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[Part 1] [Part 2]



Trigger Warning: Here there be dragons. Or, at least, serpents. Elizabeth, you've been warned.


Having survived the Great Coax Caper and the Putrid Possum Pestilence, we were looking forward to a relaxing hike on the newly-christened Horseshoe Creek Trail with The Nephew, his wife, and their dog Sophie. (I briefly introduced the Trail in this novel-length post from last December.) So, at mid-morning on Saturday we caravanned up to the south trailhead, which is at the end of the winsomely-named Mausoleum Road.

You get to the trailhead by way of Mountain Dew Road, a steep and winding street that meanders through neighborhoods interspersed with the typical Texas Hill Country scrub woods. As we neared the Mausoleum Road turnoff, we encountered this lovely beast stretched out across the pavement:

Photo - Big honkin' rattlesnake

I jumped out of the truck and cautiously (an understatement) approached the snake, and snapped a few photos. Photo of rattlesnake rattleI estimate it was about 3-3 1/2' in length, but what was most striking (pun intended) was the thickness of its body. Rattlers tend to be this way, but some who have seen this photo suggest that this one was either pregnant or had just eaten a large meal. In any event, this was not only the first rattlesnake we've seen in the four years we've been coming to Horseshoe Bay, but also one of the largest we've encountered, period. A closeup of the non-business end of the snake clearly shows nine rattles plus a button...not a record by any means, but still a pretty good noisemaker. (By the way, contrary to popular belief, you can't judge the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles; they add one each time they shed their skin, but they might shed multiple times in a year.)

The snake paid us no mind, and didn't move until we got back in the truck. At that point, I had to make a decision regarding its fate. Had it been in an absolute wilderness with no homes or public trails around, I probably would have let it go, but in this case it was (1) moving toward the trail we were about to hike, and (2) fairly close to a number of houses. So, I chose to inflict Death by Michelin on the serpent. I'm never happy about having to kill an animal, but this one had the obvious potential to do serious harm to humans and their pets.

We proceeded to the trailhead, determined to do the planned hike, but you can bet that the thought of encountering more of these rattlers was at the forefront of all our minds. Horseshoe Creek Trail is not particularly challenging, but at this time of the year, it's covered with leaves and it passes over and through rocky terrain that provides perfect camouflage for snakes. I led the hike and didn't really see much on the first leg other than the ground immediately in front of me, trying to make sure we weren't stepping on anything hazardous to our health. Relaxing? Well, not really.

Fortunately, we didn't come across another snake, but my singleminded attention to the ground almost resulted in an even worse encounter.

We came to a rise in the trail, a section that required stepping onto some rocks, and at the last second, I looked up just in time to see a Big. Honkin'. Spider (!) drop down at eye-level. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a classic case study in arachnophobia, and this freaked me out way more than that rattlesnake. 

The spider had stretched its web completely across the trail, a distance of at least four feet, from a tree on one side to a bush on the other. Had I not seen it in time, I not only would have had a spider on my face, but I would have been wrapped in a web, and I think we all know what that leads to. 

Webbed Frodo
In my mind, every spider is named Shelob.

I may have screamed like a little girl, just the tiniest bit, but we did find an easy detour around this horror, and the rest of the hike was pleasantly uneventful. Here are a handful of photos take along the trail; click on the photos to see larger uncropped versions.

Horseshoe Creek - Not quite a stream in the desert, but close Horseshoe Creek Trail The trail winds through some semi-rugged terrain In places, you can catch a brief view of Lake LBJ The trail passes some serious boulders. Horseshoe Creek Sophie leading the rest of the intrepid band


OK, there was one stretch of dry creek bed that contained a startling reminder that perhaps the snake we encountered earlier was just an infant, a mere worm compared to what might inhabit that rough terrain through which we were traipsing:

Photo - animal skeleton

Is this the skeleton of a harmless deer...or is it more likely the remains of a prehistoric dinoserpent whose descendants still inhabit these hills? You'll have to decide for yourself; I'm still on spider watch.
[Part 1

Now, where were we? Oh, yes...I had completed a successful repair of a shredded coax cable that restored our satellite TV access, and life was good.

Except...something was slightly amiss in the air. There was a lingering odor, a smell that seemed to grow stronger depending on which way the breeze was blowing, and where one stood in the back yard.

As the afternoon went on and the temperature rose, the smell got stronger and became the unmistakable odor of something dead and putrefying. And, as far as I could tell, it was coming from beneath our deck.

I had feared this ever since we bought the house last fall and witnessed an armadillo crawling out from under the deck one night. What was the likelihood that an animal would expire under the deck, and how would we deal with it?

I wanted to seal all the possible entry points, but it was a Catch-22 situation: what if I locked in a nocturnal critter, causing its death by starvation, and thus birthing the exact scenario I was working to avoid?

But now, we had to confront the reality head-on. There was a bit of urgency to the task, apart from the increasingly offensive aroma in our back yard. We were expecting the arrival of guests that evening, and they were bringing their dog who would undoubtedly freak out at the possibility of rolling around in something dead. Hey, that's what dogs do, right?

*sigh*

The first order of business was to locate the exact source of the odor, because that would help me understand what would be needed to deal with it. There were no large openings in the deck, and I was fresh out of remote-controlled robotic nano-cameras to send in a search-and-recovery mission. So, I did the next best thing: I watched where the flies were swarming, grabbed my industrial strength flashlight, and began shining it into the small seams between the deck planks. My fly-directed instinct was accurate, and I quickly spotlighted a tail. As I moved across the next several seams, a clear picture emerged of an expired possum, and a fairly large one at that.

So, I knew what I was dealing with, and where it was located. I now had to figure out how to get to it. I first tried taking up the decking directly above the malodorous marsupial, but the wood screws had become inextricably merged with the decking and this approach was a non-starter.

Plan B was to remove a section of the deck siding directly adjacent to the stinking stiff. This was significantly easier than removing the decking, but still not without its challenges. I won't go into the minutiae of the process; suffice it to say that it required another trip to Ace Hardware, and I'm now the proud owner of a 4-foot crowbar, a mini-hacksaw, and a new garden rake. [Aside: This is a problem with having a second home...many of your tools reside somewhere else.]

Removing the siding was a relatively quick job - apart from the run to the hardware store - and it led to the most unpleasant part of the task: retrieving the reeking remains. That's where the rake came in, if you were wondering. We [by then, MLB was at my side, offering spiritual solace and a second pair of hands] put a heavy duty trash bag on the ground, and I endeavored to rake the offensive opossum out from under the deck and into the bag.

Normally, at this point in a task, I would take a photograph to document the proceedings. But the thought of having a picture of a squishy, maggot-infested carcass on my phone trumped my documentarian tendencies. Feel free to thank me, dear reader. However, that doesn't mean that we don't have visual proof of the episode, courtesy of our game camera. I hope the following isn't too shocking.

Photographic proof: possums wear shirts!

[Note: I realize that some of you are thinking, "what a noob!" because this type of thing is old hat to you - the dead animal, not discovering it's actually Pogo - because you've lived in the country long enough to have encountered it many times over, and then some. But it's brand new territory for us city folks.]

With many exclamations along the lines of "ewww" and "ick" and "yuck" (and it's not easy to emit such exclamations whilst holding your breath) we managed to roll the corroded corpse into the bag, which I quickly sealed and hauled downwind for safekeeping until I could permanently dispose of it. MLB scattered some odor-absorbing pellets under the deck, and I then reattached the siding with a single wood screw on each end, in case we ever had to repeat this process.

Within an hour or so, only the keenest of noses could detect that anything was ever amiss in the back yard. Of course, that keen nose did eventually show up on the end of a curious German shepherd, but after much earnest sniffing, she lost interest and began to focus on the more important task of stick chasing.

However, there's one nagging thought: what was the cause of death? Silly me; I failed to perform an autopsy, so now I'm left with only speculation. As a wise coworker told reminded me, "everything dies," so it could have been natural causes. But what if it was something more sinister, like a hit by the local squirrel mafia? We've also had some suspicious characters roaming our back yard when all law-abiding mammals should be snuggled in bed. Perhaps there's a reason they always wear masks.

Raccoons: Nature's little felons

Anyway, to recap: two crises dealt with, and we could now relax for the rest of the weekend.

OK, there was just ONE. MORE. THING. 


MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

Horseshoe Bay is a little different than many places this time of year...it's less crowded and quieter because a lot of folks with lake houses aren't particularly interested in boating or skiing in winter weather (although the typical Hill Country winter isn't what you'd call brutal). Nevertheless, we managed to fill our schedule with some memorable events. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday

We were invited by friends to attend a Celtic music concert in nearby Marble Falls. None of us knew what to expect from the event, which was a fundraiser for The Phoenix Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their parents. The concert, billed as "A Celtic Christmas," was held in the Uptown Theater, a renovated 40s-era movie theater which, despite its name, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Marble Falls. It's a funky little place, very cool in its own way, and provided an intimate setting for what turned out to be a surprisingly delightful three hours of music.

The evening featured two musical groups. First to perform was The Here & Now, a quartet of Austin- and Dallas-based musicians. The fiddle player, Niamh Fahy, is an Irish lass who serves as a music therapist for The Phoenix Center. She was also the driving force behind organizing the event.

The Here & Now perform what I'd call traditional Irish music, although I'm hardly an expert in the genre. It's contemplative and lively by turns, and always lyrical.

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

It's worth mentioning that we were seated next to the stage, so we had a great view of the proceedings, which included some impressive dancing by Emily and Gavin, a couple of youngsters with extremely quick feet.

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

Gavin did step dancing (usually associated with productions like Riverdance), while Emily's specialty was old-style. I know this only because I visited with her during intermission where I succumbed to her atomic-powered dimple and bought one of the group's CDs.

Following that intermission, the trio known as Celjun took the stage. Celjun is a band based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and they specialize in a music amalgam of Celtic and Cajun genres (hence their name, right?). Their music is a bit more raucous...probably something you'd expect to hear around midnight in an Irish pub (not that I'm personally knowledgeable about that). I was most impressed with the skills of Pete Dawson, the flautist/whistle player (whistleist?) who hails from Baton Rouge. If you want a sample of his music, check out this video beginning at the 3 minute mark.

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

We took a day of rest from social activities and enjoyed some beautiful weather and a nice afternoon bike ride. And, as usual, Mother Nature provided some entertainment.

The Hill Country isn't really known for its fall foliage, but you can run across some spectacular, if isolated, examples.

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

Beauty in nature comes in different shapes and sizes. MLB spotted this amazing fungus during one of our bike rides, and I later returned to photograph it.

Tree fungus
It Came From Beyond: fungus growing on tree stump

There's an owl who (get it..."who...who..." OK, never mind.) hangs around our house. He (or she) is elusive, and I generally spot her (him) only as a shadow gliding through the trees...until now:

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

There's one more encounter with the animal kingdom I want to share, but in the interest of building suspense, it will come at the end. Please try to stay awake.

Monday

One of the primary purposes of this trip was to attend the annual Horseshoe Bay Members Christmas Party, a free dinner and dance held at the resort. It occurs on a Monday to reduce attendance (my theory, anyway), but if that's an effective strategy, it was difficult to discern based on the turnout. Anyway, we enjoyed the company of close friends as well as acquaintances old and new, and even got to do a little dancing.

Music was provided by the David Young Band, an Austin-based group featuring musicians who can play basically anything in any genre (we got everything from At Last to Uptown Funk).

This was our third time to attend this event, and we learned early on that a 20' x 20' dance floor doesn't accommodate the 500 or so people who want to dance, so our best bet was to get in some steps early on, while most people were still in the buffet lines. But the evening had an inauspicious start, because some sound system problems seemed to have the keyboard player doing a different song than the rest of the band, and we were all confused.

They finally got that sorted out and we were treated to a song we could actually dance to. But...it was a tango. Nobody outside of the movies plays a tango at a party...primarily because nobody actually knows how to do a tango. OK, that's an exaggeration, because, well...WE do. And so we did, alone on the floor (until mid-way through the song, an(other) older couple joined us). It was actually pretty great, and someone claimed that one table gave us a standing ovation at the end, although I'm pretty sure they were just heading for the open bar for vodka shots.

David Young Band
The David Young Band - Don't be fooled by the suits; they can boogie.

Later in the evening, the dance floor resembled a mosh pit, if mosh pits are ever populated by over-50 affluent wine-infused white folks in sparkly clothes. But I admit when the band led the crowd in doing The Stroll during an extended version of Uptown Funk, it was magically surreal.

Oh, did I mention that the whole thing was free?

Tuesday (hang in there; we're almost halfway finished)

Tuesday's plans centered around Christmas lights. But we first had a significant civic event to attend.

Today was the ribbon cutting for the new Horseshoe Creek Hiking Trail, and a pretty good crowd turned out in beautiful sunny weather for the event.

The trail begins near the Horseshoe Bay Mausoleum ("New niches coming soon!"), located on one of the highest spots overlooking Lake LBJ, and meanders along the Creek for just over two miles, down to Highway 2147. It's not a treacherous trek, but it is strenuous...hiking boots and a sturdy stick are recommended. We haven't yet done the hike, but it's on our "definite to-do" list.

The land for the trail was donated by Wayne and Eileen Hurd, who have donated untold amounts of acreage for civic use in the area. Mr. Hurd passed away in 2011, but Mrs. Hurd was present for the ribbon cutting.

Horseshoe Creek ribbon cutting
Eileen Hurd (center) cuts the ribbon to open the Horseshoe Creek Trail

I didn't even know that Horseshoe Creek existed, and it was a revelation to see (and hear) the live water coursing down and through the hills. I'm not sure it's always so energetic, but recent heavy rainfall had a wondrous effect.

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

That evening, we headed 20 minutes south to Johnson City with friends to take in the vaunted downtown square display. Each year, the courthouse and surrounding businesses go all out with lighted displays; the courthouse alone is draped with more than 100,00 lights.

We ate dinner at the Pecan Street Brewery (I heartily recommend the Pecan Sweet Fried Chicken), located directly across from the courthouse. After dinner, we braved the chill wind to walk around the square before heading back to HSB.

Christmas lights on the Johnson City square
A Christmas display on the Johnson City square

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

The display was impressive enough to make the trip worthwhile. But wait! There's more!

On the way out of town, we pulled onto Highway 290 and something caught our eyes a couple of blocks away. Well, it would have been difficult to miss it, as it resembled nothing less than a premature sunrise, or perhaps a nuclear plant meltdown. Intrigued, we drove to the display on the grounds of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters, where we were greeted by a score of huge oak trees adorned with what we would later learn are 1.2 MILLION LED lights. Holy cow...I earlier described something as surreal, but this took the concept to a whole new level.

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

PEC has been doing this display for more than a quarter century; the blue lights were added in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago, and they apparently were popular enough (or difficult enough to remove) that they've remained.

Once our retinas recovered enough to drive safely back home, we resolved to drive into Mable Falls to view that community's annual Christmas display. In retrospect, we should have done that first, because pretty much anything will pale in comparison (both figuratively and literally) to the PEC installation. 

The town's "Walkway of Lights" has a gorgeous setting on the bank of Marble Falls Lake, and it's laid out as an out-and-back route of perhaps a quarter mile through hundreds of random holiday displays. It's a pretty impressive installation for a small town. It boasts of more than 2 million lights and 400 displays, but frankly, spread out over such a wide area, it's not as dramatic as some others (*cough* PEC *cough*).

Marble Falls Walkway of Lights
The entrance to the Walkway of Lights

On the other hand, it probably is more kid-friendly (not quite as overwhelming to the senses), and there were quite a few families exploring the trail.

We were a bit disappointed at how many "sculptures" had non-functioning lights; I guess it's hard to stay on top of 2 million of them. And the displays became a little repetitive. You can have only so many Santa-and-reindeer tableaus before they start to run together. There were some imaginative ones, though: Santa riding a jet ski; Santa in a helicopter; Santa gutting a reindeer to make jerky. OK, I made that last one up. But this is hunting country, so...

Wednesday

Nothing happened on Wednesday. Well, other than...

We made a day trip to San Antonio to do some Christmas shopping at La Cantera and The Rim. Despite the proximity to Christmas, both areas were remarkably calm, which was a pleasant surprise. 

By the way, if you're driving in from the north on Highway 281 and that area is your general destination, I strongly recommend exiting onto FM 473 a few miles south of Blanco and driving through Kendalia, then on to I-10, where you'll enter the interstate just a couple of miles from the Fiesta Texas exit. Believe me, even with the winding road and lower speed limit, you'll come out ahead by avoiding 281 as it enters San Antonio. Plus it's a much more scenic drive. Just try to come back before dark, as the deer encounters might be a bit intense.

On the way home, shortly before 5:00, MLB was noodling around on her phone and discovered that Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate were playing that evening at Pardner's in Lake Buchanan. Pardner's is an old-fashioned honky-tonk that features a decent dance floor, a live band every Wednesday night, and a crowd demographic that skews AARP-wardly. (The live music begins at 6:30 and ends at 9:30, so that should give you a clue.)

If you've never heard of 8 From the Gate (Quick...can you identify the source of the band's name? The answer is helpfully provided below.), don't feel bad; neither had we. But the music that MLB streamed sounded danceable, and we decided to forego dinner to get in some two-stepping before heading over to some friends' home to drop off a gift.

We arrived around 6:45 and the dance was in full swing. We recognized several of the folks in attendance, either from other dance venues, or from previous trips to Pardner's. It's a place for regulars, and you can count on most of the same people showing up every Wednesday.

Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate at Pardner's
Can't see it in the photo, but it was almost a cliche that
the steel guitarist played with a lit cigarette in his hand


It's a great place for people watching (we were particularly intrigued this night by the man pushing 80 years and 300 pounds, sporting a straw hat and denim overalls tucked inside cowboy boots, whose dance style was primarily limited to walking around the floor with much younger women...that is, until the band played Dwight Yoakam's Fast As You, and then he absolutely rocked out), and everyone is pretty friendly. As you might expect, the crowd isn't rowdy; the biggest downside is that it's not a non-smoking venue, and despite having a good ventilation system, we always leave feeling a little smoky.

The music was good, and we got in more than an hour of dancing before heading back to our appointment in HSB.

I mentioned that we had skipped dinner; dancing always trumps eating, but we were a bit peckish and intended to go to Marble Falls for a Whataburger or something equally...fast...after a quick visit with our friends.

However, it's good to have a gourmet cook for a friend, because they also had not eaten and were laying out a spread of leftovers that rivaled anything we had consumed thus far on the trip (up to and including chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and homemade chocolate-and-coconut truffles). Maybe next time, Whataburger.

Thursday (at last)


We spent the day at home taking care of some chores. The high point of the day (and perhaps the week) was when I discovered - following several frustrating nights of lukewarm-to-cold showers - that the hot and cold water connections on the shower were actually reversed, and all the work I had done to recalibrate the scald preventer in an attempt to get more hot water was actually just providing more cold. Sometimes, the best solutions are the easiest; I'm just glad I didn't give in to the impulse to call out a plumber, who would no doubt be blogging now about yet another idiot customer. 

And, incidentally, those of you who are more deeply steeped in the arcane plumbing arts are probably wondering what good a scald preventer does in a case like that. I can answer that with an assertive "none." In my defense, the mere presence of that device kept me from trying the ultimate solution until I simply ran out of options.

Following a wonderfully steaming shower, we headed for nearby Spicewood with our dear friends to observe a long-standing Christmas tradition of buying each others' dinners instead of exchanging gifts. They had recommended Apis as a good place for a special dinner, and it was.

Apis is one of those farm-to-table eateries that are all the rage nowadays; it's also an apiary, in case you're into bees (and who isn't?). Their menus are prix fixe, which is French for "you're gonna need a bigger wallet," so it's probably never going to be a replacement for the Bluebonnet Cafe. However, it serves nicely as a celebratory spot for special occasions.

Apis specializes in what I refer to as foo-foo food. You know, the dishes that are comprised of ingredients that require several adjectives to impress upon you their elegance and sophistication: it's not just crab, it's "Peekytoe Crab"; why serve mere pastrami when you have access to "Veal Brisket Pastrami"; and a simple radish can never compete with an "Easter Egg Radish." In other words, you pay by the adjective.

All kidding aside, the food was great, the atmosphere warm, and the service knowledgeable with just the right amount of solicitousness. Highlights for me included an appetizer of charred Spanish octopus (a whole tentacle, and I was able to resist the temptation to wrestle it, Lloyd Bridges-style, much to the relief of my table mates), and the Honey and Crème Fraiche Gateau, a dessert topped with a tiny curl of crispy honeycomb. OTOH, there was a small miss: I couldn't resist trying a sardine-based "snack" (which was sort of a pre-appetizer appetizer). I was interested to see what kind of magic they could work with sardines, but just as a pig with lipstick is still, at the end of the day, a pig...well, you can figure out the rest. (And no offense to pigs; your bacon is delicious.)

All in all, it was a great way to end a great week...and this seems to be a great way to end an endless blog post. So...

Not So Fast...

Those brave few of you who are indeed still awake may recall that I promised one last thing.

I grew up in Fort Stockton, about an hour's drive from Alpine where the high school football team is known as The Fightin' Bucks. Most of you may understand that that nickname comes honestly, as deer of the buck persuasion are known to lock horns, literally, to assert dominance and win a date with the homecoming queen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

We were returning home at HSB one evening before dusk and, as usual, there were a number of whitetail deer doing deery things in the open field across the street from our house. It so happened that a couple of them were engaged in the aforementioned ritual, and I managed to get a short video of the epic struggle on my phone. The quality is poor - we were 50 yards away in low light - but you should still be able to get a sense of how, well, ridiculous bucks look when they fight. I did speed up the video considerably; two minutes of this action is 90 seconds too long. (And keep your comments about the length of this post to yourselves.)




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]
The 50-mile stretch of US Highway 385 between Fort Stockton and Marathon, Texas, has always been one of my favorite drives. If you encounter five other vehicles during the trip, it's a heavy traffic day. It's a perfect showcase for the desolate grandeur of the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas, winding through some of the largest ranches in the country and significant geologic phenomena, and never failing to present the traveler with a wide array of wildlife.

On various trips, we've encountered mule deer, antelope, javelinas, coyotes, snakes almost as long as my truck is wide, and more rabbits (jack and cottontails) than we could count. But on a recent trip, we encountered something that none of us had ever seen before.

Earlier this month we drove from Fort Stockton to eat at the 12 Gauge Restaurant, adjacent to the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. Our group consisted of MLB, my brother and his wife, and my mother. After the usual excellent meal, we hit the road about a half hour before dusk. About twenty miles into the drive (see map below), we came around a curve and I spotted something out of the ordinary a few hundred yards down the road. 

"Quick...grab your cameras and get ready!" MLB and my sister-in-law immediately armed their iPhone and iPad, respectively, and focused on what I saw: a bull elk standing in the highway right-of-way, just off to our right. 

Initial sighting of elk
The initial sighting

The typical absence of traffic on this highway worked to our advantage, as I was able to stop on the shoulder to photograph the elk, as well as back up and pull forward to stay alongside him.

Bull elk in West Texas
"Are you looking at me? Are YOU looking at Me? Well, are you?"

The animal wasn't particularly exercised by our attention, although he ambled back and forth in a mildly annoyed fashion as the paparazzi recorded his movements (see the short video below). After a minute or two, he calmly stepped over the fence and wandered into the brush, and we left feeling like we had been privileged to witness something magical.





The presence of elk in West Texas is a somewhat controversial topic. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) classifies elk as an exotic species, meaning that they believe it's a non-native species. However, not everyone agrees with this designation. Some researchers believe that elk have inhabited West Texas for centuries, and their evidence and arguments are compelling.

It's not a purely academic dispute. By classifying elk as non-native exotics, TPWD allows them to be hunted year around, with no limits on the number of animals that can be killed. In fact, because the agency believes elk compete with native (and endangered) desert bighorn sheep for food, it recommends that ranchers hunt the elk to the point of elimination.

I'm not a hunter, but I understand and agree with the benefits of controlled hunting for certain species. I just find it hard to believe that the relatively small elk population poses any serious threat to the food supply for another scarce species, especially given the vast landscape in which both reside. The cynic in me can't help wondering about the influence on the TPWD of the hunting outfitters and ranches who benefit financially from year-round elk hunts.

Regardless - or perhaps especially - in light of this situation, it was a memorable encounter on that lonely Texas highway, and we came away with a new appreciation of the natural wonders of the Trans-Pecos region.

Bull elk in West Texas

Rooftop Serenade
June 19, 2016 6:16 PM | Posted in:

Lately, this is what we've been hearing, coming down our chimney and serenading us, unbidden.



If you live anywhere in North America, you no doubt recognize the random stylings of Mimus polyglottos, otherwise known as the Northern Mockingbird (although the georeference seems superfluous since there's no Southern, Eastern, or Western Mockingbird). The mockingbird is the state bird of Texas (and also of plagiaristic, lesser states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee).

I'm not opposed to having a songbird share his musical gifts with us, but I became curious this afternoon as he competed with the soundtrack of the mindless movie we typical nap to on Sunday afternoons, and I wondered just what it was he found so attractive about our chimney. Was there a nest up there? Was he teaching his young offspring how to sing?

You should forgive my anthropomorphic tendencies on Father's Day, as I had just read an article in the Wall Street Journal in which the case was made for male birds being superior dads to their mammalian counterparts, at least those of non-human species. Among other things...
Male songbirds tutor their young on how to produce the distinctive songs of their species in a sophisticated process that may help to explain how other animals, including humans, learn complicated skills.

Darwin called birdsong "the nearest analogy to language." Indeed, song-learning in birds turns out to have striking similarities with how humans learn speech, from the process of listening, imitating and practicing all the way down to the brain structures and genes involved.
Armed with the knowledge of this theory (my usual substitute for any actual knowledge), I envisioned dad holding forth to a bevy of attentive younguns, eager to emulate his own emulations (they're not called "mockingbirds" for nothing). My curiosity aroused me from the comfort of my recliner, and I climbed onto the roof in search of the nest that I was sure kept that bird coming back to the same spot day after day.

Of course, there was nothing up there, other than the shade of the chimney vent, that apparently being a sufficient platform for his vocal gymnastics.

Mockingbird on our chimney

My disappointment at not being able to confirm the avian-dad-as-teacher theory was tempered by the good news that we won't have to endure an amplified group singalong by a whole bevy of birds. But here's one thing to keep in mind: if you want to keep a secret, don't share it in the general vicinity of a chimney, because it makes an awfully efficient microphone.

Rockin' Rabbit
July 16, 2015 8:31 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.

Cottontail rabbit stretched out on a rock

Fish Dinner
July 7, 2015 5:43 PM | Posted in: ,

We were giving some friends an afternoon tour of Horseshoe Bay and were driving across the low water crossing where Slick Rock Creek empties into Lake LBJ when I spotted a crane* diving under the water, presumably in pursuit of a fish. Sure enough, he surfaced shortly thereafter with a large silver fish grasped firmly in his beak.

The crane walked slowly over to a shallow water-filled depression in the rocks and dropped the fish, which was still weakly wriggling. The depression was just deep enough to prevent the fish from escaping back to the lake.

Crane with fish in bill

The bird stood over the fish for a brief moment, seemingly contemplating his next move (or, perhaps, praying over his next meal).

Crane inspecting captured fish

After another brief pause, he bent down, picked up the fish, and...well, you can imagine what happened next. OK, you don't have to imagine, because video. You might want to go to full-screen for the playback.



I stripped out the audio from the movie to spare you the exclamations of "yuck!" at the point the fish went down the bird's gullet and seemed to pause for a last wriggle. That could have just been the crane's throat muscles at work...yeah, we'll go with that.

If this has whetted your appetite (no pun intended) for another video of a bird swallowing an impressive meal, try this one from an earlier trip to South Carolina.

*I've referred to the bird as a crane, but to be honest, I'm just guessing at that. It does vaguely resemble a sandhill crane but the coloring doesn't really match. However, the photos and video aren't sufficiently clear, and I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable, to render a positive ID. Feel free to email me if you have a better idea.

When Species Collide
June 19, 2015 3:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Red Fox
Update (6/21/15) - A lot of people have asked if we're feeding this fox, and that's why he's in our yard so often. The answer is an emphatic "no." I have no doubt that there are some people who are providing food, perhaps inadvertently, in the form of cat or dog food, but I would never leave food for a wild animal. They shouldn't get too comfortable around, or come to depend on humans. Having said that, I do leave a five gallon bucket of rain water uncovered on our back porch, and I've seen the fox get a drink from it from time to time.

If you've spent much time around mockingbirds, you probably know that they're quite territorial, and will vigorously defend what they believe to be their personal space (which is generally arbitrary and expansive). I've shared this before but on at least one occasion I've worn a motorcycle helmet while mowing the lawn to protect my head from a spiteful mockingbird.

I've seen them repeatedly dive at cats, squirrels, and dogs; they're seemingly fearless, and quite persistent. (At the risk of being overly anthropomorphic, I don't believe they're sadistic, like blue jays, which have been known to swoop down and grab baby birds of other species and then drop them to their deaths, seemingly for the fun of it.)

So, it was no great surprise when I witnessed a mockingbird harassing our back yard fox earlier this week. We suspect there's a nest hidden in the thick foliage of the Mexican elder that's planted next to the back wall. I was fortunate enough to have my video camera running when it happened.



By the way - let me put this as delicately as possible - if you watch closely toward the end of the video, I believe there's evidence that dispels the question of whether we're dealing with a regnard or a vixen.

Another Ill-placed Dove Nest
April 19, 2015 9:57 PM | Posted in: ,

If you've spent much time around doves you know that they run a close second to sheep for being the dumbest animals on God's green earth. I make this assessment based primarily on the ridiculous places they choose to build their nests. For all I know, they're geniuses when it comes to differential calculus and quantum physics, but architecture and civil engineering is not their forte.

Case in point. This afternoon, Debbie mentioned that she'd discovered that a dove had built a nest on top of our cement block wall, under the eave of the house, and appeared to be sitting on eggs. Of course, I had to grab my camera and check it out. I came around the corner by our garage and, sure enough...

Mexican dove on nest

I went into stealth mode (meaning that I did my best not to fall on my face and destroy my camera) and drew closer.


Mexican dove on nest

There was a stiff north wind and I was downwind so I was able to get pretty close before the dove noticed me. She looked vaguely apprehensive in a low-IQ sort of way, but didn't budge from the nest.

Mexican dove on nest

As you can see, there's not much to a dove's nest, just enough twigs and grass to form a berm to keep the eggs from rolling away.

Mexican dove on nest

I suppose this will work for her, but it seems awfully exposed, especially if our foxes and the occasional neighborhood cat come around. And, while it's sort of off-putting to draw attention to it, that scat behind the nest came from some kind of predator, so I think this nest is existing on borrowed time. We'll see.

[Update: A Gazette reader has noted that the dove was actually responsible for the rather large scat, the result of long periods of nesting. My response is mainly along the lines of "ouch."]

Funny story about these photos. I was completely focused on the camera (see what I did there?) and heard someone come up behind me. I didn't turn around because I figured it was Debbie coming to check on the nest, so I just kept shooting. When I finally finished, I turned around and was quite surprised to see my next door neighbor quietly and patiently waiting for me to finish, and holding a rather large plant she was moving from her back yard to the front. But she was also fascinated and said that she'd probably walked by the nest a dozen times this afternoon without noticing it. So, perhaps it's not such a ill-chosen location after all. But I don't think it's humans the dove needs to worry about.

Raptor Breakfast
February 7, 2015 9:33 AM | Posted in: ,

My favorite chair in the living room looks out onto the back yard where I get to see all sorts of interesting things (and it makes me wonder how much I haven't seen). Such was the case this morning.

As I was finishing my daily Bible reading a movement in the Mexican Elder near the back wall caught my eye. It appeared to be a bird that was building a nest, which I thought was rather odd for the season. So I went to the window to get a better look and realized it wasn't a construction project, but rather breakfast for a hawk.

Unfortunately, he had positioned himself in such a way that I couldn't get a good look at the object of his ingestion, although every now and then a feather floated down, so I assumed he was dining on an unfortunate dove.

I hurried to my office, grabbed my camera and swapped out the prime lens for a zoom, bumped up the ISO to 400 to account for the shadows, and started snapping photos from the back porch, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I hoped that I was as obscured from his vision as he was from mine. These were the best I could get.

Hawk in tree
Hawk in tree

The hawk finally tired of my attentions and flew away, still clutching his breakfast. I attempted to get some action shots but ended up with nothing but bricks and blue sky. However, this did seem to confirm my theory about his menu selection, as it rested on the ground underneath the branch where the hawk was perched:

Dove feather on ground

On a somewhat related note, as I was running through the pasture yesterday evening, I scared up a large covey of quail...probably twenty or thirty birds exploded into the air in various directions. Almost simultaneously with that, a hawk swooped through the scattering flock, and I wondered if he had had one in his sights just as I startled them. However, he showed no interest in following any of them, so I decided he was just messing with their tiny little heads. I'm pretty sure that's what hawks do for fun.

In closing, to take your mind off that poor dove, here's some extreme cuteness.

Sleeping fox


Fox Times Two
February 3, 2015 9:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Our fox continued to visit our back yard around noon for a few days after we filed this report. He (or she - I have no way of knowing for sure) would usually be snoozing in the sunshine on the back porch when we got home for lunch, and then vanish shortly after noon. But, just as we had grown accustomed to its presence, it stopped appearing, and that was a little disappointing.

So, yesterday we were happy to see the fox make another lunchtime appearance. But the biggest thrill was seeing that s/he had brought a friend.

While our regular visitor lounged in the grass, I watched the newcomer get acquainted with the back yard, as it explored the shrubs along the back wall. The new animal seemed more wary than "our" fox, as evidenced by the fact that when I decided to try to get some video of the pair, it quickly retreated into our ice-damaged desert willow, and kept a close eye on me from that perch for a bit before deciding to seek a paparazzi-free zone. Take a look for yourself...


The newcomer is a just a little larger than the regular visitor, which, according to the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, means that it's a male. If this is a mated pair, we might be looking at a fine fox family later this spring or summer, assuming they think our yard is safe enough (meaning that I should be less conspicuous with the cameras, I guess).

In the video, you can see the putative male make a fairly assertive exit, while the (let's assume) female watches with a resigned (might as well be as anthropomorphic as possible) expression, as if to say, "really...this is the best back yard in the neighborhood and you're scared of a dude with a video camera?" Eventually, she follows him out (and as we headed back to the office, we watched them cross the street in front of our house, him in the lead, and her following a while later). I hope we'll see them again soon.

Snail
November 22, 2014 3:48 PM | Posted in: ,

We enjoyed on-and-off rain showers all day, and one consequence besides making the trees happy was the appearance of this guy. Or girl. Who knows?

Anyway, it was on our back porch and seemed to be begging me to take its picture. So I did. Snails can be very persuasive.

Snail
Snail
Snail

In case you're wondering, the snail didn't climb onto that bougainvillea bloom of its own accord. Yes, that's right; I blatantly manipulated nature for my own sordid photographic purposes. Life is cruel like that.

On the other hand, no snails were harmed (if you don't count hurt pride) in the making of these photos.

Comments? Criticism? Glowing praise? Email me or hit Facebook.

Arachnophotos
August 17, 2014 9:50 AM | Posted in: ,

I've never made a secret of my dislike for spiders. There are people for whom I have great respect who think spiders make great pets, but I'd just as soon invite a family of cobras to live in our bedroom as tolerate a single eight legged freak.

We recently transplanted a couple of tall junipers into slightly larger and more stable pots, and each of them was home to at least one of these:

Black widow spider

Perhaps you don't recognize it; perhaps this angle will help:

Black widow spider

Even the photos give me the willies. And because we've had some favorable weather conditions this summer, there are a bunch of these lovely creatures around the house (thankfully all on the outside). [In the interest of full disclosure and without a shred of remorse, I will report that this particular black widow was in the throes of death, thanks to my good pal Raid.]

That's not to say that I can't appreciate the skill of certain of the species in creating things of beauty, even if they'll never themselves be objects of my desire. This morning, while enjoying a cup of coffee and the newspaper on the front porch this morning before church, I noticed the following installation, which had been constructed overnight. The light was just right for a few photos.

Spider web
Spider web
Spider web

In the interest of full disclosure...the little guy in the first two photos is still busy at work, doing whatever his spidery little heart desires. I'm not a total monster...as long as he stays on his side of the car seat.
As if there's not enough biting going on at the World Cup, we now learn that the Shark Attack Capital of Brazil is Recife, where the US team lost/won yesterday. Apparently, the sharks in that area are feisty enough that the beach lifeguards do their training in a swimming pool, a practice that no doubt engenders all sorts of confidence in Brazilian beach goers.

Brazil is pretty far from Texas...but that doesn't mean we're safe, and now we can see just how unsafe we are thanks to the OCEARCH Global Shark Tracker, which shows real time updates of the movement of sharks that have been tagged for satellite tracking. Granted, it's a very cool use of technology, even if it serves to reinforce the feeling that in some things, ignorance is indeed bliss. 

This is particularly true in the case of Katharine and Betsy, sweet feminine names for cold-blooded eating machines otherwise known as Great White Sharks. These ladies have made their way 5,000 and 3,500 miles, respectively, from Cape Cod into the Gulf of Mexico, with movement roughly in the direction of Texas and Louisiana. Thanks to the OCEARCH website, you can assess whether it truly is safe to go back in the water.

Sort of. Because two questions come to my mind. First, shark tracking works only when the beasts surface long enough (at least 90 seconds) for the satellite to get a geoposition. Since sharks are fish and don't have to surface other than to snack on a tasty surfer, the truth is that we don't really know where these sharks are or are heading. And, more importantly, only a relative handful of sharks have been tagged, meaning that potentially billions more are right this minute heading for your shoreline...or riverbed...or lake house...

Fortunately for us, bicycling has been shown over the years to be a relatively shark-free endeavor. Still...

Shark attacking bicyclists

Return of the Quail
June 15, 2014 3:06 PM | Posted in: ,

As an alert and perceptive Gazette reader, you no doubt recall this time last year when I undertook to stalk the wily blue quail residing in our landscape. I was able to see but not photograph the two baby birds that the adults were protecting. And shortly afterward, the entire family moved out, apparently tired of nosy neighbors.

Well, I'm happy to report that either (1) they don't hold a grudge, or (b) the alternatives were even less hospitable, because the quail family is back...with a vengeance.

Adult blue quail and babies
Adult blue quail and babies

After seeing signs of their dirt-scratching in our flowerbeds, we finally spotted the whole clan - two adults and nine (NINE!) babies foraging in the lawn yesterday. Occasionally, one of the adults (the male, I'm guessing), took a break from scratching for lookout duty.

Adult blue quail on wall

That keen-eyed stare is designed to deter the most aggressive of predators, although he could possibly just be pondering the meaning of life.

Anyway, I also managed to take the following 2 1/2 minute video of the industrious family. It's not the best footage - it was taken through some windows, between the slats of shutters, but I think the terminal cuteness of the babies comes through nonetheless.


Youth and Beauty
November 5, 2011 10:36 AM | Posted in: ,

Even though I'm no longer in the web design business, I continue to maintain a handful of nonprofit sites on a volunteer basis, including the one belonging to the Lone Star Sanctuary for Animals. This is a local no-kill shelter for dogs and cats, and we post on the website photos and information of all the animals available for adoption, including these:

That's Jenna on the left; Jasper is on the right. But if you look on the website, you'll find only Jasper. And that's a little sad.

Photo of a dogPhoto of a dog

Jasper's been at the shelter for more than three years, awaiting adoption. Jenna was at the shelter for about three days. I got an email last night asking me to take her photo off the site as soon as possible, because they were getting so many phone calls about her that it was disrupting the staff's schedule.

People employ a wide variety of criteria to decide which pet they want, and far be it from me to judge the appropriateness of that criteria. I admit that I find some breeds of dogs more attractive than others. But this seems to be a pretty clear reminder that youth and beauty trump age and, well, not-so-beautiful, even when it comes to animals.

I hope Jenna went to a great home. I hope even more that Jasper will soon enjoy the same.

The Goose Whisperer
June 14, 2011 6:38 AM | Posted in: ,

Sorry about the post title; it's the best I can do at 6:30 a.m. Anyway, this story does deal with a goose - a one-legged goose at that.

Earlier this month, someone noticed that one of the three geese that have taken up residence at the ponds had an injured leg. One of our neighbors arranged to have the ailing goose netted and taken to a local vet clinic, where it was determined that the leg needed to be amputated.

The procedure was successful, although an infection complicated things a bit. After a stay at the clinic, the goose was returned to the pond on the afternoon of June 13th. I captured the triumphant release on video:



It's probably safe to say that many of us in the neighborhood have mixed emotions about the geese living at the pond. They make an awful mess, but they're also fun to watch. I doubt that there's any ecological benefit to having them around.

Perhaps the best storyline here - besides the assistance of an injured animal - is that the neighborhood rallied around the goose and contributed enough to not only cover all the medical expenses, but to also enable the beginnings of a fund that will be available for any future such uses. Many thanks to Deena Kargl and Melissa Tomlin for taking the initiative to get treatment for the goose and to mobilize a response in the neighborhood.
I received an email this evening asking me to publicize an upcoming event that will raise money to build a no-kill pet adoption center inside the Midland PetSmart location. I'm happy to help with that cause, because it's an important one. Here's the jist of the appeal:
The Midland Humane Coalition is a non-profit no-kill animal organization looking to end euthanasia in Midland County. PetSmart has agreed to build a $750,000 shelter inside the Midland PetSmart location for them to find these pets homes if they can raise the money for the first year of operating expenses. 

Midland Humane Coalition is about $130,000 short on their goal of fund raising. These funds must be acquired by the first of July. 

Jake's Clays is hosting a shoot for them on June 24th-25th (flyer with more info here) to help raise them money for their adoption center. You can also go to www.midlandhumane.com to make a donation as well.
 
Please help us raise awareness about this organization's needs; it would be greatly appreciated! We need to get this information out there and help us raise the awareness about this worthy cause.
 
Midland needs a no-kill animal shelter like this. Every little bit helps; the Midland Humane Coalition and the babies whose lives are saved all appreciate the help.
 
Please consider making a donation to this worthy cause, or participate in - or better yet, sponsor - the clay shoot.
If eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, we've just been enslaved due to inattention.

I stepped onto the front porch this morning, just before daybreak, and this caught my eye:

Photo - Barn Swallow Nest

I swear, that nest was not there yesterday at noon, when Debbie and I did our usual lunch hour tour of the front yard (yes, our lives are filled with excitement and danger!). But it does explain why barn swallows were so seemingly perturbed as we sat on the front porch last night, eating ice cream and reading, until sunset. We thought they just wanted to go to bed, since they frequently perch overnight on the small ledge provided by the ceiling trim.

I had planned to check the nest this morning and if there were no eggs in it, to knock it down. But I did a quick check of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and found that I'm too late. Once the nest is built, it's illegal to destroy it, whether or not it has eggs or babies. We'll have to wait until the birds migrate away next fall.

The good news is that the nest is not over our front door, and is situated so that the inevitable mess will be manageable. I'd rather it not be there at all, and I take it somewhat personally that the birds won this battle, but the war is a long one and I'll bandage my wounds and plot my counterstrike. The immediate price the birds will pay will be my camera invading their space on a frequent basis.

Photo - Barn Swallow Flying in Front of Nest

RIP, Elsie
January 31, 2011 10:32 PM | Posted in:

I have very sad news to report. The unthinkable has happened, and the free spirited pup known as Elsie had a fatal encounter with a car today.

Photo of ElsieWe do our very best to protect our animals against the dangers of the world, but the one thing we can't always do is protect them against themselves. Elsie had a loving home with people who would have done anything for her, but something in her nature seemed to make her want something else. In a way, that was a big part of why we loved her (without even knowing her), but it also made us fear for her.

Colin has left a loving tribute to Elsie on the above-linked website, and more importantly, a call to action. I hope you'll read the whole thing and see what you may be led to do. Knowing the Gazette's readers, I know Elsie's memory will be honored in significant ways.

Please join me in sympathy for Molly and Colin. I'm sure Elsie is eluding angels right now, with a big grin on her face, but I suspect it will be awhile before her people can grin again.

If you live in Midland, you may or may not be aware that the Lone Star Sanctuary for Animals (formerly the Lone Star SPCA) gratefully accepts memorial donations

Damber Alert (aka "Doggie Amber")
January 27, 2011 5:28 PM | Posted in:

Remember Rosie? Of course you do; how could you forget the wiliest, craftiest, elusive-est canine on the planet? Well, she's back. Or, rather, she's not, but her people's blog is.

Rosie's name is now Elsie, proving that...well, I don't think it proves anything, now that I think about it. I doubt that Elsie is playing this incredibly fun (for her) game of hide-and-seek because she has a different name than before. But who really knows what goes through the mind of a dog? I certainly don't. It's hard enough trying to understand the motivations of women, and then you throw a different species into the mix and the inevitable result includes infrared cameras and heartache.

Anyway, send good thoughts toward Maryland, because while I may seem to make light of the matter, Molly and Colin are worried sick and their little dog does not need to be on the mean streets, regardless of how much said pup is yukking* it up.

*I briefly toyed with the alternate spelling of "yucking," but that's a little too evocative of throw-up.

Great Blue Heron in Distress
November 6, 2010 12:49 PM | Posted in: ,

We've had a Great Blue Heron hanging around the neighborhood for the past few months. It's quite a sight, especially when winging its way over the mesquite-dotted pasture that surrounds us; there's a vaguely prehistoric look to its flight. While it prefers to wade along the shoreline of the two ponds, it's not unusual to see it standing out in the pasture, head just clearing the thick grass that the early plentiful rains brought to life.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed something different about the bird, specifically his flight. It's very skittish and difficult to get close to, but it appeared that it had something dangling from one leg as it took to the air. I finally decided that its leg was dangling, and I confirmed this a few days ago when I was able to get close enough to take some photos with a zoom lens. Those are shown below; click on each to see a larger version. Please note that these are difficult to look at; the injury is gruesome.

I don't have a clue as to what caused the injury. It doesn't seem to affect the bird's flight, and it doesn't look uncomfortable standing on one leg, but I can't imagine that it can hunt for food with ease, because it can't walk through the shallow waters looking for fish, frogs, and insects that make up its primary diet. One would also think that the injury makes the heron more susceptible to predators like coyotes.

I've contacted Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center and local wildlife expert, and he in turn has contacted a local veterinarian to see what, if anything, might be done for the bird. Capturing the poor thing will be a challenge, and rehabilitation of such a drastic injury might not be feasible. I'll let you know how this plays out.

It's a tough world out there, sometimes.

Great Blue HeronGreat Blue Heron

In pursuit of the wily Rosie
August 23, 2010 4:58 PM | Posted in:

You think you're a dog person? You're not a dog person. This is a dog person.

(OK, it's really "these are dog people," but that doesn't work as well with the Crocodile Dundee schtick. You know, the one where they're comparing knives?)

Seriously, you need to go to Find Rosie (the link above takes you to the first entry...read it and then keep clicking to move through the story; it's almost like a Chapter Book! Only with pictures!) where you'll find things that will make you laugh, cry, and scratch your head while thinking "wha' the...?"

You'll also want to thank Molly and Colin (Rosie's people) for being the kind of dog owners all our dogs usually think we really are. Until we make them take pills or ferry them to the vet for shots, but that's mostly irrelevant.

I had only one question after reading Rosie's story: who has that many night vision cameras, outside of the CIA?
As you may recall, I was successful in convincing the local barn swallows that our porches were sub-optimal for nest placement. That battle was messy and frustrating for both sides, as battles always are, and neither side emerged feeling entirely satisfied with the outcome.

During the aftermath, it became obvious that barn swallows are masters of turning lemons into lemonade. They also subscribe to the strategy of victory through overwhelming numbers. And so it is I find that even though I've successfully stopped them from building nests, they've created more holes in the dike than I have fingers.

Our next-door neighbor recently counted more than forty of the little birds perched along the eave of her back porch. That should give you an idea of the magnitude of the issue. A number of that gang has decided that our back and front porches provide excellent overnight accommodations, even if they can't erect apartment complexes for permanent residence. As it turns out, they've decided that the steps that I took to dissuade the nest-building (stuffing rolled-up shop towels behind ceiling-mounted speakers, for example) provide perfectly cozy places to spend the night.

Now, let me be clear: barn swallows are very cute birds, and entertaining to watch. They do a great job of mosquito control, and they don't bother other birds (unlike the house finches who bully the hummingbirds trying to service our feeders). But the concept of - how can I put this delicately? - "not fouling one's own nest" is completely foreign to them. In other words, we can always tell how many overnighted by the mess they left on the concrete below.

I'm now taking suggestions for further countermeasures. Regarding the speakers, it's obvious that I'll need to build a solid enclosure of some type around them. The porch eaves pose a bigger challenge. But if my idea for a tiny little electric fence works out, you'll be the first to know.

Dos Burros
August 17, 2010 2:31 PM | Posted in: ,

There are two burros pastured about a quarter mile from our house. Every so often, something will set them off - a rattlesnake, a coyote, perhaps even each other - and we'll hear their braying all around the neighborhood.

I took a photo of them a year or two back, when we were in the middle of an extreme drought. I just stumbled across the image and liked the way the light of the setting sun added some contrast to the picture. I applied a little Photoshopping (OK, more than a little), and voila!

Stylized photo of two burros, one white and one black

Baby Horny Toad
August 7, 2010 9:05 PM | Posted in: ,

As I've noted before, horny toads seem to be making a comeback, at least in our neck of the woods. Here's further evidence - a baby lizard, one of the smallest I've ever seen. I didn't actually see this one, though, as Debbie came across it while walking this evening with a friend. That's Debbie's finger in the photo. This little guy is barely bigger than the ants it lives on!

Photo - Tiny horned lizard

Nature Walk
July 24, 2010 10:47 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I went for a walk around the ponds this morning after breakfast, and as usual, encountered some interesting animals.

The geese are still hanging around. They were inexplicably strolling through the vacant lot across from our house (I saw one of them nip at some of the weed seed heads), and when they saw us walking down the street, headed our way and paralleled our course. Here's a short snippet of video I took with my phone.



They continued to walk in roughly the same direction we were headed, but they crossed the street, back and forth, inspecting who-knows-what. Some of our neighbors had congregated on a front porch and they watching the geese with great interest. One of them had a chihuahua on a long leash, and he was quite attentive, straining at the leash to get a closer look...until, that is, the geese turned toward him, at which point he quickly retreated to his master, content to switch to remote monitoring mode. We had a laugh at his expense, but I observed that it would be like us confronting a T-Rex, given the size difference between the small dog and the large goose. I didn't blame him a bit.

It took us about ten minutes to round the south pond - pausing to speak to a cottontail rabbit who thought he was hiding in plain sight just off the sidewalk - and by the time we got to the opposite side, the geese had made their way along the pond and we watched them waddle down the bank and back into the water. I suppose they were getting in their morning constitutional, as were we.

Heading toward the north pond, we spotted something in the middle of the sidewalk about 20 feet ahead. It was a horny toad. I wondered why we always seemed to see them on the walkway, and we soon got our answer. He was resting in the path where an abundance of ants were busily crossing the concrete, and it was a veritable movable feast from his perspective. We watched as he pounced on several ants who had the bad judgment to wander into his sphere of ingestion. He didn't seem to be willing to chase any of them down, content to let them come to him, but we did see him miss one ant, eat another that was close behind, then whirl around and consume the one that almost got away. Unfortunately, the scene took place too far away to capture on my phone's camera.

Rounding the north pond and heading home, we roused the usual jackrabbit contingent. They like the tall grass brought out by the summer's rainfall, but you can usually spot the black tips of their ears sticking up over the ground cover. Those guys are built for speed, and they're as shy as the geese are bold.

It's going to get ugly
May 19, 2010 7:53 AM | Posted in: ,

I predict war will break out within the next few months, and I'll probably be on the losing end. A mockingbird is building a nest in the live oak tree planted in our front yard.

Last Sunday I noticed the bird flying into the tree on a couple of occasions, seeming to pay no mind to us as we sat on the front porch (well, I sat while Debbie pruned shrubs, a pleasing tableau to my mind), but the implications didn't sink in. Yesterday, though, I noticed it was continuing to pay close attention to the tree, often with twigs or grass in its mouth, so I conducted a closer inspection. The nest is almost complete, and it's less than ten feet from ground level.

This does not bode well for lawn mowing this summer. Nesting mockingbirds are fiercely protective of their eggs and young, and their bravado borders on foolishness. They also have sharp beaks and claws and they know how to use them.

It's highly entertaining to watch mockingbirds torment cats that wander into their territory; it's less so when you're on the receiving end of their attention. I once donned a motorcycle helmet to finish mowing our lawn (which might explain why our neighbors generally crossed the street when walking past our house) when we lived in Garland*, but only after a kamikaze attack left the top of my bare head oozing blood. I had a similar experience at our previous house, although no injuries were sustained other than to my pride as I ran for cover in my own yard.

So, I'm pessimistic about the prospects for peaceful co-existence this summer. I no longer own a motorcycle, but I may put my bike helmet by the front door...just in case.

*Yep, that's the same "Garland, Texas" referred to in unflattering terms in the opening scenes of Zombieland. I have no idea why the filmmakers decided to pick on Garland (especially since the movie was shot primarily in Georgia), but I can assure you that the city does not look like it was destroyed by zombies. For the most part.

Sled Dogs
April 15, 2010 9:36 PM | Posted in:

I dare you to watch this without grinning. Dogs are so cool...especially when they're playing in the snow! [Via Neatorama]


Farewell to Abbye
November 8, 2008 3:15 PM | Posted in:

Abbye took her last breath today, bringing to an end a life that was harder than she deserved.

After battling through almost three years of diabetes (two daily insulin shots) and Cushing's Disease (regular doses of a powerful anti-cancer medication), her little heart finally gave out.

I wish I could say that she was the happiest dog I've ever known, but it's a huge irony that she brought so many smiles to so many faces and yet I sensed that she rarely smiled herself. I suspect her early days, before we found her, were so traumatic that she never truly recovered, never really came to trust anyone. She never learned to play; she was afraid of toys (and blowing leaves, and raindrops, and so on); she remained suspicious of motives and often indifferent to human interaction. In many ways, she was more like a cat than a dog.

But she was also gentle, well-mannered, a quick learner, and occasionally as impressively stubborn as a mule. She consented to be fawned over and cared for, but she refused to let us believe that we owned her.

I mentioned the smiles she brought to others. I've never had nor seen a dog that elicited such joyful reactions from strangers, especially during her sighted, more active days when she'd walk at my heel through the neighborhood, and cars would slow to a crawl as they passed us, the drivers with big grins pointing her out to their kids in the back seats. I lost count of the number of times absolute strangers would stop their cars in the middle of the street, roll down their windows, and ask questions about her. After we moved to the new neighborhood, several people told me how much they missed seeing her on those morning walks, even if they'd never met her.

Abbye Fabulous (or Ab Fab, for short) was almost fourteen years old (we think), and we're drawing comfort from the fact that she's no longer suffering from the illnesses - physical and otherwise - that plagued her for much of her life. The little dog will be missed.

Photo of Abbye with a bone

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