Saturday, September 5, 2009

Yesterday's News

It is not too often that I write to my elected officials asking them to respond to events I become aware of in the news - last night was one of those times. With email, it is much easier than before when snail mail was the preferred media. I never use those appeal-for-action form-letters that are forwarded by friends to everyone on their mail list - I know those are pretty much ignored - rather make it personal, and let it go, it's not personal - it's just business. I did this sometime ago about something I had read about concerning expanded stem cell research and all the benefits it was going to bring, so wrote to one of the Senators who was opposing that approach - I got a nice personal letter back from Senator Kennedy.

The item of controversy this time was created by the Associated Press news agency - News in the news. I really hope the controversial photographer doesn't get a Pulitzer Prize. Below I have pasted in the American Forces Press Service report from the Department of Defense Website as reference so as to not give credit to the for-profit press. I am bullish about the service Federal Agencies provide our society - I know I am biased because I am a Fed myself. At the bottom of this blog following the news release are the letters I sent to my two U.S. Senators, and our President.

Gates Objects to News Photo of Dying Marine

American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 4, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used the strongest terms in trying to persuade the Associated Press to refrain from running a graphicpicture of a Marine taken shortly after the service member was wounded in southern Afghanistan, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said here today. Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard later died on the operating table Aug. 14. The Marine’s family in New Portland, Maine, asked the Associated Press not to run the photo, which was taken by Julie Jacobson, who was embedded with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The AP put out a series of photographs of the Marine patrol, and Gates objected to one showing Bernard clearly in anguish while being treated. He had just been hit in the legs by a rocket-propelled grenade.

When Gates heard the AP was going to send the photo to its subscribers, he called Thomas Curley, president and chief executive officer of the news service, asking him to pull the photo, Morrell said.

Morrell quoted the secretary as saying to Curley, “I’m begging you to defer to the wishes of the family. This will cause them great pain.”

Curley told the secretary he would reconvene his editorial team to re-examine the release. The secretary followed his call with a letter to AP.

“I cannot imagine the pain and suffering Lance Corporal Bernard’s death has caused his family,” the secretary wrote. “Why your organization would purposefully defy the family’s wishes knowing full well that it will lead to more anguish is beyond me. Your lack of compassion and common sense in choosing to put this image of their maimed and stricken child on the front page of multiple American newspapers is appalling. The issue here is not law, policy or constitutional right – but judgment and common decency.”

Curley got back to Morrell later yesterday afternoon and said his crew had “seriously considered the secretary’s concerns and the families concerns … but ultimately decided that they wanted to proceed with pushing out this image to their clients,” Morrell said.

Morrell said Gates was extremely disappointed that the Associated Press did not adhere to the wishes of the family. The vast majority of news outlets did not run the photo, he added.


Dear Senator Mikulski,


Dear Senator Cardin,

Please see the news report at:

I am very concerned with the behavior of the Associate Press, particularly with the requests of the Secretary of Defense for AP to not do so. I would appreciate any efforts that you can to express displeasure with the Associated Press as well. I have a son who served four years in the Army, and another who is now a Midshipman at the Naval Academy. Our sympathies and prayers are with the family of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard.



Dear President Obama,

I wish to compliment the recent stand that Secretary Gates took in protesting the behavior of the Associate Press concerning their publishing the photograph of a fallen Marine in Afghanistan. I would appreciate any efforts that you can to express displeasure with the Associated Press as well.

My wife and I have a son who served four years in the Army, and another who is now a Midshipman at the Naval Academy, so our sensitivities run deep for the honor of our service men and women who have volunteered, and for the sacrifices that their families make. Thank you for your confidence in such leaders as Secretary Gates.

Our sympathies and prayers are with the family of Lance Cpl. Joshua Bernard.



Thursday, September 3, 2009

Finding Neverland

In my mind, our backyard is just a bit like the English garden scene towards the end of the movie Finding Neverland - the part where the Johnny Depp character wheels the Kate Winslet character into a fantasy-like world filled with gentle beasts, fairies, and other creatures that Peter Pan would appreciate. Our inspiration comes from the garden at Heart's Ease (1) which is one of our favorite shops to visit when we vacation on the Central California Coast in Cambria. Jan and I love to sit on our patio when the weather is not unbearably hot and humid, and enjoy our evening dinner, and on weekends, breakfast. Trees towards the back of the yard block the view of Georgetown East Elementary School beyond our fence, and provides a green backdrop to the gravel paths and plantings we have installed, all serviced by a drip irrigation system to ensure that the occasional dry periods in summer are supplemented by artificial rain between summer thunder showers.

And what respectable Neverland cottage garden would be complete without a managerie of wild beasts, fowl, and bugs just waiting to be described. Since we are relatively new comers to the East Coast, near the Chesapeake Bay, like naturalists of old in the nineteenth century, we are assembling a compilation of species and their descriptions - sans stuffed specimens to later document their authenticity.

Birds of the Sky:

The Tufted Titmouse is among the smallest of birds seen in our yard. It is known to frequent our bird feeder occasionally. Most notable is its hair style, much like Sting in his old days with the band Police. Though its call is "Peter, Peter, Peter", I would gladly borrow from Paul, to pay Peter and catch more glimpses of this little might than the more common birds seen in our yard.

The Ruby Throated Hummingbird is the only hummingbird species west of the Rockie Mountains which contrasts greatly with the diversity of species we saw in the west. As a side note, when doing research experiments in red clover seed fields across the Willamette Valley - 53 sites over a three year period - two years in a row I saw hundreds of Anna's Hummingbirds swarming over the lavender-colored flowers sipping the nectar of each small floret. In our small garden, we have only seen a few of the plain-colored throated females. Hopefully, the new feeder we recently purchased will draw more.

Not to be confused with the tufted titmouse, the White-breasted Nuthatch is true to its form as described in my "Birds of Maryland & Deleware Field Guide" by Stan Tekiela. A few weeks ago, Jan and I observed two of these little wonders flying from their perch on the top of the fence between our yard and our neighbor Linda's, to the bird feeder that hangs from a tall crooked hook mounted on a pole that has been specially engineered to with a hood to prevent the Eastern Gray Squirrel (see description below) from shimmying up to the catch of seeds. The nuthatches would grab one seed, fly back to their perch, and then proceed to crack the seed open with repeated blows with their beaks. These little wonders should be more obvious in winter, since they also occupy environs of western Maryland in winter.

One morning before taking my shower, as I usually do I looked out our master bathroom window and down at the finch feeder in the flower bed next to our patio, and saw for no more than 3.4 seconds, a Piliated Woodpecker land, pick-a-peck-of....well a seed or two, and then fly out of the yard. That was a large bird, much like the Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker (2) that I remember which occupied the black and white television set in my parent's Central Valley, California home when I was young. Friends who live in Oklahoma who have a five acre yard that is occupied by large metal sculptures - one of which resembles a large, many toothed bottom fish - claim the call of the piliated kind of woodpecker greatly resembles that of the television kind's call.

The Northern Carninal - known as the Red Bird by my Southern friend from Alabama who now lives in Arkansas - was first seen by this native Californian, who was displaced to Oregon for 17 years and then promoted and transferred to the East Coast, while lying on a queen-sized mattress with the master bedroom blinds drawn wide open on a Saturday morning, in a leafless cherry tree before his mate joined him - the human kind - in late-winter or early-spring. The only thing that can be said: what a delight. It is easy to see why the early English settlers to eastern North America were impressed by the colors of the new birds seen in their new world. Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal are frequent visitors to "our" bird feeder, and are very territorial about "their" garden.

Among the largest of our back yard visitors, the Mourning Doves live peacefully among the plenty of seeds that are scattered from the bird feeder above by birds that at times are not peaceful at all (see description of the common grackel below). I have counted as many as seven at a time walking back and forth across the ground, bobbing their heads and cooing as they fill their crop to the brim. The doves I hunted on the farm when I was young were much like these close cousins, only now I would never think of wanting to shoot them out of the air in the early September morning or evening after flying back from harvested grain fields to native trees that lined the dry creek beds that cut through valley-bottom pastures where hereferd and angus cows rested in the shade. Such little bites of meat that were baked in my mom's oven, after plucking, and gutting, and washing under the faucet on the northeast corner of the barn behind our house. I cannot remember if the limit was 10 or 12 birds per day, but as I remember, my younger brother Dan was a better shot than me.

I read today in my book "Of a Feather * A Brief History of American Birding" that the House Sparrow was an introduced species to North America. It was quite the craze at the time in the mid-1800's to introduce species from one continent to another - and quite the debate as well. Regardless, this simple brown bird has a beautiful song, and flies in and out or our yard with great frequency. Though I have never seen it happen, these little critters are quite aggressive and will kill the young of other birds to take over a nest - sort of a gremlin of the bird world.

The House Finch is a simple, but recognizable by its rusty red head, but in no way confused with the Piliated or Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker. We were welcomed many mornings to the sound of a house finch that had a nest in the wall across from the headboard of our bed in our second floor bedroom. For two seasons we heard the scratching and pecking and eventually the muffled sounds of chirping young house finches. A year ago we had our house painted, but before the painters came, I pulled out our extension ladder and plugged the hole - we could hear the sounds of house finches hovering and trying to get a foot hold, but to no avail. Our neighbor John, on that side of our house, hasn't paid close attention to his visitors, so we still can see nesting house finches, but in his wall instead.

The Hairy Woodpecker, or could it be the Downy Woodpecker - it is only a matter of whether there are two red spots on the back of the head or a continuous red band - visits our finch feeder and proves only a rare appearance. Its black and white checkered coat gives it the appearance of Las Vegas lounge lizard with a red comb-over at the back of its head. With woodpeckers around, there is always the worry that they could decide to be urban developers and provide prime real estate for displaced house finches that have been evicted by evil tenement landlords.

After the Eastern Cardinal, the Gray Catbird is my sentimental favorite of the eastern fowl. As I first began to establish the flower beds in the back yard, a gray catbird followed behind, picking insect larvae out of the soil hours on end. Most notable was what appeared to be a closely cropped haircut around the sides of its head, with slightly longer darker-colored "hair" on top. In honor of our soldiers and marines with similar haircuts, we dubbed the gray catbird: Mr. High-and-Tight. His name - catbird - is fitting, because with some frequency we hear the sounds of cats perched in our trees. As for the grubs the catbirds were likely picking up - Japanese beetles (adult see below).

The Common Grackle is the pig of the bird world. They fly into the feeder, shovel the seed every direction but into their mouths, and then fly away, only to return again and repeat the cycle. If not for their manners, these birds are beautiful with an iridescent blue-black head and a purple-brown long body. They seem to travel in large numbers, as many as seven or ten at at time in our backyard. The best defense of bird feeders seems to be deprivation - don't feed them, they don't come; feed them, and they will come - in that regards, somewhat like Midshipmen, but without manners.

Another messy eater, the Blue Jay can cause as much havoc to a full bird feeder as a grackle, but their transgressions are more easily over looked because of the beautiful bright-blue coloration. They too can arrive in packs, and scatter seeds all over the created garden. One redeeming aspect of this behavior (as well as that of the grackle) is the obvious co-evolution over many millenium of this species with lower-on-the-food-chain species such as the mourning dove and gray squirrel that depend on poor table manners of the higher species for their subsistence.(3)

The American Robin, like the gray catbird, benefited greatly from the tillage of garden soil to establish the garden. Unlike the catbird that seemed to relish insect larvae, the robin prefers worms. According to news reports, the robin populations have been greatly reduced due to this species' susceptibility to West Nile Virus. Our robins seem to be doing just fine, other than the lack of an abundance of juicy worms.

Perhaps the most sought after bird in the garden for viewing, the American Goldfinch lives year-round in the garden vicinity. The males are especially striking because of their bright yellow color. The females have a more subtle green hue, the same as which the males have during the winter. It is important to check the special finch feeder to be sure the summer rains have not turned the seed inside into a brick of seed which is not desirable to finch, just as empty hummingbird feeders are to hummingbirds. As many as four or five goldfinches can be seen on two feeders at a time. This species announces its arrival with a simple chirp, and flies in an interesting, darting fashion, typically to view the feeder where it had just flow from, and then viewing again the feeder to where it will fly next.

Beasts of the Land:

The Eastern Box Turtle is known to inhabit various natural covers in the garden including the pallet that the compost bin sits on top of and under various shrubbery (4). When its hiding place is discovered by an unexpecting gardener pulling weeds - typically when the box turtle moves it prehistoric reptilian head - the gardener will go into self-defense flight behavior immediately after leaving a clear yellow liquid between himself and the reptile to thwart being followed while in flight. Initially the naming of this species "Mr. Slowski" by the gardener's wife seemed appropriate and very creative, but the gardener was humiliated when he discovered the same-named species on Cable Television commercials preceded the wife's naming of the species - this too caused the gardener to desire going into flight mode, but hung in there and had a good laugh.

There are more than enough Gray Squirrels in our yard at a time to fill a stew pot. These rascals will likely be the culprits who prevent urban agriculture from being a viable enterprise, at least in this part of Annapolis. For two seasons, our peach trees that are destined for espalier like the ones at Mount Vernon, have been picked bare. This past spring, a squirrel must have wanted to rub it in our face, because a single pit rested on the top of a fence plank - perfectly balanced, gleaming under a clear blue sky. The only consolation is that they are observed to take bark mulch bathes in late summer, so perhaps the other pestilence will prevail on their sleek little bodies. One must be careful when putting out expensive bird feeder poles that are fitted with devices to prevent them from climbing up to the feeder - when such poles are placed within jumping range of overhanging branches, fences, or shrubbery, the garden owner must either treat squirrels as doves in Central California (see above under Mourning Dove), or move the pole.

Eastern Cottontail Rabbits eat young azalea shrubs......and newly planted blueberry bushes......and $7.00 a pot echinacea plants shortly after transplanting....and countless who-knows-what-else-failed-in-the-English-cottage-garden. Other than that, this species provides one of the closest links to the enchantment of the garden shown towards the end of Finding Neverland movie. Both young cottontails and adult cottontails can be found in the garden, especially in spring. Rarely are they found splattered in the road like squirrels. It has also been observed when given the opportunity to slam one of these beasts with the backside of a shovel, it is best not to ask your wife for permission. Due to this fact, it will be a long time until this species becomes endangered in our English cottage garden ecosystem.

Winged Insects in the Air:

Monarch Butterfly. I remember a quarter mile long row of fig trees that lined the dirt road on my dad's farm which led back to the cattle corrals, squeeze pen, and ramp for loading the cattle onto trucks to either take to far pastures, or to market. It was along this road one winter when my dad's horse slipped on a quick turn to head off a bolting cow and fell on his leg, producing compound fracture. When I rode up, Dad told me to get off my horse and run home and get Mom, and tell her to call an ambulance because he had broken his leg. My mom still recants years later how she responded she would take the car, but I protested and said that wouldn't do because "his leg was broken off."

I remember one year the fig trees were swarming with Monarch Butterflies during their migration north from Mexico. We lived 302 miles from the Mexico-U.S. border, so our trees must have been an Interstate freeway rest stop, still, quite a feat for such delicate insects. I also remember going back to my house and getting my butterfly net and a canning jar with cotton balls soaked in lighter fluid so I could capture and collect as many of these travelers as possible for posterity, not too unlike Victorian era naturalists who shot and stuffed their specimens for display at world exhibitions in great cities, or maybe even for the Smithsonian Institution or other museums of learning and wonder for young barefoot boys.

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly looks the same to me as the Oregon Swallowtail butterfly. Both frequent impatience blossomes, roses, marigolds, and such. As far back as I can remember, the yellow swallowtail butterflies were real butterflies. The sulfur butterflies, both white and yellow, were not real butterflies - real butterflies have spectacular-sized wings and are bright colored, or have interesting patterns on their wings. As a child, they are worth pursuing, capturing, asphyxiating in jars filled with petroleum distillates. As an adult, they are worthy of viewing for unlimited amounts of time, to just get to know them - let them be undisturbed as the light gently from one flower to the next, like sampling all the dishes at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but somehow their waistline stays trim.

The Spicebrush Swallowtail Butterfly was a new find in the Neverland cottage garden. When doing this research, I had to confirm that indeed, in the wild, there are bright-blue colored spots on the lower part of the wings - I was first impressed by the dark black that dominates their wing color. Like the swallowtails and monarches, the spicebrush quietly floats from one flower to the next. Like a good backpacker hiking through virgin wilderness, walks lightly along invisible trails through the air.

Japanese Beetle. "So that's what is eating our rose buds." This inhabitant of the eastern garden was not known to the western Willamette Valley, Oregon gardener. There the only rosebud eaters were White Tailed Deer who roamed the Corvallis suburbs in the coastal mountain foothills. Before six-foot fences or fenced off patios, the gardener could easily loose not only rows of annual flowers planted in bordering beds, but also succulent rose buds and leaves - typically right before full bloom was about to happen. The remedy for Japanese Beetles is much less expensive than deer fences - a simple $5 phermone trap fitted with a small black plastic bag which must seem like Dante's Inferno when an unlucky victim is swallowed up by the black abyss right below the artificial scent of its mate - without the passion.

Common Buckeye Butterfly (Junonia coenia) is found in all parts of the United States except the Northwest states. For me as a child, it was a special treat to see one, and reading a reference about butterflies, I now realize that I had missed it all those years in Oregon. An important trivial fact is that the Common Buckeye was featured on the 2006 United States Postal Service 24-cent postage stamp. Such knowledge is critical is one is serious about wanting to win parlor games.


(1) The Weblink for Heart's Ease is:

(2) For a more complete description of the Walter Lantz Woody Woodpecker, see the link at:

(3) Still to be worked out in this theory is what role expensive bird feeder poles fitted with access denial devices had in the evolution of squirrel behavior, particularly it impact on their reach from convenient jumping platforms provided by elements of English cottage gardens.

(4) For a re-enactment of the first documented need for shrubbery to be used in English cottage gardens, see the link at: