Spontaneous Generation of Toads (and ‘Skeeters)

All you need is dirt and a generous amount of water. Apply water to dirt. Let sit 24 hours. You will get toads. Wait another 24 hours and the first mosquito will whine its way to your door. Meanwhile, the earth has turned green, the grass suddenly looks lush, and all those weeds you thought you’d gotten rid of? Think again.

RedQuarters has gotten over ten inches of rain (26 cm) in the month of May. This is half the annual average rainfall – 20″ or 60 cm, give or take. Because the house is built on a ridge, we have stayed dry. There is a lot of green space in this part of town so a goodly portion of the rain is absorbed, or is slowed by trees and bushes. The built-up areas nearby still flood, and the bottom of the lake nearby also collects water. That’s what lakes and lowlands do, no matter what you think you can build there. In this case, the city decided to make a quasi virtue of a necessity and deepened the lake, as they have done with several others.

The rainwater (“pluvial”) lake on the way to St. Angus in the Grass School is filling very nicely. Last week I heard toads for the first time in a few years. The playa had been 99% dry, with that remaining one percent mostly mud, as best as I could tell through binoculars. The land is still private, and I don’t trespass without permission. Now, there’s enough standing water in the core that you can see reflections in it. The various rings of plants have begun to come back to life. Open water in the middle, then sedges and cattails that like wet feet appear. Slightly farther up the slope are arrowhead plants (named for the shape of the leaves), then other forbs and grasses that need good moisture (taller grasses, western wheat grass), then the gramas and buffalo grass. This should also drown out the cactus that had begun creeping in.

It only took 36 hours from the lake starting to fill to hearing the “singing” of the toads. They are relatively small and brown, larger than the spring peepers of the upper Midwest. With the toads come insects, mosquitoes (boo, hiss) followed by dragon flies. The birds have also been busy. I suspect the snakes have moved away from buildings and out to where the mice and birds and toads are. The meadowlarks are also scattering out, now that there’s more food. A large hawk or two patrols the area. Western flycatchers and swallows have divided up the intersections in the area, extending the moth season into “anything else” season.

In fact, when I went back to work last week in the afternoon for chapel, I heard a commotion. Meadowlarks were mobbing something in a tree near the middle school. First. I’d never seen meadowlarks mob before. Second, well, if they’d treed one of the students, the kid probably deserved it. Just as I crossed the parking area, the tree shook and a Cooper’s hawk erupted from the leaves, with a smaller bird pecking on his head! I was impressed.

The past three weeks have been glorious for ranchers, and for people who were irrigating wheat. Some dryland wheat and other grains have perked up and will make it. It was too late for other places. But now the farmers need the rain to stop so they can plant, and for the weather to get warm so the corn can start to mature. Truly unfortunate places got scythed by 2.5-3″ hail. All you can do is either turn some livestock out to feed on what’s left, or plow it in as green manure and try again with something like sorghum. Several towns have had high-water problems, and Tucumcari, NM completely lost power because of flooding and giant hail that took out a main transmission line. Hereford, TX got seven inches of rain in a few hours upstream of town. Almost 90 houses had water in them, and a US highway had to be closed because of water over the road. What’s good for the land isn’t always so good for the people on the land.

No one is complaining too much yet. I don’t think anyone dares. We needed this, so desperately needed it. El Niño has returned, with all the good things and bad things it can bring. For now, everyone’s just being thankful for the rain. I hear the singing of the toads, the bragging of the meadowlarks and smile. The air is full of green-ness, sweet and clean. ” … as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds; as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain,” As King David put it (Second Samuel 23: 4).

“And it was very good.”


Book Review: The Great Transition

Campbell, Bruce M. S. The Great Transition: Climate, Disease, and Society in the Late Medieval World. (Cambridge University Press, 2016.) Kindle Edition

Everyone knows that Europe, and parts of the rest of the world, went to H-ll in a handbasket in the 1300s, and didn’t really regain its footing until the Renaissance. Why? The Black Death. Oh, and the Hundred Years War. Then we added “lousy weather.” It turns out that a whole lot of things were going wrong for Western Civilization, and the Black Death was the final straw.

Bruce Campbell brings together climatology, commercial and economic history, diplomatic history, genetics, and epidemiology to explain why the 1100s-1200s in some ways set up the economic and population stress that were already in place before 1300. The Great European Famine, then the waves of the Black Death, were only the most visible part of the depression in progress. He makes a compelling case for looking back to the late 1200s for the start of the “Terrible Fourteenth Century.” Worse, the stagnant population and economy that followed the Black Death lasted until almost 1500.

Historians have done a lot of work on the Black Death, and on the Hundred Years war between the French and English monarchs. In the 20th century, environmental historians began studying the climate downturn that began in the 1300s and didn’t really end until 1850 or so. As it turns out, the bad weather all over the northern hemisphere played a role in the eruption of a new strain of Yrsenia Pestis and its transmission west. That part might be familiar to readers, although Campbell goes into the genetics of Y. pestis to confirm that indeed, the Black Death was that very bug and not something else.

However, much of the book looks at the economic and demographic conditions of Western Europe (England, the Low Countries, northern Italy). The population was growing thanks to a combination of new technologies, a stable weather pattern that lasted for several centuries, and the greater ease of trade which allowed for moving food-stuffs as well as goods. The open routes east (relatively open) enhanced access to luxury goods, but also turned into a siphon for European silver and gold. If that silver ever ran low, or the trade routes became choked by changes in the Islamic world, trouble might begin. This was the era of the Champaign Fairs, the birth of banking, and increasing stress on the population as subdividing land reached its limits. People pushed into marginal areas, growing mostly grains. Land was scarce, labor very cheap, and nutrition starting to decline.

By 1300, Campbell argues, the system was at a tipping point. Silver had gotten very scarce and even re-opening mines didn’t help. Too many people needed land. Several nobles and the king of France ended the agreements to protect merchants going to the great fairs, and trade began to slow. The loss of the Crusader kingdoms in the Levant and the rise of the Ottomans strangled Italian trade with Asia. Only silver could make up the currency for Asia, and silver had become scarce, depressing trade even farther. And then the weather went bad. Three wet years badly hurt western European grain output. Next came a cattle and sheep disease that eliminated up to 70% of the livestock. The females that survived were less fertile. Without cattle, there was no traction for plowing or heavy transport. Without sheep, no wool for clothing. Famine swept Europe. The Wars of Edward I, II, and III didn’t help England or Scotland. Or France and the Low Countries. And we all know what happened in 1346-52. The second wave of the Black Death, a decade after the first one, killed many of the children born in the interval, as well as killing people who had escaped the first round. Stormy, unpredictable weather continued for the rest of the century. Trade grew more difficult, and only the Low Countries seemed able to do more than just hang in there.

Campbell’s use of economic records is solid. It’s some of the best work I’ve read in quite a while, and he is careful to show what we can’t know as well as what we can infer. I admit, I skimmed some of the genetics of Y. pestis, because he’s preaching to the choir in my case. It is a useful antidote to some of the odder theories about the Black Death. What I really liked was his pulling together so many different disciplines to give a much more complete picture of the 1200s-1500. I’d never thought about how the European diet changed after the Black Death. It was colder, with fewer people, so grain was less important than wool (for more layers of clothing). Sheep became more important, and meat took up a larger percentage of the European diet. The population didn’t grow again until the late 1400s, when the Black Death really faded out, so people earned more and opted to work less. Urban areas grew more slowly, forcing industry to become more rural. The “green and pleasant land” of small English cities and rural-centered life was actually a result of the Black Death and all that surrounded it, not England just being England.

I recommend this book to historians of the Middle Ages, economic historians, and people with a little knowledge of the period who want more. It’s not a straight narrative history like A Distant Mirror but it’s not statistics and documents like Ole Benedictow, The Black Death.

FTC Disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own money for my own use, and received no remuneration fronm the author or publisher for this review.

Garden Adventures

As of Friday morning, RedQuarters has gotten over six inches of rain in the month of May. That puts us over the yearly average (Jan-May), and suggests that the long-awaited El Niño is at last arriving. Rain is great for the plants, better than sprinkler water, in part because it falls more evenly, and in part because it doesn’t have all the minerals that city-water brings with it. The roses have really hit their stride, in part because of the cooler weather. Instead of the low 100s like last year, we’re back in the 50s-60s. And wet. On Friday morning, after a 2.5″ overnight rain, I could see water in the playa lake on the way to Day Job, and heard the frogs (toads) singing for the first time in two years.

And saw a mosquito. Alas.

At long last, Firesprite has finally settled in. I’ve been watching this rose for over five years, and this is the first time it’s bloomed like this.

One of the Knockout™ roses. They are almost Alma proof, except for the yellow ones. No yellow rose really likes RedQuarters.

None of us can remember what the sprawling red rose in the foreground is. Gertrude Jekyll™ is the one in the back. That central cane is eight feet tall. So are some of the side canes. You don’t want to be around that plant in a high wind. Trust me. We have three of them, all over twenty years old and still going strong.

Gertrude is from David Austin Roses. They have a terribly dangerous catalogue. Dangerous because it tempts you to buy things that might not do well in your area, despite the official zone. Hybrid teas, for instance, do not do well in the Panhandle. Anything grafted is also a potential problem, at least at RedQuarters. The rose place in Tyler, Texas is safer for us, sometimes. And there’s the occasional, “It looked good at the nursery, so let’s give it a try.” Some of those have been great. Others? Nope. And at $35-50 per plant, the experiments are getting a wee bit too spendy (as they say in the Midwest.)

Why we put up with being attacked by Gertrude Jekyll™. The flowers have a magnificent scent, and are so beautiful. And did I mention that once established, the plants are hardy?

The snails have not emerged yet. Once they do, DadRed and I will spend up to half an hour every morning tossing them into the street or the alley. Nothing eats them, alas. They are toxic. We do use slug/snail bait, but some always manage to avoid the stuff.

Tatters of Storms Past

The “broom” swept through around midnight or just after. Storms had been forming west of town, but traveled due north. I sort of waved at them and grumbled. The forecasters had done it again: the higher percentage chance of rain the father out from the event, the less likely I’ll see a drop hit the ground. 70% chance next Tuesday? Forget it. Thirty percent chance tomorrow? Maybe. The storms were forming just north (as in three-four miles) of my position. Murphy struck again.

When I came out of rehearsal that night, what looked like rain showers appeared in the ruby-red light of the setting sun, far to the west. Thick white anvil clouds spread overhead, nicely blocking most of the sun so I wasn’t squinting as I went home. The wind remained water rich and strong, keeping the evening warm. Maybe something might happen. Or maybe not. I unplugged my computers, just in case.

At 0047 all Dade County broke loose overhead. Purple lightning, rain that overflowed the gutters and filled the street, thunder that shook the house, wind that sent the trees sweeping and bowing …. The unmistakable signs of a hard-core thunderstorm. I didn’t bother getting up to investigate. Once the thunder quieted a little, I went back to sleep, with the cat curled up beside me. She was pretty insistent. The purple flashes bugged her, as did the pressure change.

Shreds and tatters of cloud hugged the plains the next morning as I went to work. The higher sky, pale blue, seemed clear. The waning moon appeared between patches of grey, fading then reappearing. Close to the ground, almost touchable wisps and rags left from the storm hurried north, intent on catching up with their larger siblings. Above them, smooth-edged clumps of blue-grey-purple traveled with slower dignity north and west. The rain had chilled the ground too much for mist. To the east, the now-distant storm line masked the rising sun. The lower spindrift caught bits of light, pink for an instant then gold then blending back into the twilit sky once more.

Between half and one point five inches of rain had fallen overnight. The morning wind blew clean in a way I’d not smelled for months. It was a good morning.

Oh dear, it’s miller (moth) time

A classic from 2015. We are having another “good” year for millers. Alas.

“Mrrrow!” Magazines slide off the end table, followed by the globe. “Mowww!” Gigancat bounds across the back of the sofa, leaps and misses the moth but does manage to knock a Navajo rug askew. He stops, relocates his target, and manages a standing jump of almost five feet. And misses. The moth, oblivious to the furious battle cries and chaos unfolding below, circles on of the living room pot lights, casting flickering shadows that further infuriate the enormous red tabby. It’s miller time at Redquarters.

Gigancat's Nemesis - a dusty miller (moth). http://www.bugsandweeds.co.uk/Moths/miller.jpg

Gigancat’s Nemesis – a dusty miller (moth). http://www.bugsandweeds.co.uk/Moths/miller.jpg

Continue reading

The Hawks are Back!

OK, spring is official. The Mississippi kites have returned to RedQuarters. On Monday evening over 40 of them were circling, then dispersing to find trees and roosts for the evening. It’s the first I’ve seen of them this year, and it is earlier than last year. Oh, and the first buzzards have also arrived. They are met with less rejoicing by the people who live under them.

The Mississippi kites usually arrive between May 1 and May 20. When varies from year to year, depending on temperature, insect availability, moisture, and who-knows-what. Unlike a lot of raptors, they are somewhat gregarious, meaning that they hang out together and travel as a group. No, they are not more social. More anti-social in fact, if they have a nest in the area. I’ve been buzzed twice and thumped once. Happily, the latter was 1) with fisted talons, 2) on top of a lightly padded hat. They will claw you up pretty badly if you get too close to their nests.

They eat bugs, and around here start with the miller moths, then shift to the locusts. They generally depart in early to mid August, after the chicks are ready to migrate.

Source: https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/mississippi-kite. I’m amused that the site says their calls are rarely heard, because we hear them frequently. Also, I’ve seen their pre-mating fights, with the males in a talon-to-talon clench. They’re fierce. The one above is a male.

Source: https://www.galveston.com/whattodo/outdoorfun/birding/bird-species-galveston/mississippi-kite/

As with most raptors, the female (duller colored) is larger than the male. I tend to see the males more often, since they are out and about when I am. Plus they’re more distinctive. Since the kites eat bugs, they and our local sharp-shinned hawks get along fine. The owl, when he’s around, is here in winter, after the kites have departed.

Stormy Spring Skies

At last, RedQuarters has been graced with spring weather. Since November, we’ve alternated between winter and summer, with a constant refrain of “dry.” Now, a neutral to El Nino pattern has begun, at least for now, and we are getting increased moisture, leading to rain showers and a few old-fashioned severe thunderstorms. In other words, spring.

Last week, storms had begun massing south and west of RedQuarters, moving northeast. Perhaps. Things on the radar are not always what they seem, and we’ve had a lot of rain that never made it closer than a thousand feet above the ground. I’d finished my work, the storms were well away, and the temperature was about right. I went for a walk after spending far too much time on my duff.

Blue-grey clouds formed a shield to the south and west, slowly lowering and flowing north. The wind came from the north, pulled into the storms, cool but not dry for once. The clouds didn’t ripple much, nor did I see the mamalations that warn of hail and other things in the offing. Higher clouds veiled the skies to the east and north. Birds chirped, and a number of small children and their parents made use of the park. A solitary jogger puffed along, intent on mileage. I dodged him and strolled on.

After a mile or so, I turned back, intending to take the indirect route back to RedQuarters. The sky darkened as the lower clouds grumbled closer and closer. The wind had begun to shift, easing from northwest to more westerly. Had outflow started? The air did feel more moist, or was I imagining things? At a certain point hope can overcome observation, and this might have been one of those times. I didn’t smell rain on the wind yet. I didn’t smell dirt, either, which was a nice change. I’m getting irked by the dust all over. Not this afternoon. Several birds winged their way to and fro, slightly lower than before. Hmmmm.

As I started turning toward RedQuarters, two blocks from home, something pattered onto my hat. A dot appeared on the pale cream sidewalk, then another. The wind freshened, growing stronger and cooler. I could smell moisture. More spitters pattered onto my portable roof. To the north, ice veils continued to dim the sun. Overhead, dark blue and grey, with shreds of lower scud clouds warning that the dew point had risen and condensation points lowered. Spitters became proper drops, and I wasted no time getting back into the house. A faint grumble muttered down from above, distant but menacing still.

That Cinnamon Smell

Actually, it was yesterday. The Bent Willow Fire started on Tuesday afternoon, when winds gusted to 70 MPH and the dewpoint was 0 F. The post is from 2015, but it’s still true.

I came out of the school last week, took a deep breath, and froze. A sweet, rich, almost cloying cinnamon and musk smell filled the air. Without realizing it I pivoted into the wind, searching for white smoke. Yep, you guessed it. I smelled a grass fire. Continue reading

It Takes Moisture to Make Moisture

That’s the worst part of a drought, aside from the grinding duration. You know that you have to have rain to get rain, and without more moisture, nothing will happen.

A quick review of rainmaking in this part of the world might be in order. We don’t have any large bodies of water to contribute moisture to the atmosphere, so it has to come up from the Gulf or over from the Pacific and Gulf of Baja. The winds bring it up the plains or over the mountains, giving us humidity. That, combined with lifting from local heat (summer popcorn showers) or a cold front or low pressure system (regional rains or giganormous thunderstorm outbreaks), causes the moisture to rise, condense, and fall back down as rain or snow. If the low-level air is too dry, the rain evaporates before it can reach the ground. We call that virga. It looks like nice rain on the radar. The radar lies.

Once the air and ground start getting dry, local evaporation fades out. There’s nothing to evaporate, so the low-level humidity gets lower and lower. Without humidity, you can have lots of lift (thermals, dust-devils) but nothing to condense into clouds. Or you get mid-level moisture, where the rain falls and evaporates before reaching the ground. That is exceedingly frustrating to watch. The rain’s falling, and stopping a thousand feet above the withering grasses and cracked ground. Almost as frustrating is when there’s low-level humidity, but high pressure settles in over the area. The hi has sinking air, and that flattens out any thermals or other lift. So again, the moisture doesn’t go up to cool and condense. High pressure is hot (or arctic cold), sticky, and calm. So wind turbines are also useless. The world sits and bakes.

Droughty weather wears on the people and the land. There’s nothing you can do, no clouds to seed. The water holes slowly dry and the ground cracks. Plants wither, cattle and sheep shrink and pant in the heat. Or they nibble the dry, dead grasses and loiter near water, eating the plants to the ground. People get snappish after long enough. Drought is depressing. Big storms hit and run, leaving people with a mess to clean up. Drought just grinds you down day after week after month after year. The dust is a gritty icing on a bitter cake.

Without humidity and moisture on the ground, you can’t do much. It takes a series of storms and a change in the weather pattern to start rain falling again. The rain wets the ground and the humidity goes up. More rain reaches the ground, and more, and more. Right now, perhaps, we are easing out of a drought that’s been lingering for three years now. We’re starting to get a few showers each week. Not all the area gets rain, and the dust is still moving, but it’s a long-hoped-for sign that low and mid-level moisture are returning, pumped in from the south and west. Perhaps, maybe, it might be the start of a wetter or just average phase, when we get heavy storms in spring and fall, showers in summer, and snow in winter.

It takes rain to make rain.

Hawks Dancing and Other Signs of Spring

I had a brain fog that needed to be cleared, so I glanced at some e-mails, then took a walk. A thick, medium overcast meant that I didn’t need more than the usual hat and long sleeves. As I started off down the block, I heard a loud but unusual bird call, and a dove flew down from the neighbor’s tree. Except doves don’t glide, then soar up like that. And they are not large and brown. And doves most certainly do not go “ka ka ka ka” when they call.

Sharp-shinned hawk. Probably female, based on the size of what crossed the road and settled with graceful ease onto a branch of the neighbor’s tree across the road. When I glanced back to look at it, it took to the air once more and joined a second hawk circling and turning against the grey overcast. I suspect we will have a little hawk soon, and fewer song birds and grackles. (Indeed, the next day a hawk was perched on the bird bath chanting, “here, dovie, dovie, dovie.”)

Some flowers have begun to bloom. Cool-season grasses are going strong, and brown lawns have turned more-or-less green. The roses are starting to put out new leaves, aside from the two that are deader than door-nails. Tulip buds are beginning to swell, and the daffodils and hyacinths are showing forth in purple and white. The wisterias, forsythias, and redbuds are still sleeping. They’ve been burned in the past. Do you move the leaves and other mulch so that the shoots can get sun and air, and to tidy up the place? or do you leave them for insulation, because the last freeze isn’t for three weeks?

Days grow longer. Two minutes per day, the sunrise eases back on the clock. Sunset delays more and more, encouraging after-supper strolls and park activities. The sunny patch in south-facing rooms grows smaller and smaller, to the frustration of Athena T. Cat, who wants her heater back right now. The sun in the morning makes driving due east a hazard, and indeed, we’ve had our annual “pedestrian in the morning dark” accident. Puffy white clouds and spring showers visit, replacing the high, milky skies of winter. It can still freeze, or snow, but the odds grow less and less. Orion has passed the zenith of the sky and has begun to stagger, driven into the western sea by the Scorpion.

I have mixed feelings. I don’t care for spring and summer as much as I do fall and winter. Yet this year, people seem more eager for spring than they were in the past. Is it the odd weather of winter that’s pushing them? It it the growing hope that perhaps we might ease out of the drought and this year will be better? The signs seem to indicate that La Niña is fading and a neutral to damp season might be in the offing. Is it a longing for new life and the promise of a better year? Or just the desire for something that’s different from the cold brown-ness that is winter on the High Plains?

All I do know is that it is spring, and the cat is shedding like a maniac. As usual. Both coats. All over me.