May 6, 2022 [LINK / comment]
The first month of baseball: a few surprises
Among the biggest surprises from the (lockout-shortened) month of April in baseball has been the abysmal record (currently 3-22, or .120) of the Cincinnati Reds. Baseball Digest had the Reds pegged to finish in third place this year, but that seems extremely unlikely right now. Aging star Joey Votto is currently batting .122, almost exactly the same as his team's win-loss record. At age 38, he is a contemporary of recently-retired Nationals' star Ryan Zimmerman. Maybe Joey should have followed Ryan's example. Only the Arizona Diamondbacks have a lower team batting average (.190) than the Reds (.203) do. As for pitching, the Reds have by far the worst team ERA: 6.86.
Baseball Digest also forecast that the Chicago White Sox would win the AL Central Division, which is currently led by the Minnesota Twins. How long can that situation last? I don't even remember the last time the Twins were postseason contenders. The White Sox have won four games in a row, and I got to watch them beat the Red Sox in Fenway Park on Apple TV+ this evening. The Chisox' ace pitcher Lucas Giolito has actually been eclipsed by a slightly younger (age 26) pitcher named Dylan Cease. (And desist?)
Another big surprise is that the Boston Red Sox -- picked by Baseball Digest to win the AL East -- are now in last place, behind the Baltimore Orioles!!! That inevitably leaves the field open for the Yankees to dominate the division, and they currently lead the majors with an 18-7 (.720) record. Payroll, payroll, payroll... But close behind are the perennially underfunded yet overachieving Tampa Bay Rays, who are now 16-10 (.615).
To me it's no surprise that the Los Angeles Angels are in first place, but for some reason Baseball Digest had them pegged at fourth place. Anthony Rendon, who signed a fat contract with them after leaving the Nationals following their World Series triumph in 2019, is recovering from an injury-plagued 2021 season.
Likewise, the big lead in the NL East currently enjoyed by the New York Mets is no surprise to me, but Baseball Digest had them finishing in second place behind the Atlanta Braves. It's pretty clear that their forecasts were made before the 2022 rosters had been finalized -- another side-effect of the MLB lockout that postponed all the hot-stove wheeling and dealing until mid-March. Any team with both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer in their pitching rotation is almost guaranteed to make a deep postseason run in October.
Finally, the Milwaukee Brewers are ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and the L.A. Dodgers have a slim lead over the San Diego Padres in the NL West. The Giants have fallen into fourth place, but they're only three games behind the Dodgers.
The Nationals' s-l-o-w rebuilding
The Washington Nationals are also in last place, likewise badly underachieving, but they are at least showing occasional glimpses of a brighter future. Believe it or not, the Nationals briefly had the second-highest team batting average in the majors, and are now tied for third (at .254) with the Cleveland Guardians. Their slugging star thus far is first-baseman Josh Bell, who is tied for fourth place in batting average (.348) in the National League. Last year's second-place MVP candidate Juan Soto has gotten off to a slow start, and for a couple days actually had a lower batting average than perennial under-achiever (?) Victor Robles, but has improved recently. Robles started to improve recently, and in the Nats' memorable 14-4 triumph over the Giants in San Francisco on April 29 (ending an awful 8-game losing streak), he went 4 for 5 at the plate. The Nats took two of three games in Oracle Park, knocking the Giants out of first place. That was a big surprise!
Pitching is another matter, however: the Nationals' 5.03 team ERA is exceeded only by the Cincinnati Reds. (See above.) That number is artificially inflated, however, by a few bad outings of Patrick Corbin and Erick Fedde, both of whom have shown much improvement lately. Because of the lack of run support, however, Corbin has yet to register a win. He actually pitched a complete game (8 innings) in a loss to the Rockies in Denver on Wednesday. Josiah Gray (acquired from the Dodgers in the big trade for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner last year) had a couple rough starts, but is showing great promise now. Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are both recovering from injuries and/or surgeries last year, and may be available to pitch later this month, finally.
The Washington Nationals page has been updated with roster and salary information as well as data for April, when they went 7-16. (They are now 9-18.) As a reflection of the extreme roster turnover, there are photos for only four of the nine starting players on that page. (Since the National League has adopted the Designated Hitter rule this year, I will need to modify that starting-team graphic to include the Nats' DH, Nelson Cruz.) Tonight the Nationals begin a three-game series in Anaheim, after losing two out of three games to the Rockies in Denver.
Stadiums by class
Another one of my favorite web pages was recently updated: Stadiums by class. The tentative classification of "Postmodern" stadiums (the recently-built ones that were formerly classified as "Neoclassical" but don't even pretend to harken back to the early 20th century "glory days") has been definitively confirmed. Among the enhancements to that page, there is a new "mass rollover effect" instantly showing the baseball vs. football configurations for all 14 dual-use stadiums, which will provide delight for many a stadium geek. That technique was previously done for the "football stadiums used for baseball" classification, which now includes (Baltimore's) Memorial Stadium and (Montreal's) Olympic Stadium. That was done at the suggestion of Angel Amezquita. I'll probably do likewise for the classic-era stadiums as well, since all of them hosted football games at one point or another. Another change on that page is that the MLB lifetime of each stadium is now shown under each one's thumbnail image, with a gray background to indicates which ones have been demolished. Enjoy!
The unusually intense spring semester is over, allowing me time (at last) to get back to refining stadium diagrams, along with other website maintenance tasks. I'll also be able to respond to recent e-mail inquiries and acknowledge the monetary support kindly extended by several fans.
May 10, 2022 [LINK / comment]
Birding in January and February
After a fairly mild December (see March 31 blog post), real winter weather finally arrived in January. We had significant snow falls (at least an inch or so) on the 3rd, 16th, 21st, and 28th days of the month. (It also snowed on the 13th of February, the 12th and 26th of March, and the 18th of April!)
Late in the afternoon of New Year's Day I went to Bell's Lane, and had a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl just as dusk was falling. On January 5, a White-crowned Sparrow appeared in our back yard, which was rather unusual. They generally stay outside of town, in contrast to the more "urbanized" White-throated Sparrows.
Being very busy with school duties, I didn't get out for any actual birding until January 15, when Jacqueline and I drove to Waynesboro. At the Invista ponds we saw a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Great Blue Heron, and -- thanks to Jacqueline's sharp eyes -- a Pied-billed Grebe! Then we drove north through Crimora and saw another Red-shouldered Hawk, and after heading back east we saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a female American Kestrel, and a third Red-shouldered Hawk along the road.
On January 18 another unusual bird appeared out back, a Brown-headed Cowbird, and once again it may have been related to the heavy snow, forcing birds to look elsewhere for food. On January 21 a Common Grackle showed up out back, likewise snow-related. I got some nice photos of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the snow that day. On January 29, I made it out to Bell's Lane, and saw a Cedar Waxwing and a Red-tailed Hawk, along with the usual White-crowned Sparrows and American Robins; Robins seemed to be more plentiful than usual during the winter of 2021-2022. Northern Harrier
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Common Grackle, Northern Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker with a Blue Jay, White-throated Sparrows, and Dark-eyed Junco. (N. Staunton, Jan. 21, 2022)
On February 5, I stopped briefly at Eagles Nest Airport, just west of Waynesboro, and was amazed to see what I initially thought was a young Tundra Swan, but turns out to have been a Trumpeter Swan. Then along Route 250 in front of the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center I saw a Red-shouldered Hawk, probably the same one Jacqueline and I had seen three weeks earlier. Inside the campus I walked along the trail to the pond and spotted some Yellow-rumped Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Eastern Bluebirds, and a Northern Flicker.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-shouldered, Northern Flicker, Eastern Bluebird, Trumpeter Swan, and Canada Goose. (Waynesboro & Fishersville, Feb. 5, 2022)
On Saturday February 19 I was amazed to see a Hermit Thrush in our back yard, and I just barely got a recognizable photo of it before it departed. Then, on the bright and sunny afternoon of Monday February 21, I paid a visit to Bell's Lane, and had an excellent view of a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, other woodpeckers, and glimpses of a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A return to that location five days later yielded little other than a distant Red-tailed Hawk.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Hairy Woodpecker, White-crowned Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and American Kestrel. (Bell's Lane, Feb. 21, 2022)
The above photo montages, including some closeup images and additional photos, can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page.
May 30, 2022 [LINK / comment]
May Day: Nats pull out of nosedive
The "merry, merry" month of May has been anything but merry for the Washington Nationals this year. Until this past weekend, hosting the Colorado Rockies at home in Washington, the Nats had lost two out of every three games they played. Remarkably, they avoided being swept in any of the seven previous series: they won exactly one game in each of those series. Thus, they hovered around the .333 mark for the entire month. As Barry Svrluga noted in the Washington Post on May 20, the "brain-dead sloppiness" (bad base-running and inexcusable errors on defense) made Nationals games "comically unwatchable." Perhaps such expressions of disgust were the motivation they needed to turn things around.
The Nationals' dreary litany of mediocrity this month has been punctuated by a few bursts of excellence, offering hope for a brighter tomorrow. (Or next year.) On May 14 the Nats beat the visiting Astros 13-6 thanks in large part to home runs by Yadiel Hernandez and Maikel Franco. On May 25 the Nats became the first team to shut out the L.A. Dodgers this season, as Erick Fedde pitched six solid innings and Cesar Hernandez provided the essential hitting power with an RBI single in the sixth inning. Nats 1, Dodgers 0!
One of the most pleasant surprises in this disappointing season is the emergence of Victor Robles as a consistent hitter and (usually) good base-runner. In the first inning of the first game on Saturday, he put the Nationals ahead with a two-run single, and later knocked in four more runs on a single and a home run -- his first of the year. He stole two bases in the game against the Rockies on Sunday, playing a key role in the Nats' narrow 6-5 victory. Catcher Keibert Ruiz is also getting plenty of clutch hits as well. Meanwhile, Josh Bell's average has gone downhill since the early part of the month, while Juan Soto has been in the worst slump of his young career. He is now batting just .236, which is lower than that of Victor Robles. That seems almost impossible. Has his motivation gone down because of the rumors of the Nats being sold, and the possibility that he might get traded? I certainly hope not. Soto did at least get a two-run homer in Sunday's game, his ninth of the year.
As for pitching, both the starters and the relievers have been quite inconsistent. Aaron Sanchez got the win against the Brewers in Milwaukee on May 22, thanks to a six-run Nats rally in the fourth inning, but he was taken out of the early May 29 game in the fourth inning after giving up seven runs to the Rockies. Later that same day he was "designated for assignment." Ouch! That is probably to make room on the roster for Stephen Strasburg, who has begun playing in minor league games after an extended recovery from thoracic surgery last summer. He can't return soon enough! Partly due to bad luck, Patrick Corbin lost his first seven games of the season but finally got the win in the opening game of the series against the Rockies, on May 26. Erick Fedde and Josiah Gray (former Dodger) seem to be the Nats' top two starting pitchers for the moment, but Fedde couldn't even finish two innings against the Mets in today's embarrassing 13-5 loss. The Nats scored three times in the top of the first, but the Dodgers kept putting up crooked numbers until it became pretty much hopeless by the end of the fourth inning. Kyle Finnegan played a key role in cementing Nats' victories but after giving up two runs and getting only one out in the top of the eighth inning, he had to be replaced by the usual closer Tanner Rainey, who not only put out the fire but went on to get three quick outs in the ninth inning to save the game, giving the Nats their first series win at home (3 games to 1) this season.
I was all set to buy tickets and/or team merchandise while stopping at Nationals Park two Sundays ago, but NONE of the ticket windows were open, and the team store was closed as well! In the middle of baseball season??? That seems like a dumb way to run a business to me.
Memorial Coliseum update
Since today was Memorial Day, I thought it would be appropriate to make a few minor corrections and enhancements to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum diagrams, including a new version with a track (asphalt) that was installed for NASCAR races. Much like what was done in September 2016 when Tennessee played a football game against Virginia Tech at Bristol raceway -- except in reverse -- a huge oval football stadium was refitted to accommodate race cars. The "Clash at the Coliseum" consisted of several rounds, since there just wasn't enough room for a full slate of stock cars. It would have made a little more sense before the 1993 renovations added new rows of seats closer to the football field, but in the current configuration of Memorial Coliseum, the turns at each end were extremely tight.
Actually, the new diagrams do include a rather significant new finding: thanks to a tip from Mark London, I learned that in the Dodgers' first year in Los Angeles (1958), the bullpens were located beyond the fence in center and right field. After that they were moved to foul territory: very spacious on the visiting team's side (by third base), and extremely tight on the Dodgers' side. As usual, you can see what changed since my previous rendition of this stadium in 2016 by clicking on the diagram and then moving your mouse away.
May 31, 2022 [LINK / comment]
Birding in March and April
Being under severe time constraints work-wise, I did relatively little birding in March and only slightly more for most of April. Saturday March 5th was pleasant and sunny, and I spotted an Eastern Bluebird and Red-bellied Woodpecker out back. In the afternoon I headed to the trail behind the Murphy-Deming College of Health Sciences in Fishersville for a vigorous walk. There weren't many birds there, but I did get nice views of some House Finches and a Red-tailed Hawk soaring overhead. I then went to Bell's Lane and saw an Eastern Meadowlark as well as my first Tree Swallow of the year.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-tailed Hawk, Tree Swallow, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Meadowlark, and House Finch (M). (N. Staunton, Fishersville, & Bell's Lane, March 5, 2022)
On March 11 I went to the Mill Place trail in Verona and saw several Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as an American Kestrel and a Killdeer or two. Then we had another big snowfall, and on March 13 I was astounded to see a Fox Sparrow out back! I was able to get very good photos in spite of the awkward angle of the sunlight and the glare of the snow, which soon melted.
Fox Sparrow (N. Staunton, March 13, 2022)
On March 18 I spotted my first Eastern Phoebe of the spring, high in a tree along Bell's Lane, but it was cloudy so my photos were mediocre. The weather was much better the next day (a Saturday) Jacqueline and I went for a casual drive through northern Augusta County, stopping first at Natural Chimneys. There we saw some Chipping Sparrows and found the trail that leads to the top of the cliff along which the "chimney" rock formations are situated. It leads up a precarious slope with a rope that serves as a handrail, and that is where I saw my first (and only) Winter Wren of the 2021-2022 season. Then we drove to Todd Lake, in the mountains about five miles west, and just as I had hoped, I heard and then saw my first Pine Warbler of the year! Finally, we went to Elkhorn Lake, and again my anticipation paid off, as we soon spotted two Bald Eagles that were flying around and tending to a nest along the north side of the lake.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Pine Warbler, Belted Kingfisher, Bald Eagles (one at nest), Chipping Sparrow, and Winter Wren. (Nat. Chim.; Todd & Elkhorn Lakes, March 19, 2022)
On Tuesday March 22 I took advantage of spring break by checking out Leonard's Pond, where I saw a Killdeer, and then stopped at the James Madison University arboretum, where I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Field Sparrow, and an Eastern Phoebe. Stopping at Bell's Lane on the way home I saw another Phoebe, as well as some Tree Swallows.
The month of April got off to a good start when I went for a hike along the Madison Run fire road on Saturday, the second day of the month. The skies were clear blue, but the birds were few at first. Eventually I had nice views of a Pine Warbler, a Blue-headed Vireo (or two?), a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and an Eastern Phoebe.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Hairy Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Blue-headed Vireo, Eastern Phoebe, and Pine Warbler. (Madison Run, April 2, 2022)
One week later, Saturday the 9th of April, I hiked along the Chimney Hollow trail for the first time this year. For the most part it was a big disappointment (no Brown Creepers for the entire winter season!), but at the very end, just as I was about to cross the highway to where my car was parked, I spotted a Louisiana Waterthrush lurking near the stream -- my first one of the year! Over at Braley Pond there were a few Golden-crowned Kinglets and Pine Warblers, but the main attraction was a dozen or so Blue-winged Teals, both male and female. On the way home along the 262 bypass I spotted a small flock of Wild Turkeys and snapped a quick long-distance photo of one just as they were retreating into the bushes.
On April 15 a Gray Catbird appeared on our back porch, the first one of the year for me. In the afternoon I went to Montgomery Hall Park and saw a Golden-crowned Kinglet as well as my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year! The next day Jacqueline and I were driving up to Bridgewater and I spotted a large raptor in a nearby tree. I couldn't stop until we were a half mile down the road, unfortunately, but I was able to identify it as an Osprey, my first one the year. On April 18 we had our last snow storm of the season, and "our" Catbird out back probably regretted migrating north as early as he did. But the snow melted quickly and the next day I was surprised to see a Pileated Woodpecker foraging for grubs in a tree stump out back; I was lucky to get a fine sunlit photo of it. On April 22, while getting some fresh air out back, I happened to see a kettle of Broad-winged Hawks flying overhead, perhaps a dozen total; they were my first ones of the season. A Red-shouldered Hawk was passing by, as well. More signs of spring were a Gray Catbird and American Goldfinch out back. In the evening, as I was leaving Mary Baldwin University, I heard and then saw my first Chimney Swifts of the season!
On the morning of April 23 I saw a fledgling Carolina Wren on the ground out back, so I carefully approached to get a photo. Early breeding!? Around the middle of the day I walked through the woodland trails at Hillandale Park in Harrisonburg, and almost immediately heard and then spotted a nearby Wood Thrush -- my first of the year! Further along were several Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Blue-headed Vireos, Eastern Towhees, and a FOY Ovenbird. At Cook's Creek Arboretum in Bridgewater I saw an Eastern Screech Owl and another Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Finally, on my way to the Kites 'n Kritters event on Bell's Lane in mid-afternoon, I saw an Eastern Phoebe, a Belted Kingfisher, and a Red-tailed Hawk.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ovenbird, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Screech Owl, Wood Thrush, Red-tailed Hawk, Blue-headed Vireo, Eastern Phoebe, and in center, Carolina Wren (juvenile). (Hillandale Park, Cook's Creek Arb., Bell's Lane, April 23)
I spent the late morning and early afternoon of April 25 (a Monday, after my classes at Mary Baldwin had ended) at Montgomery Hall Park, and tallied seven first-of-season birds, including Scarlet Tanager, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, and Red-eyed Vireo, as well as a Black-and-white Warbler, a Chestnut-sided Warbler, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. The first two warblers were too far away, and the latter one was too close for a good photo -- very frustrating! Yellow-rumped Warblers were all over the place, as usual, and I also saw several Eastern Towhees and Brown Thrashers (FOY). I saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher there once again, and this time got a much better photo than during my previous visit.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Scarlet Tanager, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Great Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. (Montgomery Hall Park, April 25)
The weather on the morning of Friday April 29 was a gorgeous, and while walking along Bell's Lane I saw four bird species for the first time this year: Yellow Warbler, House Wren, American Redstart, and White-eyed Vireo. (The latter was mostly hiding in the bushes, hence the semi-obscured photo below.) I also had nice views of Brown Thrashers and their relatives, the Gray Catbirds, as well as some Eastern Meadowlarks. All were very active and vocal. I also heard an Orchard Oriole (first of year) and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, but never saw either of them.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: House Wren, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, American Redstart, Gray Catbird, White-eyed Vireo, and Eastern Meadowlark. (Bell's Lane, April 29)
Saturday, April 30th was Big Spring Day, when the Augusta Bird Club systematically counts birds all across Augusta County. This year I covered (sequentially) Dowells Draft, Braley Pond, and Chimney Hollow in the foothills in the western part of county. Unfortunately, the weather turned rather bleak, and it was drizzling for the first two hours. Four of the approximately 42 species I identified (duly reported via the eBird website) were the first ones of the year for me: Indigo Bunting, Worm-eating Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, and Northern Parula. Among the other highlights were a Red-breasted Nuthatch, two Wood Thrushes, and a Wild Turkey that flew over Rt. 250 as I was beginning my return trip to Staunton.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Black-throated Green Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Indigo Bunting, Ovenbird, Wood Thrush, Northern Parula, and in center, Worm-eating Warbler and Pine Warbler. (Dowells Draft, Braley Pond, and Chimney Hollow, April 30)
The above photo montages, including some closeup images and additional photos, can be seen on the Wild Birds chronological photo gallery page.