Sunday, March 29, 2009

Expanding the Chateau Papillon Bird List

In the past month and a half, we've been able to add several birds to the Chateau Papillon bird list, as well as visually confirm a few we'd only heard before (Beth saw a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers fly through the yard, for example).

We've had a couple of new sparrows show up at the feeders, including a Fox Sparrow and a Chipping Sparrow.  Also, an Eastern Phoebe has been calling out all day from the woods around the yard, so it's good to know they're in the neighborhood.  And, just today, a small flock of seven Cedar Waxwings made a brief stopover in the yard; hopefully, we'll see more of them later!

Unfortunately, we've also had a visit from a male House Sparrow; because of his appearance, we're not putting out any of the "cheap seed" that they prefer--though our primary feeding stations are black-oil sunflower, we had one with a mix of various millets and other small seeds which the juncos and other sparrows really love.

The recent sightings bring the Chateau Papillon bird list to 34 species and counting.  Just with expected species we haven't seen yet, we should hit 40 before long.

It's Poop! A Selection of Papillon Photos of Mr. Chancois Poopy-Pants

It's been a while since I've posted any photos of the dogs themselves (and not just as included subjects in wider photos), and as I've been sorting through a lot of photos--it's amazing how quickly they can accumulate!--I wanted to share a few photos of Chance aka Chancois aka Poop:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Moving the Renovations from Inside to Outside

With Spring just around the corner, Beth and I have started thinking about work on the yard around Chateau Papillon. Our home sits on around 1/3 of an acre--a pretty big lot for the near-in Washington suburbs, anyway--and is adjacent to a wooded county park, making it a much more natural setting than we might otherwise expect.

The back yard is pretty much a blank slate.  We've got several towering trees along the periphery which will give us some nice summer shade, but that's about it.  The rest of the yard is a bunch of moss and a bit of grass and little else.

We want to keep the yard mostly natural, rather than creating some kept, artificial suburban lawn, while still having a large area for the dogs to run and play.  Of course, we want some room for things like grilling out, our hammock, and such, too, as well as a vegetable garden, and some kind of pond (the latter taking advantage of the natural wetness of parts of the yard).

We began with a good survey of our lot, taking note of where the sun falls, how wet the soil is, the direction of prevailing winds, existing plants and their shade levels, etc., then moved on to several books in our library, primarily The Audubon Society Guide to Attracting Birds: Creating Natural Habitats for Properties Large and Small and Bird-by-Bird Gardening: The Ultimate Guide to Bringing in Your Favorite Birds--Year after Year, which we used to make a list of the sorts of plants we wanted to bring in.

Now, landscaping and gardening take mucho dinero, and recall that Beth was laid off (and is still job hunting, though she's also working on developing a petsitting business as backup).  That does limit some of what we can do, but given both our desires to "do it yourself" to begin with, our expenses are thus limited to materials.

We began with a trip to a Merrifield Garden Center, a good local resource with a location only three miles or so from Chateau Papillon.  After going over our lot's plot and some of our ideas, one of their garden advisers showed us several sale-priced dogwoods as suggested first plants: creating an understory to break up some of the "yardy" expanse.  We picked out five, and though we paid more than we would have at a big-box retailer even with the sale, we got much better trees and over an hour's free consultation.

So far, we've gotten several of the trees planted around out yard and are already thinking of the next steps.  Because of the bluebirds in our yard, we have to be careful to leave them an open area as well as not to plant any shrubs favored by pests like House Sparrows.  We want to terrace a side yard for vegetable gardening, but that means finding good but cheap stone to be delivered, which we're in the process of researching.

Getting out into the yard has been invigorating, and although I know getting the yard to the point we want it will take us several years (and not solely due to finances!), it's exciting to see things beginning to take shape.

In parting, here are three of the best books we've found so far in planning our yard's gardening:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bluebirds in the Back Yard

Well back in the fall when we first bought Chateau Papillon, we noticed an Eastern Bluebird poking around in the leaves along the edges of the back yard, which was quite an exciting discovery for us.  At our rental home in Vienna, we had a good list of back yard birds, but bluebirds were not among them.  So it was with great anticipation we awaited spring.

Bluebirds aren't typical back yard feeder visitors in the eastern United States, nor are they all that common in the yards of suburbia, period.  One reason is that bluebirds are (like several other species) cavity nesters, meaning they build their nests inside hollowed-out holes, typically in dead trees.  The problem is that bluebirds can't hollow out their own nest cavities, unlike woodpeckers, and we humans typically cut down the best trees as unsightly or dangerous, near our homes.  On top of that, bluebirds face fierce competition for suitable nests from a non-native pest species, the House Sparrow.

House Sparrows will enter a bluebird nest and kill both any young and their mother if given the chance, and unlike nests with openings too small for the pests to enter (such as for House Wrens and Chickadees), bluebird nests require an entrance hole perfectly sized for House Sparrow entry.

Between (human-driven) habitat loss and nest competition from (human-introduced) pest species, bluebirds face a tough road.  That's why it's so special for us to have these beautiful birds in our yard!

We're seeing at least one pair of bluebirds in the yard several times a day now; though they do visit the feeders, they're not big fans of the black-oil sunflower seed we've put out for our other birds.  So, today, we picked up a small mealworm feeder and a hundred live mealworms for the bluebirds.

We've got a few bluebird houses to go up around the yard as well; the one pictured above, which came from Beth's former boss Joy's yard, had hardly been in the ground a day when the bluebirds started to check it out.  As yet, they haven't started moving in any nesting material, but we're hopeful they'll decide the home suits them.  My parents send us another, which we'll erect out of sight of the first (bluebirds can be territorial, after all), and we've got a third to go up as well.

So far, we don't seem to have a House Sparrow problem, either; part of that is the lack of suitable shrubs around the house, as in Vienna, the Azaleas were home to dozens of the pests.  Though we do put out one feeder with cheaper seed (including millet, a favored House Sparrow food), so far it hasn't brought any of the pests around, and given that our Dark-eyed Juncos love the cheaper seed, we're hopeful it won't.  Too, putting up multiple nest boxes can serve as a decoy for the unwanted House Sparrows, and given their non-native status, we can always take out any sparrow eggs, one at a time, and sterilize them before returning them to the nest--ensuring we don't see a bumper crop of the pests.  But this does mean we'll have to be careful going forward as we work on our yard landscaping and outdoor renovations, too.

So, we're hoping we'll get to see some baby bluebirds as spring progresses, and that Beth will get over her squeamishness and be able to handle the little mealworms the bluebirds so love.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Little Problems of Flood Geology

Today's Washington Post ran an article about an annual "field trip" that Liberty University Biology majors take to the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum (under the auspices of a required "Creation Studies" course), along with the broader phenomenon of creationists visiting science museums.

Maybe I should cut the creationist museum-goers some slack, given I've mused before about the dubious pleasures to be had of paying a call at Orlando's "The Holy Land Experience" (getting a good chuckle with my wife and sisters as we drove past and I made some rather blasphemous suggestions for photo ops), or perhaps federal convict Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind's Pensacola-based "theme park" (what is it with Florida and nutty creationists, by the way?)

Still, though, I find creationists on a field trip to see fossils and scientific proofs that basically ruin their entire worldview to be something of an odd happening. What really baffled (and irked, I must admit) me, though, about the article was the "paleontologist" Dr. Marcus Ross, who holds a doctorate in geosciences yet claimed that the Smithsonian's timeline of 630 million years of the dinosaur fossil record isn't true: as a young-earth creationist (YEC), he holds the view that almost all fossils were laid down in the Flood (of the Noah's Ark story) just 4,000 years ago.

This so-called "Flood geology" exposes one of, if not the most damning, flaws in creationism in that it is heavily contradicted by evidence from almost all branches of science, and the "scientific" hypotheses YECs propose in support of Flood geology are without fail easily and completely falsified. To read the Abrahamic Flood mythology as anything but allegory--and mind you, creationists must do just that or see creationism collapse like the house of cards it is--is sheer folly and worthy of every bit of scorn which can be heaped upon it.

First, there's the problem of the fossil record, which under Flood geology supposedly was laid down during the bliblical flood. Creationists avow that a principle they call "hydrologic sorting" would account for the order of fossils in the thus-deposited strata, which is problematic in several ways. It represents a typical creationist misunderstanding of evolution (to the point of it being a straw man view of evolution, in fact): creationists think evolution says things go from simple to complex over time (evolution says no such thing). Too, it shows the downright wrong thinking that because dinosaurs are prehistoric, they as huge organisms would thus be "sorted" and be at the lower levels of fossil strata, whereas more recent organisms which are smaller would, by density, end up progressively higher up in the fossil record. (To see why this is so ridiculously wrong, consider that the giganticism of the dinosaurs' eras was abnormal, and far older fossils such as those of the trilobites with which every grade schooler is familiar are both smaller and located deeper in the fossil record--so how did the largest fossils end up in the middle, so to speak?)

Second, Flood geologists invariably get tangled up in the amount of water which would have had to fall to cover all the land on Earth as described in Genesis. You see, accepting that Mt. Everest was covered by water over its peak (or else was somehow pushed up by the weight of all that water, a favored alternate argument by creationists) requires a heck of a lot of H20.

So they try to explain that problem away by claiming the weight of the waters as well as the sediments which would shortly become our fossil record pushed down the sea beds and pushed up the mountains--a concept which boggles the mind in addition to requiring the suspension of known physical laws.

Then, there are the myriad problems of where did the waters of the Flood come from, and where did they go? The favored "vapor canopy" theory and related notions of giant ice comets exploding in the atmosphere simply fail laughingly with any scrutiny whatsoever, resulting in such nonsense as pressure cooker conditions that a Venusian would envy. Literal readings of the Bible lead to notions of subterranean upwellings (again, where did all that water come from?) which defy all scientific plausibility.

I often wonder why creationists don't simply abandon the flood mythology as a literal, historical incident and instead look at it through the lens of allegory, and its likely origins in very localized but severe floods of the river plains of early civilizations? Surely for people who didn't travel more than a few miles, such floods would seem to be global, not to mention the poetic license and hyperbole employed in crafting narratives based on such events. Because, as described above in short detail, the flood mythology and its associated "geology" simply fails, contradicting both itself repeatedly and also several laws of physics and the observed geography of the Earth.

I suppose creationists feel that if any part of the Bible isn't taken literally, then their entire case for special creation is thereby weakened--ignoring the forest for the trees when you consider what a laughingstock is made of their "theories" by unbending insistence on literalism.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Like a Lion? At Least It Feels Like Spring Today!

Everyone knows the old saw about March coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb; certainly for those of us in the Washington, D.C., area, March came in with quite a roar this year, as a storm dumped around six inches of snow on the near-in suburbs and left in its wake low-teens on the mercury for a day or two.

In a prior post, I discussed the then-apparent departure of the Dark-eyed Juncos from our yard, mentioning it as a possible sign that spring migration was underway.  Well, though spring migration is underway, and spring itself is drawing ever nearer, the season's (perhaps last) gasp of snow brought with it quite a flock of juncos.

I finally got a chance to get a decent photo of one as well.  Though I'd prefer the shadow cast by one of the tree's other branches not be present, and perhaps the snow not be hiding the junco's tail, this is actually a pretty decent junco photo otherwise.  Given how juncos tend to feed on the ground, it's rare to catch one perched like this, too.

We're less than a week later, now, and it's been in the upper 60s and low 70s.  Count me as one of those who is ready for spring and happy to see the winter head out after at last getting a good snow for the season.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Some Ironic Justice on the Housing Front

Last year when Beth and I were looking to buy a home, we had one lined up and ready to go--all we were waiting on was for my townhouse sale to close.  Due to a bad buyer and his awful mortgage broker, my sale didn't close until nearly two months after its contracted date, costing us that potential home when the seller decided to go with another offer he'd received.

As we kept searching for the right home, we noticed a month or two later that there was now a "for sale by owner" sign in that same home's yard.  Our agent found out that the sale which had bumped us to the curb had subsequently fallen through, and the seller had given his agent the boot.  We decided not to go down that route again--the seller's refusal to budge on the price despite the continuing-to-plummet market factored less in the decision than the fact we'd already lost out twice on that same home.

In the end, we waited out a short sale and bought Chateau Papillon, where we've been quite pleased and have settled in.  Here's the ironic justice in this story: Beth was out walking the dogs through the neighborhood yesterday and noticed that the home we'd tried to buy had been hit by a tree!  No major damage appeared to have been done, but nonetheless, the owner (who is currently renting the place out, I believe) who missed out on a sale to us now has to deal with repairs, too.  I guess we ended up in the right place after all.