Gazette 'Gramming
August 7, 2018 4:20 PM | Posted in: ,

Alert Gazette readers have no doubt noticed the new icons in the right-hand sidebar of each page.  In an attempt at shameless self-promotion, I've stolen repurposed these social media icons from the interwebz and linked each one to my corresponding account. So, if I'm not posting enough on this site for your taste (in which case you need to seriously reconsider how you're using your spare time), you can check out Twitter (for mostly unoriginal content), Vimeo (for mostly wild animal video content), Facebook (for non-Russian-influenced content, as far as you know), and Instagram (for non-moving visual content).

Really, though, the main reason for this post is to plug the Instagram account. I've had the account since at least 2012 (according to the date on the first photo I uploaded...Instagram doesn't tell you exactly when the account was created), but I ignored it for years. Recently, I've started uploading more images to Instagram, and since I'm getting some pretty positive feedback (Thanks, Sandy! Thanks, Kristi!) about them, I plan to continue doing so.

Partial screen grab of the Gallery index pageBut in the interest of complete transparency, I confess that a lot of what I'm putting on Instagram isn't new. Many of the images that show up there have been on this blog for years, before there was an Instagram, in the Image Gallery (also linked at right). I created that section as sort of a sandbox for experimenting with different photographic and image manipulation techniques. I haven't paid a lot of attention to it, and posting images to Instagram is much easier (especially since I discovered the workaround that lets me do it via Safari or Chrome on my desktop computer).

I still like the Image Gallery concept, because it allows for more flexibility in image description, context, etc. It also isn't as restrictive in terms of image size and format, although Instagram has gotten a little better in that regard. Also, I like not being dependent on a third party for how my content gets displayed.

So, if you see something I've uploaded to Instagram and want to know more about it, you can either ask in the comments section of Instagram, or check the Image Gallery. I might have already provided the answer in the latter section.
Alert Gazette readers will recall our encounter with a cottonmouth (aka water moccasin) last fall. Then, a couple of months ago we discovered a four-foot-long blotched water snake in our courtyard. The latter encounter taught me that distinguishing between the poisonous cottonmouth and the non-venomous water snake wasn't as easy as I had initially assumed.

If you google "cottonmouth vs water snake," you'll see that I'm not the only one who needs some help with this subject. There are many articles and videos that attempt to teach you how to correctly distinguish these species, something that could literally be a life-and-death skill. Unfortunately, in the real world, snakes don't carry ID cards, and making an absolute identification is hit or miss.

Case in point: a few days ago MLB and I were walking on the trail that encircles our neighborhood, and which roughly parallels Pecan Creek for about half its length. Something in the creek caught my eye and I scurried over to investigate. I'll save you a few thousand words, and substitute the following video instead.



According to "the experts," there are several factors to consider when trying to decide if the snake you're confronting will deliver a potentially fatal bite or just a very painful one (yeah, they pretty much all bite). But I think there are drawbacks to each of those factors.

Distinguishing Trait Why It Won't Work
Unique body pattern/coloring Ha. Good luck with that. They all look alike.
Cottonmouths float when they swim. Water snakes swim with only their heads above water. The truth of this is debatable. Plus, they're not always IN the water.
Cottonmouths have thicker, heavier bodies than water snakes. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten itself to appear thicker and heavier.
Cottonmouths have triangular heads and thin necks. A common defensive measure of a water snake is to flatten its head so that it appears, well, triangular.
Cottonmouths have heat-sensing "pits" between their nostrils and their eyes. Those pits aren't readily discernible unless you're really, really close.
Cottonmouth eyes have vertical pupils. Water snakes have round pupils. This is probably the best differentiator, but you still have to get close enough to discern the shape.

So, while I lean toward identifying "our" snake as a cottonmouth, I wouldn't bet the farm on it. In any event, we're stepping more cautiously when we're out in the yard, even though the likelihood of one coming that far from the creek is pretty small. I'd hate for either of us to make a positive identification of a cottonmouth in the worst possible fashion.

Photo - snake in creek
You decide.

Web Weaving Weirdos
July 20, 2018 9:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I'll fight a bear, but I don't like spiders. I'm not a fan of those.
  -- J. J. Watt
I'm an unabashed arachnophobe. Spiders are not just creepy; they're intentionally malevolent. God created spiders because snakes weren't sufficient to remind us that we live in a fallen world. Spiders are the only creatures that have the capacity to make me hurt myself while attempting to avoid even the most benign encounter. 

Given those facts, it amazes me that I'm posting this. You should be impressed.

A few weeks ago, we had at least five yellow garden spiders (Argiope aurantia) nesting in our back yard landscape. [Note: I have previously -- and erroneously -- referred to these spiders as orb weavers.] They ranged in size from about a quarter inch in body length up to more than an inch...and that doesn't include their devastatingly creepy legs. Some of them had future meals trapped in their webs.

Yellow garden spider with prey trapped in its web

Several of them were in the process of building their webs, and I tamped down my revulsion in order to video what I grudgingly came to appreciate as an amazing natural phenomenon. I filmed a couple of spiders during this process and compiled the following short (~3 minutes) movie. I hope you'll find it as fascinating as I did.



The following photo is a closeup of the spider's spinnaret, which is emitting the silk thread that comprises the web.

Yellow garden spider spinning silk for its web

Of course, the purpose of the web is to snare prey. Below is a photo of one of our spiders feeding on an unidentified insect (possibly a moth). The next photo shows a different spider feeding on a rather large cicada. Judging by the state of the web, the cicada put up a fight, but it obviously was to no avail.

Yellow garden spider feeding on mothYellow garden spider feeding on cicada

As I mentioned in the video, while the spiders are definitely predators, they're not at the top of the food chain. None of the spiders shown in this article are still around. I suspect they themselves have become prey to birds or lizards, or even mammals such as possums. I honestly can't muster any sympathy for them. For one thing, it's just nature at work. But really, in the end, regardless of the exquisite elegance of their silk spinning, spiders are just creepy.

Wildlife Update
July 6, 2018 3:58 PM | Posted in: ,

It's been awhile since I provided a wildlife update. But, first, here's a squirrel (turn up the sound to get the full effect):


That's the noise a squirrel makes when its annoyed or angry. I couldn't discern what caused this one's panties to get in a wad, but it was obviously too lazy to do anything but gripe about it. I'll remind you that the Gazette is an apolitical publication so don't try to anthropomorphize this phenomenon.

Back to the subject at hand. It's been a slow summer for wildlife in the neighborhood. It's been weeks since we've sighted any raccoons, skunks, foxes, or possums (and that includes not catching them on the game camera at night), much less trapped them. In fact, I've retired the raccoon trap to the attic until we find new evidence that they're around and up to no good.

I'm not naive enough to think that I've trapped out the area, but the aforementioned critters have apparently found more desirable habitats. One neighbor across the creek recently reported that his dog came out on the losing end of a tangle with a skunk in their back yard, so perhaps the crew has migrated north for the summer.

However, alert Gazette readers have no doubt noted the absence of one species from the aforementioned list. That's right...the State Small Mammal of Texas, the armadillo, has not abandoned our neck of the woods. I did have a few consecutive 'dillo-less weeks, but they're now back and making up for lost time. In fact, armadillo captures have caught up with and surpassed the raccoon count.

I've actually had to rework the Official Critter Capture Scorecard┬ę, for reasons that should be obvious. Here's the original (and up-to-date) version:

Critter Capture Scorecard

And here's the new improved version:

Critter Capture Scorecard - New Version

The first version is perhaps more visually impressive, but the new version has the distinct advantage of not requiring any counting. By the way, I've done some ciphering and determined that the next catch will make an even 50 animals that we've trapped and released in less than a year.

That's not to say that we're completely bereft of living creatures around the house. I'm contemplating doing a spider-centric post as our flowerbeds are practically overrun with orb weavers, but I'll have to undergo some arachnophobia therapy before I can do that. In the meantime, fixate on this more benign invertebrate as a visual amuse-bouche.

Photo of a bug

Oh, by the way...MLB and I have often remarked on one unusual aspect of wildlife in our vicinity, and that is the complete absence of rabbits. We had not seen a jackrabbit or a cottontail since moving here last summer...until this morning. As we were on the way to release the latest armadillo in an undisclosed location, MLB spotted movement along the road. I backed the truck up a half block and, sure enough, a jackrabbit was loping through the brush. I guess coyotes are next on the agenda.
So, I'm kind of a sucker for Best Buy's Deal of the Day. It's not so much that the prices are that low -- although sometimes, for some items, they really are -- but they often draw my attention to products that I might not ever consider buying, or even know about. I've been known to pull the trigger on a "deal" simply to see if the hype is warranted.

Halo packagingA couple of weeks ago, one of the DOTD was a half-price sale for something called a Halo Ambient Bias Lighting kit for TVs. I had never heard of this but I did some research (aka "clicked on a couple of google results") and was persuaded that it was a legitimate technology for improving the picture on a typical flatscreen television. This is a good overview of the technology and why it works.

The theory is that when a TV screen is subjected to ambient light of the proper color temperature (for modern HDTVs, it's 6500K), your eyes will perceive the picture to have greater contrast, and they will also be less susceptible to strain due to the increased brightness of the typical LED TV. The ambient light tricks the brain into thinking the TV isn't as bright as it really is, and this makes a difference in viewing comfort, especially if you're watching in a darkened room.

I figured that for seventeen bucks, it was worth checking out, so I ordered two of them, one for the living room TV and one for the screen in our bedroom. The kits arrived last week, and I finally got around to installing them.

The units are elegantly packaged, rivaling some of Apple's packaging, and the installation instructions are easy to follow. I think they could be improved by explaining exactly how Halo improves the viewing experience, but I suppose they assume that you wouldn't be using the product if you didn't know what it did.

Halo installed on a TVInstallation is simple, taking less than five minutes, although it requires access to the back of the TV. The Halo is simply a ribbon of LED lights that are affixed to the back of the TV via peel-and-stick. The unit is USB-powered (USB 3.0, to be precise). Ideally, it's plugged into the USB port on your TV so that it turns on and off along with your TV. If that's not an option, you'll need an USB adapter to plug into a regular electrical outlet; the Halo comes with a remote control so you can operate it independently of the TV. The photo at right shows the installation on one of our TVs; the white strip contains the LED lights, and it's plugged into the TV's USB port.

I mounted the Halo on three sides of our TVs, starting and ending about two-thirds of the way down the sides. If you have a TV mounted flush to the wall, you may need to run the strip all the way around it to get an effective ambient light effect. It's important that the light from the LEDs is reflected around the TV to get the desired effect.

Even if you use your TV's USB port and thus don't need the remote to activate the Halo, the remote still has some useful features, as well as a few inexplicably weird ones. The useful ones are the controls that allow you to adjust the brightness of the LEDs to suit your viewing taste. The weird ones let you turn the Halo's lights into a variety of flashing sequences. I can't imagine a scenario where you want to send a continuous SOS signal from behind your TV, but perhaps I'm living in the wrong neighborhood.

I must admit to thus far being underwhelmed by the difference Halo seems to make on our TVs. For one thing, both units are mounted in cabinets, and the lights illuminate the back and sides of the cabinets, as well as any cabling or A/V components that might normally be hidden in the dark recesses. And in one case, the TV almost completely fills the cabinet from edge-to-edge, meaning that there is negligible ambient light spilling over from the two sides of the TV. 

That's not to say that the Halo doesn't work; we just haven't noticed much difference when watching TV at night in a dark room (which we rarely do). At the same time, the ambient light is not a distraction, and we may find that we like it more as we get accustomed to it. For now, we're operating it at the lowest brightness level.

In the end, at $17, the Halo is not a bad investment; it's a little more iffy at twice that price. But if you normally watch TV in a darkened room and if you experience eyestrain, it's worth checking out.
WoodpeckerEarlier this spring, an oak tree across the street from our house attracted the attention of a pair of golden-fronted woodpeckers*. The tree's trunk has a hollowed-out place about twenty feet off the ground and the opening faces our front windows; I can see it from my usual seat in the living room.

Since April, MLB and I have watched as the woodpeckers made a home in the hollow trunk. They diligently climbed in and out of the hole in the tree, bringing out mouthfuls of dust and debris to clean out the space, presumably in preparation for a nest and young. They were constantly flying in and out and around the tree and we grew accustomed to them as neighbors.

Then, a week or so ago, I noticed an exceptionally busy flurry of activity. The birds were even more active in flying up to the hole in the trunk, stopping for a moment, then flying away. I noticed movement in the hole, and theorized that the adults were feeding a batch of newly hatched progeny in the nest.

I set up a video camera on a tripod behind a tree in our front yard, zoomed in on the hole, and started recording at around 6:00 p.m. I left it running while I went in for supper. The battery on the camera was good for only about an hour or so of recording, but I hoped that it would pick up something interesting in that short time.

Boy, did it ever!

Instead of piling several thousand words on you to describe what we viewed, here's a semi-short video (~13 minutes) distilling a couple of months' worth of action, leading to a completely unexpected climax.There are really three different storylines in the video; I hope you find it enlightening, if not entertaining.



So, if you're in the TL:DW mode, here's a quick summary:

  • Woodpeckers occupy hollow tree
  • They create a happy home
  • Said home is invaded by a rat snake
  • Outcome is negative for occupants of bird home
  • Turns out, there are actually TWO snakes in that tree
As I note in the video, we think the snakes are Texas rat snakes; their behavior and appearance are consistent with what we've been able to glean online. These snakes are non-venomous and non-aggressive. They are excellent climbers (duh) and seek out birds' nests for food. They will also eat rodents, including squirrels. As serpent neighbors go, we could do a lot worse.

The woodpeckers have relocated somewhere else in the neighborhood. I still hear their calls, but haven't seen them again. We enjoyed watching them, but also recognize that they are somewhat destructive birds so their absence is not personally devastating. We do hope, however, that what the snake dined on was eggs and not live young.

The snakes remained in the tree for a couple of days after the final video. We have additional footage of them climbing up and down the tree in search of more prey, much to the chagrin of a small bevy of tiny birds who were obviously disturbed by one of the snake's presence. However, we never spotted their nest(s) so we have no idea of the outcome of that confrontation.

For our timid neighbor's information -- that would be you, Kristi -- the snakes are now gone as well.

*For the longest time, I thought they were ladder-backed woodpeckers. But while researching the species for this article, I realized that the coloring and especially the call were wrong. So much for my career as an ornithologist.

A little blog housekeeping...
June 4, 2018 9:15 PM | Posted in:

I've been meaning to do this for about a year and I finally made time for it. But first, here's a yawning possum:

Animated GIF of a trapped, yawning possum

My blog post categories were in great need of reorganizing. What are "categories," you ask? They're those links that following the words "Posted in:" underneath the title of each article I put on the blog. They're just a way of grouping posts that deal with similar subjects, in case anyone is so ridiculously bored that they want to read more than one at a time. Similarly, if you want to be sure to avoid my unenlightened views on, say, Fashion -- and, seriously, you probably should -- then you can easily do so by selecting all the categories that don't have the word "Fashion" in them, which is pretty much all of them except one. (You can find a list of all the categories via the cleverly named Archives Index link in the right-hand column of each page.)

For many years, I've used the following categories as catch-alls for semi-related posts: Nature and Pets & Wildlife. I was less than rigorous in using these categories, so an article about, say, avocets might end up in Nature, while another post about killdeer landed in Pets & Wildlife. Also, the latter category was getting way too big, especially with our move to the Hill Country, aka Wild Kingdom. Ants and western cottonmouths and ringtail cats might all be technically wildlife, but that grouping is really too generic for serious research, and here at the Gazette we're all about serious research.

So, what I've done is created a whole slew of new categories for Wildlife (e.g. Wildlife - Birds; Wildlife - Mammals; Wildlife - Trapping; etc.), and changed the "Pets & Wildlife" category to simply "Pets" (the contents of which deal primarily with, well, you know, animals of the domesticated persuasion [not including married men]). Also, I cleaned up "Nature" (you can thank me later, Greenpeace) by removing all the animal-related posts. Nature is now where you'll find stuff about plants, weather, and phenomena or activities that don't fit neatly anywhere else.

Sure, this may be the equivalent of rearranging the silverware drawer, but the next time you need an asparagus server, you'll be relieved not to have to rifle through the knives and cucumber juicers to get satisfaction.
TurtleMLB and I were walking to the mailbox this morning when we spotted a big turtle in the shade of a tree about 25 feet from the street (and about that same distance from the creek that I presume is its home).
It wasn't moving, which was odd, so we walked over to investigate. It withdrew partway into its shell, but made no attempt to get back to the water.

We're not turtle experts, but the way the back half of the turtle was positioned in a shallow muddy depression seemed to indicate some nesting behavior.

Turtle

We watched it for a couple of minutes, and not observing anything of apparent consequence, we continued our stroll to the mailbox and then back home.

After about an hour, we decided to check on la tortuga -- which we tentatively identified as a red-eared slider --  to see if we could make any more sense out of its behavior. I took a video camera just in case there was anything worth recording, and we were rewarded with this:



In case you're wondering, I did indeed feel a [admittedly illogical] twinge of privacy-violating guilt in videoing at such close quarters.

If you watched carefully, you saw two eggs being deposited into the muddy hole that passes for a turtle nest. According to the Wikipedia article linked above, this species will lay 2-30 eggs at one time (which is quite a span). The eggs take between two and four months to hatch, and the youngsters will not enter the water until almost three weeks after hatching. That would seem to be when they are most vulnerable to predators.

We debated putting up some kind of cage around the nest to prevent any disturbance but ultimately decided to let nature take its course. We're not lacking for turtles in the creek, and I'm not really interested in monitoring a nest until next fall to make sure that any hatchlings can get out of whatever cage we might build to keep predators from getting in.

In addition, when we returned for one last check, the turtle was gone and so was the "nest." Well, not gone gone, but good luck figuring out where it is. That mama turtle is a camouflage master.

Turtle Nest
Can you spot the nest?

As I've often observed on these pages, the world of nature never ceases to astonish and amaze.

Signs. And wonders.
May 5, 2018 5:01 PM | Posted in:


Me, blogging

Hiya. Happy Cinco de Mayo. I would have written that en espa├▒ol, but I've been informed by some people with too much time on their hands that it's not really a generally-observed Mexican holiday, but only an excuse to eat tacos and guacamole, and drink Coronas and margaritas. To which I respectfully respond: and your point is...?

Anyway, today's subject is signs. Also pictograms, which are just signs made by third graders. I have an extensive collection to share with you today, and by "extensive" I mean three.

My pal Tommy recently bought a tractor, and I drove it. It has cruise control, because when you're going three miles per hour, you can't be distracted by having to keep your foot on a pedal. Although now that I think about it, I can't remember if the throttle was foot-controlled. But I digress.

The tractor is covered with pictograms, mostly attempting to describe all the potentially fatal things one can suffer while driving a tractor (of which there are many; the primary purpose of owning a tractor is apparently not to drive it), but mainly succeeding in being unintentionally hilarious. OK, amusing.

Like this one:

I still like 'use this tractor with a beach ball' better

Frankly, I can't think of many things a tractor is better suited for than an exciting game of catch using a beach ball. (If you have no sense of humor, you can click on the preceding image to see the uncropped but much less fun sign.)

Then there's this one, inscribed on a tube affixed to the deck of the tractor and which, frankly, took four of us chronologically adult persons several minutes of collective conjecture before we figured it out.



For the life of me, I can't imagine why the graphic designer thought that a pictogram instructing the tractor operator to pick up and drink a thermos of coffee, then read a book, and then put the thermos down could possibly ever be interpreted as "open this tube to read the tractor manual."

Finally, while this isn't technically a sign or even a pictogram, it's close enough and this is my blog. We recently received a FedEx delivery and apparently our location is still something of a mystery to that company's GPS system. Some enterprising logistics specialist determined that the treeware solution was the ideal approach to making sure the package arrived at the indended destination. In this digital age, it's nice to know that analog still works.


Snake Mistake
May 2, 2018 8:33 PM | Posted in: ,

"Eric...come quick!"

I was sitting in the office late yesterday afternoon when I heard MLB's overly excited summons from somewhere in the middle of the house. I ran out to find her staring out the living room windows at something in the front courtyard. 

"Oh, man. That's a water moccasin. Keep an eye on him while I grab a hoe!" 

I scurried into the garage, found the hoe, and hurried to the courtyard where MLB was keeping an eye on the snake...albeit still through the window. It was still and stretched out in front of the window, not at all exercised about my presence.

Blotched Water Snake (in our courtyard)

I started to behead the serpent when I noticed my neighbor across the street visiting with a man who was working on the new house next door. I yelled at them to come over. "Wanna see a water moccasin?!" They hurried over.

The neighbor stayed behind the fence to observe the proceedings, but the other man rushed into the courtyard with an obvious expression of interest on his face. 

"That's a water moccasin, alright, but it's not a cottonmouth," he asserted. I was immediately confused and mentally docked points from his herpetological knowledge score. But the more he talked, the more it sounded like he did, indeed, know his snakes.

"It's not poisonous, and I wouldn't kill it," he said. I was still skeptical, but he began to lay out his supporting argument. It sounded logical, although as the snake continued to strike aggressively at the business end of the hoe blocking its path, I wasn't completely convinced. He continued, "if you won't kill it, I'll take it away."

"Uh...OK. But first...where, exactly, do you live?" I wanted to make sure he wasn't going to drive a block or two and let it go. It turns out that he lives 20+ miles down the highway, has a neighbor who works for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and the two of them often collaborate on wildlife issues.

Having established his sincerity, I agreed to try to herd the snake into a moving box that MLB had brought from inside the house. The reptile wasn't initially keen to go where we wanted it to go, but we finally managed to persuade it to crawl into the cardboard box, and the gentleman happily hauled it over to his pickup.

He was working at the new house this morning when we returned after a run, and he flagged us down. I asked him how the snake release went, and he said that it slithered into the Pedernales River and immediately vanished. He said they measured the snake at more than three feet in length. "I also identified the species," he said as he opened his pickup door and pulled out a guide to Texas snakes. "It's a blotched water snake." It took him a while to rifle through the pages (Texas is home to a LOT of snakes) but when he finally found it, it did indeed seem to be "our" snake.

In reading more about the blotched water snake -- which, by the way, seems to be a highly uncomplimentary name, but I suppose the snake has no objections -- I learned that it is often mistaken for a cottonmouth. But the latter's eyes has elliptical pupils, while the harmless water snakes all have round pupils (see photo below). I'll leave it to you to decide how close you need to get to make that distinction. There are a few other physical and behavioral differences between the "good" and "bad" snakes, and they're worth learning if you live in an area where the latter are found, AND you don't subscribe to a philosophy that the only good snake is a dead one.

Comparison of eyes of non-venomous and venomous snakes

We all agreed that there was no good reason to kill non-venomous snakes, and several good ones for having them around (rodent control being at the top of the list). Nevertheless, I still wasn't willing to concede that venomous snakes found in a neighborhood were worthy of the same consideration, a position he advocates.

Now, having said that, we're still not keen on the idea of having even the good ones lurking around in our flowerbeds and lawns. Heart attacks are generally even more fatal than snake bites!