study.

According to their website, OneZoom will also be working together to provide visualizations with Open Tree of Life, an organization working towards providing a unifying web-based resource that unites “biological research of all kinds, including studies of ecological health, environmental change, and human disease,” which “increasingly depends on knowing how species are related to each other.”


Elver Reluctance

I’ve written here and here about the hot competition for fishing licenses for American eel in Maine. I checked on the newly hatched fishing season on elvers today. The season opened at noon on March 22 with high hopes and hotly contested elver fishing licenses. Considering the boom year of 2012, which brought in $38 million worth of elvers (an estimated haul of 19,000 lbs/8600 kg), this is no surprise.

For the moment, neither the elvers nor the weather are being very cooperative about helping this crop remain Maine’s second-most important fishing sector after lobsters. Where last year’s temperatures were almost summery at 70°F (21°C), this year is a much colder 45°F (7°C). There is still snow on the ground from the latest storm to hit the East Coast. And the amount of elvers in the stream is lower as well, according to an official of the Maine Marine Patrol. Early 2013 prices were estimated at approximately $1700/pound of elvers, a little under a dollar per glass eel. Last year, the top price early in the season was $2000/lb. Once the elvers are shipped to the interim destination that awaits them (before a dinner plate, that is), the price can go to up to $30,000/lb. for them once they are grown.

The American eel has been considered for listing as an endangered species on and off for the last twenty years, but without concrete knowledge of the actual population size (I have read various estimates that range from ‘millions’ to ‘billions’), it’s difficult to say just where they stand. A bounty of elvers one year might mean the population is stable and healthy; it might also have been a birth boom year, and by harvesting several million of the young, long-term effects might impact the population several years down the line when there aren’t sufficient adults to mate. Last year I read an estimate that at $2000/lb., elvers were going for a dollar apiece. That’s 2000 elvers per pound, which means last year’s harvest removed something on the order of 38 million elvers from potential adult population of the future. (Admittedly, 2000 elvers/pound seems like a large number, but it’s the only one I was able to find.) For an eel population in the billions, that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. For a population in the millions, that’s a lot of elvers.

For the fishing industry, it’s a gold rush. As one commenter says on the online news site for Maine’s The Bangor Daily News, “This seems like a once in a lifetime deal. Also…a bad night at fishing is still better than a good day at work!!”

The current boom in elver prices is a real time view of differing perspectives when it comes to species management.

One side sees abundance, the other uncertainty.




United States Fish & Wildlife Service – American Eel page

Differing perspectives here and here.

What we talk about when we talk about war (II)

Ilex squidVia: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Ilex squid
Via: SASSI, South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative

Some time ago, I posted some thoughts on the impact of war on the environment and creatures besides humans. Those comments focused primarily on the immediate effects of war waged on land.

Today, a news piece brought to my attention another environmental impact of war: The lack of cooperation on transboundary environmental protection issues between countries in dispute. In this case, the countries are Britain and Argentina, the region is the South Atlantic Ocean, and the issue is illegal fishing.

Argentina’s coast guard caught two Chinese trawlers illegally fishing Argentine waters for ilex squid (I’m not certain, but I believe this to be primarily Argentine  shortfin squid, Illex argentinus) before the ships could escape out into international waters. But this was a rare victory against an illegal fishing fleet, mostly out of China, which hauls an estimated 300,000 tons of ilex squid out of the South Atlantic every year.

From the Associated Press article today:

“The species, which roams across the maritime boundary between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, is key to a food chain that sustains penguins, seals, birds and whales. Managed well, it could sustain a vigorous fishing industry and steady revenues for both governments.

But the two sides aren’t even talking.

The Falklands are defended by British warships, planes and submarines, giving the fisheries agency considerable muscle to enforce licenses in its waters. But Argentina’s navy has never recovered from its 1982 war against Britain for the islands, and its coast guard has just eight ships to cover more than 1 million square miles (2,800,000 square kilometers) of ocean, said its chief of maritime traffic, Mario Farinon.

(The) problem is so big that it can be seen from space: Images of the Earth at night, taken by a NASA satellite last year, show darkness at sea the world over, except for this spot in the South Atlantic. There, 200 miles from the nearest coasts, the lights of this renegade fleet shine as brilliantly as a city.

The industrial ships transfer tons of squid to huge refrigerator ships and get refueled and resupplied at sea so that they can fish without pause.

Argentina ended 15 years of joint fisheries management in 2005 because it didn’t want any government relationship suggesting a recognition of the islanders’ claim to the British-held islands.

And so each government goes its own way, licensing boats and trying to enforce its stretch of the sea, while refusing to cooperate against the much larger fleet that’s just beyond their individual reach.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides countries with tools that Argentina could use right now to combat overfishing.

One is the “hot pursuit” article, which enables enforcers to pursue boats fishing illegally within their territory into international waters. Another is the “straddling species” clause, which allows governments to protect wandering species like the ilex squid, by applying the same rules on both sides of their maritime border. Countries that jointly manage their seas often grant each other reciprocal permission to arrest rule breakers, and any two countries can make bilateral agreements to regulate their fleets as they see fit, Greenpeace attorney Daniel Simons said.

The territorial dispute makes that impossible here.

“Argentina should enforce the same rules and impose its sovereignty beyond the 200-mile limit,” said de los Santos of the fishing chamber. “But it would have to have a fleet 10 times bigger.””


As anyone who watches detective movies knows, a territorial line of jurisdiction is only of use if the perpetrator of a crime does law enforcers the favor of remaining within their jurisdiction. In this case, the territorial lines between Britain and Argentina are crossed not only by the illegal trawlers, but by the squid themselves, as well as the entire feeding chain which depends upon them. Not to mention the companies supporting the ships from half a globe away.

Illegal fishing and overfishing in the South Atlantic is a matter of conflict even without the ongoing dispute between two countries that are in a position to actually do something about it.

Photo: Alamy

Photo: Alamy


Full AP article

Study of biological squid patterns off the coast of Brazil

Special topic paper, Fisheries and Aquaculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) – World Squid Resources

Article on previous disputes between Argentina and the Falkland Islands over squid fishing

Sunday Indulgence

The trumpet vine in summer

The trumpet vine in summer

We spent the weekend at one of our largest spring chores, trimming back the trumpet vine that surrounds part of our house. It requires a very high ladder, various shears, and patience. Planted just after the end of WWII, the vine provides an entire ecosystem on our south-facing wall. Birds’ nests, lizards, ants, various other insects I don’t care to think about but which leave me alone, even a beehive at the very top which we can never bring ourselves to remove because, well, the bees don’t bother us and they seem so happy there. The trumpet vine, left untrimmed (as it was when we bought the house many years ago), will climb right up and lift the tiles off the roof. Pruned, it provides shade to the front entryway and a waterfall of flowers. The dried vines make for some of the best fire kindling I’ve ever used.

Today, in celebration of the beginning of spring and the completion of the annual vine tending, I decided we needed to have an Indulgent Brunch. Two of the main components will be one of my top ten favorite cheeses, Brillat Savarin, and paired with that, some champagne. A half-round of triple-creme Brillat Savarin instantly classifies any meal or snack as indulgent, and not just because it has a fat content of 75%. It has a delicate mushroom flavor mixed with buttercream, and a snowy edible rind. Invented in the 1930s and produced year-round in Normandy and Burgundy, it was named for famed 18th century gastronome, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – who just happened to be born in Belley, a little over an hour from our house (by car, of course). He wrote The Physiology of Taste (1825), and led a life of various ups and downs, fortune and loss, that saw him exalted in France, exiled in Switzerland and living from violin lessons in America (although not necessarily in that order).

We have friends visiting from out of the country, and I asked them what they would like to have. Cheese, they said, lots of cheese. So, an indulgent brunch of cheese it is, starting with the luscious Brillat Savarin.

As Brillat Savarin said, “The senses are the organs by which man places himself in connexion with exterior objects.” We will be doing just that – placing ourselves in connection with cheese, champagne, fresh spring strawberries and best of all, friends.

Spokes on the Whisky Wheel

Whisky WheelFrom: Whisky Magazine

Whisky Wheel
From: Whisky Magazine

Finally, I’ve gotten around to making an attempt at assigning the 24 whiskies from our 2012 Whisky Advent Calendar to the taste spokes on the Whisky Wheel. Having 24 whiskies to compare, along with the three or four regulars we usually have around the house, proved an interesting challenge for us. We saved the drams for the weekend, and then compared two or three samples at a time. We were surprised at how finicky we became when a calendar whisky didn’t hit our noses or taste buds in just the right way in comparison to another sample of that evening – while in other circumstances or paired with another sample, we might have been more forgiving.

I applaud the naming of various whiskies, which successfully primed my expectations to be more or less receptive, but even that would be different for each taster. Did I like the Strathmill 12-yr-old (#14) so much because it has the words ‘Flora & Fauna’ attached to its name, or would it have been among my favorites in a blind tasting as well? And the name ‘Compass Box – Hedonism’ is fairly inspired. How much would I have been influenced by seeing each original bottle rather than the uniform drams of the calendar?

In any case, I was surprised that, according to the handy whisky wheel, my taste preferences lie in the direction of the ‘woody’ and ‘fruity’ spokes, with a dabbling in the ‘floral’. I would have pegged myself as a ‘peaty’ supporter. That said, there was not a wide array of ‘peaty’, ‘cereal’, ‘fenty’ or ‘winey’ in the calendar selection. And I’m not sure whether what we call ‘woody’ might not be classified by some as ‘cereal’ or ‘floral. We don’t live in an area where we meet with many other whisky experts, so we just go with what strikes our fancy.

Taste being purely subjective, I’ve marked the ones that we (that is, my partner in whisky tasting and I) would buy  in the future with a *. We found, upon checking availability for the whiskies that we preferred, that some of them have already been discontinued or are sold out  – a rather sobering little joke, if you ask me.

1 Aberlour 18-Year-Old (Speyside) WOODY

2 Master of Malt 10-Year-Old Speyside Whisky Liqueur* WINEY FRUITY

3 The Glenlivet Archive 21-Year-Old (Speyside) FLORAL FRUITY WOODY

4 Glenfarclas 30-Year-Old* (Speyside) FRUITY PEATY WOODY

5 Dalmore 12-Year-Old (Alness Highlands) WOODY FENTY

6 Glengoyne 12-Year-Old 1998 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Glasgow Lowlands) FRUITY FENTY

7 Aultmore 5-Year-Old Single Cask (Master of Malt) (Speyside) FRUITY WOODY FENTY

8 Yamazaki 18-Year-Old (Shimamoto, Osaka, Japan) FLORAL FRUITY WOODY

9 Glendronach 15-Year-Old Revival (Speyside) PEATY FRUITY

10 Craigellachie 12-Year-Old 1999 Old Malt Cask* (Douglas Laing) (Speyside) FLORAL FRUITY  WOODY

11 Longmorn 16-Year-Old (Strathspey) PEATY

12 Glenglassaugh “The First Cask” (Highland/Speyside) FRUITY SULPHURY

13 Aberlour a’Bunadh Batch 42* (Speyside) FLORAL WOODY

14 Strathmill 12-Year-Old – Flora and Fauna* (Speyside) FLORAL

15 Auchentoshan 12-Year-Old (Glasgow Lowlands) FRUITY CEREAL

16 Allt a Bhainne 14-Year-Old 1996 Old Malt Cask (Douglas Laing) (Speyside) FLORAL

17 Pikesville Straight Rye (Bardstown, Kentucky) FLORAL

18 Bunnahabhain 12-Year-Old (Islay) FRUITY SULPHURY

19 BenRaich Batch 1* (That Boutique-y Whisky Company) (Speyside) FENTY WOODY

20 Ballantines 17-Year-Old Scapa Edition WOODY CEREAL FRUITY

21 Compass Box – Hedonism CEREAL WOODY FLORAL

22 Ledaig 10-Year-Old (Island) PEATY FRUITY WOODY

23 The Macallan 21-Year-Old Fine Oak* (Speyside) WOODY FRUITY

24 Master of Malt 50-Year-Old Speyside (3rd Edition) FLORAL WOODY FRUITY

Number 24, the final calendar sample, was a special treat. At 50 years old, it had a rich complexity that delighted and was much appreciated. At a price point well of over $400 bottle, it’s a bit out of our league, but its inclusion in the calendar was a holiday generosity.

Now it’s a new year, and our exploration of whiskies will just keep rolling along.

Scarcity of Choice

Only about 2.5% of the world's water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.Source:

Only about 2.5% of the world’s water is fresh water. Only a small percentage of that (0.3%) is available for human use.

When I was a teenager, my family spent a couple of years living ‘off-grid’. It was called ‘getting back to the land’. To me it looked a lot like an extended camping trip, but with small houses instead of tents. My main chore was to get water. There was a well on a neighbor’s property, and we’d been given permission to draw from it. So every day, at least twice, I would carry large jugs from our house in the woods, across the small road that divided our land from our neighbor’s, and fill the jugs at the well. I’d bring them back, then filter and boil the water for drinking, for washing, for dishes. I could carry around 3 gallons (11 l) per well trip, and each trip took me 10-15 minutes. Add to this the filtering and boiling, and it was a substantial daily task to get the same amount of water that most people use brushing their teeth with the water running, or two flushes of a low-volume toilet (we had a compost-outhouse, no flush toilets). Every water-related activity – from drinking a glass of water to cooking dinner to washing my hands or brushing my teeth – was directly associated with another trip to the well. I could easily quantify an activity in water-work time.

Then, after we moved into a more traditional house, there was an impressive but blessedly short-lived drought that lasted for a little under two years. We rationed water almost as much as we had when I was still hauling it by hand.

Thus purely by chance, I developed a deep appreciation for ready access to fresh water, and also, a sense that it was scarce.

I was lucky that its scarcity at that time was, for us, a matter of choice.

Water Footprint ChoicesFrom: Good Transparency

Water Footprint Choices
From: Good Transparency


World Water Day – website

UN WWD – International Year of Water Cooperation

Global Water Volume – United States Geological Survey illustration