April 2019 Archives

Late last month we were confronted with the sad sight of three nestlings that had apparently fallen from their nest attached to a stone column about ten feet above our back porch. Two of the baby birds were already deceased and the third would soon be. 

There was no sign of a disturbance in the nest, and the parents continued to fly to and from the nest. We were at a loss to explain why the nestlings would have fallen from their well-protected home. But, such is life (and death) in the natural world.

A few days later, early on a crisp April morning, we heard a commotion from some upset birds in the vicinity of the back porch. We went out to investigate and were greeted by a small snake, perhaps eighteen inches in length.

Photo - Juvenile rat snake

The snake was somewhat lethargic until I got close to it, when it became more animated. While it didn't seem particularly aggressive, I noticed one behavior that alarmed me just a bit. Animated gif of Rat snake vibrating its tail Pay close attention to the tail in the gif on the right (which I've slowed down by 50% and converted to black and white to save bandwidth). That vibrating tail is an easily recognized characteristic of a rattlesnake -- and this obviously was no rattler -- but it's also a behavior of some other species, including the copperhead, another venomous pit viper, and a species not uncommon in the Texas Hill Country. 

I'm not very familiar with copperheads, as they aren't normally found in the parts of West Texas where I spent most of my life, and my frame of reference for them was limited to the aforementioned tail-shaking behavior (they're thought to do this in the dry leaves where they're often found as a warning to would-be predators). Given that, I made the decision to dispatch the serpent, not wanting to take a chance on having a poisonous snake lurking around our back porch.

Later, after spending some time googling images of copperheads and other tail-shaking snakes, I came to the conclusion that I had misidentified the recently departed; it was, in fact, a juvenile rat snake.

I confess that I felt a bit of guilt about killing a non-poisonous snake. Rat snakes are useful for controlling the rodent population (although this one was probably too small to be much of a threat to anything but the tiniest of mice). I've never subscribed to the philosophy that the only good snake is a dead snake.

However...

MLB and I got to thinking about the agitated birds that brought the snake to our attention, and from there it was an easy mental leap to those unfortunate baby birds I mentioned at the top. And, unlike with copperheads, I do know a few things about rat snakes, including the facts that (1) they are skilled climbers, and (b) they've been known to raid bird nests.

Armed with this knowledge, and insight gained from year's of watching CSI, I deduced that those nestlings hadn't just accidentally fallen out of their nest, but were in fact panicked by the presence of something -- well, let's just say it: a snake -- and in their frantic state fell to their demise.

Now, I can't prove that the snake I killed was the same one that raided that nest, but I suspect it had climbed up the rock column to the nest seeking eggs...and further, that it had returned to the scene of the original crime. As I said, I can't prove any of this, but neither can I disprove it, and the facts seem to fit better than OJ's glove did.

Having reached that conclusion, I also conclude that karma was visited upon that snake in the form of a hoe wielded by yours truly. Justice was served.

Photo - Bird roosting in a nestThat's not the end of the story, however. The non-descript birds* have nested on that column for a couple of years, returning each spring to raise their young. I don't know their species, but I do know they're not barn swallows. Anyway, after losing that first set of younguns, I thought they might move on to more hospitable environs, but they're persistent little guys. We've noticed that one of them is often on the nest while the other keeps watch from a nearby rooftop or hummingbird feeder hanger. The photo at right was taken through the blinds of our bedroom window, hence the weird composition.
*Update (4/24/19): My pal Sam, amateur birdwatcher and all-around renaissance man par excellence, has identified the nesting birds as black phoebes.
Curiosity got the best of me this evening, and I affixed my phone to a tripod, fired up a video recording, and hoisted it up to where I hoped I would get some images of the contents of the nest. Sure enough, there are five eggs in the nest, and we can thus expect to see another batch of hatchlings in the near future. I hope their existence unfolds in a much happier manner.

Photo - Eggs in a nest

Mors Ab Alto*
April 17, 2019 10:32 AM | Posted in: ,

*With apologies to the 7th Bomb Wing, USAF

We returned home last Sunday afternoon after a whirlwind** 750-mile weekend trip to our old stamping grounds*** in West Texas, and as we drove over the low water crossing to pick up our mail, we saw that a squirrel had recently been hit by a car and lay dead in the street. Given that we have approximately forty thousand squirrels in our neighborhood, this wouldn't seem like much of a loss, but in this case it was a rock squirrel, and they are relatively rare. Alert Gazette readers may recall that we were involuntary hosts to a gaggle**** of young rock squirrels about this time last year. It was a little sad to think that perhaps a new batch of squirrelings were now missing a parent.

Anyway, the buzzards (aka "the biohazard remediation team in the sky") had begun to circle, and would eventually descend to their inevitable feast. We don't give them enough credit for the nasty-but-important work they do, but that's another story and we're all about staying on point here at the Gazette.

Later that evening, as I was firing up the grill to cook cedar plank tuna (the salmon at the grocery store not looking particularly appetizing on that day, none of which is really germane to the story), I heard a *plop* followed immediately by thrashing sounds in the vicinity of the pecan tree in our back yard. I looked up in time to see two buzzards land awkwardly in the tree -- they're quite graceful in flight, but their tree landings are about as smooth as a Trump tweet -- and another one aborting a landing and pulling back up into the sky.

The two big birds stayed in the tree for a few seconds, and then followed the third one into the air. That was rather odd behavior; I had never before seen a buzzard perched in any of our trees. But it was the *plop* that intrigued me. 

I wasn't mystified for long as I immediately spotted the source of the sound. I thought about posting a photo, but out of respect for the delicate sensibilities of the typical Gazette reader, I've chosen this artist's rendering as an accurate representation of the scene:



Using my massive investigatory skills, honed by years of watching CSI Miami (I've also mastered the technique of standing sideways as I address the always-guilty suspect, but that's also off-topic), I determined that the buzzards were quarreling over the now partially-eviscerated carcass (I've spared you that visual detail), and one of them attempted to abscond with the corpse. The others followed and in the dogfight****** that ensued, the cadaver was dropped onto the lawn next to our porch. I'm sure the buzzards would have continued their dinner dispute had I not been present, but instead they continued to circle overhead for a while until they peeled off, one by one, in search of other roadkill.

And, of course, I was left with the wholesome task of disposing of the now-defunct Otospermophilus variegatus. I accomplished that by scooping it up with a shovel and flinging it into the adjoining vacant lot, where the scavengers eventually finished the task.

As a footnote to this story, as if we don't already have enough footnotes to this story, the next day a hummingbird committed suicide on our back porch by ramming headfirst into one of our windows. I expect Stephen King to show up any day on a research visit for his next novel.

**I'm not sure why a quick trip is often referred to as a "whirlwind," but if you're ever traveling in West Texas during the spring, you'll see (and feel) its relevance. [back]

***So, you're judging me, aren't you, for using the term "stamping" instead of "stomping"? For your penance, read this, then go forth and sin no more. [back]

****A group of squirrels is actually referred to as a "scurry." That explains how Scurry county, in West Texas, got its name, following a mass invasion of squirrels, not unlike the cricket invasion of Mormons in Utah.***** [back]

*****One of the sentences in the preceding paragraph is not 100% accurate.

******Oh, never mind. [back]
The golf cart/pedestrian path next to the low water crossing over Slick Rock Creek, just south of Highway 2147, hasn't had water running over it since the October floods. Still, much of it stays wet thanks to the splashes from cars driving through the creek. Over time, if those puddles don't dry out, moss and algae begin to form on the concrete.

I have an Apple Watch Series 4 (apparently we're not supposed to use "Series 4" as an adjective), and it has a couple of health-related features that are potentially useful.

Well, one of them has been immediately useful. Ever since my little heart-related episode, I've occasionally used the ECG and irregular heartbeat notification feature of the watch if I feel anything out of the ordinary in my heartbeat. Fortunately, nothing has been amiss, according to the watch, so I'm obviously a hypochondriac.

We rode our tandem bike across that path a week ago, and felt the front wheel skid slightly -- just for an instant -- as we went through a puddle in which a mass of leaves had accumulated. But we made it across without any further incident, and I made a mental note to avoid that puddle if it was still there the next time.

Photo - Apple Watch screen showing fall detection messageThe second feature has been less helpful. The fall detection capability built into the Series 4 is designed to, well, detect when the wearer has suffered a fall. This feature is automatically turned on if the wearer is 65 years or older (the watch owner is asked to input age when the watch is initially activated). This is a commonsense approach, since older folks are more apt to (1) fall and (2) suffer injury from such a mishap. The detection feature can be manually disabled, but I've elected not to do that, for reasons that aren't germane at this point. 

However, what I've experienced is that this feature is prone to false positives -- detecting what it thinks is a fall when in fact nothing of the sort has happened. I now take my watch off before using the leaf blower, because it will invariably confuse the vibration with whatever movement its algorithm uses to identify a fall. When that happens, the watch vibrates and displays the screen shown above. Also, on one occasion I got the same message while vacuuming the floors in our house (see, housework is dangerous!).

This behavior is annoying, but it is potentially serious. If you don't tap on one of the options shown above within sixty seconds, Apple automatically calls 9-1-1. Again, this is a commonsense and valuable action...provided that you've actually fallen and need assistance. But it could be very embarrassing if you're using a leaf blower (or vacuum cleaner, or hammer, etc.) and don't feel the vibration that signals activation of the fall detection process.

Last weekend, we got about an inch of badly-needed rainfall. Things had dried up nicely by Tuesday, when we headed out on the bike for a midday ride. We were riding the same route as the previous week, and we discussed what we would do when we got to that low water crossing. The plan was to simply avoid the collection of leaves, assuming it hadn't been washed away by the rain.

It was still in place, so I steered around it and we continued pedaling across the concrete walkway. A couple of seconds later, we were lying on our sides, still astride the now horizontal bicycle. As it turned out, the entire length of the passage was now slick with moss or mud.

I was still clicked into the pedals and it took me a while to get extricated so we could stand up and assess whatever damage we and the bike had taken. But I immediately felt the familiar vibration on my left wrist. We quickly determined that we were not significantly injured, and so -- for the first time -- I was able to click the "I fell, but I'm OK" option.

Fortunately, emergency responders are not prone to judge harshly such lapses in technology, assuming they aren't associated with repeat offenders. This article deals mostly with false positives from the ECG feature of the watch, but the attitude toward the fall detection feature is similar: it's better to show up when you're not needed than to not find out you're needed until it's too late.

We didn't come away completely unscathed. MLB lost a rather large patch of skin on her palm, and I twisted my knee and wrist and had some minor abrasions on the back of my hand. (No, we don't wear gloves when we ride. That would have prevented the hand injuries.) The bike wasn't damaged, but my handlebars were knocked out of alignment a bit. All in all, it could have been much worse.

Well, actually, it was worse, as the whole mishap was witnessed by a elderly Latina walking a tiny dog. She had paused to let us go over the walkway ahead of her so she had a closeup view of the fiasco. I'm sure she was shaking her head about the crazy gringos and their weird bicycle. The dog just looked bored.
A week or so ago, I was returning home in the truck when I spotted a helicopter hovering at what I guessed to be about a half mile from our house. There was a long line suspended from the bottom of the aircraft with something attached to the end. As I turned onto the road that leads into our neighborhood, the helicopter ceased hovering and began to move the same direction I was driving. I briefly lost sight of it behind some trees.

As I came around a bend, it came back into view. It was now hovering over one of the power transmission line towers belonging to the LCRA that march in a row just outside the southern border of our neighborhood. To my amazement, there was a man perched at the top of said tower, and he appeared to be attempting to snag the line hanging down from the aircraft.

You're no doubt surprised that I stopped and began videoing the scene. Here's what I witnessed.



It's hard to tell from the video but the worker appeared to be removing something from the top of the tower and placing it in a pouch. The last three minutes of the video (which I took with a video camera zoomed all the way in, hence the shaky picture), also appears to show that the worker is focused on the point where the "shield wire" is attached to the tower. I didn't know it at the time, but I've since learned that a shield wire is installed on overhead electrical transmission lines to protect them from lightning strikes. For more information, here's a short "how does it work?" article about shield lines.

If this process looks dangerous, well, it certainly can be. In August, 2013, two men were killed in West Texas when the line they were suspended from while servicing power transmission towers snapped because the helicopter pilot failed to see the shield wire. The men fell 200 feet to the ground.
I recognize this is somewhat macabre, but out of curiosity, I wondered about the elapsed time and terminal velocity from a 200' fall. According to this table (PDF), it's 3.5 seconds and 60 mph. Both are awful to contemplate.
The work being done in the video shows a very deliberate, well-planned process, and demonstrates good teamwork between the tower worker and the helicopter pilot. If you watch closely, you can see the hand signals from the worker telling the pilot that (1) he's ready to be picked up, and (2) he's safely attached to the line and ready to be lifted off the tower.

I doubt there are many of us who would be comfortable doing work like this, where a minor equipment failure or a momentary lapse in attention means the difference between life and death. On the other hand, you've got a fantastic view of some of the prettiest scenery in Texas, and that's not nothing.

Flower Flyover
April 6, 2019 11:24 AM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Bluebonnets framed by a gap in a wooden fence

The bluebonnet crop around our little town of Horseshoe Bay is absolutely phenomenal this year. Most of the long-timers here say it's the best showing in at least a decade. It's probably due to the record-breaking rainfall we experienced last fall, plus a relatively warm winter.
I've now learned that the "warm winter" is actually a non-factor. Bluebonnets contain a sort of natural anti-freeze and thus aren't affected much by cold and frosty weather. Check out this bluebonnet FAQ over at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center for more interesting tidbits about the state flower of Texas.
Whatever the cause, we're seeing bluebonnets in places we've never before spotted them, and in quantities large enough to make a description of a "sea of flowers" not much of an exaggeration.

Photos don't really do them justice, but I took a shot at seeing if a video might come close. I launched my little DJI Spark drone a couple of weeks ago near the entrance to our neighborhood and took about fifteen minutes of hi-def movies of the flowers we see every day around here. 

I decided to do something a little different, however. Instead of a lot of "bird's eye" perspective, I kept the drone as low to the ground as the obstacle avoidance firmware would allow, thereby capturing more of a "flower's eye" view (Ed: Flowers don't have eyes. Me: Oh, yeah. Then how do you explain black-eyed susans?)

I hope you find the following video relaxing to watch. Note that it was a rather breezy day and the drone experienced a little buffeting, hence some of the occasional jerkiness of the images. The rest of the jerkiness is due to pilot incompetence.


Revisiting the Wayback Machine
April 3, 2019 10:15 AM | Posted in: ,

Cartoon of the WBAC machine

Remember the WABAC machine in the beloved The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends show...the device that enabled Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sherman to visit various pivotal moments in history? Pretty great stuff, wasn't it? 

Well, this post isn't about that. Sorry *not sorry*.

Alert Gazette readers may recall -- even without the aid of WABAC -- that I toiled over a hot keyboard to restore some semblance of semi-coherence by fixing issues that caused historically important squirrel videos to not appear. In the process, I began to wonder just exactly when I posted the first video to this blog*. In order to find the answer to this Very Important Question, I had to turn to a real-life WABAC: the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
Digression: Semi-sentient Gazette readers may wonder at this point..."why didn't he just click over to the first posts via his own Archives Index?" Well, normally that would be an excellent strategy. But -- little known fact -- there was a brief period of time in the hazy past when *someone* made the ill-advised decision to terminate the Gazette. Said termination lasted only a few months, but when *someone* came to their senses, *someone* had the task of restoring history that had been lost. That history consisted of a couple of thousand posts, all of them QUITE SPECTACULAR (as you can imagine), but logistically there was no way to restore everything. Only a relative few select articles made the cut. The process by which this was accomplished was quite Biblical.

So, off to the Wayback Machine *someone* went.

By the way, the Internet Archive, which came into being in 1996, is a non-profit organization which, in its own words, "is building a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Like a paper library, we provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, the print disabled, and the general public. Our mission is to provide Universal Access to All Knowledge." All. Knowledge. Pretty impressive, although that does cause one to wonder why the Gazette would be included. Nevertheless, we press on.

The current archive, as of the date of this post, contains:

  • 330 billion web pages
  • 20 million books and texts
  • 4.5 million audio recordings (including 180,000 live concerts)
  • 4 million videos (including 1.6 million Television News programs)
  • 3 million images
  • 200,000 software programs
Included amongst this vast library of culturally significant digital artifacts are almost 50,000 "captures" of files that comprise the articles within the Gazette, spanning the period from April 1, 2003 to March 3, 2019. The summary statistics border on frightening in their detail: more than 36,000 text files, 12,000 images, 29 audio files, and thousands of linked URLs. In the interest of full disclosure, I have no idea what any of those statistics really mean, but they impress the heck out of me.

As it turned out, the Wayback archives were interesting (to me), but not all that helpful. They did bring back some fond memories, such as the changes in the Gazette's layout over time, as shown below.

Screen capture of the Gazette's initial layout
Here's a snapshot of the Gazette's initial layout on the dismal blogging platform creatively named "Blogger"
Screen capture of a subsequent Gazette layout
A later Gazette layout; this one was universally lauded because it displayed a different photo of Abbye every time the page was reloaded (my own very successful version of clickbait)
Screen capture of a yet another early Gazette layout
Another later early layout, this one from my short-lived "socially conscious" era before I became the completely cynical shell of a human being I am now. I stood with a "free Iran" for a few months until it dawned on me that Iran couldn't care less. So much for the power of citizen journalists employing defiant header graphics.

Now that I've addressed the missing videos, I may start addressing the 349 broken links on past posts to see if they're really worth tracking down and fixing. That's approximately 8% of the total number of links I've included on the blog, not counting those in this post. How do I know this? Well, I dropped into another handy website, Broken Link Check, which told me that in the 2,163 pages of the Gazette that it crawled, it checked about 4,200 links. It also identified the broken ones, but it's up to me to figure out why they're broken and if they can even be fixed. 

If my archeological dig through the internet archive taught me anything, it's that just because you can preserve everything, it doesn't mean you should.

*December 6, 2006.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from April 2019 listed from newest to oldest.

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