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December 2016
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December 3, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Congressional elections in Virginia: RIGGED!!?

As I was checking the final vote totals for the congressional races in Virginia, so as to prepare the map below, I noticed something ver-r-ry interesting: the party that won a large majority of the races (seven out of eleven) actually received fewer total votes than the other party! "But how can that be?" you ask. Welcome to the wonderful world of gerrymandering! That's the game where the status quo Powers-That-Be contrive the electoral contests in such a way as to guarantee a disproportionate number of victories. In Las Vegas, stacking the deck like this would put you behind bars, or get you run out of town at the very least. But in most of the U.S.A. it's just "politics as usual."

Let's look at the numbers. As seen in the table below, the Republicans won 1,843,010 total votes in Virginia (48.74%), while the Democrats won 1,859,426 total votes (49.17%). The Republicans' average margin of victory was 22.51%, while the Democrats' average margin of victory was a whopping 41.55%. In other words, many of the Democrats' votes were "wasted" in races in which the Republicans had no real chance of winning. (In gerrymandering lingo, that's called "packing" districts with the opposing party's voters.) Is that fair? It depends who you ask. Usually, whichever party happens to be in control sees nothing at all wrong with such practices. Currently, the Republicans have a 21-19 edge in the Virginia Senate, and a huge 66-34 advantage in the House of Delegates. Back when the Democrats were the dominant party in Virginia (until the 1990s, more or less), they used gerrymandering tricks all the time.

If voter outrage over such electoral outcomes seems a bit muffled (especially compared to Donald Trump's victory, which -- though dismaying -- was 100% legitimate), there is a good reason for that: The state legislators want voters to feel helplessly detached from participating in self-government. It's probably true in many states, but especially so in Virginia, where a privileged political elite has ruled with very little accountability to the voters for most of the commonwealth's history. Over the years, Richmond politicians have created a self-perpetuating cycle of cynicism and apathy, and frankly there is no easy way out of that trap. Things could get messy. (Indeed, Trump's victory is a perfect example of what happens when the usually-docile and alienated masses are suddenly aroused.) Time will tell whether Virginia Democrats (who have won the past three presidential elections) will get themselves well enough organized at the local level to become competitive in the state legislature.

On July 12, I attended a meeting of OneVirginia 2021, a group that is dedicated to reforming the process of redistricting here in Virginia. It is worth pointing out, as discussed in that earlier post, that Federal courts imposed redrawn district lines earlier this year so as to make some of the districts less blatantly gerrymandered. Otherwise, the Republicans in Virginia would probably still have an 8-3 advantage in congressional seats, rather than a 7-4 advantage. I think it's safe to say that the results of the elections provide plenty of ammunition for those who argue that the current system is hopelessly distorted and unjust. Our state government is dangerously out of touch with the sentiments of the residents, and the negative consequences of that are likely to multiply as time passes. Just to be clear, notwithstanding my criticism of Republican leaders and their practices, I have no sympathies for the Democratic Party or its agenda. But in my view, those who adopt a cynical "whatever it takes to win" mentality are the scum of the earth.

The table below has updated official figures, and replaces the table which I posted on November 9:

District Republican Percent Democrat Percent
1 Wittman 59.86% Rowe 36.61%
2 Taylor * 61.33% Brown 38.46%
3 Williams 33.07% Scott 66.70%
4 Wade 42.04% McEachin * 57.73%
5 Garrett * 58.24% Dittmar 41.58%
6 Goodlatte 66.63% Degner 33.15%
7 Brat 57.51% Bedell 42.24%
8 Hernick 27.28% Beyer 68.39%
9 Griffith 68.59% Kitts 28.32%
10 Comstock 52.69% Bennett 46.92%
11 (write in) 12.12% Connolly 87.88%
TOTAL VOTES 1,843,010 48.74% 1,859,426 49.17%
TOTAL SEATS 7 63.63% 4 36.36%

* : new member; incumbents underlined; name of winner in bold face.
79,132 votes were cast for other candidates, about 2% of the total 3,781,568 votes cast.
SOURCE: / State Board of Elections

Virginia Congress 2016

The Politics in Virginia page has been updated with that map and revised election figures. (The last major revision of that page was on Feburary 29, when I included the results of the 2015 statewide elections. As usual, almost all of the gerrymander-cushioned Virginia legislators were reelected.) Soon to come: a map showing the presidential election results for each county and city in Virginia.

House Dems keep Pelosi

On Wednesday, the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives voted to keep Nancy Pelosi as Minority Leader, beating back a challenge by Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. As Chris Cillizza writes in the Washington Post, the fact that she now has an unbeatable position within her party is "a bad thing for Democrats." For the time being, they can be expected to continue courting a wide variety of minority groups and fringe causes, while ignoring Mainstream America -- especially the working class. Facing up to the reality of Donald Trump's improbable victory, and what it means, will not be easy for them.

And now for a fun trip down Memory Lane, back when she was Speaker of the House on the verge of a historic triumph with Obamacare: (watch on

But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can, uh, find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy."

Nancy Pelosi, March 9, 2010

December 4, 2016 [LINK / comment]

American Wigeon in Waynesboro

Thanks to a tip from fellow Augusta Bird Club member Stan Heatwole, on Thursday I located an American Wigeon on the pond behind the Target shopping center on the south edge of Waynesboro. It was the first one I've seen this season, and even though it was in the shade I was able to get a decent photograph of it. I took a better photo of that species in the same place a year or two earlier. There were about 20 Canada Geese there as well, plus a few Mallards, and a male House Finch in a spruce tree very close to my car.

American Wigeon

American Wigeon, in Waynesboro, December 1.

Around 2:30 this afternoon, I made a quick visit to Bell's Lane, even though it was very chilly and the skies were overcast. I noticed on the chalkboard at the kiosk that a Fox Sparrow had been sighted there, which was exciting news. (I later learned it was seen by Penny Warren.) I looked in vain for it, but nevertheless had some success in photographing a Brown Creeper and several White-crowned Sparrows. I also saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in the distance. No sign of the Northern Harrier, unfortunately, but I later saw an e-mail from Allen Larner indicating that not only was the Harrier present later in the afternoon, but two Short-eared Owls as well!

After I returned home I went out back to fill the bird feeder, and heard a Northern Flicker call from a tree top. I was delighted when it flew down to feed on berries in the vines, and managed to get some nice closeup photos. That photo and a few others taken this month can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.

December 19, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Christmas Bird Count 2016

On Saturday, December 12, I spent several hours helping with the Augusta Bird Club's Christmas Bird Count. (There is a separate Christmas Bird Count for the Waynesboro area, usually in early January.) In recent years I have been far too busy with grading exams, etc. to spend more than a couple hours on this effort. This year I was joined by two relatively new members of the club, Joe Thompson and Kathy Belcher, and we covered five areas in Staunton:

There was light freezing rain as the sun rose, so we postponed our rendevous time until after 10:00. I began [solo] along Bell's Lane around 9:00, after taking a detour of over a mile because of ice-induced traffic accidents. I saw three cars that had skidded off the road! Within a few minutes of my arrival, I had a nice closeup view of a Red-tailed Hawk, which stayed put as I slowly approached in my car, enabling me to get some good photos. Most of the usual birds were there, with Cardinals being especially prominent. The only really noteworthy bird there was an American Kestrel. Along the entrance road to the Frontier Culture Museum, we saw a nice mixture of birds plus a flock of Mallards on the pond there. None of the hoped-for Yellow-rumped Warblers, however. (We didn't see any all day, in fact.) Next we went to Betsy Bell Hill, and saw a few of the expected woodland birds. I was somewhat surprised to see Bluebirds and Juncos in the woods. Our next stop was Montgomery Hall Park, where we saw many Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and several other species. I finally heard a single Golden-crowned Kinglet, but never did see it; [the virtual absence of that species] was a bit of a surprise. After a lunch break we went to Thornrose Cemetery, but hardly saw anything there. At nearby Gypsy Hill Park we saw the expected large numbers of Canada Geese and Mallards, plus assorted semi-domesticated waterfowl. At the small pond there I spotted one of the biggest finds of the day: a male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker! Eventually it came close enough for me to get a good photo.

That concluded our regular count activities, but I still had to get back to Bell's Lane again, hoping to spot either a Northern Harrier or a Short-eared Owl at dusk. I arrived at about 4:30, just before sunset, and saw a large flock of Canada Geese that had not been there in the morning. The ponds were still frozen, however, so no waterfowl were present there. After 15 or so minutes I spotted the Northern Harrier that has been active there for the past month or so. That was a big relief! I met a guy from Farmville named Julian who was looking for the Short-eared Owls, so I led him to the place, where Allen Larner and Gabriel Mapel were standing vigil. I was about ready to give up, but just then Julian spotted the owls. I tried my best to get photos, but because of the dim light, they were all blurry. Including those two late-afternoon raptors, I counted 36 species altogether. It was not a terribly impressive number, but overall the results were satisfactory.

Montage 17 Dec 2016

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Kestrel (M), Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (M), Red-tailed Hawk, Short-eared Owl, Red-bellied Woodpecker (M), Northern Cardinal (M), American Robin, Northern Harrier (F/J), Mallard (M). (December 17) Other photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.

Augusta Bird Club Christmas Bird Count
Staunton, Virginia, US
Andrew Clem
(Based on six separate reports I submitted to eBird (the last of which was for Gypsy Hill Park), and then combined into a single spreadsheet.)

The upside of the unstable weather conditions was that we had a nice view of a rainbow in the morning:

DeJarnette Center, rainbow

Rainbow over the DeJarnette Center, from the entrance road to the Frontier Culture Museum, on the east side of Staunton. That was one of the six locations in Staunton we covered for the CBC that day. Click on the image to see it larger-sized. (December 17)

Other bird sightings

Other than the Short-eared Owls, there haven't been any spectacular bird sightings in this area this month. I was a bit disappointed that three birds that I had seen along Bell's Lane in the previous week were not there for the Christmas Bird Count on Saturday: Great Blue Heron (Dec. 5), Eastern Phoebe (Dec. 5), and Hooded Merganser (Dec. 8). Phoebes are rarely seen in this area during winter months.

Montage 9 Dec 2016

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Great Blue Heron, Northern Harrier (F/J), Red-tailed Hawk, American Robin, Red-bellied Woodpecker (M), Hooded Merganser (M), Hairy Woodpecker (M), Eastern Phoebe. (December 5, 8, and 9)

[NOTE: I had scheduled a field trip to Lake Moomaw for Saturday, December 10, but had to cancel it because of freezing temperatures. We hope to try again on January 7. Also, on Monday, December 12 the Augusta Bird Club had a very successful dinner to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding in 1966. I will post several photos from that event on the club's website soon, and will have a separate blog post about my musical performance that evening. smile]

December 26, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Life bird: Snow Bunting!

Thanks to e-mail alerts from Baxter Beamer and Gabriel Mapel, two young birders in our area, I was able to see a Snow Bunting today: my 463rd life bird! This species breeds in far northern Canada and only rarely ventures this far south during the winter months. In spite of the gloomy skies, early this afternoon I drove up to the designated location, a couple miles northeast of New Hope. While en route, I saw an American Kestrel but failed to get a photo. Soon after arriving (at the intersection of Strickley Road and Custard Lane), I heard some odd peeps up above. Eventually I saw a large flock of Horned Larks that kept moving around the pasture in sudden "bursts" whenever the cows approached. There must have been at least 50 of the latter, and some of them flew right overhead, quite close by. I did not see the Lapland Longspur that was also reported there, however.

A couple miles south of there, I spotted at least 20 American Pipits in an adjacent field. While on that road (Route 865) on the way to Waynesboro, I also saw an immature Bald Eagle, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Red-shouldered Hawk which was oddly perched on the ground before it flew up into a tree. Once in Waynesboro I headed to the Invista Pond, where I spotted a Horned Grebe; it was the very same place where I had seen one in March 2015, in a transitional molt to breeding plumage. There were also three American Coots and a Belted Kingfisher. Quite a big day after Christmas!

Montage 26 Dec 2016

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Pipit, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Horned Grebe. Roll your mouse over the image to see a the front side of the Snow Bunting. Other larger-sized photos can be seen on the Wild Birds yearly photo gallery page.

My Life bird list page has been duly updated. I only saw two new species this year.

December 28, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Holiday spirit: Amped & ready to go

It was another big month for me music-wise, but ironically there were only three "open mic" nights at Queen City Brewing. (The scheduled December 7 event was cancelled due to a furnace breakdown.) The really big event for me, however, was on December 12.

You might say that Santa Claus came early this year for me. In preparation for performing at the Augusta Bird Club 50th anniversary dinner (see below), I made a long-deferred purchase of a public address amplifier system. Ironically, I had bought a microphone and stand in the late 1980s when I was getting semi-serious about music, but never had an amp. Not satisfied with the choices available locally, I went up to Hometown Music in Harrisonburg [see website], and bought a Fender Passport Conference P.A. system. ("Conference" is the low end of that product line; there are two more expensive models.) It has two speakers that conveniently fit with the central amplifier unit, and looks like a suitcase. It's heavy but definitely portable. With 175 watts of output power, it seems ideal for my purposes, enabling me to play in a small venue either solo or with another musician.

Fender Passport amplifier, speakers

Fender Passport Conference amplifier and speakers.

ABC 50th year dinner

On December 12, 2016 I provided musical entertainment at the Augusta Bird Club's 50th anniversary dinner, at which about 50 people attended, including the mayor of Staunton, Carolyn Dull. I played five songs (or parts thereof), four of which are marked with asterisks in the open mic list for December 14, when I played them again (in full). On the first song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," I changed "West Virginia" to "Augusta County," and "Shenandoah River" to "Shenandoah Valley." (I introduced that song by saying it was by a guy named Henry Deutschendorf, asking if anyone knew what his common name was. I was very impressed that Mayor Carolyn Dull was the first to give the correct answer: John Denver!) The next four songs were all abbreviated, comprising what I called a "Bird Song Medley," in which each song title was changed to that of a bird species, along with a few altered lyrics where appropriate. It was an attempt at "insider" humor on my part, and most people seemed to get the joke.

ABC 50th anniversary dinner - Andrew Clem, Stark & Jean Smith, Emily & Tom Britt

Yours truly, performing at the Augusta Bird Club's 50th anniversary dinner on December 12. (Photo taken by Jacqueline.) Click on the smiley face below to see the four birds (Kentucky Warbler, American Wigeon, Cinnamon Teal, and Mississippi Kite) about which I sang.

smile / bird song medley montage

Open mic events

I played four of those five songs on [the Staunton Music Guild's] open mic night two days later, the exception being "Mississippi Queen" by the group Mountain. (It's hard rock, not well suited for acoustic guitar.) Not many people were there that evening, so I figured I could take a bit more risk than usual, and played The Beatles' "And I Love Her." It involves some quick chord changes, and I pulled it off pretty well. Then on the next song, I totally blew the intro bass lines of "One of These Nights," and even had to start over, but the rest of the song went OK. The final two songs were tributes to rock musicians who died this year: Glenn Frey in January and both Keith Emerson (March) and Greg Lake (December 7). I was very pleased by how ELP's "From the Beginning" sounded.

On December 21, there was a pretty good turnout (about 15-20 people) but only two musicians besides Fritz Horisk (the open mic host): Diane Bryer and me. As a result, each of us got to do several extra songs, eight altogether. Since Fritz had been playing Christmas songs since the week before, I figured I ought to get into the spirit of the season, so I learned the Eagles' Yuletide classic song "Please Come Home For Christmas." Despite being a new song for me, it went pretty well. I thought I did very well on "Sweet Caroline," but didn't seem to get much audience reaction. As in the week before, some of the songs were tributes to rock musicians who passed away this year. I used the harmonica in place of the lead guitar on "Peaceful Easy Feeling," and that went very well. David Bowie's "Space Oddity" also sounded good.

Tonight, December 28, the crowd was rather thin, no more than ten or so. Besides me (and the host, Fritz), there were two other musicians, one of whom (Perry) has played there quite a few times and has a repertoire that is somewhat similar to mine. I started with a country music classic ("I Walk the Line"), but unfortunately muffed some of the lyrics. The guitar part sounded good at least; that song is a rare example of having several "modulations," when the key changes in the middle of the song. I used the harmonica on the next two songs, including one by Jim Croce, who died when I was in high school. As I told the folks, I clearly remember what a shock that was. Most people there seemed to agree that the biggest shock of their lifetimes (in terms of rock musicians dying suddenly) was when John Lennon was murdered. I really nailed "Certain Kind of Fool," which has a neat-sounding intro and a soaring lead guitar part, and did pretty well on the difficult song "Spirit" (which I mistakenly called "Journey") as well.

End-of-year wrap-up

With the year 2016 all but over, I decided to calculate how many songs I have done at the open mic events this year. The result: 83! That doesn't count the songs I did at the Augusta Bird Club dinner, since I played them again a few days later at the open mic night. It is worth pointing out that I have not played any song at those open mic events more than once. (That's probably why it's getting hard for me to memorize all the lyrics to those songs: my repertoire is getting too big!) Next year I will start playing songs that I have done previously. My total was boosted considerably by the three evenings in December when fewer performers showed up, giving those of us who did show up more time to play. I did 23 songs in December alone! The Music page has been updated accordingly. Whew!

December 31, 2016 [LINK / comment]

Another BIG year of bird photography

As the otherwise mostly awful year of 2016 comes to a close, I thought it would be fitting to present the highlights of the year in birding, more specifically, bird photography. So I reviewed my wild bird blog posts for the year, and tried to pick out the very best photos from each one. It was such a good year for me, bird-wise, that even after weeding out the not-so-great photos, I was still left with 21 photos, plus montages. I was so busy teaching at Sweet Briar College last year that I didn't have time to post a summary of my autumn 2015 birding until February 6 of this year. I have had much more free time since May, and I made the most of it.

Today, the final day of 2016, I went back to Strickley Road northeast of New Hope, in hopes of getting a better photo of the Snow Bunting, which I first saw five days ago. It wasn't there, unfortunately, but thanks to two birders from Rockingham County (Greg Moyers and Diane Lepkowski), I saw another very special bird instead: a Merlin! It is displayed as the very last entry below.

February 20, 2016: Life bird: Virginia Rail!

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail, on Bell's Lane, February 20. NOTE: This photo appeared in the June/July annual photography issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine.

March 26, 2016: Field trip to Chimney Hollow


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Pine Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (male), Blue-headed Vireo, Brown Creeper (rotated to fit), and Red-breasted Nuthatch, in Chimney Hollow, March 26.

April 30, 2016: Migration season reaches peak

Virginia Rail

Cape May Warbler (male), at Cook's Creek Arboretum, in Bridgewater, April 30.

May 7, 2016: More migrants visit Bell's Lane

Virginia Rail

White-eyed Vireo, on Bell's Lane, May 2.

May 21, 2016: ABC field trip to Reddish Knob


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Ruffed Grouse, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Red Crossbill, and in center, American Redstart. (Roll mouse over to see the juvenile Ruffed Grouse.)

June 7, 2016: ABC field trip to Highland County

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler, on Sapling Ridge, Highland County, June 4, 2016.

June 9, 2016: FOD Prothonotary Warblers!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler, at the Dutch Gap conservation area near Richmond, June 8.

July 1, 2016: Birding in Huntley "Meadows"


CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Osprey, Common Yellowthroat, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Great Egret, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron. .

July 3, 2016: Kentucky Warblers, and more!

Kentucky Warbler

Kentucky Warbler, Hightop Mountain trail head, Shenandoah National Park, July 2.

July 8, 2016: Soras breeding in the Valley!


Sora, Nazarene Church Road wetlands, Rockingham County, July 8. (Roll mouse over to see one of the juveniles.)

August 10, 2016: White Ibis in Bridgewater

White Ibis, on the North River in Bridgewater, August 10.

August 19, 2016: Mississippi Kite in Staunton

Mississippi Kite

Mississippi Kite (juvenile), in the north part of Staunton, August 19.

August 27, 2016: Common Gallinule at Willow Lake

Common Gallinule

Common Gallinule, at Willow Lake, August 27.

September 14, 2016: Field trip to McCormick's Farm.


Philadelphia Vireo, McCormick's Farm, September 14.

NOTE: A question was raised about the species identification, since Philadelphia Vireos are similar to Warbling Vireos, which are known to breed in that location. Fortunately, this photo confirms all of the distinguishing field marks from

September 27, 2016: Lucky! 13 warblers on Betsy Bell Hill


CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Scarlet Tanager (F), Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler (M), Hooded Warbler (M), Tennessee Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak (F), Yellow Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler (M), Black-throated Blue Warblers (F & M), and in center, Nashville Warbler.

September 29, 2016: American Golden Plovers!

American Golden Plovers

American Golden Plovers, at the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction in Rockingham County, September 29.

October 5, 2016 Shenandoah National Park birding (II)


American Pipit, at Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, October 4.

October 30, 2016: Sandhill Cranes still lingering

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane, north of Fishersville, October 26.

November 4, 2016: New month arrives, & new birds too

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, with an aphid in its beak, in Staunton, November 4.

December 26, 2016 Life bird: Snow Bunting!

Montage Dec 31

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, American Pipit, Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Horned Grebe.* (Roll mouse over to see a closeup of the Horned Lark and Snow Bunting.)
* All birds were northeast or southeast of New Hope, except for the one marked with an asterisk, which was in Waynesboro.

December 31, 2016 Another BIG year of bird photography

Montage Dec 31

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: American Kestrel, Merlin, Belted Kingfisher (F)*, Eastern Bluebird (M), Great Blue Heron*, American Coot*, and in center, Hooded Merganser (M)*. (Roll mouse over to see a closeup of the Merlin.)
* The raptors and Bluebird were northeast of New Hope; birds marked with asterisks were in Waynesboro.

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