Commentary and musings on a diverse but well-defined set of topics, from a critical-minded conservative point of view, featuring a veritable library of original graphics and statistical information. Hence,
Jacqueline and I took advantage of the beautiful weather on Sunday by taking a drive up north a ways. I was looking for birds, and she was just enjoying getting outside. The first stop was the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport, where I was hoping to get another look and/or photo of the Smith's Longspur, which I first saw on February 26. Others saw it there yesterday, but not us. We did get some nice closeup looks at Horned Larks, however, a species which Jacqueline had not seen before. Then we went to Bridgewater, where some Common Mergansers have been seen on the North River recently. It took a while, and finally I spotted several of them, but they were nearly 100 yards away, so the photos weren't that good. We drove back and forth between three different riverside parks in Bridgewater, but those darned Mergansers just kept eluding us.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was seeing several Common Grackles, which are supposedly year-round residents in Virginia, but are hardly ever seen during the winter. It was the first such sighting of the year for me, a definite sign that spring is drawing near! Here is a summary of the birds we saw yesterday:
Muscovy Duck (escaped domesticated)
Northern Pintail (male)
Common Grackles (FOY)
Robins, Blue Jays, Juncos, etc.
Common Merganser (male), on the North River in Bridgewater.
Other new photos are on the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Today I took some great closeup photos of a male Pileated Woodpecker in our back yard (quite unusual), but haven't transferred them to the computer yet. Stay tuned!
Today's Washington Post reported that 47 Republican senators wrote a letter to Iran concerning the Obama administration's ongoing negotiations with that country. Basically, it served notice to Iran that any deal that is reached over Iran's nuclear development program would only be an "executive agreement" and therefore subject to cancellation by a future president. Coming on the heels of the recent awkward appearance by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before a joint session of Congress, it reaffirmed that idea that nothing less than total compliance will be acceptable to the Senate. That's not a realistic goal, so in essence it's saying "no deal," period.
So, of course this set the stage for another volley of polemical tirades between pro-Obama and anti-Obama forces. Democratic leaders such as Vice President Joe Biden were shocked -- shocked! -- at the unseemly display of partisanship on a sensitive matter of national security. Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Zavad Zirif (educated in the U.S.) took the occasion to lecture Senate Republicans on international law and the U.S. Constitution. He called that letter a "propaganda ploy," which is rather ironic coming from a repressive theocratic regime. It is, most certainly, an upside-down world we are living in.
Some Democrats have suggested that the Republicans' letter was a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids U.S. citizens from interferring in American diplomacy. Ironically, some Republicans have made similar criticisms of Democrats in years past. For example, Rep. Nancy Pelosi met with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2007, an act of freelance diplomacy that undercut the Bush administration. Now the shoe is on the other foot. As Michael Crowley wrote in politico.com, the GOP letter to Iran was the latest spat in a long-running feud between the parties over control of U.S. foreign policy. Its unusual nature merely reflects the current poisoned atmosphere in Washington, where the opposite ends of Pennsylvania [Avenue] hold each other in mutual contempt.
Battles between the executive and legislative branches over foreign policy date back to the Vietnam War, when we learned the sorrowful consequences of pursuing international goals without a solid domestic consensus. The War Powers Resolution (1973) was one such battle, and the Reagan administration's support of the "Contra" rebels fighting the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was another. This much is certain: The power of the presidency has expanded far beyond what the framers of the U.S. Constitution had intended, and our continued status as a republic (as opposed to an empire) rests to a large extent on whether Congress will be able to rein in presidents. Say what you will about Sen. Tom Cotton [(R-AR)], the author of the letter, or the other Senate Republicans who signed that letter, but they are duly elected government officials -- just as President Obama is.
Presidents need a certain amount of leeway in the conduct of diplomacy, and the GOP letter is a blunt (and in my view, unwarranted) attempt to deny the president any such leeway. It may make the world more dangerous by killing any chance at a peaceful resolution of the basic dispute. As for the administration's claim that the President has the authority to reach executive agreements without approval from Congress, that is certainly true of smaller-scale agreements of a technical nature, such as carrying out weapons inspection. But it would be rash and imprudent to make an agreement of such great importance as the prospective deal with Iran without substantial input from Congress. That is why, viewed from a different perspective, is quite appropriate to make a bold assertion of the Senate's constitutional duty to give "advice and consent" to the president in making treaties. Are those who are skeptical of Iran's intentions supposed to just stand idly aside? No. I just wish they had expressed their views in a more proper, respectful manner.
In a real sense, President Obama invited this showdown by his habit of making major policy decisions entirely on his own, such as the suspended enforcement of certain immigration laws which he announced in November. But even if the senators had a valid concern and had no ulterior political motivatations, the letter was still needlessly embarrassing and potentially disruptive to negotiations -- for whatever they may be worth. Instead of declaring their position to the American people, to whom they are accountable, they stooped to the President's level in a childish, tit-for-tat game of one-upsmanship. That is not the way to do block executive branch usurpations. As Joe Scarborough lamented on MS-NBC this morning, "Really? Really?" It's not that he was opposed to what the Republicans were doing, but was simply exasperated by the tactless way they did it. Almost everything Obama does these days is aimed at enraging his opponents, and the Republicans need to refrain from taking his bait. In sum, the letter to Iran was regrettable -- and quite understandable.
As background for this blog piece, I referred to a book from my graduate school days, The President, the Congress, and Foreign Policy, ed. by Edmund S. Muskie, Kenneth Rush, and Kenneth W. Thompson (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986).
Thanks to Marshall Faintich and other alert birders in this area, I was able to see -- and photograph -- a Smith's Longspur today, my first life bird of the year. Two birds of those species were identified at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport over the past couple days, and my initial skepticism was quickly dispelled as photos taken by Marshall and by Brenda Tekin clearly showed several key field marks such as two white feathers on the outer edges of the tail, rather than just one such tail feather on each side for the more-common Lapland Longspur. Unfortunately, none of my photos (several dozen at least) showed the tail feathers very well.
There were five other birders with me at the airport this afternoon -- from Roanoke, Charlottesville, and Danville. For them to drive so far was a good indication of how significant this finding was. I had to wait at least 15 minutes before the target bird finally made its appearance, but the wait (in the cold) was worth it. No doubt the recent snow storms created this special opportunity, as many ground-foraging birds are forced to move to cleared areas along roads whenever their preferred open-field habitats become snow-covered.
This is the first time a Smith's Longspur has ever been recorded in Augusta County. [UPDATE: Brenda Tekins informs me that it's the first time one has ever been seen in all of Virginia!] Lapland Longspurs have been seen on occasion in winter months, and some were at the airport yesterday but not today. I last saw a Lapland Longspur in South Dakota in January 2014. This makes #458 on my Life bird list. We also saw several Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks along the road.
Smith's Longspur, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.
Savannah Sparrow, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.
Horned Lark, at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport.
I have posted other photos taken today, and in recent weeks, on my Wild birds yearly photo gallery page. Earlier in the day, after lunch* and before my Latin American Politics class, I made a quick trip over to the North River bridge in Bridgewater. There I saw several interesting birds that had been reported there recently:
Hooded Mergansers (M & F)
Greater Scaup (F)
Common Goldeneye (F)
Northern Pintail (M)
It was the first time I had seen a Goldeneye in over a year, I believe. The photo I took was from a distance and in bad lighting, unfortunately. I almost missed seeing the Pintail, which was right next to the shore less than 40 feet away with a group of Mallards, but caught a glance and then took some photos just before I left. It might have been the same one I saw there last month.
Northern Pintail closeup, on the North River in Bridgewater.
* I had lunch with Prof. Robyn Puffenberger, who took her Ornithology class to see the Smith's Longspur at the airport in the morning. Quite a coincidence!
I learned this evening via Bob Gibson on Facebook that the the Virginia House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee voted against two bills (Senate Bill 1000 and Senate Bill 824) that would have addressed the problem of redistricting. I was sad to learn that 25th District Delegate Steve Landes (Republican) was among those who voted no. (See nbc29.com.) I regret that I have been too busy with teaching lately to let my own elected representatives know what I thought, and it's apparently too late to do anything this year. Angry and frustrated, I downloaded the official map, modified it, and posted what follows on Facebook:
According to Article II, Section 6 of the Constitution of Virginia (virginia.gov),
"... Every electoral district shall be composed of contiguous and compact territory... "
And yet a quick glance at the map reveals numerous crazy, twisted districts such as this one (I have shaded the map for the sake of clarity), where I live. The 20th House District is squeezed so tightly on the west side of Waynesboro that you could just about hit a golf ball from the 24th District (SW) all the way to the 25th District (NE). It's a blatant violation of the state constitution: Gerrymandering 101.
Does all this matter? Do most people care? Perhaps not, but that itself would be a side-effect of this deliberate manipulation of the democratic process, leaving the people confused about which district they live in. It's one more way that our elected representatives insulate themselves from the will of the people. In the 2011 House of Delegates races, 73 of the 100 races were not competitive, i.e., the losing candidate received fewer than 30% of the votes. Some democracy.
What recourse do We the People have? Since the electoral process itself is essentially rigged, and the state constitution does not provide for citizen-initiated referenda that might change things, the only real hope for reform would seem to lie in the court system.
After teaching class at Bridgewater College* this afternoon, I drove over to Silver Lake on the north side of Dayton, about four miles away. I was intrigued by a recent report of a Trumpeter Swan and a Tundra Swan being seen there, so I figured it was worth a shot. Boy, was it! As soon as I arrived, I counted four swans on the lake, along with a hundred or more other waterfowl. Not being very familiar with either species (about all we ever see in this area are Mute Swans), I thought that they were just two Tundra Swans and two Mute Swans. After looking at my photos back home and comparing them to my field guides, however, I realized that the bird with the all-black bill and sloped forehead was actually a Trumpeter Swan, which is quite rare. Wow! Size is another clue: Trumpeter Swans are bigger than Mute Swans (see second photo below), which in turn are bigger than Tundra Swans. When Birds of Augusta County was last published in 2008, there had been only one record ever of Trumpeter Swans, a species which is found mostly in western states. Another was reported in 2011. As you can see, lighting conditions were almost ideal for taking photos.
Trumpeter Swan, showing the stained head feathers that are typical for this species.
Trumpeter Swan (left), next to a Mute Swan.
Tundra Swan, immature. ("Ugly duckling"?)
Also on Silver Lake today were several dozen Canada Geese and Mallards, a dozen or more Gadwalls (see the Wild birds yearly photo gallery page), several Redheads, a Wigeon, and a possible Canvasback.
I thought the Trumpeter Swan might have been a life bird for me, but after checking my life bird list, it turns out that I saw some in South Dakota in 2008. To my surprise, however, I realized that I had failed to add Tundra Swan to that list after I saw a flock of them on a pond near Bell's Lane last March. So, after making the revision (for a second time), that makes 49 life birds seen last year, bringing my lifetime total up to 457. Maybe I'll finally reach 500 this year!
* More on Bridgewater College soon...
Complete blog entries for the current month:
March 2015 (with links to archives of previous months)
My general practice is to make no more than one blog post per day on any one category. For this reason, some blog posts may address more than one specific issue, as indicated by separate headings. If something important happens during the day after I make a blog post, I may add an updated paragraph or section to it, using the word "UPDATE" and sometimes a horizontal rule to distinguish the new material from the original material. For each successive day, blog posts are listed on the central blog page (which brings together all topics) from top to bottom in the following (reverse alphabetical) order, which may differ from the order in which the posts were originally made:
Wild birds (LAST)
Science & Technology *
Culture & Travel *
Canaries ("Home birds")
* part of "Macintosh & Miscellanous" until Feb. 2007
The date of each blog post refers to when the bulk of it was written, in the Eastern Time Zone. For each blog post, the time and date of the original posting (or the last update or comment thereupon) is displayed on the individual archival blog post page that appears (just before the comments section) when you click the [LINK / comments] link next to the date. Non-trivial corrections and clarifications to original blog entries are indicated by the use of [brackets] and/or strikethroughs, as appropriate so as to accurately convey both the factual truth and my original representation of it. Nobody's perfect, but I strive for continual improvement. That is also why some of the nature photos that appear on the archive pages may differ from the (inferior) ones that were originally posted.
The current "home made" blog organization system that I created, featuring real permalinks, was instituted on November 1, 2004. Prior to that date, blog posts were handled inconsistently, and for that reason the pre-2005 archives pages are something of a mess. Furthermore, my blogging prior to June 1, 2004 was often sporadic in terms of frequency.
This blog is distinguished in many ways from the rest of the "blogosphere." My blog entries cover a rigidly defined set of topics, with varying degrees of intensity according to how much is going on in each area, and how much time I have. Being somewhat of a "do-it-yourselfer," I chose a "home-made" approach rather than conforming to the common blogging systems such as Blogger or WordPress. The blog entries and archives are arranged in a sort of "proprietary" scheme that I have gradually developed over time. Finally, being an old-fashioned, soft-spoken kind of guy, I avoid attention-grabbing sensationalism and strident rhetoric, and strive instead to maintain a reasonable, dignified, respectful tone.
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