Return of Bird of the Week: Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush


The Black-headed Nightingale-Thrush is a fairly common, American Robin-sized thrush found in Central America. Birds of the World says that it is found in “Dense dark undergrowth of primary humid evergreen forest (cloudforest).” That’s completely consistent with WC’s experience with the species. When you combine that behavior with the low light performance of Olympus cameras…

Geology and Birds


Anyone who has followed Wickersham’s Conscience for more than a few weeks knows that two of WC’s interests are geology and birds. Those two areas aren’t as unrelated as they might seem; often, geology and geomorphology dictate what birds are where. WC has already written about High Island, where the geologic accident of a salt…

A Parula Puzzle


The systematics of Northern and Tropical Parulas, small, brightly colored wood-warblers, have a long, twisted history. Presently, ornithologists treat the two Parulas as a part of the genus Setophaga, along with some 32 other species. Formerly, they had a genus of their own. The Northern Parula breeds across the eastern United States, as far north…

Greater Rhea with About Half of His Brood

The “Biggest Bird”


A reader recently asked WC what was the biggest bird WC has photographed. The question is imprecise, because there is more than one way to define the “biggest bird.” If that reader means “the heaviest bird,” then it is the Greater Rhea. Weighing in at as much as 27 kilograms, it’s not even close; the…

A shifty-eyed Governor Mike Dunleavy, March 9, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

What Not to Do When Offered a Bribe


Elderly Mandarin: “Would you betray your Emperor?”Young Mandarin: “Never. My loyalty to the Emperor is pure.”Elderly Mandarin: “Doubtlessly. But would you betray your Emperor for 10 million pieces of gold?”Young Mandarin: “10 million pieces of gold? A man could live well a very long time with that much wealth.”Elderly Mandarin: “Well then, would you betray…

Tales from Wasilla: Paul Gil Skates


Wasillite Paul Gil was on a deer hunting trip to Prince William Sound in October 2017. On that trip, Gil shot and killed a Harbor Seal, using an AR15-style assault weapon. Harbor Seals haul out of the water at various places in the Sound. Shooting them is every bit as challenging as shooting a motionless…

WC Is a Plover Lover


Plovers are a group of about 68 species across nine genera, all in the family Charadiidae. They are found on every continent but Antarctica, and they get pretty close there. The systematics are far from fully sorted out, and the life histories of most of those 68 species are pretty much unknown. Ornithologists cannot even…

Putin’s Other Mistake


Back in 2016, WC read Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? It’s not an easy read; Dawisha’s analysis is a fire hydrant of absolutely damning information on Putin and the crony kleptocracy he has established Russia. But it’s worth the effort; eight years after publication, few, if any, or Dawisha’s allegations have been refuted.…

The Tanagers That Aren’t


North America is graced with four species of Tanager: Scarlet, Summer, Western and Hepatic. Exceptionally colorful, beautiful and relatively common, they are long-distance migrants that grace our spring and summer days. But, alas, they aren’t really Tanagers; they aren’t members of the family Thraupidae, the true tanagers. Rather, they are members of the family Cardinalidae,…

Marsquakes! For Science!


In principle, at least, the use of seismic – earthquake – waves to understand the interior of a planet is less complicated than it first seems. You’re probably familiar with bats’ use of echolocation to navigate the night skies: they emit high-pitched squeaks, and then use the reflections, the echoes, to navigate and find prey.…

Something to Rail About


Certainly the most difficult North American family of birds to see, let alone photograph, are the Rails. While there are some 139 species of Ralidae worldwide, WC in this post focuses on the six “true” North American Rails.1 WC has photos of five of them – for a given definition of “photo” – and is…

What’s Wrong With America, Part 2


Several readers have asked WC what he thinks is at the heart of all the problems facing America. It’s more than one thing, of course. But with this post, WC continues a new, semi-regular series, using only photographs to illustrate the problem. WC cautions readers that some of these photos contain obscenities. But that’s part…

ConocoPhilips’ Little Oopsie


7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas. Enough to heat WC’s poorly insulated Boise home for the next 62,000 years. Enough to meet the City of Boise’s entire natural gas needs for most of a year. Never mind the horrific greenhouse gas implications of that discharge: natural gas – methane – has 43 times more…

It’s Friday the 13th: Let’s Get Geeky


WC will celebrate this Friday the 13th, a day founded on superstition, by following up on a series of seriously geeky science subjects. Black holes, even galaxy-sized black holes, have magnetic fields. You can give yourself a headache thinking too long about that. Black holes, which are as real as an earthquake, have always felt…

Principles? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Principles!


Exhibit ASteven F. Holtze, is a Texas multi-millionaire and a major Republican donor, who runs a natural-health and hormone replacement clinic, paid more than a quarter million dollars to ex-Houston police captain Mark Aguirre to find election fraud.1 It was Aguirre who on October 19, 2020, rammed his car into the a cargo truck owned by…

Another BUCIP: Wild Horses in the West


It’s been a while since WC wrote about a BUCIP – a Big, Ugly, Complicated and Intractable Problem. The typical BUCIP is complicated, with multiple sides, entrenched stakeholders and packed with emotional positions. The problem of wild horses in the West is a classic BUCIP. Wild horses1 are an introduced species, not native to North…

The Alvord “Desert”


It’s not a desert, although the area only gets about seven inches of precipitation a year, on average. It’s a playa, the dry bed of a former lake, and it’s about 8 miles wide and 70 miles long. The surface of the dry lake bottom is absolutely, unnervingly flat, and bare of any visible trace…

What’s Wrong With America, Part 1


Several readers have asked WC what he thinks is at the heart of all the problems facing America. It’s more than one thing, of course. But with this post, WC introduces a new, semi-regular series, using only photographs to illustrate the problem. When ignorance is held out as desirable, by persons in authority, yeah, it’s…

Salt Domes and High Island


A reader, in response to WC’s point that High Island is the result of a subterranean salt dome, asked what a “salt dome” was. It proved to be an irresistible opportunity for WC to geek out on geology. Imagine a salt pan, an area where salt is a major constituent of surface deposits. The Great…

Very, Very Vireo


Vireos, a family of songbirds distributed around the world, might be one of the families of birds least familiar to non-birders. Vireos don’t make it to Alaska; WC only had limited experience with this family of birds from trips to warmer climes before moving to Idaho. They aren’t as flashy as their warbler cousins, but…

Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin

An Open Letter to Janice McGeachin


Dear Lt. Governor McGeachin: The Idaho Statesman reports that at a campaign event on April 21, in response to a press inquiry about your botched and overdrawn Idaho Lt. Governor’s Office budget, you said, Honestly, who cares about $2,000 … in the lieutenant governor’s budget? I think more people in Idaho are concerned about their…

A Few New Warblers


WC was recently in Texas.1 The occasion was spring migration and, in this case, the migration is extraordinary. Small songbirds – in the case of the Warblers that are the focus of this post, weighing about a third of an ounce – fly non-stop from South America to the Gulf Coast, a distance of some…

Who Is “Tito” and Why Is He Harassing WC?


WC’s mailbox has been stuffed with messages from “Tito Dunleavy” lately, all asking for money, for WC to “sign” Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy’s birthday card, or seeking WC’s contact information for “important news.” Or sometimes all three. In the emails from “Tito,” there’s always a photo of the very small, curly-furred brown dog at the…