Our long national nightmare has ended
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Our long national nightmare has ended
Just rub a little dirt on it; it'll be fine.
Matthew 7:26-27 (NASB)
We interrupt this hiatus for some important scavenger footage
April 2, 2014 9:41 PM | Posted in: Nature
Capistrano has its swallows; Fort Stockton has its avian garbage disposals.
Euonymus fortunei 'Coloratus'
This passionflower was blooming in front of our B&B.
The geckos and green anoles (like this one) were busy
keeping the insect population in check.
Well, some insects were spared. These were getting ready to rumble.
Conspiratorial gastropods creep me out. They're talking about me, I just know it.
The Wildseed Farms butterfly garden was resplendent.
We're getting toward the end of butterfly season in Texas,
but that just makes us appreciate those that are left that much more.
It was good to see water in the Guadalupe and Pedernales Rivers.
It was also good to know that we could squeak by on the weight limit.
You know that saying about blooming where you're planting?
Is this what they had in mind?
This turtle was obviously disoriented by the rain, as he left the safety
of the mud for the danger of the road. (We rescued him.)
This guy (gal?) picked a dangerous spot to catch some rays.
She (he?) was wary but unmoving.
Is this a threatening countenance? I think not.
(I've taken a lot of snake photos in my time, but this might be my favorite.)
Since the pasture was once part of the Permian Sea,
can we call this mesquite stump "driftwood"?
No, this is not what you think. It's a rock,
and the pasture is littered with them. Growing up, we
thought they were pieces of meteorites but I now realize how silly that was.
They're obviously fragments from a crashed alien spacecraft.
I think this is a Cloudless Sulphur
I'm more certain that this is a Gulf Fritillary.
This is a different view of the Gulf Fritillary shown above.
Flight Behaviors in Young Animals: More Questions Than Answers
August 9, 2013 11:06 PM | Posted in: Nature
[We continue our vacation report from South Carolina. Here's part one.]
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Palmetto Bluff was the diversity of flora and fauna. I'm not much of a botanist, but the coastal pine forest, gigantic live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, and comic-book-sized magnolia trees bordered on awe-inspiring. It was the animal life, however, that fascinated me. It seemed that everywhere we turned we saw something interesting and generally un-West-Texas-like. Following are some random scenes to illlustrate this.
A green anole kept a close eye on us one morning during breakfast. (He dined a little himself.)
Shark! Well, not really. These are two of the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins that frequent the May River
It's indescribably cool to paddle board around these friendly mammals.
Those white dots are egrets, roosting on an island in the lagoon just inland from our cottage.
This is a little better view of some of the egrets. They were pretty noisy (and just a bit stinky, depending on the wind direction).
A shore bird keeps a close eye on a small alligator.
This was the first of many gators we spotted while at Palmetto Bluff. They're qute shy.
A close-up of one of the lagoon gators. He wasn't thrilled with the papparazzi.
There's something artistically sinister about the ripples following a slowly swimming alligator.
It's worth noting for those who might have some trepidation about vacationing around large aquatic reptiles with unsavory reputations that the alligators wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with us, or any other humans. And while we spotted them almost every day, we went out of our way to do so. It's not unlikely that one could spend a week on the grounds and never see a gator (which saddens me greatly, but that's just me).
A Great Blue Heron was trying to stalk dinner while simultaneously keeping an eye on me.
How many turtles can you spot?
Ant beds might not have the excitement of gators, but I was curious as to why the ants lay out a series of
beds in a straight line across a dirt road. We came across several occurrences of this phenomenon.
And speaking of ants, they grows some big honkin' fire ant mounds in South Carolina!
(We couldn't help yelling "Marabunta!" as soon as we spotted it. You SyFy fans know whereof I speak.)
The last scene needs a bit of setup. One afternoon after lunch we were walking around the grounds. One of the lagoons was on our left, and we normally kept an eye out for alligators as we walked or bicycled past them. But Debbie looked to the right and spotted three deer just across the road in the wooded area. I didn't have my camera with me (what?!) so pulled out my phone, even as I realized they were too far away for a decent shot. A movement back toward the lagoon caught me eye, and I suddenly had a really good reason to keep my phone out and filming.
The bird is a Great Blue Heron (we've actually seen them around our neighborhood). The snake is a Small Unwilling Meal.
- It appears that both parents contribute to the feeding. I can't tell them apart, but at the 2:50 mark, one shows up to "tag team" the other (although at first glance, it seems not be be a welcome appearance).
- I have always assumed that barn swallows fed their young by regurgitating partially digested insects into the babies' mouths, but right off the bat - at the 30 second mark where I've slowed down the action - you can see a whole insect, legs sticking out of the adult's mouth, and it gets stuffed right down the gullet of the infant. I guess they know what they're doing.
- Another slo-mo feeding takes place near the end, at the 4:10 mark, and this one seems to clearly demonstrates the regurgitating process.
- It's also fascinating to watch how the adults seemingly know who gets fed next. If there was any doubling up, with one youngster getting fed twice in a row, I didn't catch it.
(Update - the next morning: Good thing I emptied it yesterday; there was another 3" in the gauge.)
This is the obligatory view of the snow-enhanced pond. The ducks were not amused.
Also not amused was our palm tree.
An interesting predicament: snow-filled traffic lights.
This is a clumsy 360° panorama taken from the hill just north of our neighborhood. Click for a bigger view. There's software that will stitch these pictures together much better than I did by hand, but I was too lazy to look for it. Oh, by the way, the big photo is 3,300 pixels wide.
The wax myrtle in the back yard wasn't exactly thrilled with its new coat...
...but the desert willow was stylin'.
The neighborhood pond is simply magnificent when it snows.
The snow turned a sad, drought-stricken pasture into a semi-surreal postcard.
Our ceramic iguana was not amused...
...and neither was I when I arrived at my office to find that melting snow had found its way out of the cold.
The politics and legal issues of the situation are possibly insurmountable, but the cost of building infrastructure that could transport enough water to make a difference is just mind-boggling.
I've not seen a cost estimate for a massive water transport project, but with a little back-of-the-envelope calculating, it's possible to create an order-of-magnitude guess by using another massive and well-known project as a comparison: The Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS), completed in 1977 to move crude oil from the North Slope of Alaska to Port Valdez in south Alaska.
TAPS consists of a 48" pipeline stretching for 800 miles. It cost about $8 billion in 1977 dollars, and has a capacity of around 2, 000,000 barrels per day (equivalent to 84 million gallons per day). The crude oil that the pipeline transports weighs about 7.4 pounds per gallon.
Using these facts and some additional assumptions, we can paint a very primitive picture of what it would entail to build a similar pipeline to transport water. Let's assume that we want to grab water from the mighty Mississippi River and move it to Lake O.H. Ivie in west central Texas, a major source of water for Midland. We'll use Vicksburg, Mississippi as the assumed origin of the pipeline, since it's roughly at the same latitude as the end point.
It's about 600 miles from Vicksburg to the lake. All things being equal, the cost of the pipeline would be $22.5 billion, based on the inflation-adjusted cost of TAPS ($30 billion for 800 miles). You could rightly argue that the rough Alaskan terrain inflated the TAPS cost considerably; drastic elevation changes required expensive pump stations, and other factors such as weather, water crossings, environmental safeguards, etc. drove up the cost.
However, the TAPS project had one huge advantage that our MS-to-TX project wouldn't have: less than 10% of the land crossed by the pipeline was privately owned; the rest is state- or federal-government owned. While I have no doubt some rather intense negotiations went on to get easements across those lands, it must have been a cakewalk compared to getting easements from potentially hundreds or thousands of landowners between Texas and Mississippi.
There are a couple of additional considerations to complicate things. Water is heavier than crude oil (at least the crude produced from the North Slope of Alaska). Pumps have to be bigger to move the increased weight. (Also, scientists created a substance that was mixed in with the oil to make it slide more easily through the pipeline - known in the trade as "slickum" - that reduced the required pumping capacity, but I'm pretty sure you wouldn't want it mixed in with your drinking water.)
While 84 million gallons per day sounds like a lot of water, it's still only enough to meet the daily demands of four cities the size of Midland (based on our current 22 million gallons per day usage). And we haven't even considered the cost to operate and maintain the pipeline.
So, if a pipeline doesn't provide the necessary capacity, what about digging a big ditch? Canal systems have been used for centuries to distribute water. I have no idea what it might cost to dig a canal from Mississippi to Texas, but the logistical issues are probably many times more complicated (it's comparatively easy to run a pipeline under an interstate, for example). Then there's the issue of elevation change. Vicksburg is essentially at sea level; O.H. Ivie is about 1,500' higher. With few exceptions, water runs downhill, and you have to convince it to do otherwise. I'm sure there are some engineers in the audience who can compute the horsepower needed for pumps that will move a few hundred million gallons of water per day uphill. I can't, but I'm guessing it's a bunch (sorry to have to use such technical terminology).
Having said all of this, I suspect that if we were starting with a blank slate today, we'd conclude that our current interstate highway system could not be built, due to imposing economic and political roadblocks (pun intended). A national water distribution system is achievable, but I doubt we have the national resolve to make it happen.
Those two head-on shots are my favorites; they remind me of airplanes flying in formation. In the last picture, notice how their wings seem to be synchronized.
In light of an ongoing battle concerning local water rights - and specifically a proposal to pipe up to 42 million gallons per day from Fort Stockton to Midland - there's a legitimate concern about whether we'll ever again see the springs flow like this. While studies seem to indicate that the aquifer continually recharges, I doubt that it does so to an extent that will permit exit to the surface. I decided to document the output of the springs from beginning to end.
Click on each photo to view a larger version. You can also navigate through the entire suite of pictures if you wish to skip the commentary.
As I mentioned above, the springs come up in several locations around Rooney Park. These sources look like big holes in the ground containing standing water; the flow of the stream is not readily evident, and in fact the water looks like algae-laden runoff. It gets much better.
The third source (the exit from which shown at right above) is at the swimming pool and long-time visitors to the pool will remember the metal cage around it. It's been there for many decades, as evidenced by the undated photo shown below that I borrowed from a caver website. [Comanche Springs Cave is a lightly-explored but quite extensive series of caverns and tunnels that were carved out by the flow of the springs. Some theorize that the system might be as much as 100 miles in length. Exploration is made difficult by the unpredictability of the water table.]
Rooney Park is bisected by a canal that runs from the southwest corner of the park past the swimming pool and exits the park at the northeast corner. Water from the springs is channeled into the canal. The photo on the left shows the beginning section, and the one on the right is exiting the park. The bridge in the background is on the Sanderson Highway (Highway 285). As you can see, the water level in the canal has risen considerably by this point.
After exiting the park, the finished portion of the canal comes to an end just east of the Highway 285 bridge.
As I stood on a concrete embankment overlooking this "pond," a hawk flew out of the underbrush at the left and passed me at eye level, not fifty feet away. It happened too quickly to get a photo, but I was transfixed by the sight.
From here, the stream wanders east and north, eventually flowing under East Dickinson Blvd (aka East 9th Street, aka Business I-10). The satellite photo below clearly shows the meandering nature of the stream. It also demonstrates the life-giving effect of live water in a desert environment.
Following are pictures of the stream at the East Dickinson bridge. In the middle photo, you can see that the water is a welcome attraction to overwintering waterfowl. The third shows the water flowing along the highway right-of-way just before it runs under the bridge, heading north.
The stream continues northeast and crosses under Interstate 10, where it flows across the service road.
We can infer from the above photo that the flow of water is a limited seasonal event; otherwise, the city/county/state (jurisdiction isn't clear to me) would construct a bridge or tunnel to deal with the stream.
From here, the water flows into a privately-owned pasture* and empties into what I believe is a caliche pit. I'm not positive about that, but I do know that alert travelers along I-10 can catch a glimpse of what looks like a very small lake just north of the highway. Whether this is a playa lake or a pit is unknown to me; readers with knowledge about this are invited to share in the comments section. Again, though, we can turn to Google's satellite photo that seems to indicate that the end point is more of a depression than a pit. Zoom in on the map below to see what I mean. [Update: I stand corrected. That large whitish area on the satellite photo does appear to be a pit; it's dry in this version of the photo. But the stream also appears to continue north and then east (follow the green "trail," where it sort of peters out. That's what I initially looked at.]
In any event, by this point the stream was flowing vigorously, and running water through a West Texas pasture is a beautiful sight.
If you look closely at the third photo, you'll see where ducks took off from the water after I startled them; they're flying in the distance.
I shot the following short video with my Canon point-and-shoot to provide an idea of the strength of the stream's flow at this point.
It's been estimated that Comanche Springs once flowed at a rate of 60 million gallons per day or more. According to a 2009 report in the Fort Stockton Pioneer (link no longer available), the flow was estimated at 1.5 million gallons per day, on average, but subject to significant daily variation. That's still a pretty hefty stream in the desert. And the question of whether it's better to let this natural flow continue, benefiting "only" wildlife and pasture, or to capture it and send it to a city whose water supply is dwindling is a legitimate one. Regardless of the outcome of the debate, we should enjoy the beauty of Comanche Springs whenever the opportunity occurs.
*Full disclosure: I'm pretty sure I was trespassing in order to take the photos and videos in the pasture. Although I didn't see a "Posted" or "No Trespassing" sign, the fact that I stepped over a fence to gain access means that I went where I shouldn't have gone. If I had planned this trip, I would have contacted the landowner for permission, and I have no doubt it would have been granted. As it is, I have no excuse, other than a desire to share this special phenomenon with others. You should not follow my example.
I quickly walked to my office, mounted the zoom lens on my SLR (there must be a natural and immutable law of nature that holds that the lens you need at any given time isn't the one on your camera) and moved back to the window, not at all sure that the hawk would still be there. But he was, and he posed for a wide variety of shots, occasionally jumping to the ground, then back into the low-hanging branches of the tree.
I was so intent on watching his head that I failed to notice that he had something grasped in a claw. I finally recognized the carcass of a bird, probably a dove, and one much worse for the wear. I wonder if the hawk body-slammed its prey in our backyard and spent some time there tearing it up?
After a few minutes, I think he noticed me moving from window to window, pointing a camera lens at him, and decided to retire to a more secluded spot.
Click on the small photos below to see bigger versions. Keep in mind that these were shot through less than pristine window glass (it's been a bit dusty around here lately).
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.
Click on the small images for bigger versions, and to go through them slideshow-style.
Our tree is loaded this year, as the photo below proves. And this is after we thinned out the crop a bit. From the street, the pomegranates look like those big red Christmas tree ornaments. I don't remember the fruit being quite this red and shiny last year.
I think we've got another few weeks before they're ready to harvest.
Hard to believe, huh? Yeah, that's what I thought until I spotted an oddly constructed insect on our crape myrtle at lunch today. Click on the small photos to see the gory details.
I'm sure there's a cautionary tale here, somewhere, but I'm trying really hard not to think about it.
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.
Unfortunately, that rain came with a price - very high, gusty winds. Our fully loaded pomegranate tree is loose in the ground, and would have been completely uprooted had I not staked it down a couple of months ago. But our neighbors to the immediate east suffered a significant loss, namely:
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.
According to my extensive (one or two clicks) research, these are Western Greylag (or Graylag, if you prefer the Americanized spelling convention) geese, with the pleasingly repetitive scientific name anser anser anser (just trying typing that without inputting "answer" instead). They apparently have a wide range worldwide, but I have no idea whether these are domesticated escapees, or slightly confused travelers, seeking temporary haven while trying to recalibrate their GPS.
I expected that they would be gone very quickly, but they were still hanging around yesterday evening. In fact, they had picked up an accomplice in the form of an apparently species-confused young duck. While the geese swam slowly across the pond in single file, the duck paralleled their course a few feet away, serving as a wing man. The other ducks were huddled together across the pond. We surmised that they'd either ostracized the youngster for bad behavior (you know how they can be), or had sent him to spy on the intruders. Or, perhaps, he simply had grand aspirations that he felt couldn't be fulfilled by normal duckhood.
On a related note, that run was chock-full of good bird sighting, as a sandhill crane also graced the northern pond. Unfortunately, he didn't stay around for long, and I wasn't able to get a photo.
According to this website, this is a Scarlet Darter Dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea). Whatever the name, it's a gorgeous specimen.
This is a vastly different kind of "stick" compared to the one I photographed last year. This one is Mike Tyson, while that one is Michael Cera.
Ours was pretty good.
Yesterday, much of Midland experienced record-setting rainfall. The airport recorded just over 2" and street flooding was a serious problem. I even succumbed to it, managing to drown the Durango in an ill-advised attempt to cross the River Wadley in front of HEB. Fortunately, I was able to coast onto a side street and let the engine dry out enough to limp home, the automotive equivalent of a wet possum. (I did appreciate the two young Mormon missionaries who stopped and offered to help, despite their obvious lack of mechanical savvy.) But, those conditions did not extend to Casa de Fire Ant, where our backyard rain gauge - a mere two miles from the aforementioned flooded streets - recorded a paltry .1" for the entire day.
OK, fine. I need to mow the yard today anyway, and it would be too wet if we had gotten that much rain yesterday. I always look for the silver lining in the non-existent thundercloud. So what do we wake up to this morning? Rain, falling steadily, and in sufficient quantity to thwart my lawn care plans. And, of course, the forecast is for more precip over the next few days (depending on what course Hurricane Alex takes), meaning that by the time I can next fire up the lawnmower, what I'll really need is a hay baler.
But, so you won't think I'm a complete wet blanket, a total stick-in-the-mud, an overbearing glass-is-half-empty guy, an insufferable generator of tired water-related cliches, I do appreciate the opportunity to turn off the sprinkler system for a few days, along with the lifting of the county's burn ban. Not that I have anything I wish to incinerate, but it's nice to know that I once again have that option.
Yesterday, I glanced out my office window and spotted this one on our flowerbed's brick border. By the time I grabbed the camera and got outside, he was lounging against a stand of Mexican feathergrass, apparently striking an intentional pose.
I understand that the lizard's dwindling numbers is attributed to increased use of pesticides, encroachment on habitat by human development, and the severe drought conditions that have thankfully eased this year. It's good to see them back.
At first, I thought it was a pigeon, but after observing him for a while, I'm pretty sure it's a dove. I've seen white wild doves before, but they are not common.
He seemed a bit wilted by the heat, but not overly distressed. I walked within two feet of him several times and he didn't back away. Debbie put out a shallow plastic bowl of water and he climbed onto the side and took a few drinks. Later, he walked over and conquered the ceramic iguana.
After about 20 minutes of investigating the flowerbed and surroundings, he disappeared. I'm sure it's an omen, but darned if I know of what.
Anyway, if you don't have any pomegranate trees in your area, you might be interested in seeing the stages of development, all in one photo.
Starting in the lower right corner and going counterclockwise, you'll see the flowers that are the first signs that the fruit bearing season is beginning. Those flowers give way to an intermediate stage (top right), which in turn become something more recognizable as an actual pomegranate (middle left).
This one tree has literally dozens of each of these "life stages."
This and a few other new images will be up at the Gallery pretty soon.
We can but hope that the local dove gene pool is thereby strengthened, but I somehow doubt it.
Can you make out that mass of junk in the middle of the palm tree (and we're using the word "tree" quite loosely here; it's more of a palm bush or palm shrub). It's a dove's nest, perched precariously a full three feet above the ground.
We discovered it last weekend, and noticed it only when the nesting dove exploded from the tree as we walked by. Closer inspection revealed this (it's been a while...forever, in fact, since I've been able to photograph down into a nest without a ladder):
The mother is quite skittish, and with good reason. She didn't exactly pick an obscure spot for the young 'uns. But I was able to point a telephoto lens around the corner and catch her hard at work:
As soon as she spotted me, she burst from the nest and took up residence on the neighbor's roof, keeping an eye on me:
Dove as a species don't strike me as very intelligent; they're the avian counterpart to sheep. However, this choice of location for a nest isn't as dumb as it might seem. Sure, it's close to the ground, but it's also protected by a seven foot wall and locked gates. There's danger from weather, but that's a given regardless of location, but, otherwise, unless another marauding bird makes an appearance, this may be a good place to raise a family. We'd like to think of our neighborhood in those terms, anyway.
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.
Our neighborhood didn't sustain any damage from the rain or the hail, other than leaves knocked off various shrubs and trees. The drainage system out here performed admirably, unlike in other parts of Midland. And Debbie and I actually missed most of the excitement as we were enjoying Iron Man 2 while the heaviest part of the storm moved across the city (although it was sometimes hard to distinguish movie sound effects from Mother Nature's).
Here's a photo of our neighborhood's south pond. The water level is about 4' higher than normal. If you can't quite make out the sign, it says "No Swimming or Wading," and it's normally on dry ground. That junk floating in the water is mulch that washed down from the bank.
Here's another view showing the sidewalk that normally leads to the dock.
Despite the heavy rains, we still managed to have a spectacular sunset.
The thunderhead in the distance was moving away from us. We were more than happy to share it with someone else.
Last night around 11:00 a line of thunderstorms rolled across our area, dumping some brief heavy rain, along with small but fierce hail. When Debbie retrieved the newspaper at 5:30 this morning (we also have an over-achieving paper carrier), she found this scene in our flowerbed:
Despite morning temperatures in the mid-50s, these little flowers were still packed in ice from the hailstorm. Besides being beaten, there's a good chance they won't survive the chill, although our hope is that the ground temperature didn't drop to a killing degree.
[Fortunately, this appears to be the worst damage we sustained from the hail, and this occurred only because the icy balls rolled off the roof and accumulated in one unfortunate spot.]
"It will be a cold day in July before..." is a common aphorism around here, but perhaps we should start referring to ice storms in May.
Yeah, I know; it looks like the Loch Ness monster but it's actually a wild turkey. I've never seen one around Midland. I apologize for the lack of detail in the photos but this bird was quite skittish and my camera was maxed out. Anyone else ever seen a wild turkey this close to the Midland city limits?
Another cool thing. When I got out of the car to take the second photo, I glanced down and spotted this wildflower:
It has a vague resemblance to a bluebonnet, but the color is amazing. I was as impressed with the flower as I was with the bird.
I took a 30-minute stroll yesterday morning, and within a three-block area found sixteen different varieties of wildflowers. OK, most of them are technically flowering weeds, but, you know, potato/potahto.
Some of these may at first glance appear to be duplicates, but if you look closely, you'll see that they're different varieties. And please don't ask me to identify them; the only ones I can name are the bluebonnet, the chocolate daisy, and the purple nightshade.
Click on the photo for a bigger version.
Update: I spent some time browsing various wildflower-related websites and I *think* I've identified most of the flowers. Feel free to correct me or to provide identities for the three species I couldn't match to anything in my "research."
Top row (l-r): Blue curls, Huisache daisy, Purple nightshade, Coreopsis
2nd row (l-r): Limestone gaura, Chocolate daisy, Unknown, Rabbit tobacco
3rd row (l-r): Blackfoot daisy, Gray vervain, Paper daisy, Unknown
4th row (l-r): Bluebonnet, Firewheel, Unknown, Dahlberg daisy
If the preceding image is too, um, intense for you, perhaps one that has flowers in it will be more to your liking. (The mouse was non-committal.)
Here's a bigger version of the preceding image.
Here's a bigger version of the preceding image.
To get a sense of the scale, those are my fingers holding the branch.
Technical details: I recorded this on my iPhone, imported the recording into iTunes, then opened it in Adobe Soundbooth CS4 where I trimmed the beginning and ending, increased the loudness, and used the noise filter to remove the, um, noise caused by the breezy ambient conditions. The resulting recording is a pretty good showcase for the bird's vocal versatility.
They're actually quite graceful, floating silently and effortlessly in the stiff breezes that persisted until nightfall. The only unsettling thing about them being directly overhead was...well, I'll leave it to your imagination.
The voices you hear at the end of the video recounting an encounter of a motorcycle with a buzzard are those of my brother and his wife.
Link via TwistedShifter
Oh, and here's where it gets even worse. Somebody needs to retake Fly Catching 101.
Of course, by 3:00 pm the sun was shining, the streets were [mostly] clear, and those who'd gotten "snow days," while enjoying their good fortune, were doing so with just a tinge of sheepishness. (I initially used the term "guilt" and then decided that it probably wasn't applicable at all.)
I chauffeured my wife to her office around 8:30 a.m. so she could grab her laptop and work from home. The streets were a bit treacherous, but traffic was light and well-behaved. Even though her office was officially closed, several employees showed up, either because they weren't intimidated by the weather or - more likely - hadn't gotten word of the closing. She was able to be productive the rest of the day from the comfort of our living room.
The best thing about snowfall around here, besides the fact that it's rare and doesn't stay around too long, is that it makes for some pretty scenery.
Any obstacle, that is, except for 3" of snow.
I'm sure every West Texas-originated blog will carry reports of the snowfall that now blankets our area. That snowfall has practically shut down all public activities, including all local schools (college classes are starting late) and many government offices. Loop 250, one of our major thoroughfares, is now closed. Interestingly, all flights from Midland International Airport are still listed as on time.
Also, for the first time ever, my wife's office is closed due to the weather, something that I'm sure will be greeted by amusement at their Denver headquarters.
I'm also sure that our friends from the northeastern part of the US will also be amused at our reaction to what for them is hardly worth mentioning.
Link via Neatorama
My only quibble is that they should have played the Texas state song at the end.
Viewed from a certain angle, you can see that there's not much to this bird, despite his impressive size while he's wading.
Of course, I couldn't resist taking the camera for a stroll around the ponds to see if there were any new perspectives to be gained. Unfortunately, most of my pictures turned out to look like I took them in a fog. Go figure. But the birds were more cooperative than usual, as it was too cold to be bothered, and I was able to get a close-up of what I think is a Pyrrhuloxia, all puffed up trying to stay warm:
If a picture is worth a thousand words, is a photo of a great egret* equivalent to folding a thousand pieces of paper? I obviously can't say for sure, but this fellow was a great photo subject on the first day of the new year, and if he wants to be the bearer of good luck, we'll take all he can carry.
*I think this is a great egret; I'm open to correction from any true birders out there. Whatever he (she?) is, he's a frequent visitor to our ponds during the winter. The ducks seem a bit indignant at his presence. I suspect the fish have somewhat stronger feelings, but I could be anthropomorphizing.
This is one.
Andrew Zuckerman is a professional photographer, and his new book has the simple and completely descriptive title of Bird. It consists of a series of gorgeous photos of birds, both exotic and mundane. What sets his work apart from other "nature photographers" is his elimination of any context for the subject; the photo consists of an image of the bird against a pure white background. This makes for a striking image, and allows the eye to focus completely on the details of each specimen.
The website for Bird goes one step further by providing an audio recording of each bird's call. This added dimension allows the visitor to create his or her own context, albeit an incomplete one, although that depends on the extent of one's imagination.
I'm not a fan of websites built with Flash, but this is probably a perfect example of when the exception is entirely justified.
Bird is available via Amazon.com [link], and if you find it appealing, you may also be interested in Zuckerman's previous publications that use similar techniques, Creature [link] and Wisdom [link].
In the second photo, you can easily see the pockmarks the bird was leaving in the tree bark.
Technical photo details: Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon 80-200 zoom lens, manual focus, ISO 100
That's not entirely accurate. I had occasionally spotted one here and there, even in the middle of the afternoon, but we hadn't heard their unique vocalizing in a while.
That changed late Sunday afternoon, as my wife and I walked through the neighborhood enjoying the beautiful weather. The full moon had just cleared the Midland Country Club treeline and I observed that its reflection in the pond would make a great photo.
As we made our way toward home, some distant sirens interrupted the evening calm, setting the neighborhood dogs to barking and yelping. They finally ceased their commotion and relative quiet returned...for a moment.
Suddenly, an amazing cacophony erupted, seeming to originate in the pasture less than half a mile south of us. The "missing" coyotes were back, and they were in fine voice. Their concert went on long enough - and was loud enough - to prompt us to try to capture some of it on our iPhones. Here's the result of mine (cleaned up a bit to remove some background hiss and boost the gain a bit).
What had stimulated this unexpected serenade? My only explanation is that the tricksters had succumbed to the stereotype and they were reacting to the appearance of the full moon.
I can't say that coyotes are welcome guests in our neighborhood, but if they're going to hang around, it's nice that they announce their presence in such interesting ways.
I should try manual focus more often. ;-)
(Who am I kidding? This was pure luck.)
That's a snapping turtle (my guess is a Common snapping turtle - Chelydra serpentina), and a rather large one at that. They're not exactly native to West Texas, and certainly not something you'd normally find in a suburban pond.
Of course, I had left the house without a camera - these photos came from my iPhone and fortunately they turned out OK. Debbie and I later returned with a decent camera but found no trace of the turtle.
We later learned that the guys who take care of the landscape maintenance duties found the turtle on "A" Street and put him in one of the ponds. I assume he was making a day trip up the stream in search of frogs and fish, and probably had returned to the pond by the time we went back to look for him.
After this, I'm not sure I'll be surprised at anything I see around here. Be sure to check back for photos of an alligator, or perhaps a brontosaurus.
- We don't live far from Carlsbad Caverns, in New Mexico, but I've never seen the bats emerge from or return to the caves. I'll bet you haven't either, at least not like this:
The flight of the bats was filmed using an infrared camera which tracked their movements via their body heat. Amazing footage. I've watched it closely, and out of a half million bats (unaudited, I suspect, but still) I saw not a single collision. Drivers in Houston's rush hour traffic should be so skilled. (Via Wired)
- From the sublime to the, um, not so. Here's how Terminator should have ended. (Via Geeks are Sexy)
- Wonder if Bruce Schneier knows about this?
- Peace Frog is a Japanese motorcycle shop (manufacturer? customizer? hard to tell) which has assembled what appears to be a Royal Enfield with an Indian badge. Gotta love the minimalism; I'd ride one.
- Speaking of bicycles (well, sort of) here's a lush new (to me) online-only cycling publication called The Ride (big honkin' PDF). It's mostly a series of one page essays written mostly by people unfamiliar to me, although Greg LeMond does recollect The Time Trial (surely you don't have to ask).
- On a less light-hearted note, I continue to be disappointed, if not downright disgusted, by the names appearing on the petition to have Roman Polanski released. Wonder how many of them would be OK with their 13-year-old daughters being raped? Ah, don't answer that.
- Last, and probably least, here's a list of 50 large corporations whose PR departments dropped the ball, social-media-wise, and allowed their names to fall victim to cyber-squatters. It's interesting that Chevron's fall-back name, @chevron_justinh, makes it sound like they've assigned their Twitter campaign to an HR intern. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course.
Is it just me, or does this bird with its raised crest have a faint resemblance to a roadrunner? If you didn't know better and just glanced at these two photos, you'd probably think they are pictures of two different species.
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of frantic flapping as the birds exploded away from their metal perch and I looked up, wondering what had caused their alarm. Just then, a young hawk arrived from the east, swooping down and alighting where the doves had previously stood. I mentally kicked myself for once again forgetting to bring the camera, but he was perfectly content to sit and watch the other birds flying quickly past, studiously avoiding him. I crept back inside, grabbed the Canon, returned to my chair and snapped a dozen or so photos before he flew across the vacant lot and perched in a tree by the north pond.
This line of mist or fog stretched horizontally for about a mile, running east and west. It floated about ten or twelve feet about the ground and appeared to be about ten feet thick. I don't recall ever before seeing anything quite like this.
Debbie halved one of them and the fleshy seeds certainly looked ripe.
Pomegranates are a lot of work to eat. I suppose some people eat the seeds, but I prefer to just mush a mouthful around to get the juice and then spit out the remnants. Debbie mashed the rest of the fruit through a strainer (we don't have a juicer) and pronounced the juice quite good.
Our tree has at least a dozen more of the fruit in various stages of ripeness. It will be interesting to see how many of them ripen fully before the weather gets too cold.
I spotted this unknown variety of shield or stink bug on one of the red-tipped photinia in our front flowerbed. I browsed in vain through more than 500 photos via Google's image search without finding a match for this particular coloration and pattern, but I suspect there are thousands of variations. Anyway, I don't recall ever seeing one quite like this.
He's wet because she sprayed him with a hose before she realized he wasn't a grasshopper. I think he's a little miffed, if the expression on his face is any indication.
It's also more than a little creepy the way he follows your movements with his head and eyes.
Click on the first photo to see a larger and uncropped version.
Yesterday morning was a great example. As I was drinking coffee and doing my "Through the Bible in a Year" reading, a movement on the neighbors' roof line caught my eye. I did a double-take; it was a roadrunner, one of the goofier denizens of our ecosystem. Very odd to see it atop a roof, but things got stranger, as a second one appeared. I was also surprised to hear their odd "clattering" sound, a series of rapid clicks they make with their beaks. I've never been close enough to a roadrunner to hear that (you can listen to a recording on this entry in Wikipedia).
The roadrunners had attracted attention from more than this curious human. A veritable swarm of barn swallows was dive-bombing the bigger birds, making them feint and duck. Roadrunners are omnivorous, and not above raiding nests of others birds for both eggs and nestlings. I doubt they would pose a real danger to barn swallows given the usual inaccessibility of their nests, but the swallows weren't taking any chances. (They're a lot more assertive than one might imagine, anyway.)
I watched for a minute or so, and decided to run in and grab the camera and long lens. Of course, by the time I returned, the drama was over. The roadrunners had flown the coop, so to speak (I spotted one of them running around a block north of our house) and the swallows had dispersed, presumably to find other prey for their bullying gang.
I'm sorry I couldn't capture any photos to share with you, but not to worry, because I've come up with an artist's rendering that I think does full justice to the scene that played out this morning. I'm sure you'll agree that it accurately captures the pathos and drama of the complex interchange between the species.
Here's the snake in its pre-smushed condition.
But, that's actually not the most interesting part of our walk. While we weren't doing battle with venomous serpents, we were watching a beautiful thunderstorm developing over Stanton and Big Spring, 20-40 miles east of us. I took a series of photos of the storm cloud.
The last three photos were obviously taken after sunset as I attempted to capture some images of lightning. I set my camera to ISO 1600 (the maximum for my Canon Digital Rebel XT), turned on the motor drive, and took almost 100 photos over the course of a minute or two. These three were the best of the batch. The first two photos of lightning were actually successive frames, taken less than a second apart. The third one was taken 10 seconds later.
Photo courtesy of Tom Woodruff
I've heard this owl (or one like him), hooting in the early morning hours, and I've seen the dark shadow of one flying across the night sky, but I've yet to see one in broad daylight. What a beautiful bird!
For a full-sized version of this photo, click here.
It's a green anole, a lizard that is found throughout the warmer climes of the US, but only infrequently spotted in our neck of the woods. They eat spiders, cockroaches and crickets, so they're quite welcome in our neighborhood.
Here are a couple more photos:
I direct your attention to this informative post, on a blog maintained by an Auburn University PhD candidate specializing in the study of reptiles and amphibians. He addresses a long series of widely-circulated photos purporting to document excessively large snakes, and expertly assesses their likely veracity.
In the case of the "Odessa Snake," his opinion is that it's a python and the photo was more likely taken somewhere in Africa. While I have no opinion regarding the location of the photo, I do agree with his assessment of the species of the snake. There's nothing about the appearance of the snake in the photo that would cause one to mistake it for a rattler.
Nature has a way of confounding our preconceived notions about the size and variety of wildlife, and not every unbelievable photo is a fake. On the other hand, the application of a little common sense mixed with education will allow you to separate fiction from fact in the vast majority of cases.
Note: If you don't like photos of snakes, especially those large enough to eat the family Schnauzer, don't click on the preceding link. As if I have to tell you.
We're amazed at how the frogs are proliferating in the recirculating stream that flows into the south pond. I'm pretty sure that they're leopard frogs (the bullfrogs seem to prefer the still water of the pond itself).
There's also a lone duck who apparently decided he/she has a sweeter deal this summer here than somewhere up north.
When we checked in, the proprietor - a friendly fellow named Jack - anticipated our question. The name of the road is derived from the presence of Texas Madrone trees (Arbutus xalapensis) on the hillside on which the Inn is constructed. Madrones have a fairly limited range in the Texas Hill Country and Edwards Plateau, and the "Naked Indian" nickname is derived from their "bark exfoliation" characteristic. That is, they periodically shed their bark, and the new bark has a wide range of colors, going to a deep apricot or red that gives rise to the politically-dubious ethnic appellation.
Can't picture it? Here are a few photos I took of some of the specimens on the hillside above the Inn.
I've written before about the flock of wild turkeys that have taken up residence in my old neighborhood in Fort Stockton. For whatever reasons, the size of the group has dwindled from the upper teens to just three, a gobbler (male) and two hens.
The male has been known to exhibit aggressive behaviors towards people, chasing them back into their houses, something that sounds amusing until it happens to you. The city's Animal Services department seems unwilling or unable to do anything about it; admittedly, it's not a life-threatening situation.
Last Saturday (March 14th), having been forewarned by my mother, I took my video camera into the streets in search of the wily Meleagris gallopavo, and found them only a half block from our front porch. Here are a few minutes of video from that encounter.
The gobbler turned out to be all bluff, and not much of that. I could not induce him to come towards me, much less attack, and shortly after I turned off the camera, he flew up onto a roof to join his hens, away from our prying eyes.
One interesting behavioral note: If you listen closely, you can hear the scrape of his wingtips on the street. I wonder if that's an intentional warning signal. I noticed that he did that same thing each time he puffed up his plumage, but the sound effects were less effective when he was in the grass.
Killdeer are exceedingly common throughout the US, and they're even regularly observed around bodies of water in our arid part of the state. Still, I haven't had the opportunity to observe them up close until a family took up residence around the stream and pond located in our new neighborhood.
I shot the following video this morning. It was unusually cold for this time of year - temps in the upper 30s - and the killdeer chicks were seeking warmth under mama's wings. The only problem is that there were too many of them and too little of her to go around. You'll also see a short clip of the "distraction behavior" killdeer use to draw predators away from their eggs or young.
I apologize for the shaky video, as I am too cheap to buy a camera with image stabilization, too unskilled to hold a zoomed-in shot steady, and too disorganized to remember to grab a tripod.
Shutter: 1/1000 sec; F-stop 9.0; Aperture: 6.3;
ISO Equiv. 400; Focal length: 55mm; uncropped image: 8mpxl;
Camera: Canon Digital Rebel XT
Here are some lessons I learned from this morning's ride:
- Never assume that a camera on a bicycle is wasted dead weight;
- Don't underestimate the patience of a pair of burrowing owls perched on telephone lines;
- Likewise, the importance of a good lens and a bunch of megapixels cannot be overstated;
And last but not least...
- Skill counts for a lot in photography, but so does blind luck.