Recently in Nature Category

Alert Gazette readers may recall this post from almost two years ago, where I tracked down and photographed the elusive flow of Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton. To my knowledge, that was the last time the springs flowed, thanks to a combination of drought and continued heavy irrigation in the Belding Draw area just west of town.

Photo - Comanche Springs source

The region has had some fairly heavy rainfall over the past few weeks, but I haven't been down there to see if the springs are flowing. But we haven't seen any reports of flow in the local newspaper, and that phenomenon usually makes the front page.

So why bring this up? Well, I received an email yesterday from someone who ran across that post and wants to use some of my photos in an intriguing project entitled Our Desired Future. The accompanying website describes it as "a multimedia project to educate Texans on the interdependence of our groundwater, springs and rivers," with a stated goal "to inspire Texans to bring about the changes needed to keep waters flowing for future generations."

This is a laudable goal, and as far as I can tell, there's no hidden agenda. The material on the website presents a balanced look at the often-conflicting motivations of the various stakeholders in our state's water resources, and it effectively presents the dilemmas via stories, anecdotes, interviews, etc. with the goal of helping us understand the nature and magnitude of the problems, which unfortunately seem to have no easy answers.

Regardless, it was interesting to see that the first report focused on something going on in the aforementioned Belding Draw area of Fort Stockton, where Clayton Williams, Jr's son is undertaking something quite unfamiliar to West Texans: rice farming.

I don't have the time or energy (or knowledge) to explain the complex issues, although the story does a pretty good job of at least skimming the surface. But I do want to weigh in on something that the article touches on, and that's the idea that even if water can't be exported in liquid form straight from the source, it is still being exported in the form of crops. From this perspective, rice farming in arid West Texas is a bit of a provocative political statement. Jeff Williams, the farmer, admits that it's not logical, but he says that his family isn't being allowed to sell their water via pipeline so they're doing so via water-intensive crops such as rice and alfalfa (along with something called teff grass). And he wonders why there's a difference in the way the two are perceived.

Again, I'm not qualified to describe, much less assess, the legal issues involved, but I feel confident that there's at least one perceptual factor that muddies the waters, pun intended, and that's the perceived value of the potential uses for water that might be sold to someone else. It's pretty easy to make a case that using water to grow food is an entirely different endeavor than selling water for use in filling swimming pools or irrigating private landscaping comprised of non-native grasses, trees and shrubs that probably should never have been planted in the first place. We can argue about whether the latter uses are as economically valuable as the former, and in both cases the water is taken from its source and consumed, but I'm sure that most people will have an emotionally-charged preference.

The only quibble I have with the article itself is the statement that 35 million gallons of water can be pumped from the aquifer underlying Belding Draw every day and "still leave room to spare." The data I've seen varies depending on the agenda of those who paid for it, leading me to believe that no one really knows for sure, and no one can predict with certainty what will happen to that aquifer if the current drought persists and worsens. If this sounds like something you've heard me say before, you have a great memory.

As I mentioned at the top, Our Desired Future has some lofty and worthwhile goals. If you'd like to provide some financial support to help the team execute their plans, their website tells you how to do that.

Any thoughts? Feel free to share them via email or my Facebook page.

Winter is Coming
November 9, 2014 7:34 PM | Posted in: ,

No, this isn't a Game of Thrones post. But we are anticipating our first freezing temperatures of the season this week, so preparations are underway at Casa Fire Ant.

It's slightly ironic that our landscape is looking better than it has all year, just in time for a killing frost. Here's a sample of some of our flowers as they appeared yesterday...

Hibiscus

Bougainvillea

Rose

Rose

Our bougainvillea and hibiscus are in pots. Neither species will survive our winter in the ground, so we move them into the garage for the duration. Some horticulturists will tell you that being inside for the winter is not good for bougainvillea, but we have plants that have survived ten or more winters that way. And some even recommend forced dormancy as a survival strategy. The plants are puny in the spring, but after a few weeks of warm weather, they're typically back to their happy selves. I suppose the fact that we move them outside occasionally when the winter weather isn't too brutal so they can get a little sunshine might contribute to their hardiness.

It's a pain to move eight or ten fairly large pots in and out of the garage, so this year I've built something that I hope will significantly reduce the effort. I cut in half a 4' x 8' piece of 3/4" plywood and then rejoined the two halves with hinges, and attached six heavy duty casters (two of which are lockable) to the bottom. I threaded a couple of ropes through each end to tow and steer the platform, stapled a sheet of thick plastic to protect it from water leaks, and - voilà! - a movable plant stand that will accommodate all of our pots at once.

Here's what it looks like unburdened:

Rolling Plant Platform

And here's what the loaded version looks like:

Rolling Plant Platform

In case you're wondering, the hinges make it easier to store the platform. I can fold and lean it against a wall during the offseason.

I'm pretty happy with the way this turned out, although the construction wasn't without mishap. In accordance with my usual modus operandi, in which I essentially always have to redo a significant step that I messed up, I discovered that I countersunk the bolt holes on the wrong side of the boards and had to move the hinges to the other side so that the wheels didn't interfere with folding the platform. In addition, I failed to account for the countersinking and the bolts I used interfered with the wheels so I had to cut them off with a Dremel tool. Fortunately, I've done enough of this boneheaded stuff that I actually build in an allowance for it in my timeline and budget, and I'm disappointed in those rare instances that everything goes right the first time. OK, just kidding. I've NEVER had a project where everything went right the first time. But I've resolved to be disappointed if it ever does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't actually tried to pull the loaded platform into the garage, so I may be in for a nasty surprise tomorrow night when I bring everything in for the first time. I did do a test run with Debbie sitting on it, but she weighs SO MUCH LESS than these plants - I mean, really, it's like comparing a feather to a dump truck...seriously! (she's right behind me, isn't she?) - that I'm not sure how realistic a test it was. I'll let you know if, when I unlock the wheels, the whole thing plummets down the driveway and drags me across the alley and through the neighbors' fence and into their pool. Or you can watch for the report on the evening news.

OK, I know some of you are geeky enough to be disappointed that this wasn't a Game of Throne post, so this is for you:

Winter is Coming Meme

Are you ready for winter? Have you messed up a project lately? Do you watch Game of Thrones? All of these are fodder for further discussion, especially the second one, as it will make me feel better. Email me or leave a comment on Facebook.

It took almost seven years...
September 21, 2014 1:26 PM | Posted in: ,

...but they finally made it to our backyard.

Photo - Squirrel in tree

I'm not thrilled about having squirrels in our neighborhood, but their appearance was inevitable. We are sequestered by at least a quarter mile of treeless pasture on every side, but a lot of trees come in via landscapers and it was just a matter of time before some of these guys hitched a ride.

It's not that I have anything against squirrels, but I'm dealing with enough distractions as it is without...oh, look!...

Nest Report
September 5, 2014 8:38 PM | Posted in:

One of the guys at work claimed he'd seen a hummingbird nest in one of the trees outside our new office building. I was skeptical; in all our years of putting up feeders and watching the little guys, I'd never seen a hummer's nest.

So, today after lunch, Debbie and I walked past a live oak tree and she said it was where the nest was allegedly located. I looked up and immediately saw this:

Hummingbird nest

OK, so it's not the best photo in the world. The wind was gusting and it was threatening rain, and my phone had a hard time figuring out where to focus. But this is definitely a hummingbird's nest, no larger than two inches across. I figured it would be hidden better, but the tiny size means it's difficult to spot unless you're seriously searching for it.

I didn't see any activity around the nest and it was too high in the branches for me to peek inside. I have the same problem with the barn swallow nest on our front porch, but the occupants have no problem peeking at me:

Barn swallow nest with two fledglings

Here's the interesting thing about this. This is the THIRD brood of hatchlings this season in this nest! The swallows have been frisky little things this summer. And notice how the nest has grown taller; it's almost bumping up against the ceiling.

I'm not sure whether I'll leave this nest up once they migrate for the winter. As I've mentioned before, it's in a fairly out-of-the-way location, and if I knock it down, they might pick a less convenient place to rebuild. But after two years, it's bound to be pretty gross, and maybe it's time to make them start over next spring.

In closing, here's a picture of our Horseshoe Bay watch lizard, Poirot the Anole.

Green anole on fence


Camera Sunday
August 26, 2014 8:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent some time last Sunday afternoon wandering around the grounds, camera in hand, looking for photo ops. As usual, once I focused on the trees instead of the forest*, a number of interesting details emerged, most of which involved flying creatures of the six-legged variety.

Flesh Fly

This insect goes by the rather unappealing name of "flesh fly" (genus Sarcophaga), a fly that gets its name from its preference for dining on rotten meat. Our goal is to have dispensed with all rotten meat by each Sunday, so this specimen had to be content with its perch on a Texas Mountain Laurel leaf.

Flesh Fly

Another flesh fly. I like this photo as much for the matrix of twigs and limbs as for the insect subject.

Cutter Bee on Vitex blooms

Our Vitex trees are blooming and attracting a multitude of bees (and hummingbirds). Above is a leafcutter bee getting lost in a mass of blooms.

We don't see a lot of bumblebees around here, and they seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate, so it was encouraging to see several of them working over the vitex blooms.

Bumblebee on Vitex blooms
Bumblebee on Vitex blooms

Not everything was about airborne invertebrates, though.

Liriope Bloom

This is a bloom on a liriope, more commonly known as monkey grass. They don't bloom very often, at least in our flowerbeds, probably because they don't get enough water (but that's just a guess). So it's a treat to find them flowering.

And in conclusion, this...because...well, gnarly.

Vitex branches

*We don't actually have a forest, so this is a metaphor...or a simile...or something. It's definitely not an onomatopoeia.

Pardon me...could you spare some T-Rex urine?
August 23, 2014 2:58 PM | Posted in: ,

MLB was trimming the ground cover on the east side of our yard and when she pulled back a section from the wall, this is what she found:

Hatched quail eggs

As perceptive Gazette readers - which is both of you, I believe - will recall, we recently had a family of quail in our back yard, including nine chicks. And I'm pretty sure there are nine hatched eggs in the above photo. So, exercising my excellent deductive skills, I have concluded that this could have been the nest from whence they sprung.

However, I'm not going on record with a conclusive statement because there's always another possibility...

Jurassic Park raptor holding egg

Mockingbirdlets
August 11, 2014 9:50 PM | Posted in:

I discovered a mockingbird nest in the lower limbs of the Chinese pistache planted in our back yard. I had been hearing odd chirps coming at fairly regular intervals over the preceding few days, but didn't really think anything about it until Saturday afternoon when I noticed some unusually persistent mockingbird presence around the tree. 

I took a chance (the last time we had a mockingbird nest in our yard, I had to wear a motorcycle helmet to protect myself while mowing the lawn) and took a quick glance inside the foliage. Sure enough, there was a typical crudely built nest holding two sleeping mockingbirdlets. The parents weren't happy about the intrusion, but they exhibited remarkable restraint and I was able to back away unscathed.

A mockingbird warns me away from its nesting babies

I thought you might enjoy seeing a little nature in action, so I made the following video from footage taken on Saturday with a GoPro camera on the end of a monopod, and some additional footage from a Canon video camera that I shot this evening, as a sort of follow-up to the tale. (Note: If you watched this video on Sunday via my Vimeo account, you might want to take another look, as I've replaced that movie with this slightly extended version that details some slightly troubling developments.)


Toward the end of the footage shot this evening, one of the adults did take a dive at me, but I think it was just a warning shot out of habit, given that the nest is empty. I'd really like to know what happened to the second baby, but it was starting to rain and I didn't have a chance to take a good look at all the potential hiding places in our back yard.

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.


The barn swallow nest on our front porch that provided some video footage last summer is once again occupied. However, I haven't noticed the presence of baby birds, and my curiosity got the better of me this afternoon. I mounted my GoPro on an extendable monopod, connected it via wifi to my iPad so I could monitor the footage, and did some detective work. Here's what I found:



I've never seen this before. Is it unusual for baby birds to share a nest with unhatched - but viable - eggs? I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm afraid two two eggs are not going to hatch...seems like they should have by now. I'll let you know if and when anything changes.

While I was out, I noticed an interesting insect crawling on the lone black-eyed susan bloom, so I swapped the GoPro for my macro-lensed DSLR.

Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom
Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom
Unknown insect on black-eyed susan bloom

I couldn't i.d. the insect. It flew away, and the presence of wings under the carapace seems to indicate that it's a beetle of some kind (we've touched on the bug-vs-beetle distinction in these pages), but I couldn't find anything close to a matching photo despite extensive research (which, for me, means 3 1/2 minutes looking at Googled images). If you have an idea, feel free to share it. Anyway, from a distance it wasn't too impressive, but up close, the sparkling carapace and delicate hairs glistening in the sunlight were a revelation.

Preaching to the birds
April 7, 2014 8:56 PM | Posted in: ,

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell--and great was its fall.
Matthew 7:26-27 (NASB)

NestI suspect that most people who visit this blog are familiar with the preceding Bible verses, and their context, where Jesus warns against putting one's trust into things without a firm foundation. He was, of course, not giving a lecture in architecture or civil engineering, and His intent was to address spiritual issues more than the mundane, practical things of life. But...that's not to say that there are no practical implications to this parable.

It's also quite possible to apply this principle to non-human undertakings, and if you substitute "bird" for "man," and "front door wreath" for "sand," and "West Texas winds" for - well, the parable does hit that one on the head - the logical conclusion might be this sad scene, which greeted us this afternoon after work.

Broken bird eggs on concrete

We had not even noticed the nest in the wreath until a couple of days ago, and I hadn't had a chance to see if there were eggs in yet (although I told Debbie that surely the birds hadn't yet laid any). But, judging by the carnage on the concrete, there were at least five, and possibly six eggs of unknown avian origin. Very sad, but...really birds? What were you thinking?

The nest is intact, and the wreath has been re-hung (and more securely), so we'll see if the parents were sufficiently traumatized that they'll give up on this location. But perhaps they'll try again. After all...Matthew 6:25-27.

Rites (and blights) of spring
April 5, 2014 12:29 PM | Posted in: ,

Spring has sprung (despite the temps in the 30s yesterday morning), as evidenced by the return of hummingbirds and barn swallows. The latter will apparently try to take up residence in the same nest they built on our front porch last year, provided they can run off the wren squatters - which, up until the swallows showed up, had no interest whatsoever in said nest, proving that birds are people, too.

The advent of spring, along with our best guess as to when the last freeze has occurred, also precipitates the annual ritual of the Torturing of The Sheltered Potted Plants. This takes place every year (hence the "annual," in case you were distracted by baby squirrels), and involves trundling out of the garage and onto the driveway the bougainvillea and other semi-tropical plants that we've nurtured through the winter. They somehow sense the change in season and begin to put on lush, pale green foliage even in the relatively dim light of the garage.

This, of course, is a display of bad judgment on their part, because they seem to forget what it's like to be thrust back into the brutal West Texas outdoor climate. And so we repeat the sad spectacle that's shown below. I'll let you try to guess which is the "before" and which is...well, you know.

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Before and after photos of bougainvillea, which are shocked by spring

Incidentally, these photos were taken six days apart, but it took only about a day of 85º weather to turn the plants on the left into what you see on the right.

Fortunately for all involved, bougainvillea are pretty hardy and within a couple of weeks will be back in summer shape, until the cycle begins again next November.
I noticed this evening that someone had added my Twitter account to a group called "Bloggers in TX." That poor misguided soul had apparently not noticed the infrequency with which actual blogging-like activity occurs around here, but now I feel obligated to live up to his expectations. So, here're some buzzards.

Buzzards come home to roost in Fort Stockton, Texas
Capistrano has its swallows; Fort Stockton has its avian garbage disposals.

Front Yard Drama
January 18, 2014 1:29 PM | Posted in: ,

It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day to shoot something good...

Well, it was actually a nice day to attack some winter weeds in the lawn. The sprinklers ran last night, and some of the pseudo-dandelions still retained some water drops. I think the lesson here is that accessorization is the key to making ugly things pretty.

Photo of a weed with a water drop in the middle
Photo of a weed with a water drop in the middle

Another lesson is that beauty is temporary, as this weed now resides in the bottom of a trash can. Life can be cruel.

Speaking of cruel things, this breaks my heart:

Photo of a happy Texas Mountain LaurelPhoto of a sad Texas Mountain Laurel

The photo on the left shows one of our Texas Mountain Laurels, in Happy Happy Mode. The photo on the right shows another one, just a few feet away, in Time To Break Out the Burial Clothes Mode. While the leaves still have a semi-healthy-looking hue, they're dry and fall to the ground at a touch. I have no idea what's causing this, but I'm pretty sure the tree is beyond saving. Perhaps spring will prove me wrong. I hope so.

Cold Snap
November 24, 2013 1:36 PM | Posted in: ,

What we thought was an ice storm was just a mild precursor to what happened overnight, as we awakened to a quarter-inch coating on, well, everything.

There's a certain amount of beauty in such events - not enough to make us wish for more of them, of course - as ordinary things are transformed into alien objects. The fun and games cease, however, as soon as injury occurs.

9:00 a.m. 

Desert willow encased in ice


1:30 p.m.

Desert willow encased in ice

It's not as if we've lost a major limb from a decades-old oak tree, but this is going to leave a permanent mark on the desert willow in our back yard. All we can do is hope that things thaw out before we get a gust of wind that snaps another over-burdened limb.

Cool Photos...Ice Cold, in fact
November 23, 2013 6:00 PM | Posted in: ,

We had our first ice storm of the season last night. Or today. I'm not sure; we were out of town, but returned this afternoon to find a thin layer of ice over all the vegetation. (Fortunately, there was none on the roadways between Midland and the Hill Country, although it appeared to be moving into the latter region.)

There's really only one thing to do outside when the weather is frigid and everything is coated with ice: take pictures! So that's what I did, primarily of the last blooms of the year. It's too bad they can't be preserved in this state until next spring...but that's what photos are for.

Euonymus fortunei 'Coloratus'

Groundcover encased in ice


Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Groundcover encased in ice


Knockout Rose

Groundcover encased in ice


Ceratostigma plumbaginoides

Groundcover encased in ice

Fall Blooms
November 4, 2013 9:01 PM | Posted in: ,

We haven't yet had a freeze this fall, and the really hot temperatures of summer are finally behind us. The recent rainfall coupled with the mild conditions means that the flowering plants are putting on some wonderful performances.

Last Saturday I strapped on a macro lens and walked around the yard, snooping on our blooming residents. Here's what popped out.

By the way, the following photos were taken in natural light, sans flash.

Plumbago - My Blue Heaven
Photo - Plumbago blooms
Knockout Rose - Pillow SoftPhoto - Knockout Rose blooms
Dandelion - Space Travelers, temporarily groundedPhoto - Dandelion blooms
Ice Plant - Nature's FireworksPhoto - Ice Plant blooms

Stalking the wily Punica granatum
September 28, 2013 9:51 AM | Posted in: ,

We're a little late for Rosh Hashanah, but we harvested the first pomegranate this morning.

Photo

We may still be a bit early for optimum ripeness; we never know for sure until we break one apart and try it out, but most conventional wisdom says to wait until October to harvest them.

Photo

The seed pulp on this one is sweetly tart (or is it tartly sweet? I never can remember), but it wouldn't hurt to wait a few days for the rest of the harvest. And we still have plenty to harvest. This is just a portion of what this tree is offering; our second tree also has a few, but it's younger and not yet as prolific.

Photo

One thing we seem to forget each year is how many tiny insects hitch a ride inside the crown of the fruit. (Can you spot the one in the above photo of the fruit on the countertop?) We recommend soaking them in water outside to drive the insects out before bring them inside to "process."

Fall Fredericksburg Fandango
September 25, 2013 9:50 PM | Posted in: ,

We've just returned from a long weekend in Fredericksburg, where we were able to do many of the things we like to do best, including bicycling, dancing, and eating.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast on North Cherry Street, in a quiet neighborhood close to the western edge of town. It's one of the few B&Bs in the area that gives off a distinct Santa Fe vibe, both from an architecture and a landscape perspective. It also has the distinct advantage of being roomy enough to park a 10-foot-long bicycle inside without disrupting the flow of the space. I'd give you the name of it, but I don't want anyone else staying there so it will always be available for us. Well, that and the fact that I can't remember. That seems to happen a lot nowadays. What were we discussing?

Even though much of the Texas Hill Country enjoyed torrential downpours - and Fredericksburg got its share - we were still able to get in bike rides every day of our stay. I don't believe in karma, but one might make a convincing case that this was payback for our Memorial Day trip where we hauled the bike 300 miles only to watch it sit forlornly in the steady rain that kept us off it for the entire weekend. Anyway, we rode a total of 62 miles - a metric century, if you care about such things - and nothing fell off the bike, including us. That's always A Very Good Thing.

As an aside, we can remember when we rode that far plus a hundred miles on long weekend trips to the Hill Country. It would be nice to think that we could still do that, but as we get more miles on ourselves, getting more miles on the road no longer holds a great attraction. We just need to ride enough to justify eating well.

Following are a few photos from around the B&B. By the way, in the interest of accuracy in advertising, they should change the name of these facilities to "B&C," where the "C" stands for "coupons." Almost no one still offers breakfast. Instead, you get a coupon to apply towards a meal (generally breakfast or lunch) at a few choices of restaurants. Our hosts provided us with $7 coupons (per person), which we chose to use each morning at the Java Ranch Espresso Bar & Cafe where the kolaches, cinnamon rolls, and pecan coffee are highly recommended.

Photo - Passionflower
This passionflower was blooming in front of our B&B.

Photo - Green Anole
The geckos and green anoles (like this one) were busy
keeping the insect population in check.


Photo - Bugs on Cactus
Well, some insects were spared. These were getting ready to rumble.

Photo - Snails
Conspiratorial gastropods creep me out. They're talking about me, I just know it.

For those who are familiar with the Fredericksburg dining scene, we had dinner at Pasta Bella, Navajo Grill, and Crossroads Steakhouse, and lunch at the Peach Tree Tea Room, Bejas Grill, and Cranky Frank's. Yeah, that's right...not a German restaurant in the bunch. Oh, and we enjoyed fine al fresco dining at Luckenbach on Saturday evening; more about that later. I have to say that the lunches were uniformly superior to the dinners, although Pasta Bella never disappoints.

We made the obligatory side trip to the Wildseed Farms. It was nice to be there in double-digit temperatures. Seems like the last few times we've visited, it's been 100º+. And while it's no longer peak wildflower season, the grounds were in excellent shape, especially the butterfly garden.

Photo - Butterfly Garden
The Wildseed Farms butterfly garden was resplendent.

Photo - Butterfly Garden
We're getting toward the end of butterfly season in Texas,
but that just makes us appreciate those that are left that much more.


As I mentioned above, we played tag with the rainshowers during the entire weekend. We got in a two hour ride Thursday morning without getting out of the city limits (we were checking out real estate), and got back to home base about an hour before the rain started.

On Friday morning - the day that the forecast called for a 100% chance of rain - we contemplated taking a rest, but then decided to try to get in a brief ride. We had a very pleasant 45 minutes on the bike, and returned just as a light sprinkle was beginning. But within 20 minutes after pulling the bike into the house, here's what kicked in:



That's an awfully purty sound to a Texan's ears, especially if you're not hearing it from the soggy seat of a bicycle ten miles from home.

Saturday was clear and cool, if a little breezy, and we did a 30-mile ride into the country, where we enjoyed a number of pleasant and/or provocative sights.

Photo - Rushing river waters
It was good to see water in the Guadalupe and Pedernales Rivers.

Photo - Road sign
It was also good to know that we could squeak by on the weight limit.

Photo - Mushrooms sprouting in a cow pattie
You know that saying about blooming where you're planting?
Is this what they had in mind?


Photo - Turtle in road
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.)


Photo - Rough green snake
This guy (gal?) picked a dangerous spot to catch some rays.

This beautiful creature is a rough green snake (some might refer to it as a grass snake). I had to look it up, because we don't have them in our neck of the woods, unless they're brought in with loads of non-native trees or shrubs. It was laying motionless in the middle of a rural road, one that was fortunately not well-traveled.

He didn't move a scale while I took a series of photos, and, in fact, I finally had to grab his tail to convince him to move off the road and into the pasture.

Photo - Rough green snake
She (he?) was wary but unmoving.

Photo - Rough green snake
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.)

One of the main reasons we like visiting the Hill Country are the plentiful and diverse choices of live music. There's no lack of dancing opportunities either, although claiming a spot on the dance floor is often a contact sport. (We're not averse to cutting the legs out from under our fellow dancers, provided they're older and slower than us. Which, come to think of it, never happens.)

On Friday night, we moved from the restaurant to the saloon at Crossroads, where a band out of Austin called the Debonaires performed a surprising variety of modern country and classic rock. Seriously guys, the ironic name is fine for those who know you, but we almost skipped it thinking you were a Fifties do-wop group. Not that there's anything wrong with Fifties do-wop, mind you. Crossroads has the world's tiniest dance floor, and some of the most inebriated young-women-whose-dates-won't-dance-with-them-so-they-"dance"-with-each-other. I'd insert air quotes around "dance" if I knew how, but I trust you know what I mean. Nevertheless, we weren't deterred.

Saturday had more opportunities than we could handle. Almost Patsy Cline was performing in Harper at 8:00 p.m., while Chris Story's CD release concert and dance was scheduled at Luckenbach at 9:00. Then, back at Crossroads, Del Castillo was also set for a 9:00 show. We've seen, heard, and danced to all of them, and they're each outstanding in their own way, but we decided to head out to Luckenbach.

We got to Luckenbach early enough to grab something to eat at the walk-up diner, and then got some prime seats inside the dance hall. It was eventually standing room only, and once again we had to fight for space on the dance floor. But that's sorta part of the fun of Luckenbach...it really is a family-friendly venue, and there were kids in strollers and octogenarians, and everything in between.

The band was even more awesome than usual. Chris has brought his band to Midland several times over the past few years, so we knew what to expect. But he's got a new guitar player (who also produced the new CD and wrote many of the songs) and he's absolutely amazing.

If you've been to Luckenbach, you know that the seating is at rows of picnic tables lined up perpendicular to the stage. The bench seating and limited space means that you'll likely be joined by strangers, and we eventually found ourselves surrounded by a group of folks who seemed to know each other, even though they were from different cities. As it turned out, one group was from Big Spring (just a few miles down the road from Midland, for you readers who aren't from our part of the state), and they were so excited to find some other West Texans that we were apparently made honorary family members (right down to the farewell hugs at the end of the night). In addition, one of the men in the group - Bryan Maynard - wrote one of the songs on the CD, which was pretty cool. And, on top of everything else, he gave us a copy of the new CD (entitled Chapter One...you can buy it here, but it's not available for download yet).

By the way, Chris Story and his band will be in Midland - along with Almost Patsy Cline - for the Wine and Music Festival in early October. 

So, that about wraps up our trip report, and...uh...what's that? Shopping? Well, yes, shopping did take place, and I even captured some photographic evidence. Sort of.

If you're a regular visitor to Fredericksburg, you probably know about Madlyn's, a women's clothing and accessories store that's well away for the main shopping area. It's been there forever, and I have no idea how they stay in business - we were there for an hour on Saturday afternoon and were the only customers during that time. But they do manage to stock some good stuff; Debbie seems to always find something and this trip was no exception. But here's what caught my attention:

Photo - Ceiling tiles

Recognize it? Well, sure, it's a section of ceiling tiles, but it's also apparently a part of the store's sound system. As far as I can tell, they've scattered their speakers around the store behind the tiles, so as you walk around the sound sort of fades in and out without an apparent source. It's really not a bad idea. However, it was sort of jarring to hear Texas rock from an Austin radio station coming from the ceiling of a store that caters to women who cut their musical teeth on the Lawrence Welk Show.

Fort Stockton Photos
September 2, 2013 5:22 PM | Posted in: ,

We were in Fort Stockton over the weekend and I carved out some time to wander through a pasture to take some photos, and then snapped a few at the nursery owned by my brother and his wife.

Dead mesquite
Since the pasture was once part of the Permian Sea,
can we call this mesquite stump "driftwood"?


Meteorite?
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.


Sulphur butterfly
I think this is a Cloudless Sulphur

Gulf Fritillary
I'm more certain that this is a Gulf Fritillary.

Gulf Fritillary
This is a different view of the Gulf Fritillary shown above.

Barn Swallow Sibs
August 26, 2013 7:18 PM | Posted in:

The second brood of front-porch barn swallows has hatched and has become the avian equivalent of teenagers, meaning that they're trying to simultaneously be completely free to do their own thing while expecting their parents to do all the important stuff for them. This has become increasingly difficult because, as far as I can tell, the parents have left for less stressful environs, leaving the two kids to fend for themselves.

That seems to be working well for them...except at night. They're now too big to fit in the mud nest, but too timid to seek out different quarters, so they're overnighting as close to "home" as possible, and trying to re-create the coziness of their younger days. Like so...

Photo - juvenile barn swallows huddled together

This is how I found them this morning around 5:30, huddled together on the quarter-inch ledge of the ceiling trim, about six feet away from the nest that will no longer accommodate them.

It's a cruel world out there, and everybody needs a buddy. I wonder how long these siblings will stick together before nature pulls them in different directions?

Garden Shots
August 18, 2013 3:19 PM | Posted in: ,

I strapped on the trusty macro lens yesterday afternoon and spent a very hot half hour shooting some of the plants my wife has done such an excellent job of nurturing through our continuing drought. Below are images of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and lantana. I'll leave it to you to figure out which is which.

Most of these pictures will eventually appear in somewhat larger form in the Gazette's Gallery, if I will ever make the time to put them there.

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Photo of a plant

Little Porch of Horrors: Return of the Bling
August 17, 2013 9:40 AM | Posted in: ,

Experimentation with animated GIFs continues, this time with some selective desaturation and background blurring.

Animation of blooming hibiscus

Little Porch of Horrors: The Sequel
August 16, 2013 2:41 PM | Posted in: ,

I'm not going to quit until I get this right. Or something.

I tried my hand at a timelapse sequence of a blooming hibiscus about a week ago. The sequence was OK, but my camera's battery pooped out before the bloom opened completely.

Yesterday, a new camera housing arrived, one that will allow me to connect the camera to a power source, and so I arranged things this morning to once again try to capture the full blooming sequence.

I got closer...well, actually, I got too close. I did get the whole blooming sequence, but as it turned out, the GoPro video camera needs a bit more space between it and the main subject. What I ended up with was a series of slightly out of focus photos, until the flower opened almost fully, at which time the camera figured out what it should be focusing on.

So, I needed to get a little creative in order to mask the poor quality of the initial photos. I did this by cropping and reducing the size of the photos, then converting the initial shots to black and white, with the latter effect being gradually faded through the timelapse sequence. Here's the result:

Timelapse of hibiscus bloom opening

I really shouldn't worry too much about the quality of the photos, since the GIF format that's required for the animation dictates a significant loss of quality anyway. I do like the idea of applying different effects to the frames through the sequence of the animation, so if you're getting tired of seeing these things, I have bad news for you. The boredom will continue until you get interested.

Little Porch of Horrors
August 11, 2013 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

We had one of those rare mornings with not a breath of wind, and I noticed an unopened bloom on the hibiscus on our back porch. I decided this was a great opportunity to create a time lapse using the GoPro Hero 3 camera so I grabbed the tripod and camera and set things up.

I didn't activate the wifi, in an attempt to conserve battery life, so I couldn't monitor the pictures via my phone; I had to sort of aim the camera in the general direction of the flower, counting on the ultra-wide lens to catch the action (however slowly it might move). I set the timer to one frame per minute and headed back inside. 

What I didn't count on was how pitiful the camera's battery life is even without wifi. It shut down after about two hours. I later realized that I could have waited another twenty minutes to begin the process and probably ended up with the flower in full bloom, but, as they say, it is what it is.

With a little work in Photoshop (I chose 15 photos along the timeline, then duplicated and reversed the sequence), the following living, breathing hibiscus just popped out. It's sort of freaky, really. (If you have a slow internet connection, be patient...this is a 1.5 mb gif image).

Time lapse of blooming hibiscus

By the way, Primelapse.com seems to be an excellent resource if you're interested in timelapse photography.
I observed a couple of instances of unusual behavior on the part of some young animals this week, and they made me wonder about whether such behavior was learned or instinctive.

My drive to work each day takes me for a mile down a street called Mockingbird, the length of which on one side is mostly undeveloped pasture that belongs to Midland Country Club. A lot of wildlife comes out of that pasture and crosses the road, for reasons that perhaps only a chicken might be privy to.

On Wednesday, I observed a couple of young cottontail rabbits foraging side-by-side in the grass next to the curb on the side of the street across from the pasture. As I came upon them, they froze for an instant, then immediately bolted...in opposite directions, both away and toward me [despite what this biologist states with such British authority]. One had the poor judgment to bolt right in front of my truck (he fortunately managed to avoid getting squished); the other ran perpendicular to my line of travel, but away from me.

I can't recall seeing two rabbits bolt in that fashion before, but it made me wonder if the tactic of moving in opposite directions was an instinctual reaction designed to ensure that at worst only one of the pair would succumb to an attack by a predator. It seems highly unlikely that a single predator could bring down both bunnies even if they ran in the same direction, but it still raised the question of whether the maneuver was learned, instinctual, or just a random occurrence.

[It could be that rabbits are more noble than people, because everyone knows that the first rule of hiking in bear country is to make sure you can run faster than your partner.]

The second scenario played out on our front porch yesterday evening. We have a new brood of barn swallow hatchlings in the nest above the porch, and I was being my usual nosy, annoying self by standing and watching the little guys, who were just old enough to poke their beaks over the edge of the nest in anticipation that someone would drop something delicious into them.

Baby barn swallow in nestThey took absolutely no note of my presence...unlike the parents. They returned from what I presume was a foraging expedition and took immediate umbrage at my presence, buzzing me like tiny fighter jets [I never have a badminton racket when I need one]. But here's the interesting thing: just before they began their strafing runs, they let out with loud chirps that sounded to my un-barn-swallow-like ears just like all the calls they make. But as I kept my eyes on the babies in the nest, at the first sound of the chirp, all the young ones ducked back into the nest and did not reappear, even though under normal circumstances the appearance of one of the parents would bring them up for feeding.

I have to think that chirp was simultaneously a warning to me, but also an alarm to the hatchlings. Again, I wondered whether they were hatched with the instinctive recognition of such warnings, or if there was some kind of learning curve involved.

I doubt that anyone has a definitive answer to these questions, although I did find this page with some insights about (and recordings of) the barn swallow calls and songs. If the website is to be believed, male barn swallows give out fake alarm calls if their mate seems to be getting frisky with another male (although in this case I'm pretty sure there's nothing fake about it), raising more questions about instinct vs. learned behavior.

I don't want to read too much into a couple of isolated incidents - we could just be dealing with aberrant, deviant, and/or typical youthfully rebellious behavior. But these questions add to the fun of observing the natural world around us.

Riot (Florally speaking)
August 3, 2013 4:11 PM | Posted in: ,

In the midst of a brutal drought, and on a day of 100+ degree temperatures, wildflowers still find a way.

Wildflowers in West Texas

This image is a composite of three photos of the same plant I found growing in the pasture west of our neighborhood, taken at different focal lengths and slightly different angles. I overlaid them in Photoshop, experimented with various blending options for each layer until I found a combination I liked, inverted one layer, and laid the Vibrance and Unsharp Mask on pretty thick.

Animal Life in the South Carolina Lowcountry
July 29, 2013 9:07 PM | Posted in: ,

[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.

Photo - Green Anole
A green anole kept a close eye on us one morning during breakfast. (He dined a little himself.)

Photo - Dolphin fins
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.

Photo - Egret Sanctuary
Those white dots are egrets, roosting on an island in the lagoon just inland from our cottage.

Photo - Egrets
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).

Photo - Bird and Gator eye each other
A shore bird keeps a close eye on a small alligator.

Photo - Alligator
This was the first of many gators we spotted while at Palmetto Bluff. They're qute shy.

Photo - Alligator head
A close-up of one of the lagoon gators. He wasn't thrilled with the papparazzi.

Photo - Rippled water behind a swimming alligator
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).

Photo - Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron was trying to stalk dinner while simultaneously keeping an eye on me.

Photo - Turtles
How many turtles can you spot?

Photo - Ant beds stretched across a dirt road
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.

Photo - Debbie in front of hill of dirt
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.

Barn Swallow Feeding Video
June 24, 2013 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo - barn swallow feeding a babyThe photos I posted of the barn swallow family got enough positive reaction that I decided to get some video of the parents taking care of the young'uns. 

Following is a five-minute video distilled from about a 45 minutes of raw footage. I've edited it to focus on the interactions between the adults and the babies, which of course is all about the feeding. During that time period, I counted 11 distinct instances of feeding.

Here are some of the highlights you'll observe if you watch the entire video.

  • 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.

Nocturnal Neighborhood Visitor
June 23, 2013 2:59 AM | Posted in:

Debbie went outside just before 10:00 p.m. last night to look at the "Supermoon" and came back to report that two women were in the street in front of our house watching what they feared might be a "baby rattlesnake."

I grabbed a flashlight - which proved unnecessary because the reptile was directly under our street lamp, and also because the moon was living up to its advanced billing - and immediately recognized that it was not a dangerous species (other than possibly causing a heart attack in the unwary night time dog walker). The snake was only about 12" long, and wasn't happy to be in our company, as it did its best to get away.

Photo - Young snake

However, I confess that I don't know for sure what kind of snake it was. My first guess was a juvenile bull snake, simply because we have so many of them in this area. The head is not as thick as I would have expected, but I really haven't seen enough young ones to know for sure. After googling it, I think it also bears a close resemblance to a king snake, but I don't know if they range into our part of the state.

Update: Our resident habitat expert, Burr Williams, says that this is a long-nosed snake. It will eat lizards, but not, unfortunately, rats.

Photo - Young snake

I took a few photos and allowed the youngster to slither down the gutter toward the park. With any luck, he'll get big enough to take care of some of the cotton rats that are coming into the neighborhood in search of water.

More Nest Peeping: Barn Swallows
June 22, 2013 7:42 PM | Posted in: ,

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, we decided to let the barn swallows finish building a nest on our front porch, mainly because they picked an innocuous spot and I figured if I ran them off, they'd just find a worse place while we were out of town.

The clutch of eggs in the nest hatched recently and we've seen some tiny bird heads leaning over the edge, waiting to be fed. I figured this was a good time to snoop.

I put an adhesive-backed GoPro mount near the nest (it's about eight feet above the floor), and attached the camera to it, set to take a picture every 30 seconds. The setup didn't go unnoticed.

Photo - Barn Swallow Nest

It also wasn't completely successful on the first try. I was sitting in the living room when I heard a loud thump. I went outside to find the camera laying on the concrete. I had combined several mounts into an articulating arm in order to get the right angle for the shots, and the leveraged was too much for the adhesive.

Fortunately, the GoPro housings are very sturdy and the camera was unscathed. I redesigned the setup to reduce the strain on the mount, and tried it again. Following is a sample of the results from about a two hour period. Click any photo to see a larger uncropped version, or start with the first one and use the controls on the pop-up to step through all the images.

Photo - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow NestPhoto - Barn Swallow Nest

I think my favorite shot is #14, the one where the adult is flying away and the babies are still fussing because they think their mouths need to be filled again. They were obliged shortly thereafter.

Quelle Quail? These Quail!
June 4, 2013 10:01 PM | Posted in: ,

This evening I noticed some shallow disturbances at random between the flagstones on the east side of our back yard, as if something had been digging or scratching. I also heard some rustling noises around the mediterranean fan palm in that vicinity. This looks like a pretty good place for something to hide, doesn't it?

Photo of palm tree and ground cover

I decided to do a little investigative photojournalism, so I grabbed my camera and a long lens and went snooping. Here's what I found hiding in the middle of that shrubbery.

Photo of hiding quail

OK, so it wasn't a catamount or a lemur, things that would have generated a bit more excitement. But can you identify the type of bird?

Photo of quail

It's a scaled quail, aka blue quail, and there were two of them under the tree. Shortly after this one ran out - in an apparent attempt to lure me after it and away from their nesting spot - another one sprang from the brush. (If you don't have quail where you live, be sure to listen to the bird's calls on this page.)

Photo of palm tree and ground cover

I'm guessing the second bird is the female, and she was protecting something until the suspense became unbearable and she decided to flee. Sure enough, when I looked closer, I saw at least two baby quail disappear into the ground cover, too quickly to photo (and I wasn't crass enough to paw around trying to flush them).

The female didn't go far; she was determined to keep an eye on me.

Photo of quail on roof of house

The neighbors' roofline made a perfect lookout spot, close enough to see what I was up to, but not within reach.

I decided to wait her out, and hid behind the wall next to the palm tree. Pretty soon, curiosity got the best of her.

Photo of quail peering over fence

She would peek over the wall, disappear for a few seconds, and reappear at a slightly different spot, all the while making note of my position. 

Eventually, her patience, the 100+ degree temperature, and the swarming flies crumbled my resolve, and I retreated, while she gave me the nonchalant "I have no idea why you'd want to hang around here as there's nothing to see, and nothing to worry me" look.

Photo of quail on fence

I walked quietly by the tree about ten minutes later and could see her hunkered down, presumably with her babies safely underneath. She didn't stir, but I could feel the stinkeye all the way around the corner.

We've noticed a lot of quail this spring around the neighborhood, mostly in pairs - no full-blown coveys. I presume that the drought is driving them in from the dry pastures. They're fun, goofy birds, and I'm glad we can offer a preserve for them for a while.

Gallery Photos
June 2, 2013 5:30 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been a while - a few months, to be accurate - since I updated the Gallery. There's a bunch of new stuff out there now, including larger versions of these images.

PhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto

Bunny Stop
June 1, 2013 8:14 PM | Posted in: ,

Baby cottontails are perhaps the cutest wild animals in existence, especially when they try to hide in plain sight.

Photo of a bunny

This one inexplicably stopped just short of a bridge that would have completely hidden it. Perhaps it thought that we'd be confused by the rebar right behind it, thinking it was a snake. In any event, I was able to get a picture looking straight down from the bridge.

Photo of a bunny

It quickly tired of the paparazzi and disappeared under the bridge, as it should have done in the first place.
The wreath hanging on our front door isn't really a Christmas wreath. Well, it did start out that way, but when Debbie was unable to find a spring wreath she liked, she hung a few spring-y accessories on it and decided to leave it up for a while. But I suspect a few people in the neighborhood wondered why the red-and-gold decoration was still up in May.

It's because we didn't have the heart to take it down after we discovered a bird nest full of eggs in late April.

The nest was constructed immediately next to the beveled glass in our door, giving us a, well, birds-eye view into it. And, of course, I couldn't resist hauling out the camera from time-to-time, much to the annoyance of the mother birdie.

A month to the day after the eggs hatched, introducing three new birds to the world, the nest was abandoned, the young ones having spread their wings and flown the coop. Here's a brief look at how it unfolded.

Disclaimer: I mentioned the beveled glass above. It presented some unavoidable photographic challenges, as did the extreme backlit conditions during daylight hours. I did the best I could with what I had.

April 18 - And so it begins

The momma bird was so skittish, this is the only photo I was able to get of her, shortly after she laid the eggs.

Mother bird

May 1 - The Hatching: A look only a mother could love.

Hatching bird egg

May 9 - They eat and poop. But mostly eat.

Baby birds

May 16 - Even pre-teen birds have attitudes

Juvenile bird

May 17 - Getting adventuresome

Juvenile bird

May 18 - Ready to fly?

Juvenile bird

At this point, sensing that we wouldn't have the birds around much longer, I had the brilliant idea to mount my GoPro camera on the front door and take a series of photos. I put a strip of clear packing tape on the glass, and then stuck an adhesive GoPro mount onto the tape, reasoning that it would be easier to remove that way. I then assembled an articulating mount and set the camera to take a photo every 30 seconds. Here's what the rig looked like:

GoPro camera mounted on door

Good idea; poor execution. For one thing, I had waited two days too long to think of this. The birds were now too active and skittish and wouldn't stay in the nest. (Plus, one had already left the nest.) The GoPro also didn't handle the backlighting very well. Out of the 200 photos it took, here's one of the best.

Birds ready to fly the nest

I might have been a bit late, but if I'd waited six hours longer, I'd have been too late. Both remaining birds had flown away, never to return, by evening.

I still have two more opportunities to be an annoying intruder, as we've discovered another nest - containing five eggs - in the palm tree at the corner of our front porch. We're also giving in for the first time and letting barn swallows build a nest in a fairly innocuous part of the front porch.

And speaking of good ideas poorly executed, never underestimate the sticking power of clear packing tape to clean glass.

Fox on the Box
March 30, 2013 7:05 AM | Posted in:

Have you ever seen anything like this before?

Photo of a fox on our roof

What's that? Oh. Well, how about this...

Photo of a fox on our roof

The fox was back yesterday. It's getting to be a regular event, although not to the point where I should refer to him as "our fox." He's just not that happy to see us, for some odd reason.

Anyway, I disturbed his back yard nap when I came through on my way to mow the front yard (a disturbing act to me as well, by the way). He trotted around the side of the house, went up the brick wall, and jumped onto our roof. By the time I got around to the front yard, he had traversed the entire roof and was on the fence on the other side.

Photo of a fox on our roof

I watched him for a couple of minutes - again, much to his displeasure - and then got to work on the yard. About that time, a crew pulled up to the house next door and got ready to mow and edge that yard (and why didn't I think of that?). After a couple of minutes I noticed they were all out in the middle of the street looking up at our house and pointing. They had spotted the lounging fox.

I started to ask them if they'd never seen a roof-sitting fox before, but the answer was fairly evident. Plus, it's hard to be cool when you've never seen one before either.

It's sort of fun to have a carnivore on the canopy, but the neighborhood birds don't seem to share that sentiment.

Stalking the wily Coccinellidae
March 28, 2013 4:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Here's a tip for you macro photographers: if you want to find subjects, go out and pull weeds in your yard (but take care to pay attention to what you're pulling). Chances are good that you'll see something worth shooting.

Photo - Ladybug

I was reaching down to rip this weed out of the lawn (or what sad thing passes for our lawn after a summer of drought and a winter of discontent), when I noticed the ladybug perched atop it. Fortunately, it was sufficiently focused on whatever ladybugs focus on to give me the time to rush inside, grab my camera, mount the macro and flash, and get back outside to snap some pictures.

Photo - Ladybug

They're actually not that attractive up close like this, no offense to any that might be visiting the Gazette. On the other hand, they're not bugs, either, so they have that going for them. (For an enlightening look at the differences between bugs and beetles, see this page. It's more interesting than you think.)

According to Wikipedia, ladybugs are referred to in Hebrew as "Moses's little cows." If you have any insights as to why that is, feel free to share them. They eat aphids and spider mites (which is one reason gardeners generally welcome them), so if carnivorous cattle are your thing, feel free to use the label.

Photo - Ladybug with raised elytra and moving wings

Another photography tip: keep shooting until you're out of storage space or your subject flees. You might get lucky like I did. The split carapace on a ladybug is called the "elytra," (which I have no doubt will eventually become the name for a model of Hyundai car) and this photo was snapped an instant before the beetle tired of my presence and left for greener weeds. I wished for a slightly faster shutter speed* but overall was quite happy with the way the picture turned out.

*Photo geek stuff: Shutter speed - 1/160 second; Aperture - f/5.6; ISO - 100

Texas Mountain Laurel
March 16, 2013 6:59 PM | Posted in: ,

Here's an amazement, how this...

Photo - Texas Mountain Laurel buds

...turns into this...

Photo - Texas Mountain Laurel buds

The West Texas landscape may be viewed by some as being "beauty-challenged," (a description I strongly disagree with) but at least we have the Texas Mountain Laurel in our corner. The fact that the blooms smell just like grape soda is icing on the cake.

Both of the preceding scenes are found in our front yard today, on the same plant.

Back Yard Wildlife
March 2, 2013 11:30 AM | Posted in: ,

I've been writing occasionally about the fox who has adopted our next door neighbors, but it appears that he (she?) has decided that our back yard is also a good place to chill. We've spotted it a couple of times this week, once in our desert willow and then again this morning napping under the Mexican elder. It was relaxed enough to let me get some video footage.



I can't decide whether this level of comfort around humans is a good or bad thing. But based on what I've heard from other folks, it's not an unusual thing. Regardless, it's interesting to watch wildlife even when it doesn't act wild.

Photos
February 10, 2013 9:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Moth floating in water
Photo - Moth floating in water
Photo - Macro of dandelion flower
Photo - Macro of dandelion flower
We've got a lot of ground to cover today, kiddies, so try to keep up.



Spraffl Logo
What the internet needs is way more anonymity...said no one, ever. OK, that's not entirely true, as the creators of Spraffl obviously feel that personalization in social media is overrated, and have created an iPhone app (Android coming soon) that will allow the posting of anonymous observations anywhere, anytime, and about any subject. Think of it as the ultimate playground for trolls.

Or maybe not. Even the Spraffl guys are apparently a little gunshy about all this freedom, and have built in a process whereby the community can get you kicked off the service for posting stuff that offends or just annoys someone else. Yeah, what could possibly go wrong with that?

So, when I first heard about Spraff, I'm like, well, what's the point...who wants to get involved with something like that? Turns out that I sort of do. I downloaded the app as an experiment and - whaddayaknow? - it's a little addictive (albeit more than a little weird). Here's my first Spraff (side note: is there an unwritten rule that social media posts must have silly names?):

My first spraff

Because Spraffl shows a map of the locations of all spraffs, I could tell that my post was the first one in Midland (albeit not the first one in West Texas; there's apparently at least one spraffer in Lamesa, of all places). I could also ascertain that it was one of the first ten in the entire state of Texas, so I've go that going for me...you know, in case the service ever gains Twitter-like stature.

But, you see the problem with being an early adopter, don't you? I just blew my anonymity, or at least my assumption of invisibility, because now any posting from Midland will be attributed to me, at least until some critical mass of users is reached. The app attaches a location to each post, so your anonymity doesn't extend to geography unless you disable Location Services, which in turns cripples the app.

So, what's my prediction for the success of Spraffl? I give it about a 1% chance of success, as it seems designed to fill a hole that few fear falling into. But don't tell anyone I said that; I value my anonymity.



I posted the following photo on Facebook but have been asked to blog it as well. We've had several sightings of foxes in our neighborhood recently, and last week our next door neighbor glanced out her window and saw this little guy napping in the back yard. She said there was a second one who may have either been a lookout or responsible for finding dinner, because he didn't hang around much. 

Photo - Sleeping fox

Foxes have always been a fixture around Midland, and not just on the outskirts of town, where we live. Some people fear them, but they don't pose any danger, other than minor rabies outbreaks, and those are no worse than your run-of-the-mill zombie attacks. We do have friends who claim that foxes were responsible for the hollowed out shells where their back yard turtles once lived, so there is that.



During the winter months (both of them), we move some of our more delicate plants into the garage for safekeeping. Each year, our garage gets a bit more crowded, and this winter's addition is the Mexican Lime Tree that normally resides on our back porch. I worried a little how it might react to the relative darkness and much cooler weather, even though it was protected from freezing. Well, my worries were apparently groundless:

Photo - Mexican Lime Tree

Can you spot the two limes in the middle? They weren't there when we moved the tree into the garage. (Ignore what looks like a lemon; that's what happens when you let your lime linger too long and fail to harvest it.) If you give the tree a weekly drink and roll it into the sunshine every now and then, it's perfectly content to be a garage-dweller.



I got into a spring cleaning mode last weekend and tidied up the attic and one of our closets. I made some tough decision about getting rid of some old friends, and this was simultaneously one of the easiest and toughest.

Photo - Hypertech Pro 9A housing

This is an underwater housing for a video camera. I purchased it in 1990 or thereabouts for a cool $1,000, back when we were doing a fair amount of scuba diving. It was a 19-pound one trick pony...the only camera it fit was Sony's CCD-V9 8-mm video camera (which was a real workhorse of a camera, but laughably huge and low-quality compared to today's units). It was a chore to lug around, especially through third world airports, and the controls were temperamental. I never really knew whether I'd managed to turn the camera on or not before getting back to the surface, and the battery life was such that you didn't dare turn it on before getting geared up and in the water.

Anyway, our video camera is long gone (I can't even recall what happened to it), and Sony stopped supporting the 8-mm tape format years ago. I racked my brain trying to think of some way to repurpose the housing; I even experimented with taping my iPhone just inside the lens, figuring that was a possible hipsterish steampunkish approach that might just be crazy enough to work. I'll try to post something separately about that experiment; the short story is that it didn't. I finally reached the sad conclusion that technology had rendered this apparatus obsolete, and into the dumpster it went. (If you have a brilliant idea on what I should have done with it instead, please keep it to yourself. Thanks.)



A Houston-based architectural designer (don't ask me how that's different than a plain old architect) has put her creative touches on an old adobe dance hall in Marfa, Texas, and turned it into an unusual home. If you know anything at all about Marfa, you'll know that "unusual" isn't that unusual, but this raises the bar for out-of-the-ordinariness, from a housing perspective.

The interior design is ultra-stark and ultra-hip (pardon the redundancy). While I wouldn't want it as a primary residence, it does scratch a creative urge in a pleasing manner. It has lots of open space - well, there are actually NO interior walls, just movable partitions to create an illusion of privacy - and some pretty funky accessories. But this scene from the "bedroom" really caught my eye.

Photo - Marfa house bedroom

Yes, the bathtub just sits in the middle of the room (I didn't see a photo showing the location of the toilet; I assume we're not talking outhouse here), and those closets act as the rolling partitions I mentioned above. This house is obviously designed for someone who lives alone, or for a childless couple, or for anyone who grew up in a commune in the 60s.

Take a look at this slideshow for additional photos of this rather fascinating design.

New Year Snow
January 4, 2013 5:16 PM | Posted in: ,

We didn't exactly get a blizzard in Midland (although parts of West Texas did get just that), but it was nice to wake up to a snow-covered view on our day off. I suspect that the back yard horny toad - who, by the way, is attracting way more coverage lately than he merits - probably would disagree.

Photo of snow-covered yard art

Since we don't get much snow in these parts, I like to try to get a few photos to illustrate how the phenomenon transforms our usual surroundings. Like, for instance, these pansies:

Photo of snow-covered pansies

You did recognize the pansies, right?

The snow on the roof had begun to melt, and the water dripping onto the back porch persuaded me to grab my new macro lens, with the following result:

Photo of bubble

I have a feeling that the new lens and I are going to have some fun in 2013.

Guardian Horny Toad
January 3, 2013 6:25 AM | Posted in: ,

Doves don't strike me as being the most intelligent members of the avian world, if only because of how often they seem to knock themselves silly by flying into our windows. But their silliness can also be sort of tranquil, in the right setting.

Photo - Dove and Yard Art

This guy (gal?) apparently decided he (she?) was among friends, regardless of the vaguely menacing and/or hungry look on the big metal horned lizard in our back yard. Perhaps he figured if the blue ants had survived, his chances were also pretty good.

A Damp Tour Through the Neighborhood
September 28, 2012 10:10 AM | Posted in: ,

I'm pretty sure we're setting some kind of rainfall record in Midland, Texas today. While it's not unusual to have monsoonal downpours in September, it's been years since we've actually experienced one.

I'm of the opinion that, except for reasons of bereavement or illness, there's no such thing as a bad day off, especially in weather like this, so I took the opportunity to stroll around our neighborhood park, protected by an umbrella, and snap some photos of the result of the rain that started early this morning (and continues as I type this). 

Those of you in more moist climates may roll your eyes at making such a to-do over something that seems commonplace to you, but we've just received more rain in the past six hours that we got during the entire year of 2010. It's hard to overestimate the value of this precipitation to our region, in ecological, economic, and even psychological terms.

Except for the mosquitos, of course.

Well, anyway, here are a few pictures that might be meaningful to those of you who have visited our neighborhood.

I emptied the gauge at this point because I wasn't sure how much more rain we'd get.
(Update - the next morning: Good thing I emptied it yesterday; there was another 3" in the gauge.)

Photo

Need to set up the follow two shots. The first was taken last weekend, on a [dry] Sunday afternoon. The second is from this morning, from approximately the same perspective. The bird has mysteriously vanished. I'm pretty sure it didn't drown, though.

Photo

Photo

If you've been to our south pond, you know that the dock usually sits a couple of feet above the surface of the water. Research has shown that docks that sit above the water are more effective for most purposes, although geese tend toward skepticism.

Photo

Trees are generally scofflaws and/or contemptuous of accepted societal norms.

Photo

This is why we love the rain. OK, it's misleading to imply that purple sage blooms because of the rain, or even in anticipation of it; in reality, it kinda does its own thing, oblivious to our tendency to attribute intentional prophetic meteorological insight to its life cycle. But it's still prettier in the rain.

Photo

The stream bed wasn't really much more frantic than usual, although there were signs it had overflowed its banks a few hours earlier, but scenes like this are a good reason to live in our neighborhood.

Photo


I put the video camera on a tripod and trained it on one of the hummingbird feeders on our back porch, and then edited the two-hour recording into the following "best of" video, slowed to 50% to give a better perspective on bird behavior. 

Think of it as a soothing screen saver - perhaps not the most exciting movie ever, but the patient viewer might observe some interesting action, especially at the 6-, 11- and 12-minute points. (Note: Click the full-screen icon -  - to view the movie in, you know, full-screen mode.)


Barreling Along
May 10, 2012 12:38 PM | Posted in: ,

We finally broke down and bought a rain barrel. OK, I broke down; Debbie had been advocating for it for a long time. I didn't want a big honking ugly contraption sitting in our yard, and what I'd seen seemed awfully expensive. But we ran across one at Home Depot for $99 - about half the price we'd seen at local nurseries - and it holds 57 gallons, has a spigot and an [almost] airtight lid, and comes with a downspout connection kit which will come in handy should we ever have a downspout. (I'm not going crazy with all this.)

And as far as having an ugly contraption in our yard...well, have you seen our lawn lately? Having an industrial vessel as a distraction from the dying grass is actually a benefit.

Now that we have it, I have to agree it's quite handy. As documented earlier, we're now hauling gray water each day to keep trees and major shrubs hydrated. On days where watering isn't required (but bathing/showering is) we can dump the multiple five-gallon buckets into the barrel for storage. Or, on those days where more than 40 gallons is needed (which is our normal daily haul), we can withdraw extra. The spigot can even be attached to a regular garden hose for hand-watering, although we haven't tried that yet.

But the best use for a rain barrel is to collect, you know, rain. And we finally got to do that early this morning. I had the proud foresight to leave the lid off and here's the welcome result:

Photo of full rain barrel

Scary Prairie
April 25, 2012 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

According to The Weather Channel, the temperature in Midland today will hit 105° In recognition of this dubious achievement, I offer the following.

Photo of dry grass

If my lawn is already looking like this, imagine what August is going to bring. OK, just kidding (sort of). This is an overly bleak perspective of the grass the developers planted to hold down the soil in the new phase of our neighborhood. It was a lush green up until a couple of weeks ago. Now? Uh, not so much. In fact, it looks like a good candidate for a wild fire (Heaven forbid!).

By the way, despite a concerted effort at research, including almost three solid minutes of googling, I still don't know what species of grass this is. This is especially troubling because I was actually on a grass judging team when I was a mere lad in 4-H. Bet you didn't know such a thing existed.

Note: I was going to title this post "Passed Grass" (you know, like a euphemism for death and all that) but found that I'd actually used it before. Dang.

Yellow-headed Blackbirds in Midland?
April 23, 2012 6:01 AM | Posted in: ,

We went for a walk around the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, primarily to check out the new homes under construction. My usual practice is to stick my point-and-shoot camera in my pocket before leaving the house, just in case we encounter something out of the ordinary. I was glad I did.

Photo of a yellow headedWe've had multitudes of red-winged blackbirds roosting around our ponds, and they've even been venturing into our yards, which I haven't seen until this year. So we weren't surprised at the noisy flocks of those birds around the north pond. What we were surprised to see were two black and bright yellow birds on the ground next to the water. I grabbed my camera, zoomed in as closely as I could, and managed to get two photos before the birds spooked and flew away.

It wasn't until I googled "yellow chested birds" that I discovered the identity of the pair: yellow-headed blackbirds. I hope they stick around; they're beautiful birds.

Photo of two yellow headed blackbirdsPhoto of two yellow headed blackbirds

Eggs-it Here
April 9, 2012 5:58 AM | Posted in: ,

As Bill Engvall says, you might be a redneck if you have Christmas lights up on your porch year-around. Photo of the wreath on our front doorThat's an unfair characterization. A lot of people like the looks of little twinkly lights, and I'm of the opinion that you fit the redneck stereotype only if those year-around lights are strung over a Christmas tree made of Bud Light empties tied together with baling wire. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But what if you still have a Christmas wreath on your front door in April? What does that make you? Well, we're probably still rednecks, but not for that reason. Take a look...



Debbie discovered the nest and the eggs only after taking the wreath off the front door in preparation for putting it atop the credenza in our bedroom. I'm glad she did, as it would have made for an unpleasant surprise around June or so.

Anyway, she quickly rehung the wreath on the front door and the mother bird promptly returned to attend to the eggs. I have no idea if they'll hatch, as the bird flies off every time we walk by, and the eggs may not be getting their minimum daily requirement of feathered butt. I'll report on whether we eventually have a brood on our front door, or if we can finally switch over to a more appropriate seasonal entryway decoration.

I'm sure you're wondering, what kind of bird is it? It's a little gray one. Who do I look like, John Q. Autobahn?

Technical note: I filmed this using my little GoPro HD camera. It's perfect for maneuvering into tight spots you can't reach with a standard-size camera, video or otherwise, and it's auto-focus, good low light performance, and fisheye lens makes it a good choice for no-look close-ups. (In other words, I couldn't see what I was filming.)

Comanche Springs 2012: Drought Update
February 4, 2012 4:22 PM | Posted in: ,

Last February, I posted a series of photos and a video of the vigorous flow of water from Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton, Texas. You might want to take a moment and refresh your memory because this update won't be as meaningful without the comparison.

Fort Stockton has averaged about 14" of precipitation each year for the last 70 years, according to the National Weather Service. 2010 was a wetter-than-normal year and the region recorded about 17" of rainfall. 2011 was a stark contrast, as the rainfall total dropped off to a depressing 2.84".

And so we see what seems to be a logical link between a severe drought and the following photos that I captured yesterday and that document the fact that Comanche Springs is, well, dry. (Click on each photo to pop up a bigger version; use the arrows to move through the collection.) Most of the photos below are updates to their counterparts in the above-linked post. I didn't bother with any videos since a movie of a dry springbed is fairly non-dramatic.
 
PhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhotoPhoto

I decided to undertake this update because the folks who are proposing to pump millions of gallons of water each day from the aquifer that feeds this spring and sell it to Midland have argued that the water table is drought-resistant, if not downright drought-proof. I wouldn't attempt to refute that argument based on a few photos taken at a particular point in time, but the pictures do seem to make the argument less compelling than it might otherwise be.

Flights of Fancy
January 31, 2012 8:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I created this from an actual photograph. Any idea what it is?

Aerial photo

You know what? The un-retouched image is actually quite a bit more impressive:

Aerial photo

I know that some of you have seen this scene from ground-level. It's an aerial look at the Forest Creek Capricorn Ridge (thanks, Gregg!) wind farm just north of Sterling City, Texas. The white lines and dots are the turbine locations and service roads, but what really caught my eye when I saw them on Google Earth are the fractal patterns of the terrain, showing how it's been etched over the eons by natural forces. Simply breathtaking, it is.

Speaking of wind, I ran across the following video on a blog called Brand 66, and I was immediately captured by the sheer whimsical genius. 



How cool would it be to set an army of these inventions loose on the West Texas plains, to "graze" and wander at will?

Record-setting Snowfall in Midland
January 9, 2012 9:43 PM | Posted in: ,

Last time I checked, we'd received almost 10.5" of snow today, and it's still coming down. According to the Midland Reporter Telegram, this is an all-time one-day record, and also gives us a record cumulative snowfall for one season.

The "weather event" was an interesting study in contrasts. The city of Lubbock sent snow removal equipment to Midland to help clear roadways, and Midland International Airport was closed for the day by noon. On the other hand, the public schools weren't canceled in either Midland or Odessa (although all the private schools let out early). Many businesses let their employees leave early (ours didn't), but the roads were not dangerous (except for the presence of those who've never mastered the art of self-control).

The one thing we can all agree on is that this will provide some desperately needed moisture, probably the equivalent of an inch or so of rain, and it will soak into the soil. Good, good stuff for a parched land.

Photos? Of course; I thought you'd never ask.


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.

Bird's Nest Troupe
December 18, 2011 8:28 PM | Posted in: ,

I suspect that the red oak tree in our front yard will not emerge in full foliage next spring. It's a multi-trunk tree, and one of the trunks has been devastated by some unknown assailant - borers, oak wilt, dengue fever, black plague, overexposure to Lady Gaga...who knows? We had it treated by a tree service last year, but they warned us it may have been too far gone to save, and I think they were right.

But, that didn't stop the tree from being a very popular destination for our feathered friends. The leafage on the rest of the tree was quite thick and apparently made for a secure gathering place for a wide variety of birds. Just how popular a destination was only recently revealed, when the tree dropped its leaves after the first hard freeze.

I counted seven (7!) nests in the smallish tree, nests of all shapes, sizes, and quality of construction. You know, sort of like any neighborhood in Houston. I'm sure some of them weren't inhabited this year, being abandoned tenements from an earlier time, although I could be wrong about that as none of them seemed to be as completely deteriorated as you would expect from a full year of West Texas wind.

Anyway, I'm posting photos of six of the nests for your perusal during what I'm sure are boredom-filled holidays. I have no explanation for why I captured only six of the seven nests, but it is, as they say, what it is. And along with all the other things I don't know about this whole situation, I also don't know what kind of birds built any of these nests. Feel free to offer opinions, educated or otherwise. I won't know any different.

Note: In the interest of scientific accuracy, I will note that these photos aren't necessarily all cropped to the same scale. For example, the first nest is much smaller than the others, approximately teacup-sized. It's also the best constructed, obviously built by someone other than the low bidder.

Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest
Photo of a bird nest

Mocking Bird
December 9, 2011 12:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I was driving past the south pond this morning and something caught my eye on the far bank. I pulled into the clubhouse parking lot, grabbed the camera (which, for once, actually had a charged battery) and set out across the grounds to get a closer look. Turned out to be this guy:

Photo - Great Blue Heron

It's a Great Blue Heron (I hope it has a happier fate than a previous visitor), and at first I thought it was just innocently hanging out. But then I realized that birds can be cruel jokesters, too, because look who was nearby.

Photo - Great Blue Heron and Goose

Yes, it's our good friend, the one-legged goose, and the heron was obviously mocking him, much to the goose's dismay. Appalling behavior, right? It makes me weep for the animal kingdom.

Snow Report
December 5, 2011 8:30 PM | Posted in: ,

We got 3-4" of heavy, wet snow last night and today. It's not that unusual to have snow in West Texas, but we usually get the dry variety that stays on the trees and shrubs only as long as it takes for the first gust of wind to blow through. But this was snow of the snow angel-making, limb-breaking, snowball-cranking persuasion. And it was quite beautiful, despite its pain-in-the-rear potential.

Here are a few random scenes from around the neighborhood to commemorate the occasion.

Photos of snow in Midland, Texas
The wax myrtle in the back yard wasn't exactly thrilled with its new coat...

Photos of snow in Midland, Texas
...but the desert willow was stylin'.

Photos of snow in Midland, Texas
The neighborhood pond is simply magnificent when it snows.

Photos of snow in Midland, Texas
The snow turned a sad, drought-stricken pasture into a semi-surreal postcard.

Photos of snow in Midland, Texas
Our ceramic iguana was not amused...

Photo of my flooded office
...and neither was I when I arrived at my office to find that melting snow had found its way out of the cold.

As parts of the country endure flooding while other regions continue to suffer from a history-making drought and water shortage, it's logical to wonder why we can't figure out a way to move some of that water from one area to the other. Associated Press Science writer  Seth Borenstein writes that the idea is simply not feasible, either economically or politically. The article is a good high-level survey of some of the arguments against this redistribution scheme, but it's a bit short on specifics.

Giant Straw in the RiverThe 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.

Drought and the San Saba River
August 22, 2011 7:57 PM | Posted in: ,

The effects of the ongoing drought are depressingly evident throughout the Hill Country of Texas. We traveled from Midland to Fredericksburg last weekend, and brown was the dominant theme for the countryside. Except for a brief oasis-like hint of green around San Angelo (thanks to some very isolated recent downpours), the countryside was distressed beyond belief.

Below are a few photos we took of the San Saba River just outside of Brady. The last time we stopped in this particular location, people were swimming in the middle of the river, where now there is only bare, dry rock. What water still remains is stagnant and ugly. We spotted a number of turtles, so there must be some fish in these pools, but that won't last long if more rain doesn't come.

Photo
Photo
Photo

You're probably growing weary of pomegranate updates, but given everything I have going on right now, this is about all I can come up with. Plus, I think it's pretty great how a tree we gave up for dead is now thriving as a bush.

The photos below don't map exactly, but they're pretty close, perspective-wise. You may remember the drill on this particular method of display: drag the vertical bar to the left to reveal how the plant has grown since April (when the "top" photo was taken) until today (as shown by the "bottom" photo). And if dragging doesn't work, click on the left side of the photo to reveal the "after" picture.

Goose Update
August 2, 2011 6:41 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember our neighborhood's one-legged goose? I'm pleased to report that he/she/it appears to have effectively adapted to its unipedal status, as evidenced by this photo taken yesterday evening:

Photo of three geese standing on bank of pond

The bird at right is the goose in question, and as we watched the trio feeding along the bank, it was doing the one-foot-hop with ease.

It's been almost three months since the goose was returned to the pond, and fears that it would be easy prey for predators have not materialized. An unexpected positive consequence is that all three geese seem to be sticking a bit closer to the water, leaving the sidewalk around the pond a little cleaner.

Burn now, learn later
June 23, 2011 4:09 PM | Posted in: ,

While the immediate economic and ecological impacts of the recent wildfires and ongoing drought in West Texas are inarguably negative, there are still some positive aspects to the situation. Steve Nelle is a San Angelo-based wildlife biologist with the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and he has authored a short and quite interesting assessment of the likely ecological impacts and outlook for recovery from those fires.

He first takes aim at those who attempt to minimize the seriousness of the impact of the wildfires. I have been guilty of occasionally succumbing to the fallacy that since fire is a "natural phenomenon," it must be on the whole a positive thing, once we look past the obvious negative impacts on human endeavor and property. As Nelle points out, that's a naive perspective, especially when considering the multiplying effects of ongoing acute drought on fire-ravaged rangelands. 

In one study, soil erosion after a severe fire (like those around Possum Kingdom Lake, and in the Davis Mountains) was 7 to 10 tons per acre over a 2.5 year period, and more than 100 tons per acre in other locations with differing slopes and subsequent rainfall totals. It's hard for a layman to envision the actual impact of this kind of erosion, but given the relative thinness of topsoil throughout our region, it sounds quite serious.

As far as the grazing outlook for the burned areas, the studies generally seem to indicate that it will take at least three years for the pasture to recover, and that assumes at least average rainfall - not a comfortable assumption for us at this point. Some local ranchers are anticipating that it will take 20 years for their land to fully recover from the conflagrations and drought. Any way you slice it, that's a severe impact.

There are some positives, to be sure, including a great reduction in cedar (allergy sufferers, rejoice!), and reductions in the rattlesnake population. And if weather patterns change and provide more rainfall, the resulting grazing should be better than before - assuming anyone is still around to run livestock to take advantage of it.

If nothing else, the situation provides an excellent laboratory for scientists like Nelle to study the long-term impacts of wildfires and drought, and for ranchers to implement new techniques to optimize their use of the land.

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.

Overheard Bird
June 4, 2011 5:27 PM | Posted in: ,

All afternoon, while puttering around in the front yard, we've been hearing this odd bird call, kind of a plaintive "squawk," not harsh like a grackle's, but a bit more melodic. It sounded familiar to me, but I just couldn't place it. Nor could I discern its source.

Then, a few minutes ago, the call was closer and I was able to zero in on the apparent source...at which time I remembered where I'd heard it before. It was in this same scene:

Photo - Quail on top of roof

Do you recognize the bird? Probably not. Here, try this one:

Close-up Photo - Quail on top of roof

Yep, it's a quail - specifically a scaled or blue quail - apparently pretending to be an eagle or a hawk. I have no idea why a lone quail would fly up to a rooftop and walk along the ridgeline, squawking at the world. Lonely? Bragging? Defying? Who knows what goes on inside the brain of a quail? I certainly don't. But I suddenly got a craving for jalapeños and bacon.

Random Holiday Nature Scenes
May 30, 2011 9:30 PM | Posted in: ,

We had a rather uneventful Memorial Day, without much to report. We did go on a couple of walks around the neighborhood, and I thought I'd share a few sightings of local flora and fauna.

The first was actually last night, and not local at all, at least not in the "neighborhood" sense of the word. We were coming home from visiting with friends who live about ten miles south of town, and we spotted something white flashing in the pasture not far from the road. I immediately recognized it as the north end of a southbound pronghorn (which, of course, is not really an antelope). I've always heard that there are a few pronghorn around Midland County, but this was my first sighting. Very cool. Unfortunately, while we did have a camera in the car, we weren't quick enough to get a shot.

Photo - Cottontail rabbit relaxing

The next two pictures are of two pairs of quail that were hanging around the north pond. The first one seems to be doing his impression of the king of the hill (I guess he's got a bird's eye view of things):

Photo - Quail standing on boards

The next one is a photo of the other two quail flying away in a panic. I had spotted them earlier and figured they'd fly when we got closer, so I had my point-and-shoot aimed in the direction I guessed they'd fly. They were as fast as I expected, and I didn't know if I'd even gotten them in the shot until I downloaded the photos onto my computer.

Photo - Quail flying away

The final photo is simply a reminder that if you want to find something green in Midland, you can drive out to Woodland Park and pretend we're not in a drought of epic proportions.

Photo - Wildflowers along sidewalk
It's important to keep the Historical Records up to date, so here's what's happening in the front part of la hacienda:

Barn Swallows - When last we checked in on the little #@*%& fellows, their nest was almost complete. It's now finished and positioned so close to the ceiling that we can't see inside the nest, even with our tallest ladder. They think they're so smart, but they underestimate the vastness of my tool inventory, specifically the small round mirror mounted on the telescoping, articulating arm. (I knew I'd have a use for that someday, besides helping me locate stuff that I drop behind the workbench.)

So, here's what's inside the mysterious nest:

Photo of barn swallow egg reflected in mirror

Interesting that there's only one egg in the nest. I thought they usually had a multi-egg clutches.

By the way, I hope you're impressed by the photo, as I stood near the top of a 12-foot ladder, holding the mirror in one hand and the camera in the other, while Debbie re-read my life insurance policy.

Moving on to the flora, I'm pleased to report that our pomegranate-tree-reborn-as-a-bush is growing like a weed, which it is, by definition. Anyway, we put this funky three-sided tomato cage around it to tame its wildness, and it's now 3' tall. Pretty sure it won't have any fruit this year, but we're hopeful about 2012, assuming the world doesn't end.

Photo of pomegranate bush

And, finally, our palm tree has fully recovered from its close encounter of the frostbite kind. It's still a bit lopsided from where Debbie had to prune the dead fronds following that bitter freeze (feels a bit weird to be writing about it, given that it's around 100° as I type this).

Photo of palm tree
By the way, don't let the apparently green grass in our lawn fool you; it's becoming increasingly heat-stressed due to the watering restrictions. I'm not sure why it looks this good; the back lawn is more brown than green. And based on the long range weather forecast, it's going to get worse before it gets better. Pray for rain!

Stationary Hummer
May 24, 2011 6:02 PM | Posted in: ,

So, say you're a hummingbird trying to cope with 40mph+ winds, blowing dust and smoke from wildfires on the north and the south, temperatures in the 90s and humidity around 5%. What would you do?

Probably the same thing this little guy is doing...perching on a tomato cage sheltered by a concrete block wall, and leaving the hovering to the helicopters.

Photo - Hummingbird perched on tomato cage
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

Watering for Show
April 23, 2011 5:49 PM | Posted in: ,

Dear, You know who you are with the big house at the golf course -

I'm sure you're aware that the city of Midland has requested that citizens cut back on their water usage by limiting their lawn watering to three days a week, between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 a.m. And you're probably also aware that they've also been asked to make sure that they monitor their sprinklers during those times so that water isn't wasted by running over the curb and down the gutter.

I assume that because of the large size of your corner lot, the better to showcase what is one of the largest, if not the largest house in the northern development of said golf course, you have at least one water well and thus are not using city water. (I don't know that for a fact; I'm simply giving you the benefit of the doubt.)

So, rather than being in direct violation of the thus-far voluntary watering restrictions, when you run your industrial strength sprinkler system during the heat and wind of the day and blissfully ignore the sparkling rivulets it generates in the gutters, you're simply guilty of condescension and poor taste. Oh, some small-minded people might point out that water is water regardless of its source, and it's all scarce and should be conserved, but we don't want to be unreasonable.

Your pal,

Eric

OK, I take no pleasure in posting something like this, even though it's based on a firsthand observation during a recent bike ride, because I live in a neighborhood that has two well-fed ponds that use and lose prodigious amounts of water, especially during the summer months. There's a part of me that thinks we should let those ponds go dry until the drought breaks, if for no other reason than as a show of solidarity with the individual families who are being asked to sacrifice their landscape in the cause.

Avocet Video
April 20, 2011 2:32 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember the flock of avocets that visited our neighborhood pond last weekend? Sure you do! Anyway, I finally got around to editing the video I shot and I've uploaded it to YouTube. You can either view it there via this link, or just click the following embed. Note that the source footage* is HD so you can embiggen it in full-screen mode if you wish.



Please excuse the poor audio quality. The wind was pretty strong (I know; that hardly ever happens in West Texas) and my camcorder has a built-in windscreen, I'll be darned if I know how to use it. 

On the plus side, this was a good excuse to finally learn to use iMovie '09, which I've been resisting for a long time. Turns out it has some great features; I was able to bump up the contrast and saturation a bit to overcome the flat light caused by the wildfire smoke in the air, and the last 20 seconds of the video feature the slow-motion capabilities of the application.

*Isn't it interesting that we still refer to video as "footage," even though that measurement is completely irrelevant in our digital darkroom. Ooh, there's another one...

Awesome Acrobatic Avocets!
April 18, 2011 6:27 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I were in the front yard yesterday afternoon - she was working; I was, um, supervising - and our eyes were drawn to a flock of birds circling our neighborhood's north pond, about two blocks away. I grabbed my video camera, and then returned and got my SLR with a long lens, and documented this unusual display.

Photo - Flying American Avocets

Burr Williams, executive director of the Sibley Nature Center, identified the birds as American Avocets. They normally inhabit the playa lakes of the Llano Estacado, but with many (most?) of those lakes drying up in the current drought, he said they're looking for other nesting areas.  

I don't think they'll find our ponds to be suitable, because there's too much human activity around them, and they're awfully skittish. But they are beautiful birds and a joy to observe. Click on the following thumbnails to see larger versions of each image.

Photo - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying AvocetsPhoto - Flying Avocets

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.

I mentioned a video camera. I did get some footage, and if I can figure out how to edit it properly, I'll post something to YouTube. Those birds are fast flyers and hard to keep in a viewfinder, so don't expect anything professional.

Fire Map
April 17, 2011 1:56 PM | Posted in: ,

I've been tracking wildfires in West Texas via Weather Underground's interactive mapping feature. If you're not familiar with it, check it out when you have a moment.

When you initially visit the preceding link, you'll see a generic Google Map. Use the "Map Controls" located beneath the map to select which options you want to display. If you click on the "Fire" option, you'll then get a set of related options including displays of smoke cover, fire perimeters, and satellite detected fires. I think the first and last feature are most helpful in staying current with the ongoing blazes; the second option shows a [depressing] picture of how much acreage has already gone up in smoke.

The map is usable on a smartphone or iPad, but barely. It's slow to load and navigate. But on a desktop computer, it's very responsive.

Of course, what many of us may not realize is that we in West Texas aren't alone in being threatened by wildfires. As the map below shows (a snapshot from just a few minutes ago), the interior of Mexico is also being plagued by fire. Indeed, much of the smoke cover that's hitting the Texas Gulf Coast is coming from those fires.

Screenshot of Weather Underground wildfire locator map

I don't think I need to remind you...pray for rain!

When life gives you lemons...
April 16, 2011 11:45 AM | Posted in: ,

...make, uh, pomegranate juice?

As I may have mentioned, our big pomegranate tree didn't survive the Big Freeze of Ought Eleven. We discussed digging it up and planting something else, but then noticed a very healthy and vigorously growing batch of shoots coming up from the base of the dead tree. We decided to let nature run its course and see if the plant would grow into a healthy shrub (until the next big cold snap, of course).

Growing up in Fort Stockton, the only pomegranate plants I saw were bushes...they were never pruned into trees. And we've noticed several around town that are of the shrubbery persuasion. So, we're gonna let the little guy do its thing and perhaps in a couple of years, it will again be providing some beautiful fruit.

It has a ways to go, though:

Photo of small pomegranate shrub

Redefining a Day
March 28, 2011 7:46 AM | Posted in: ,

In anticipation of the watering restrictions scheduled to begin on April 1st in Midland and several surrounding communities, I reprogrammed my sprinkler system control box on Saturday, determined to get a jump on things rather than wait until the last minute. 

Our home address ends in an odd number, meaning that we'll be allowed to water our lawn on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I carefully updated the settings on the two programs (one for the lawn and another for the flowerbeds) to ensure that they would take place on the proper days. The lawn program would begin at 4:00 a.m. on those designated days, and the beds would be watered beginning at 7:00 a.m. I carefully selected those times to avoid both the heat of the day and potential conflicts with indoor water use.

I was feeling smug at my far-sighted preparation, until I read this (emphasis mine) and learned that I was setting myself up to be a lawbreaker. Here's the important part:
Watering also is being restricted to between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. on each assigned day. An individual's designated day starts at 6 p.m. and carries into the following morning, meaning the yard of an odd numbered home could be irrigated between 6 p.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday. Even numbered homes, in turn, could use outdoor water between 6 p.m. on Tuesday and 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Purvis said.
I'm trying to understand the logic behind defining a day as starting at 6:00 p.m. Seems like an unnecessary complication to me, in effect saying "you can water only on Wednesday, unless you want to do it on Thursday."

What am I missing here? What's wrong with an actual "midnight to midnight" definition of a day? Or is this simply another example of the apparently irresistible need of government to complicate things?

Tracking Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton
February 25, 2011 9:45 AM | Posted in: ,

Last Monday, February 21, we made a day trip to Fort Stockton to visit family, and were pleased to see that Comanche Springs was again flowing. This is a fairly dependable annual occurrence each winter, when the agricultural irrigation west of town ceases and the water level in the aquifer rises sufficiently for the water to exit at several surface locations in Rooney Park.

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.

PhotoPhotoPhoto

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.

PhotoPhoto

After exiting the park, the finished portion of the canal comes to an end just east of the Highway 285 bridge.

Photo

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.

PhotoPhotoPhoto

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.

Back Yard Visitor
January 10, 2011 6:16 PM | Posted in:

I glanced at the backyard just before lunch this morning, and my eye caught an unusual shape in our Mexican Elder*, which has been significantly denuded by the winter cold. I looked a bit more carefully - the figure was definitely bird-shaped, but much larger than the usual vagrants. I moved to another window to get a different perspective, and sure enough, it was a hawk.

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).

HawkHawk

*Can't place what a Mexican Elder looks like, much less a denuded one? Here's a little better shot of the tree, along with the partially obscure bird.

Photo - Hawk in Mexican Elder

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

The Sci-Fi World of Insects
November 1, 2010 2:19 PM | Posted in: ,

I walked over to the north pond yesterday, hoping to get some photos of the big crane that's been hanging out the past few weeks. He flew away before I could do that, so I sat at the water's edge waiting for him to return. He never came back (thanks to you, Mr. Loudmouth Cell Phone Talking Walker), but I found other things to distract me. Such as the secret alien world of flying insects.

Click on the small images for bigger versions, and to go through them slideshow-style.



New Gallery Images
October 21, 2010 4:40 AM | Posted in: ,

I had no idea I'd fallen so far behind in posting new images to the Gallery.

For simple notes regarding each picture, visit the Gallery. To view the full-sized images on this page, click the thumbnails below.

Pumpjack Railroad Track Clouds and Sun Butterfly on Orange Flower Flower Sulfur Butterfly on Flower Spider and Web Spider and Web Praying Mantis on Crape Myrtle Dew Covered Mushroom Bee and Morning Glory Flower Fall Flowers Fall Flowers Dead Butterfly

Pomegranates, anyone?
September 25, 2010 10:48 AM | Posted in: ,

Or, should I say, everyone?

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.

Photo of pomegranate tree heavy with fruit
We've all heard stories about the tendency of the female praying mantis to bite the head off the male after mating, right? Well, that's a gross exaggeration, and unfair to the species. In point of fact, the female bites off the head before mating, which, according to this article, spurs the guy on.

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.

Photo of mating mantidsPhoto of mating mantidsPhoto of mating mantids

I'm sure there's a cautionary tale here, somewhere, but I'm trying really hard not to think about it.
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.
In this part of the country, "isolated thunderstorms" is weather-speak for "you'll get rain approximately at the same time the devil goes ice skating in Hades." Except for tonight, when our neighborhood found itself squarely in the cross hairs of one of those isolated incidents. We got a nice rain, which was greatly appreciated since it's been a month since we've had any.

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:

Photo - Red oak tree broken by the wind

One of the trunks of their 30' red oak tree was snapped by the gusty winds. You have to live in a tree-challenged region like ours to understand what a tragedy this is. Fortunately, the tree was still young enough that its demise didn't cause any collateral damage, other than to our morale.

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.

Take a Gander at This
July 22, 2010 9:29 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie and I went for an early morning run around the neighborhood last Sunday and were surprised to see these guys at the pond area.

Photo - Four Western Greylag geese

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.

Dragonfly
July 18, 2010 2:23 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie spotted this dragonfly as we were walking around the pond earlier today. I didn't have my camera with me, but we returned about 30 minutes later and the insect was still hanging around (actually, there were two of them, chasing one another with unknown motivations).

According to this website, this is a Scarlet Darter Dragonfly (Crocothemis erythraea). Whatever the name, it's a gorgeous specimen.

Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly
Photo - Scarlet Darter Dragonfly

High Wire Act
July 7, 2010 8:33 AM | Posted in: ,

This walking stick was hanging from an electrical line over our B&B at Canyon Lake last week, barely in reach of my zoom lens. I don't know what he thought he'd find up there, and he seemed to make a great target for a hungry bird, but I guess he knew what he was doing. Well, insofar as any insect "knows" anything.

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.

Photo - Walking Stick on Electrical Line

Sunset
July 6, 2010 5:46 PM | Posted in: ,

So, how was your sunset yesterday?

Ours was pretty good.

Photo of a West Texas sunset
Photo of a West Texas sunset
It borders on heresy to complain about rain in West Texas, but that's exactly what I intend to do. Well, it's not so much the rain itself that gripes me, but rather the timing.

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.

Horny Toads on the Comeback Trail?
June 25, 2010 6:38 AM | Posted in: ,

Several people have asked whether we've spotted any horned lizards this year, and we're happy to reply with an emphatic "yes." We've sighted them on almost every walk or bike ride, and seen them from the car driving through the neighborhood. I wouldn't say that we're overrun with the little rascals, but they definitely seem more numerous than in seasons past.

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.

Photo - Horned lizard or horny toad

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.

Paging Ferlin Husky
June 11, 2010 5:25 PM | Posted in:

I glanced through the window on our front door and saw this fellow crouching on the porch.

White dove atop ceramic iguana

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.

Pomegranate Life Stages
June 1, 2010 8:37 AM | Posted in: ,

Our pomegranate tree is simply loaded, and we'll have to do some serious thinning of the fruit in a month or so to protect the overall integrity of the tree. I have no idea whether pomegranates in the wild are this prolific, and if so, how they get through a season without many broken branches. I've had to re-stake the top-heavy tree to keep it upright as the recent heavy rains and wind threatened to topple it.

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.

Photo of pomegranate blooms and immature fruit

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."

Oriole
May 29, 2010 3:37 PM | Posted in: ,

There's something funky going on inside my camera, because this photo of an oriole in my neighbor's tree is definitely not accurate, color-wise. But it's still a cool bird, and one that's not commonly found around here.


American Basket Flower
May 27, 2010 1:55 PM | Posted in: ,

I love these big flowers, with their mix of delicate fronds and business-like spines.

This and a few other new images will be up at the Gallery pretty soon.

Photo - American Basket Flower set against blue sky and clouds
I just checked the dove's nest in the palm tree and found it bereft of dove and eggs. I don't know where the bird went, but the eggs are lying at the base of the tree, victims of poor architectural planning and some stiff West Texas wind.

We can but hope that the local dove gene pool is thereby strengthened, but I somehow doubt it.

Flaming Sky
May 25, 2010 6:26 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo of sunset and clouds

New Neighbors
May 24, 2010 6:32 PM | Posted in: ,

I recently wrote about the mockingbird nest in one of the trees in our front yard. The fact is, while we don't have that many trees, and they're not that big, those we do have are apparently quite attractive to the local birds. Besides the aforementioned mockingbirds, we have a western king bird nest in our live oak, and then there's this:

Dove nest in palm tree

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):

Dove nest with eggs in palm tree

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:

Dove nesting in palm tree

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 on roof

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.

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.

Deluge Aftermath
May 15, 2010 3:26 PM | Posted in: ,

If you live in West Texas then yesterday's torrential rain is old news, but a 3"+ rainfall is still rare enough in these parts to make it worth writing about...or at least worth posting a few photos.

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.

Photo of partially submerged dock

Here's another view showing the sidewalk that normally leads to the dock.

Photo of partially submerged dock

Despite the heavy rains, we still managed to have a spectacular sunset.

Photo of sunset and thunderhead

The thunderhead in the distance was moving away from us. We were more than happy to share it with someone else.

More Gallery Images
May 13, 2010 2:17 PM | Posted in: ,

OK, you should know the drill by now when you see that post title. Drop by the Gallery to see a half dozen new images, not all of them as weird as this:

Photo of cottontail rabbit

Ice Sage
May 13, 2010 6:40 AM | Posted in: ,

We were driving through a neighborhood yesterday and Debbie observed a lone Desert Willow that - as she put it - was "blooming up a storm." Most of them aren't blooming yet, and so my response about the over-achiever was that it would be sorry when it froze. OK, so it wasn't that funny...but it was prescient, sort of.

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:

Layer of hailstones surrounding flowers

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.

More Nature Photography
May 10, 2010 4:18 PM | Posted in: ,

I was driving north on "A" Street this morning, returning to the neighborhood after a quick run to the bank, and caught a flash of movement across the road. I pulled over, grabbed the little Sony point-and-shoot that I keep in the car for just such occasions, and got this:

Photo of a wild turkey
Photo of a wild turkey

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:

Photo of a 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.

West Texas Wildflowers
May 6, 2010 8:22 AM | Posted in: ,

Our part of the state is better known for tumbleweeds than wildflowers, but when we get a little spring rainfall, things change dramatically.

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

Photo collage - West Texas wildflowers

Predator
April 23, 2010 4:49 PM | Posted in: ,

I started to write about our trip to Houston this week, but decided I'd rather post this instead.

Photo (sort of) of a mouse skull

Debbie found the skull of a mouse in our back yard at lunch today. We (OK, me) were fascinated by the juxtaposition of delicacy and implied evil.

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.)

Another mouse skull photo

Spring Blooms
April 18, 2010 6:59 PM | Posted in: ,

I look at the flowers on this lantana and think, "God, how do You do that?"

Photo of yellow and pink lantana blooms

Dusk Storm
April 16, 2010 2:55 PM | Posted in: ,

We were at the end of a post-dinner walk around the neighborhood and the sunset was striking. I had no camera other than my iPhone, but that seemed to work out pretty well.

Photo - Texas Mountain laurel (stylized)

Here's a bigger version of the preceding image.

Texas Mountain Laurel
April 14, 2010 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

The Texas Mountain Laurels are beautiful this spring. One of ours has been loaded with clusters of blooms that looked more like grapes than blossoms. They also smell like grape juice. I wish the flowers lasted longer.

Photo - Texas Mountain laurel (stylized)

Here's a bigger version of the preceding image.

Baby Pome
April 13, 2010 6:36 AM | Posted in: ,

Ever wonder what a pomegranate looks like in its very beginning? Well, wonder no more:

Photo - tiny pomegranate

To get a sense of the scale, those are my fingers holding the branch.

Mockingbird Recording
April 5, 2010 6:39 PM | Posted in: ,

As I sat on the front porch yesterday afternoon reading a book and enjoying the nice weather, I was aurally accosted by a loud-mouthed intruder who was so enamored with his own voice, I suspect he'd make an excellent Senator.



Just kidding. Mockingbirds are too smart to run for public office; they're more like lobbyists. Anyway, if you don't have any of these birds in your neighborhood, you may enjoy hearing one show off.

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.
One of the presumed harbingers of spring in West Texas is the return of roosting buzzards. If that's true, then Fort Stockton has seen its last cold snap for the season, as evidenced by this iPhone video I shot last evening from my parents' backyard:



This is just a fraction of the flock of scavengers that would eventually come to roost in the Afghan pines and live oak trees of the neighborhood. My guess is that there were 100-200 of the big birds.

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.

Ever had one of those days?
February 26, 2010 9:00 AM | Posted in: ,

At least it's Friday.


Link via TwistedShifter

Oh, and here's where it gets even worse. Somebody needs to retake Fly Catching 101.


Midland's official snowfall yesterday totaled 4.5" which, as some commenters implied in the previous post, is not worth sniffing at compared to what they've had in their northern climes. But put it in perspective: that total was the 9th heaviest snowfall in our area's recorded weather history. Midland has never had more than 10 inches of snow (officially) in one day (the record of 9.8 inches occurred in 1998). So, for us and our anemic snow-handling infrastructure, yesterday provided an event of historic proportions.

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.

Photo of snow and pond

"Snowpocalypse," West Texas Style
February 23, 2010 7:15 AM | Posted in: ,

We Texans pride ourselves on our fierce, independent toughness, able to overcome any obstacle with aplomb.

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.

New Gallery Images
February 21, 2010 10:35 AM | Posted in: ,

Got a few more images in the Gallery, taken from our trip last month to the San Diego zoo.


Stalking the wily cursor
February 12, 2010 11:28 AM | Posted in:

We once had a neighbor whose hyperactive Maltese terrier would chase a flashlight beam around the room for as long as we had the energy to move the light. His seriousness in attempting to capture what was obviously a highly annoying if not downright dangerous prey never failed to amuse. Nor does the following:



If you've never been around mantids, you won't completely understand how creepy they can be as they follow your every movement with their beady little eyes.

Link via Neatorama

Back Home
January 26, 2010 7:39 AM | Posted in: ,

We spent an extended and very pleasant weekend in San Diego/Coronado, California. I hope to post a report with a few photos as soon as I can work through the backlog of work and errands that accumulated while we were away. In the meantime, here's a teaser photo of four pelicans gliding along the coastline at the Cabrillo National Monument:

Photo of four flying pelicans
You have to hand it to the Japanese. For whatever reasons, they're the undisputed leaders in formulating the world's strangest TV shows. Anyway, via Neatorama comes this video of an exercise to determine which, if any, animals can negotiate a path without knocking down dominoes that line either side.

My only quibble is that they should have played the Texas state song at the end.



Why all the talk about Texas? It's simple, really.

More Big White Bird Photos
January 18, 2010 6:44 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember this guy? He's still hanging around. Well, I suppose "hanging" isn't the operative term.

Photo - Egret in flight

Viewed from a certain angle, you can see that there's not much to this bird, despite his impressive size while he's wading.

Photo - Egret in flight

More Fog
January 16, 2010 10:20 AM | Posted in: ,

Our weird winter weather continues today as we awoke to some of the thickest fog I can recall around here. It wasn't quite as bad as the Tule fog in Bakersfield (which is so thick that cautious drivers stop at intersections with windows rolled down to listen for cross-traffic), but it still slowed down traffic on the Loop, a miracle in itself.

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:

Photo - bird in tree

A New Year "Crane" for Good Luck
January 1, 2010 11:43 AM | Posted in: ,

According to Asian tradition, the crane is a bird of good luck and long life, and further, if you fold one thousand origami cranes you'll be granted a wish.

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.

Gallery Additions - Snowfall Images
December 5, 2009 9:58 AM | Posted in: ,

Yesterday's snowfall was relatively light and short-lived, but I got out early and snapped some photos to document the rare phenomenon. There are about a dozen new images up at the Gallery, including bigger versions of these two:

Photo - snow covered stream
Photo - snow on lily pad flower

Snow Bunny
December 4, 2009 9:41 AM | Posted in: ,

Not everyone shares the schoolkids' enthusiasm about last night's snowfall:

Photo - bunny in snow

Bird
November 20, 2009 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I see a lot of websites during the course of a week. Many of them are design-related and thus represent what should be the most striking, innovative, and creative examples the profession can build. Still, it's not often that I run across one that simply takes my breath away.

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].

Woodpecker
November 7, 2009 2:52 PM | Posted in: ,

Debbie was watering the plants on the front porch when she heard a tapping sound. She looked up and spotted the source: a ladder-backed woodpecker working its way up the trunk of our neighbors' red oak tree. We don't see many woodpeckers around here, so it was definitely a photo opportunity.

In the second photo, you can easily see the pockmarks the bird was leaving in the tree bark.

Photo of a ladder-backed woodpecker
Photo of a ladder-backed woodpecker

More Butterfly Photos
November 6, 2009 6:42 AM | Posted in: ,

I keep thinking that it's a little late in the season for butterflies, and yet they keep showing up. Yesterday, a beautiful black swallowtail was sipping from the bougainvillea growing in pots on our driveway. It was persistent enough that I was able to run inside, change lenses on the camera, and take a few dozen photos. Below are a couple of examples; there are ten additional larger images in the Gallery.

Photo - Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Bougainvillea
Photo - Black Swallowtail Butterfly on Bougainvillea

Technical photo details: Canon Digital Rebel XT, Canon 80-200 zoom lens, manual focus, ISO 100

Coyote Serenade
November 3, 2009 7:46 AM | Posted in: ,

We're constantly delighted with the intrusion of the rural trappings of nature upon the suburban location of our neighborhood. However, one of those trappings had been noticeably absent in the past few months: coyotes.

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.

Butterfly and Flower
October 17, 2009 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

I failed in my quest to get better photos of the snapping turtle, but I was determined to bring something back in my camera. When I took this photo, I had no idea it would turn out as beautiful as it did. The wind was blowing and the autofocus on my zoom lens wasn't cooperating, so I focused manually, took a breath, and hoped that I captured the scene without too much blur.

Photo - butterfly on yellow flowerPhoto - butterfly on yellow flower

I should try manual focus more often. ;-)

(Who am I kidding? This was pure luck.)

Oh, Snap!
October 16, 2009 4:09 PM | Posted in: ,

We were giving two of my aunts a tour of our neighborhood's walking path and ponds and I spotted a unusual shape in the stream about fifty feet in front of us. I rushed to the side of the stream and Could. Not. Believe. My. Eyes. (that's how the cool kids express extreme surprise).

Photo of a snapping turtlePhoto of a snapping turtle

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.

Wandering the Web
October 5, 2009 6:27 PM | Posted in: ,

We spent the last few days in scenic Weatherford, Texas (if that sounds like sarcasm, you need to drive through some of the neighborhoods south of I-20 and you'll see that I'm serious. But be sure to pack a GPS.) and thus haven't been attending to bloggerly duties. Here's some stuff I hope will make up for that.

  • 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.

Green Heron
October 1, 2009 12:20 PM | Posted in: ,

I spotted a bird of a type I hadn't previously seen wading in the stream between the two ponds this morning. I took a couple dozen photos and shipped a few off to our resident wildlife expert, Burr Williams, who identified the bird as a green heron. He said they reside year-around in certain parts of our county, but he admitted that he'd never seen one with its crest raised, as shown in the second photo.

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.

Photo of a green heron
Photo of a green heron

Sunday Morning Hawk
September 20, 2009 2:41 PM | Posted in: ,

I was sitting on our front porch after breakfast, accompanied by a Bible and a cup of coffee - both being essential to Sunday morning (or any morning, for that matter) - enjoying the beautiful weather. The street light at the corner of our yard was decorated with five or six Mexican doves basking in the sunshine.

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.




The Mist
September 19, 2009 2:00 PM | Posted in: ,

As we headed out to breakfast this morning, we noticed a bit of fog and mist in some of the low-lying areas and around the golf course across the pasture, but it wasn't until we turned onto "A" Street that we saw this striking bit of meteorological phenomena:





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.

Plucking Pomegranates
September 15, 2009 6:39 AM | Posted in: ,

We picked our first two pomegranates this evening. The softball-sized fruit looked so red and shiny, we just couldn't resist finding out whether they were really ripe - or just looked that way.

Photo - 2 Pomegranates

Debbie halved one of them and the fleshy seeds certainly looked ripe.

Photo - Pomegranate halves

As it turns out, we might have been a week or so premature, but not being a pomegranate expert, I could be wrong. The fruit wasn't as sweet as I expected, but it was quite juicy and not at all unpleasant.

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.

And yet another bug pic
September 4, 2009 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

We've were hit with a veritable plague of grasshoppers a couple of weeks ago. Occasionally, we'd pick up a hitchhiker on the car, including this one that landed on the windshield, and provided a rather unique perspective for a photo.

Photo of a Grasshopper

Yeah, it's another bug pic
September 3, 2009 9:52 PM | Posted in: ,

This critter was on the wall outside the studio where we had our dance lesson tonight. It's some variety of walking stick insect but I've never seen one quite like it before. It's about six inches in length, and more delicate-looking than most walking sticks I've seen.

Photo of a Walking Stick (insect)

Bugged
September 1, 2009 6:06 AM | Posted in: ,

I seem to be in a photographic rut lately, but the insect world has presented some opportunities too good to ignore.

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.

Photo of shield bug
Photo of shield bug

Heavy Backyard Air Traffic
August 31, 2009 6:38 AM | Posted in: ,

The bees were working over the yellow bells (aka esperanza) in my father-in-law's backyard, and so I hauled out the camera on Saturday to try to capture some of the action. I was so focused (pun intended) on the bee leaving the bloom in the following photo that I didn't notice the one that's on approach to the landing area.

Photo of two bees near yellow flower

Is it just me or does the one facing the camera have a cartoonish look on his face?

Mantid on Board
August 30, 2009 6:59 PM | Posted in: ,

We brought a nice lantana back with us from Fort Stockton, a birthday gift for my wife from my brother and sister-in-law. After it was situated on the back porch, Debbie called me to take a photo of what might have been a stowaway on the trip home.

Photo - Praying Mantis

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.

Jurassic Flowerbed
August 24, 2009 1:09 PM | Posted in: ,

I stepped out the front door around noon to change some light bulbs and heard a rustling in the flowerbed. Given the number of rattlesnake sightings in our neighborhood this year, I was in no mood to assume the noise came from a beneficent source, so I tip-toed over...and spotted the fellow in the following photo, chowing down on a spider or fly (all I could see were the legs sticking out of his mouth). This is a Texas spotted whiptail and they're quite common around here. They'll also occasionally scare the daylights out of you as they'll burrow underground during the heat of the day, and then explode out of the dirt if you're digging in the vicinity. But, any enemy of spiders and flies is a friend of mine!

Click on the first photo to see a larger and uncropped version.
Photo of whiptail lizard
Photo of whiptail lizard

The Original Hummer
August 23, 2009 8:03 PM | Posted in: ,

Back porch hummingbird views:

Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
Photo of Hummingbird
You'd think that by now I'd have learned not to leave my camera inside when I retire to the front porch for Sunday morning coffee. I invariably see things that I wish I could share with you, but by the time I rush back inside, the moment has passed and all you're left with are my inadequate descriptions.

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.

Cartoon drawing

A Nice Flower Image (For You Wimps)
August 16, 2009 5:13 PM | Posted in: ,

You know who you are. Click for a full-sized uncropped version. And don't worry; there are no snakes (as far as you know).

Thumbnail image

Life of a Thunderstorm
August 16, 2009 7:15 AM | Posted in: ,

We killed a small rattlesnake during our walk yesterday evening. It was flattened against the concrete of the sidewalk, absorbing the radiating heat. I stuck a camera in its face and it did nothing but flick its tongue. Normally, that would be the extent of our interaction, but because it was in our neighborhood, on a path frequented by children and pets, I did the right thing and bashed its little head with a rock. Even a baby rattler is dangerous, and we've already had a child in the neighborhood bitten by one.

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.

This Bird's a Hoot!
August 10, 2009 2:07 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been like Wild Kingdom around here lately. Yesterday evening, Tom Woodruff, a home builder and one of the developers of our neighborhood, came across a Great Horned Owl beside the "creek" that recirculates from and to the south pond. He got some wonderful photos of the bird, which is rarely seen in the daylight around here. You can view a series of five photos via the Woodland Park homeowner's association website, beginning here.

Photo - Great Horned Owl standing in water
Photo courtesy of Tom Woodruff

As you can see, the owl is actually standing in the water. My guess is that he's been dining on the numerous leopard frogs that inhabit the stream. I hope he's also feasting on the cotton rats that were flourishing in the area earlier in the summer. I haven't spotted any in a couple of weeks, so perhaps that's the case.

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!

Just Anole Fashioned Lizard
August 9, 2009 8:25 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie was tending to the front flowerbeds yesterday and called me to bring the camera. Here's what she spotted on a photinia.

Photo of Green Anole

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:

Photo of Green Anole
Photo of Green Anole

Big Snake Photos Debunked
August 5, 2009 7:44 AM | Posted in: ,

One of our local TV stations was running a photo of what they alleged was a giant rattlesnake recently killed in West Odessa. The snake in the photo appears to be 10 or 11 feet in length, and the landscape is certainly consistent with that seen in our area. However, the snake in the photo is certainly not a rattler, and West Texas isn't the only place in the world where the scenery is rather desolate scrub.

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.

Frog and Duck Pictures
August 2, 2009 8:26 PM | Posted in: ,

Here are a few more additions to the Image Gallery.

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.

Photo Photo Photo Photo

On the Trail of the Naked Indians
July 13, 2009 1:27 PM | Posted in: ,

We stayed in a great bed-and-breakfast over the July 4th weekend, the Firefly Inn, located near Canyon Lake in the Texas Hill Country. If you're following my Twitter feed (and why wouldn't you?), you may have seen my daily reports on the terrific breakfasts we enjoyed during our stay. But I don't believe I mentioned one of the most interesting aspects of the B&B: its address. The Firefly Inn is located on Naked Indian Trail.

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.

Photo - Texas Madrone
Photo - Texas Madrone
Photo - Texas Madrone

Jack told us that while he wasn't aware of any scientific evidence to prove it, it seemed that Madrones will flourish only in the presence of cedar trees. There's no known symbiosis involved, and it could be coincidental that wherever you see a Madrone, you'll also find a cedar close by, but we did indeed observe that phenomenon, without exception, in this locale.

New Gazette Header Graphic?
July 1, 2009 2:45 PM | Posted in: ,

So, I've been thinking about whether to re-incorporate an ant into the header graphic, but it's hard to decide which one. Here's a possibility.

Link via Daring Fireball

Turkey Stalking
March 18, 2009 3:12 PM | Posted in: ,

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.

Neighborhood Killdeer
April 28, 2008 2:53 PM | Posted in: ,

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.

Scenes from a bike ride
June 20, 2006 2:49 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Burrowing owl on highlinePhoto - Burrowing owl on highline
Photo - Burrowing owl in flight
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.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Nature category.

Music is the previous category.

Navel Gazing is the next category.

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